Russell Westbrook's early passing shows OKC its offensive potential

OKLAHOMA CITY -- With a reporter still mid-question, Russell Westbrook turned and rapped a knuckle on his locker door.

The question was about his recent assisting hot streak, in which he seems to pile up five or six assists in the first quarter almost nightly. In the Oklahoma City Thunder's 109-95 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, he had six after eight minutes, and 10 with four minutes left in the first half.

Apparently with his knock on wood, Westbrook knows he's in a good spot right now and doesn't want anything jinxing that.

"He's like a video game, trying to get all the assists early, trying to get everyone involved early, and it's helping us out," Kevin Durant said. "We know to get him the ball early, we know he has to have it in his hands the first quarter and he's going to get five or six assists and that's going to get us going."

In some ways, January has been an entirely off month for Westbrook, at least in terms of shooting the ball. His jumper has betrayed him, as he has struggled in consistently knocking down his "cotton" shot, as he calls it, the elbow midrange pull-up he loves so dearly. He shot just 5-of-14 from the floor on Wednesday, and is shooting just 38.8 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point territory this month. From 10-14 feet, Westbrook is 5-of-21 (23.8 percent) in January. From 15-to-19 feet, just 6-of-26 (23.1 percent).

But what's striking, and a testament to the overall maturation of both Westbrook the human and Westbrook the basketball player, is his ability to still entirely dominate games in spite of those struggles. He's forcing the ball in the basket by will it seems -- often by throwing it in there as hard as he can -- but hasn't hesitated in peeling back his scoring to look for his teammates more.

Westbrook is averaging 11.1 assists a game in 2016 and has had four games with 15 this month. Durant said Westbrook is "going out of his way" to get assists in the first quarter, and it's setting a positive offensive tone for the Thunder from tipoff.

In first quarters in January, Westbrook is averaging 4.1 assists. Then it's 3.4 in the second, 3.4 in the third and 0.8 in the fourth (he's sat out a lot of the latter because of blowouts). Is he changing his mindset in some ways?

"I've been doing the same thing since I've been in the league," Westbrook said. "I'm able to do different things to impact the game. A lot of others are not able to do that. I'm able to score, pass, rebound, defend, do what I can to help us win games. With the weapons we have, the best way for us to play and the best way for myself to play is to find those guys, get those guys shots."

Westbrook paused for a moment.

"I can score when I need to."

Those last two sentences are telling, and not because it's the thing so many have wanted to hear him say for years. He has been saying that for years. And this idea of Westbrook adjusting his game to become only a Rajon Rondo-esque distributor has always been nonsense, because you're asking one of the most freakish players in the league to completely marginalize his game.

Because that's what makes Westbrook a one-of-a-kind. As a creator, he might be unmatched in the league right now. If he wants to get someone a shot, he can get them a shot. He's also the guy that led the league in that category last season. There long has been an obsession about figuring out what Westbrook needs to be on the court, but over time it's become more and more clear: Himself. It's just about finding the best version of it.

"I don't want to say Russell is a pass-first guard, or even a scoring guard," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "He just needs to go out there and be himself. He plays so hard, he plays to win. And I really believe this about Russell: Last year, he scored a lot of points, won the scoring title, but I don't think he's wrapped up in that. I think he's really wrapped up in winning and finding ways to win and what he feels the best way for the group to win is."

The sweet spot for Westbrook to find is the balance in blending scoring and distributing together. When it's not either/or is when Westbrook can take the Thunder to a higher place -- especially late in games. Because in this month of early-game distributing, the Thunder are scoring 115.1 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter. Second quarter it's 110.0, third quarter it's 108.6 and fourth quarter 98.7 (again, a lot of garbage-time lineups in blowouts).

"I think he's really been very well balanced between himself," Donovan said. "Because [you don't want] to take away his offense and his explosiveness and what he can do, especially around the basket and posting up, but he's also gotten other guys involved. So he's gone a really good job in both areas in balancing and I think he's playing to his identity and who he is."

That "balance" is pretty simple: When those (non-Durant) weapons Westbrook referenced aren't coming through or the offense needs a jolt, he can turn it on himself. But otherwise, playing in a flow and rhythm makes the Thunder a more dynamic, deeper team.

Westbrook has always talked the talk in regard to what his job is and what he needs to do. But walking the walk has come and gone on an inconsistent basis, especially when the heat turns up and the games get bigger. The way he's playing currently, though, is backing up that rhetoric. He seems to enjoy finding his teammates, and like Durant said, is almost going out of his way to do it. And when he does, he scratches the surface of his true potential, giving the Thunder a glimpse of theirs.