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 now trails in the fall classic

Astros fall in World Series Game 1 as Braves come out swinging

Framber Valdez had a forgettable start in World Series Game 1 as the Braves tagged him with five runs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a dominant end to win the ALCS and American League pennant, the Houston Astros welcomed in the National League champion Atlanta Braves for World Series Game 1 at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. With Houston favored to win not just this game but the entire series, the Braves shook up those expectations by finding early success at the plate to build a lead they would hold to take a 1-0 series lead.

Final Score: Braves 6, Astros 2

World Series (Best of Seven): Atlanta leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: A.J. Minter

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez

Valdez unable to replicate ALCS Game 5 success as Braves mount early lead

For the optimist, not having home-field advantage in an MLB postseason series affords you a benefit: you can score first and take captive momentum first in the series. The Braves did that against Framber Valdez, as Jorge Soler became the first player in league history to hit a homer in the first plate appearance of a World Series, putting Atlanta out to an immediate 1-0 lead. They would get another in the first frame, getting a one-out infield single by Ozzie Albies, who would steal second to get in position for an RBI double by Austin Riley.

Houston had the chance to respond in their first inning against former teammate Charlie Morton, getting a single and two walks to load the bases with no outs. They'd strand all three runners, though, as Morton made it through unscathed but having used 26 pitches. Atlanta kept putting stress on Valdez, extending their lead to three runs with back-to-back singles to start the second before later getting an RBI groundout.

Valdez gave up two more in the top of the third, once again allowing a leadoff single, this one setting up a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 Braves lead and forcing Houston's starter out of the game early. Yimi Garcia entered and was able to retire the three batters he faced to end the frame.

Braves lose Morton to injury as both bullpens begin long night

After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to keep the Astros off the board, Morton followed it up with a 1-2-3 second. He started the bottom of the third by retiring his fifth batter in a row, getting a strikeout of Jose Altuve. He would immediately call trainers to get him out of the game, though, as he would later be diagnosed with a fractured fibula, presumably from a ball that ricocheted off his leg in the prior inning, ending his season in a disappointing turn of events for the Braves.

That set up a long night for both bullpens, and next up for Houston was Jake Odorizzi. He started with a scoreless fourth, working around a two-out error to keep it a five-run game. The Astros began a rally in the bottom of the fourth, getting runners on the corners with one out on a Kyle Tucker double and Yuli Gurriel single. Chas McCormick brought in the first run of the board for Houston, but that's all they would get as Atlanta's lead remained four runs.

Astros drop Game 1

Odorizzi kept going on the mound, tossing a 1-2-3 fifth, then getting one out before a one-out single in the top of the sixth would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Phil Maton, who finished the inning. Maton returned in the top of the seventh, getting a strikeout before a double and a walk would result in the call to bring in Ryne Stanek.

A double play against his first batter allowed Stanek to finish the seventh, and then he returned in the eighth. He faced three batters that frame, getting one out before a walk and a single would put runners on the corners as Houston moved on to Brooks Raley. A sac fly by Freddie Freeman off of Raley made it a five-run lead again, but a leadoff triple by Yordan Alvarez in the bottom of the inning would set up Carlos Correa for an RBI, a groundout to make it 6-2.

Atlanta's bullpen continued to do well, though, limiting the damage to that one run in the eighth, then returning to hold on to the four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves the upset win to start the series. The loss extends their home losing streak in the World Series to five games (having lost all four at home in the 2019 World Series against the Nationals) and puts them down 0-1 and in need of a win in Game 2 to try and reset the series into a best-of-five.

Up Next: World Series Game 2 will be another 7:09 PM Central scheduled start time on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park. The expected pitching matchup is Max Fried, who is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three postseason starts, for the Braves, and Jose Urquidy, who went just 1.2 innings while allowing six runs (five earned) in his start in the ALCS.

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