Russell Westbrook isn’t focused on the fact that his Oklahoma City Thunder will face former teammate Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.
Westbrook’s mind is on the Thunder’s early struggles. Oklahoma City entered the season with high hopes after the team added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in trades. Despite the infusion of talent and Westbrook’s still electric play, the Thunder have stumbled to a 7-9 start.
“It really doesn’t matter who we have next, it’s about us,” said Westbrook, the reigning MVP. “Regardless of what other teams do, when we play the way we’re supposed to play for 48 minutes, it’s hard to beat us. That’s all I worry about is our team.”
Westbrook has been his usual self in many ways. He’s averaging 20.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists. After setting the single-season record with 42 triple-doubles last season, he leads the league with five this year.
But he is not dominating fourth quarters like he did last year, and the Thunder are losing the close games he so often willed them through with his scoring flurries. All nine of Oklahoma City’s losses this season have been by nine or fewer points. Westbrook averaged 10 points per game in the fourth quarter last season; this season, that average is down to 5.4.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan knew Westbrook would have to give up some elements of his game to accommodate the new talent. Anthony is a 10-time All-Star who was the scoring champion in 2013. George is a four-time All-Star who was the face of the Indiana Pacers’ franchise. Donovan said Westbrook is playing as hard as ever and he’s had the right attitude during the adjustment process.
“I think Russell has done a really good job, just in terms of the sacrifices that he’s tried to make to make the group better and to try and help our group,” Donovan said.
Thunder centre Steven Adams said Westbrook is trying his best to put the Thunder in position to win, but little things are getting in the way. “He’s doing a great job,” Adams said. “He’s making the right decisions, from what I’m seeing. The plays that are set it’s not like he’s doing anything crazy and deviating from the play. He’s doing an amazing job.”
Still, Westbrook is shooting just 39.4 percent from the field, which would be a career low, and the Thunder are 21st in field goal percentage in a 30-team league. Donovan said Westbrook, Anthony and George are still figuring out where to get their best shots and how to take advantage of the space the other stars create.
“When you have three guys like Carmelo, Paul and Russ there together, you’re going to have to do it through matchups, through whose open, through ball movement, through making the next best right decision,” Donovan said. “When you’re unable to put the ball in the basket and you’re not getting stops, the simplicity of it is it’s hard to win games like that.”
Oklahoma City’s goal is to get the stars playing together like Golden State did when they won the title last year. The Warriors are playing well together again this year, with Stephen Curry averaging 25.6 points, Durant averaging 24.9, Klay Thompson adding 20.1 and Draymond Green doing a little bit of everything. The Warriors lead the league in scoring and are off to a 13-4 start.
Westbrook doesn’t expect Oklahoma City to keep struggling and noted that the Thunder have been one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. He said he’s encouraged that the team is in the game at the end so often, but disappointed in the losses and the execution at critical times.
“We know we have the talent,” he said. “That’s always great, but you’ve got to put the work in and do what it takes to win games.”