A bright silver lining

Russell Westbrook finds rhythm in Rockets' offense amid James Harden's struggles

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Last year, Russell Westbrook inexplicably had one of the worst seasons of his career. Westbrook has never been the most efficient scorer, but he's historically hovered around league-average marks while contributing in several other key areas. As Paul George had the season of his career, Westbrook's efficiency fell down the tubes and left many wondering if this was the start of a precipitous career decline. Logically, it's hard to attribute that kind of drop in efficiency to many other things other than aging as Westbrook (just turned 30 at the time) had relied on eye-popping athletic ability for the majority of his career.

Russell Westbrook career:

52.9% True Shooting

Russell Westbrook in 2018-19:

50.1% True Shooting

So it was a little puzzling when the Rockets acquired Westbrook in early July in exchange for Chris Paul. Paul had fit in nicely next to James Harden and was always an efficient scorer, even in his down season. The Rockets had essentially made the bet that Westbrook's prior season was a career anomaly and he was due for a bounce back. And for Westbrook's first 30 games, their best was looking as shaky as ever.

Russell Westbrook (first 30 games of 2019-20):

24.2 PPG

8.0 RPG

7.1 APG

1.5 SPG

50.6% True Shooting

Westbrook's shooting percentages mirrored his prior season in Oklahoma City and it looked like the Rockets had acquired a player clearly on the downward slope of his career. Theories about Houston's floor spacing aiding in Westbrook's attacking and finishing ability at the rim were unfounded and the Rockets had given up multiple first round draft picks for a player obviously inferior to the one they traded away. While the second part of that sentence may be still be half-true, Westbrook's recent run has provided Houston with the same level of optimism they had when they made the trade in July.

Russell Westbrook (last 10 games):

32.6 PPG

8.5 RPG

8.1 APG

2.0 SPG

57.7% True Shooting

"We've been saying it for about two months now that he's been playing well," said Mike D'Antoni after Westbrook had 45 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds on 16 of 27 shooting from the field against the Timberwolves last Friday. "That's MVP Russ."

But what's sparked this run from Westbrook? James Harden's been playing poorly in this stretch (28.0 PPG on 52.9% true shooting), but surely this can't just be a case of opportunity as Westbrook's had a neon green light for several years now.

It's strange, but Westbrook's run has coincided with an abrupt change in shot selection. Before the new year, Westbrook was attempting 4.9 three-pointers per game despite shooting a putrid 23.1% on them. Three-pointers have never felt like Westbrook's natural game even though mathematically, they're the best kind of jumpshot for most players to take. Westbrook has since cut his three-pointers attempted in half (2.3 per game now) and has replaced most of those shots with mid-range jumpers.

The Rockets later admitted they were asking Westbrook to take those shots as opposed to mid-range jumpers (as they do with most players).

While Westbrook certainly isn't an efficient mid-range shooter (42% - equivalent to a 28% three-point shooter), it does seem like attacks the basket and draws fouls more when he's playing in his comfort zone.

In this clip, Westbrook drives with the intent of getting to the rim before he realizes the defender has backed up enough for him for him to pull up for a mid-range jumper. This may not technically be more efficient than Westbrook shooting a three, but three-pointers don't incentivize drives to the basket in the same way. Therefore, it begrudgingly is the best option.

Westbrook's also effectively used fall-away mid-range jumpers when he has a smaller guard defending him.

These are actually more slightly more efficient than regular mid-range jumpers for Westbrook (44.4%).

The Rockets don't win when Westbrook takes these shots, but they also don't lose. When Westbrook is settling for three-pointers, it's usually a sign he's not aggressively attacking the basket with the same fervor. This is backed up by the numbers as when Westbrook was attempting 4.9 three-pointers at the beginning of the season, he was also taking 8.67 shots per game in the restricted area. When Westbrook cut his three-pointers down to 2.3 per game, he started taking 13.4 shots per game in the restricted area.

For Westbrook, mid-range jumpers are the symptom of a good mindset.

But if the Rockets win when Westbrook is playing like this, why have they been losing (6-7 in last 13 games) during his best stretch of the season? This has been a question posed by many, but as far as the data shows, Westbrook is not the problem. The Rockets are a +1.9 per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and a -1.0 when he sits during this stretch. The Rockets' losses have more to do with Harden's struggles, Houston's porous defense, and a general malaise the team hasn't been able to shake for the past month and a half than anything having to do with Westbrook.

In fact, the Rockets surprisingly defending 2.5 points per 100 possessions better in their last 13 games when Westbrook is on the floor versus on the bench.

This stretch of games have not been pretty for Houston, but if there's one positive to take away from this, it's certainly Westbrook's play. When Harden inevitably starts to get rolling again, it'll be interesting to see how the dynamic looks when both are playing well at the same time.

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Houston loses first game to Oakland

A's end losing streak against Astros with late homers

Lance McCullers Jr. went five innings of one-run ball Friday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After maintaining their stronghold against the A's in Thursday's home opener, the Astros had the chance to lock up the three-game series victory against Oakland with a win on Friday night. On the mound, Lance McCullers Jr. hoped to improve upon his first start against this same team, a five-inning one-run outing.

Instead, he would have the same outcome, once again lasting five innings while allowing one run, before a big tie-breaking home run late in the game would push Oakland out of their losing skid against the Astros.

Final Score: A's 6, Astros 2

Astros' Record: 6-2, tied for first in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yusmeiro Petit (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (1-1)

McCullers Jr. makes it through five

McCullers Jr. looked sharp through the first three innings, allowing just two baserunners, one on a second-inning single, then a walk in the third. Oakland did better against him the second time through their order in the fourth, with Jed Lowrie leading the inning off with a solo home run to put Oakland in front 1-0.

They went on to load the bases with one out on an error and two walks, but McCullers would strand them all. He returned for the fifth, a much cleaner inning where a caught stealing by Martin Maldonado would help him face just three batters. His final line: 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 88 P.

Oakland gets homer-happy to even the series

McCullers Jr. would leave the game without being eligible for the winning or losing decision, as an RBI-groundout by Kyle Tucker in the fourth would have it tied 1-1. Bryan Abreu was the first out of Houston's bullpen, and he would attempt to eat up multiple innings. He had perfect innings in the sixth and seventh, retiring six A's in order to maintain the stalemate.

Abreu remained in the game in the top of the eighth, allowing a single before getting a strikeout, ending his run as Dusty Baker would bring in left-handed Blake Taylor. Taylor would give up a single against his first batter, then a loud go-ahead three-run home run to Matt Olson to push the A's back in front 4-1. They'd add two more insurance runs off of Joe Smith in the top of the ninth, getting a two-run home run by Mark Canha to extend the lead to 6-1.

Oakland's bullpen would hold on to the newly created lead, allowing just one run on a sac fly by Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth, finally ending their losing streak against Houston and setting up the rubber game on Saturday to be for the series victory.

Up Next: This series's finale will be a Saturday afternoon start, with first pitch scheduled for 3:05 PM. For the Astros, Jose Urquidy (0-0, 4.15 ERA) will look to get a win on the board, while Oakland will hand the ball to Frankie Montas (0-1, 23.63 ERA).

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