Russell Westbrook’s second return to the Thunder this season has come with his normal infusion of intensity, passion and general “Wait, what? How/why did he just do THAT?!?” (depending on, of course, whether what he just did was beneficial or detrimental to the Thunder). Along with his always entertaining-to-watch level of play, Westbrook has brought a couple of tools with him that he hasn’t shown off to this extent in the past.
The first noticeable item is his improved three point shooting. A career 30.8% three point shooter, Westbrook has shot 38.4% from beyond the arc since his most recent return on February 20. An admittedly small sample size of 15 games is not the best indicator that his three point shooting has actually improved by a considerable amount, but it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Especially when one considers he has taken what would be a career high 4.9 threes per game in that stretch. The Thunder have been in dire need of better three point shooting for the past few seasons, and getting it from their starting point guard – who tends to take a lot of them anyway – would be ideal.
The second item that Westbrook has really shown off since his most recent return is an aspect of his passing. It’s not about his 7.1 assists per game since the All-Star break, he’s averaged higher and lower than that over stretches this season and in his career. Lately, he has shown off a new found propensity for throwing beautiful left handed passes at a higher level of difficulty than ever before. That’s not to say he wasn’t throwing them in the past, just that he has upgraded this skill and showing it off with very high level of success. Here is the first example:
After running a pick and roll with Serge Ibaka, Westbrook cuts to the left side of the court with the ball in his left hand. He jumps, apparently ready to flip a pass to a mostly open Serge Ibaka for a jumper. But that’s not what happens. He has in fact noticed (somehow…sorcery, perhaps?) that Perry Jones III’s man has drifted all the way into the paint to help on the pick and roll, and therefore, PJIII is wide open in the opposite corner. Westbrook then throws an absolute laser of a cross court pass, and Jones is able to take advantage of his recovering defender and dribble to the hoop for a bucket.
Another example of a terrific lefty pass came in the same game against the 76ers, just over a quarter later (Westbrook had his 20 minute triple-double in this game). This time, it was a left handed bounce pass to Kevin Durant in transition:
Here, he throws a perfect lead pass that ends in an easy layup. Fitting a right handed pass into Durant’s hands would have been very difficult, if even possible at all. The angle required Westbrook to keep the pass behind the defender, but have the ball moving as much towards Durant as possible so he could catch up to it. If he tries to throw that pass right handed, Michael Carter-Williams may be close enough to make a play on it, or the ball may be too far ahead of Durant for him to finish. A perfect decision and an amazing display of talent from a player who often only gets credit for having one of the two. Another perfect lefty pass from Westbrook in transition:
This one is to Serge Ibaka, who finishes with an easy dunk. The Bulls lost Serge for just a second in transition on this play, and by the time Jimmy Butler realized that he needed to pick Ibaka up, Westbrook had already connected with him. Notice how open the left side of Hinrich was for Westbrook to fit the pass into, while the entire Chicago defense was off to the right. Westbrook was able to keep the ball on the left side of the defense the entire time by using his left hand. If he tries to throw the pass right handed, he could be bringing the defense back into the play. If he tries to go over the top with two hands, the extra split second could be just enough for Butler to recover. A final example:
Here, Westbrook sees a wide open Nick Collison rolling to the basket after a pick and roll with Kevin Durant. Westbrook takes a couple of dribbles towards the paint as Steven Adams moves to draw Samuel Dalembert out of the paint. Westbrook then rifles a pass to Collison, who makes the easy finish.
All in all, Westbrook’s increased desire to throw impressive left handed passes isn’t going to be the thing that moves the Thunder from championship contender to champion. It is a sign of a great player who is always improving on his game, and through that, always becoming more fun to watch. Here is a video of all of Westbrook’s left handed assists since his most recent return after the All-Star break:
If you enjoy GIFs of Russell Westbrook, this piece was titled in reference to two past pieces: The Many Faces Of Russell Westbrook, and The Many Faces Of Russell FRESHbrook. If you are into GIFs of Russell Westbrook (and who isn’t?), you should check them out.