Westbrook Whipping Passes, Sparking Offense

Defenders don’t know it is coming until the ball is whizzing past their ear. By the time they turn around, the ball is already falling through the net.

When Thunder three-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook crosses half-court, anything becomes possible for the Thunder offense. Utilizing every available inch of his 6-foot-3, 187-pound frame, Westbrook usually has a decided size, speed and physicality advantage over his opponent. When he also uses his length, vision and accuracy, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ coach-on-the-court is able to find teammates with laser-sharp passes for easy buckets. This season, the two-time second-team All-NBA performer is averaging a career-high 8.4 assists per game while assuming even more ball-handling duties this year.

“I’m just trying to get guys the ball on time and on target,” Westbrook said. “It can be tough for me going the speed that I go at, but I think getting guys in spots where they can score the basketball does nothing but help us out.”

Westbrook, who always seems to credit his teammates knocking down shots as the reason for his own high assist totals, has not only been finding teammates in advantageous situations, he’s been doing it in a variety of ways. Whether it’s pocket passes to Serge Ibaka in the pick-and-pop, dump-offs to Nick Collison at the dunker spot, scoop passes to big men on the block or one-handed passes on back-door cutters or flares out to the corner, Westbrook seemingly has every pass in his arsenal. It also helps that the fifth-year man is naturally left-handed but is equally proficient with his right hand.

“He definitely does have a good left hand,” Brooks said. “A lot of his passes can be with either hand. He doesn’t have to always make the right-handed pass or the chest pass.

Known around the league as one of the most athletically explosive players, Westbrook dazzles fans and opponents during games, but he’s also made an impression on his teammates in practice. Second-year point guard Reggie Jackson has looked to Westbrook as a guide in his NBA education. Facing his mentor in practice every single day has helped Jackson understand why Westbrook has made such a leap in his passing.

“He’s proven so much that he can score and attack you at all times, everybody has to come over and help,” Jackson said. “He has two or three people run at him. He just finds a great gap to make the pass and he’s making the right play for us right now."

When Westbrook goes down-hill, it’s extremely difficult for defenses to react appropriately. It should be no surprise, then, that he ranks fifth in assists and seventh in scoring in the NBA- the only player in the top-10 of both categories. It’s not just the frequency or type of passes, Westbrook is charged on each possession to attack, then read the defense to make the decision to use his own dynamic scoring ability or help others find open looks.

Perhaps the most important part of the whole development for Westbrook is his concentration on starting the Thunder offense earlier in the shot clock on each possession.

“I think Russell is doing a good job of just finding guys earlier in the shot clock,” Brooks said. “That’s what we like. We like him to find open opportunities for us because he’s an aggressive, athletic, explosive player who demands attention not only from his guy, but usually an extra man. He has to do a good job, and he has, of finding the open shooters.”

Although it’s only a three-or-four second difference, when the Thunder starts its offensive possessions with 18 seconds on the shot clock as opposed to 14, it gives the team a much better chance at coming away with points. Through the use of quick-hitting back-door cuts or seal-offs, simple pin-down screens and push ahead passes, Westbrook and his teammates are getting into offensive sets earlier.

As a result, if the opposition stops the first play the Thunder attempts, it can get into its secondary action instead of having to go one-on-one with only a few seconds remaining in the shot clock. The non-verbal communication between the Thunder teammates is one of the most prominent explanations for Westbrook getting the team into its sets more quickly. Eye-contact cues and a natural understanding of how one another will react to a situation are all things that have developed because of the continuity within the squad since it has been in Oklahoma City.

“That’s just from being together for a period of time,” Westbrook said. “Guys have gotten better and gotten smarter. It gets them going so obviously it helps us out… I think the older we get, we become smarter, knowing that if we stay in the right spots, we’ll get the ball maybe not every time, but nine times out of ten.”

Yet again, Westbrook elected to discuss his individual improvement in team-oriented language. Implementing proper team spacing, finding high-efficiency spots on the floor and being in unison about where everyone should be are ways in which the Thunder has made itself one of the highest performing offenses in the league.

Still, it is the responsibility of the relentless and ever-intent on improving Westbrook to lead the team from the front, helping getting everyone involved while also making the right play on every possession.

“Russell has done a good job of making sure that we’re in our offense and making sure that everybody gets shots,” Brooks said. “He still has to be aggressive and look for his own shot. We want him to do that. We need him to do that. He’s also done a good job of finding his guys and averaging eight assists or so a game. That’s a good number for any point guard.”