The Houston Rockets saw some of Russell Westbrook’s old habits rear their ugly heads on Sunday night in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The second half of the 2019-20 season saw Russell Westbrook make some substantial and beneficial changes to his game.
The Houston Rockets felt these changes, as some argued that this version of Russell Westbrook is the best they have seen in his career.
However, Game 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers did not showcase the version of Russ that Rockets fans became accustomed to seeing.
In a game where Scott Foster was officiating, he was surprisingly not the reason for the Rockets’ defeat. The Rockets shot and made more free throws than the Lakers, and there is no single call or no-call to point to that led to the loss.
It’s also hard to point to the other players on the team for this one, as most of them shot 50 percent or better from the field. Every other player that scored also scored more than Russ, who put up a meek 10 points.
Plain and simple, this loss is mostly on Russell Westbrook. There are three areas in particular that we saw the Brodie regress to his former self, starting with his tendency to launch from the outside.
1. Too many attempts from deep
The most obvious habit that returned for Russell Westbrook is his 3-point shooting. It’s no secret that Westbrook is a poor shooter from beyond the arc, but that did not stop him from attempting seven of them in this game.
After he had gone 1-for-6, the Lakers were even giving him the Ben Simmons treatment.
His average number of 3-point attempts on the season is 3.8, and since January 18th, he averaged less than two a game. This marked a certain maturation in his game, as he seemingly came to terms with his weakness as an outside shooter.
Seven attempts would have been slightly concerning but fine overall if Westbrook had made a few more than just one of them. It may also be acceptable if this was a regular-season game against a bad team and with a strong lead. But in a playoff series against a team as talented as the Lakers, this is not the time for Russ to practicing his 3-point shooting.
2. Sloppy passing and ball-handling
Seven seemed to be the magic number for Westbrook on Sunday night. Similar to his number of 3-point attempts, he committed seven turnovers for the night.
Russ was not alone in high-volume turnovers, as James Harden also committed five. But aside from the turnovers, Harden had a pretty good game, whereas Russ did not.
This is not a habit Westbrook broke as thoroughly as he did his 3-point attempts, but it still surpasses his average number of turnovers and sticks out on a night like this one.
Even when he was not throwing the ball to an opponent, Russ was sloppy off the dribble, leading to multiple pokes and moments of lost control.
The Lakers are one of the best defensive teams in the league and have the talent to punish you if you are not careful with the basketball.
While the Rockets have had stellar defense in the postseason so far, they can only afford to give so many extra opportunities for their opponent to score. Brodie has to play his role in limiting those opportunities.
3. Foul trouble and undisciplined defense
Westbrook is already one of the team’s weaker defenders as it is. This is greatly exacerbated when he is in foul trouble and cannot afford to be aggressive on that end of the floor.
Playing with five fouls in the fourth quarter is going to make Russ a defensive liability every time, so he must play more disciplined on that side of the ball to avoid that situation.
Westbrook is not expected to be a great or even a good defender. He is not likely to be seen making defensive plays like Harden in lieu of a good offensive performance.
All Russ needs to be on the defensive end for the Rockets to be successful is average. While it’s good to see him play with energy defensively, he cannot allow it to make him sloppy and commit unnecessary fouls.
LeBron James is one of the most intelligent players in the game, and he will hunt for a defender like Westbrook even when the Brodie is not in foul trouble.
When Russ is forced to back off defensively, the doors are open for players like LeBron to feast.
Defense is one of the most significant factors behind the Rockets’ success in the playoffs so far. Russell Westbrook must not disrupt that with careless defense and foul trouble.
Despite the frustration of a blown opportunity to go up 2-0 in the series, this loss is not the end of the world.
Russell Westbrook has already had better playoff games in a Rockets uniform than this, so there is reason to believe he will bounce back going forward.
That being said, it certainly hurts Rockets fans to see him have a performance like this in the playoffs. He did not just have an off night, but let some of his former bad habits return in the process.