A NEW LOOK
How Rockets players are slowly adjusting to Russell Westbrook
Though opening night didn't go as planned for Houston, Rockets fans did get a taste as to what Russell Westbrook could provide to an already potent offense. The Rockets were noticeably faster (27 fast break points), more athletic (won the rebounding battle 57-53), and had someone who could take over the game with reckless abandon when James Harden had an off night. After a somewhat murky preseason where it wasn't quite clear if the Rockets had acquired a deteriorated version of the 2016-17 MVP, Westbrook put those worries to bed early on night one, finishing with 24 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on decent efficiency.
"He's a gamer," said Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni at Friday's practice. "When the lights come on, that's when he's the best. He plays from athleticism, just a competitive, ferocious kind of nature."
Westbrook's chaotic mastery particularly came to form with the second unit, where Westbrook is slowly starting to get his timing down with his new teammates. For a while, it seemed Westbrook was moving a rate that was almost too fast for Rockets players who were used to the deliberate pace they played at last year. After a few games under their belt, their timing with Westbrook is slowly starting to come around.
"You don't average a triple double for no reason," said D'Antoni. D'Antoni believes Westbrook will feast off of opposing second units or tired first units with the way Houston staggers him with Harden.
"When you play fast, guys are going to be open at some point in time," said guard Eric Gordon. "Any defense is not going to be able to stop all of it. He's a threat by himself and whenever he's playing fast, he creates for everybody else."
It's a change of pace, but the Rockets view it as a welcome change of pace. D'Antoni particularly, has always wanted to play fast. Last season was a delineation from his core values, but believed it was the best way to go about things with the personal the Rockets had to work with. This year, he's getting back to those core values and he seems more enthusiastic about the possibilities with this newly-framed roster.
"It's important for who we are," said D'Antoni. "We were really good with Chris [Paul] and James [Harden] getting to half-court and figuring things out and going a little bit iso, especially the year before. And they were really good at it, so that's how you do it. I didn't think the pace was that important as long as we were efficient. Well, this is a whole different beast. With Russell, if you can play at that pace and that's a natural pace, I like it better. I think it's better for the team. But you don't just do it, it's got to come natural."
Rockets players, now better adjusted to Westbrook, also seem to prefer this pace as they believe it serves their skill sets better.
"I think we've always tried to play a faster play of pace, but his pace is a whole nother level and it helps our team a lot because it draws a lot of attention," said forward P.J. Tucker "Guys really like this way. It equals a lot of open shots on the perimeter and dunks at the rim. So I think it's something we'll continue to get better at, but right now, it was good last night."
It's only one game, but the Rockets closed last night with a pace of 109.8, over 13 possessions per game higher than any of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (the highest being 2007-08 which was 96.7).
"Six seconds or less, baby," Mike D'Antoni joked as he left the media scrum.