Russell Westbrook is a creature of behavior in the most excessive sense. His routines have routines, equivalent to yawning after “twilight’s final gleaming” throughout each nationwide anthem, establishing pregame layup strains at exactly the identical second earlier than every recreation, or consuming the identical pregame meal — peanut butter and jelly, sliced diagonally.

For Westbrook, the particulars matter. Throw one routine off and it will possibly disrupt the whole cadence. Working example: Westbrook’s puzzling struggles at the stripe.

An 82.Three % free throw shooter the first 9 years of his profession, Westbrook sits at 62.1 % for the season, which is definitely up from the excessive 50s a few weeks in the past. Of the gamers with a minimum of 75 free throw makes an attempt this season, Westbrook ranks 119th out of 128 (for context, “Hack-A” All-Star DeAndre Jordan is capturing 70.5 % from the line).

  • The NBA’s boldest and most revolutionary style star wanted a shoe that mirrored his private fashion, main to the creation of his latest signature mannequin, the Why Not Zer0.2.

  • Russell Westbrook did not try to sugarcoat something after one in every of the least environment friendly offensive performances of his profession, declaring that he has been letting down his Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder teammates far too typically.

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The drop-off has little to do with mechanics, however relatively a refined rule change put in by the NBA earlier than the begin of final season.

In an effort to crack down on time-wasting at the free throw line, gamers have been barred from strolling past the Three-point line between makes an attempt. Westbrook’s routine, one he had used since he was eight years outdated, was to shoot one, stroll again to virtually half court docket, collect himself, flip round, stroll again, then shoot the second.

Finally, with out going again to the authentic routine, Westbrook appeared to type it out and completed final season capturing 73.7 % from the line, however it has been a difficulty once more this season as he has struggled to discover rhythm. Most missed makes an attempt are quick, some woefully so, equivalent to an air ball towards the Timberwolves final week or 5 straight misses towards the Kings on Dec. 19.

It has graduated previous the rule adjustment for Westbrook. It has develop into psychological warfare, like a golfer who has missed a handful of Three-foot putts.

Down months aren’t uncommon for a temperature participant like Westbrook, however the free throw line has set the desk for his general offensive struggles. December was one in every of the worst months of his profession, a minimum of by way of scoring, capturing and effectivity, as Westbrook averaged simply 19.1 factors on 38.6 % capturing from the subject. His season-long numbers aren’t significantly better: 21 factors per recreation on 42.6 % capturing.

CATEGORY STAT LOWEST SINCE
Factors per recreation 21.zero 2009-10
Three-point % 24.1 2009-10
Free throw % 62.1 Ever
FT makes an attempt per recreation 5.5 2009-10
True capturing % 48.Three Ever
Midrange FG% 35.zero Ever

The explanations are arduous to pinpoint. Most inside the staff would level to the choppiness of his season, that he is nonetheless working into form or that he simply wants a rhythm. He is by no means been a high-level shooter, however the Three-point line has been particularly unkind to him (24.1 % from past the arc). He is leaving factors at the free throw line. He is not hitting midrange jumpers persistently. It has led to some low-scoring nights, together with two single-digit video games in December (not together with video games he left early due to harm or ejection, he’d had solely three in the earlier 5 seasons mixed).

Certainly one of Westbrook’s finest (and worst) qualities is his unshakable self-belief and a unending want to show folks unsuitable. He isn’t operating from the incontrovertible fact that he has not been himself, neither is anybody inside the staff. However additionally they aren’t involved about it.

“No matter it’s he is going by means of,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan mentioned, “after I say I do not fear about it, I do not fear about it.

Russell Westbrook cannot appear to discover his free throw rhythm. Picture by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE through Getty Pictures

WESTBROOK’S WORST GAME of the season was about to worsen.

Regardless of simply 9 factors complete from Westbrook, the Thunder managed to erase a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit in Dallas on Sunday, the opener of a home-and-home back-to-back set. However a couple of late cheesy fouls, a foul go from Westbrook, a missed jumper from Paul George and a layup by the Mavericks had left the Thunder down two with 1.7 seconds left.

Westbrook’s 22nd shot of the evening might’ve modified the postgame dialog.

OKC’s closing playcall was initially for George, however the Mavs doubled him earlier than the inbounds go. Westbrook caught the ball in the nook and tried to pump-fake Dorian Finney-Smith into the air. He did not chew, leaving Westbrook to front-rim a one-legged Three at the buzzer, the crescendo of a Four-for-22 evening that included eight missed Three-pointers.

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With 1.7 seconds left, Russell Westbrook’s double-clutch Three-pointer from the nook misses, sealing a 105-103 Mavericks win over the Thunder.

After the two-point loss, Westbrook mentioned he has been letting his staff down.

“It is actually on me. I have been s— the final month or so,” Westbrook mentioned. “I’ve simply bought to get targeted in and locked again in on what I want to do.”

Westbrook mentioned he wanted to be higher. Twenty-four hours later he was, placing up 32 factors towards the Mavs on an environment friendly 13-of-24 capturing, together with 9-of-15 from midrange, on Monday in a 122-102 residence win.

“I am assured each evening he steps on that flooring,” George mentioned of Westbrook. “I count on what he expects: for him to come out and shoot the ball properly and play properly.

“He is going to break by means of.”

Groups have taken to defending Westbrook otherwise, utilizing extra drop coverages and going underneath excessive screens. They have been daring him to shoot, a technique Donovan sees backfiring long run.

“You’ve got to take what the protection offers you,” Donovan mentioned. “I believed [Sunday] evening he did take what the protection gave him, he simply did not make them. If he would’ve had the same evening [Sunday] evening like he did [Monday], we would not be speaking about any of this.”

There’s clear frustration constructing for Westbrook (he ripped off his customary capturing sleeves in Sunday’s recreation). He has a league-leading 11 technical fouls in solely 28 video games — 5 away from a one-game suspension. Westbrook’s free throw price (the ratio of foul pictures to subject aim makes an attempt) is 28.Three %, the lowest of his profession by a large margin. And in the event you’re saying it is as a result of he is taking too many jumpers, that is not it: Almost 40 % of Westbrook’s makes an attempt have are available in the restricted space this season, the second-highest price of his profession.

“I am the finest rebounder at my place, the finest passer at my place, the finest defender at my place. I can do all the things, and I pleasure myself on doing that.”

Russell Westbrook

Westbrook is much extra self-critical and self-aware than many notice. A couple of weeks in the past, after going 1-of-14 from Three-point vary in a loss, he stayed almost three hours after the recreation, returning to the flooring to get in some additional capturing. In order he tends to do, when one space dips, he tries to make up for it elsewhere. He would not shoot like Steph or go like LeBron, however with a dogged willpower to “do all the things,” as he says, he has made an unbelievable Corridor of Fame profession out of it.

“Scoring the basketball will not be the solely factor I can do,” Westbrook mentioned after Sunday’s loss to the Mavs. “I am the finest rebounder at my place, the finest passer at my place, the finest defender at my place.

“I can do all the things, and I pleasure myself on doing that.”

On prime of his rebounding (10.7 boards per recreation) and playmaking (10.1 assists per recreation), Westbrook leads the league in steals (2.eight per recreation) by a large margin and has spent the previous few weeks ball-hawking at an absurd price. (In December, he averaged Three.Four steals per recreation.) The Thunder have been the league’s finest defensive staff most of the season and are doing it with a frenetic, disruptive fashion that blitzes offenses. They pressure turnovers in bunches and transition to breakneck offense instantaneously — the basketball model of a scoop-and-score.

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Nerlens Noel rejects the Mavs’ subject aim try, Russell Westbrook dives for the save and Patrick Patterson throws down an alley-oop dunk.

A lot of that may be credited to Westbrook, who might be taking part in the finest protection of his profession.

“I see a giant leap defensively in him, the place he is taking these matchups and won these matchups,” George mentioned. “Defensively, he is getting after guys.”

WESTBROOK HAD JUST dropped 40 in a win over the Phoenix Suns final Friday, one recreation earlier than the Mavs setback — his first recreation with a minimum of 25 factors in additional than a month — as he gathered himself for his on-court interview.

“I am simply attempting to discover my means, man,” Westbrook mentioned.

George had unexpectedly sat out with a quad bruise, and it allowed Westbrook to mud off basic Russ for the evening, with the freedom and house to roam the flooring unfettered searching for any shot he desired. He began fast — 11 factors in the first 5 minutes — and appeared to have one thing going that he hasn’t had a lot of this season: rhythm.

The midrange jumper was dropping. Driving lanes have been open and Westbrook was knifing by means of them. His thoughts was clear; his recreation was unlocked. Westbrook was dynamic and sensational, flashing again to his 2016-17 triple-double MVP revenge tour and slamming the door on the Suns with a fourth-quarter flurry. His closing line: 40 factors on 17-of-29 capturing, 12 rebounds and eight assists.

His capturing numbers could also be down, however Russell Westbrook continues to affect profitable in different methods for OKC. AP Picture/Sue Ogrocki

The efficiency had the feeling of one thing essential for Westbrook. Ask anybody round the staff they usually’ll inform you he is nonetheless working himself into form after lacking all of coaching camp following a September knee process, or Nov. 5 ankle sprain set him again. In the center of all that, his spouse gave delivery to twin women.

There’s additionally the ingredient that he is attempting to play a little bit otherwise, extra effectively, and that may not be meshing together with his trademark swashbuckling fashion. Westbrook has targeted on a brand new strategy — much less time on the ball, extra straight-line attacking, diversifying the OKC offense. It is no coincidence that three fellow starters are experiencing the finest seasons of their careers: George is getting MVP discuss, Steven Adams is rising as one in every of the league’s most full bigs and Jerami Grant is already outperforming his new contact.

“It is probably not about me,” Westbrook mentioned a few weeks in the past. “My job is to be certain that we win video games, and that is it. I will be fantastic. I am good.

“I find out about what I am ready to do, and I do not actually fear about none of the different stuff. It is irrelevant.”

The Thunder as an entire are deeper and extra refined than in latest seasons, climbing into the higher tier of a Western Convention nonetheless sorting itself out. They’ve the look of a contender, with the convention’s finest internet score, a stifling protection, two superstars and a forged of ascending function gamers.

However whilst George scales the roster hierarchy, the heartbeat of the staff stays OKC’s former MVP, albeit one nonetheless attempting to strike a brand new stability after possessing an irrevocable corridor go the previous two seasons. After posting utilization charges as excessive as 40 % in his MVP marketing campaign and 32.5 % final season, his utilization price is at 29.1 % this season, his lowest mark since the 2009-10 marketing campaign.

Westbrook has labored to refine and alter his strategy this season, and it has not been with out its bumps. It is for the larger good, tipping the scales of the roster a bit in the meantime, however as soon as — or perhaps, if — all of it ultimately aligns, the Thunder will actually have one thing. Westbrook’s profession has been about conquering inconsistencies, overcoming inefficiencies and filling the gaps to make up for what he lacks. The more durable one thing is and the extra he is doubted, the extra he responds.

“If it was anyone completely different, that did not have that type of will and drive and perception and willpower,” Donovan mentioned, “it perhaps would concern me a little bit bit extra. It would not with him as a result of he thrives on stuff like this. He thrives on challenges.”

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