MIAMI (AP) — Russell Westbrook leads the NBA Finals with 18 assists, which is a great sign for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He also leads the finals in shot attempts. That might not be such a great sign.
Oklahoma City’s point guard has fired off 50 shots so far in the finals, which are knotted at a game apiece and resume with Game 3 in Miami tonight. Westbrook’s shot total is four more than LeBron James has attempted for the Heat, eight more than three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant has tried for the Thunder and just two less than James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher have gotten for Oklahoma City combined.
Think Westbrook is apologizing for that? Think again.
“I’m not making no adjustments,” Westbrook said. “Regardless of what anybody says or regardless of what you guys say about how I play, it doesn’t matter. You know, I’m going to play my game regardless of what happens. I’m going to go out and give 110 percent, and try to find a way to help us win the game.”
When Westbrook takes 25 shots in a game — what he’s averaging in this series — the Thunder are 7-7 this season, including playoffs. When he takes less than 25, the Thunder are 53-16.
That stat isn’t necessarily one that the Thunder are concerned about. They just say that when Westbrook is producing, they’re better, plain and simple.
“It’s not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point and people don’t recognize that,” Durant said Saturday when asked about the criticism Westbrook takes at times. “Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a (John) Stockton or a Mo Cheeks (now a Thunder assistant coach). There’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either. We need him to play the way he plays.
“The best thing about Russ is he comes to work every single day,” Durant added. “That’s what you guys don’t see, is how hard he works and how much he wants it. That’s what I love about him. He doesn’t care what people say, he’s going to play his game and we need him to play his game.”
So far against the Heat, his game has been decidedly up and down.
Miami has outscored Oklahoma City 56-37 in first quarters of the two finals games. Westbrook is shooting 17 percent (2 for 12) in that quarter. In the final three quarters, the Thunder have outscored the Heat by 26 points. And in those quarters, Westbrook is shooting 47 percent (18 for 38).
“We need Russell to score,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I know some of you don’t like that, but Russell is a very, very gifted, talented player, and we would not be in this position without Russell Westbrook.”
Two games is hardly a decent or fair sample size. But if the trend — slow Westbrook starts feeding into slow Thunder starts — continues, that could be a particularly big problem for Oklahoma City, especially now that the series has shifted to Miami for the next three games.
“He just has to play the game,” said Fisher, the veteran who is Westbrook’s backup and confidant. “We all have to, I think, play a smarter game than what we played in particular in Game 2. But Russell is a phenomenal talent, and he just has to trust his instincts, play his game. But that same focus goes for all of us, Russell, Kevin, James. If there’s two people covering you, somebody else is open, make the pass, and that guy will make the play.”
If the Heat had their way, they would probably prefer Westbrook shoot more than Durant anyway. Westbrook is shooting 34 percent in his last seven games against Miami, but the Thunder are still 4-3 in those games.
At the same time, Miami also insists there’s no magic reason why Westbrook seems to get more early looks against the Heat than Durant does.
“Sometimes that’s the way the game goes, really,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is a tough team to try to dictate, OK? We want you shooting the ball; we don’t want you shooting. They’re so aggressive and relentless just coming at you, they’re instinctual. That happens within the flow of the game.”
And if it happens that way again in Game 3, Westbrook plans to keep shooting.
“I feel like I’m doing a good job of getting better, getting my team better,” Westbrook said. “We’re in the NBA Finals now, and the more negative you hear, the better you’re doing. That’s how I look at it.”