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Houston Rockets

Stat Just Happened: The Houston Rockets have unleashed Russell Westbrook in a terrifying way

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

Today, Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook takes the spotlight.

19.2

According to NBA.com, that's how many points per game Russell Westbrook is averaging in the paint since Jan. 30.

Why that date? It's the day after Clint Capela played his last game with the Rockets. He was sidelined with an injury following Houston's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 29 and was traded to the Atlanta Hawks a week later. Westbrook was starting to play well leading up to Capela being traded, but it was at that point that the Rockets committed to playing small ball for the rest of the season.

The 19.2 points per game Westbrook is averaging in the paint since Capela's last game is the highest mark in the league - Zion Williamson (18.3) is averaging the second-most, followed by Deandre Ayton (16.5), Giannis Antetokounmpo (16.3) and Andre Drummond (16.0). Westbrook has been rather efficient, having made 58.4 percent of his field goal attempts in the paint.

For comparison, Westbrook averaged 13.9 points per game in the paint before Capela's last game with the Rockets. While it was still one of the highest marks in the league - only Antetokounmpo (17.9) and Montrezl Harrell (15.6) averaged more - he wasn't scoring with nearly the same efficiency (54.3 percent).

Russell Westbrook's scoring in the paint (2019-20)
Games Pts Paint FG%
Before Capela's last game with HOU 40 13.9 54.3
Since Capela's last game with HOU 13 19.2 58.4

The whole world knew that Westbrook would benefit the most from the Rockets moving Capela at the trade deadline, but I'm not sure anyone expected him to play quite as well as he has.

As I wrote recently, Westbrook was one of the players who was trending upwards prior to the season being suspended. He was playing some of the best basketball of his career, which is saying something considering he's a nine-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion and one-time MVP. His numbers were up across the board compared to the first half of the season, as was his efficiency. He's gone from having a true shooting percentage of 52.6 percent before Capela's last game with the Rockets to 57.5 percent since; the former being below the league average, the latter being above.

The difference, of course, is that Westbrook is now surrounded by four shooters whenever he takes the court as opposed to three shooters and one non-shooter in Capela. It's opened up the floor for Westbrook to do what he does best - attack the basket with reckless abandon.

Take this possession as an example:

There are a couple of things that should jump out:

  1. How open the paint is. With a shooter at every other position, it draws the four help defenders out of paint. The result? There's nobody in position to contest Westbrook's shot once he gets past his defender. Even though he's now in his early 30s, Westbrook is still a tough matchup in isolation. He's strong enough to plow through smaller defenders, quick enough to blow by bigger ones and explosive enough to finish at the rim. His only downfall is his jump shot, but with the amount of space he now has to work with, Westbrook rarely has an excuse anymore to settle for the low percentage jumpers that have plagued his career.
  2. The Timberwolves don't have a traditional centre on the floor. This is the game within a game that the Rockets are now playing with teams. On one hand, they don't have someone who can match up with the Joel Embiids and Nikola Jokics of the league anymore. On the other, there isn't a clear matchup for those players either. It forces teams to choose between playing their normal lineups or downsizing to better matchup with the Rockets.

The most interesting test case has been the Utah Jazz, who played the small ball version of the Rockets twice not long before the season was suspended. Instead of going small themselves, the Jazz stuck with their normal lineup with Rudy Gobert at centre. And instead of having him guard one of Houston's shooters, they had him guard Westbrook.

The Jazz split those two games - although the one they won came down to the final possession with Bojan Bogdanovic playing the hero - but Gobert wasn't able to prevent Westbrook from going off. According to the NBA's matchup data, Westbrook scored 31 points when he was matched up with the two-time Defensive Player of the Year over the two games, doing so on 14-for-26 shooting from the field. Even with a massive size and length advantage, there wasn't much Gobert could do to stop Westbrook in isolation.

Westbrook didn't score all of those points against Gobert in the paint. He did a fair amount of his damage from midrange. The Rockets have been historically averse to the midrange, but head coach Mike D'Antoni appears to have made an exception for Westbrook, probably because he has been far more effective from midrange than he has from 3-point range this season. It's his best shot at keeping the defence honest, because the closer players like Gobert have to defend him in the halfcourt, the harder it becomes to keep him out of the paint.

There's no doubt that the Rockets going small has unleashed the best version of Westbrook. What remains to be seen is if he can continue to play at the level he was prior to the season being suspended in the playoffs, where he has underperformed in each of the last three seasons. It's not just that he hasn't been able to get his team out of the first round since 2015-16. It's that Westbrook's efficiency has fallen off a cliff, leading to him being outplayed by James Harden in 2017, Donovan Mitchell in 2018 and Damian Lillard in 2019.

If the Rockets get the same Westbrook that the Oklahoma City Thunder did in those three seasons, they can kiss a run at the title goodbye. But if there's reason to believe that he is a changed man, it starts with that one key number...

19.2

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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