Russell Westbrook is a creature of habit in the most extreme sense. His routines have routines, such as yawning after "twilight's last gleaming" during every national anthem, setting up pregame layup lines at precisely the same moment before each game, or eating the same pregame meal -- peanut butter and jelly, sliced diagonally.
For Westbrook, the details matter. Throw one routine off and it can disrupt the entire cadence. Case in point: Westbrook's puzzling struggles at the stripe.
An 82.3 percent free throw shooter the first nine years of his career, Westbrook sits at 62.1 percent for the season, which is actually up from the high 50s a couple of weeks ago. Of the players with at least 75 free throw attempts this season, Westbrook ranks 119th out of 128 (for context, "Hack-A" All-Star DeAndre Jordan is shooting 70.5 percent from the line).
The drop-off has little to do with mechanics, but rather a subtle rule change put in by the NBA before the start of last season.
In an effort to crack down on time-wasting at the free throw line, players were barred from walking beyond the 3-point line between attempts. Westbrook's routine, one he had used since he was 8 years old, was to shoot one, walk back to almost half court, gather himself, turn around, walk back, then shoot the second.
Eventually, without going back to the original routine, Westbrook seemed to sort it out and finished last season shooting 73.7 percent from the line, but it has been an issue again this season as he has struggled to find rhythm. Most missed attempts are short, some woefully so, such as an air ball against the Timberwolves last week or five straight misses against the Kings on Dec. 19.
It has graduated past the rule adjustment for Westbrook. It has become psychological warfare, like a golfer who has missed a handful of 3-foot putts.
Down months aren't unusual for a temperature player like Westbrook, but the free throw line has set the table for his overall offensive struggles. December was one of the worst months of his career, at least in terms of scoring, shooting and efficiency, as Westbrook averaged just 19.1 points on 38.6 percent shooting from the field. His season-long numbers aren't much better: 21 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting.
The reasons are hard to pinpoint. Most within the team would point to the choppiness of his season, that he's still working into shape or that he just needs a rhythm. He's never been a high-level shooter, but the 3-point line has been especially unkind to him (24.1 percent from beyond the arc). He's leaving points at the free throw line. He's not hitting midrange jumpers consistently. It has led to some low-scoring nights, including two single-digit games in December (not including games he left early because of injury or ejection, he'd had only three in the previous five seasons combined).
One of Westbrook's best (and worst) qualities is his unshakable self-belief and a never-ending desire to prove people wrong. He isn't running from the fact that he has not been himself, nor is anyone within the team. But they also aren't concerned about it.
"Whatever it is he's going through," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, "when I say I don't worry about it, I don't worry about it.
WESTBROOK'S WORST GAME of the season was about to get worse.
Despite just nine points total 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. But a few late tacky fouls, a bad pass 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 night could've changed the postgame conversation.
OKC's final playcall was originally for George, but the Mavs doubled him before the inbounds pass. Westbrook caught the ball in the corner and tried to pump-fake Dorian Finney-Smith into the air. He didn't bite, leaving Westbrook to front-rim a one-legged 3 at the buzzer, the crescendo of a 4-for-22 night that included eight missed 3-pointers.
After the two-point loss, Westbrook said he has been letting his team down.
"It's really on me. I've been s--- the last month or so," Westbrook said. "I've just got to get focused in and locked back in on what I need to do."
Westbrook said he needed to be better. Twenty-four hours later he was, putting up 32 points against the Mavs on an efficient 13-of-24 shooting, including 9-of-15 from midrange, on Monday in a 122-102 home win.
"I'm confident every night he steps on that floor," George said of Westbrook. "I expect what he expects: for him to come out and shoot the ball well and play well.
"He's going to break through."
Teams have taken to defending Westbrook differently, using more drop coverages and going under high screens. They've been daring him to shoot, a strategy Donovan sees backfiring long term.
"You have to take what the defense gives you," Donovan said. "I thought [Sunday] night he did take what the defense gave him, he just didn't make them. If he would've had a similar night [Sunday] night like he did [Monday], we wouldn't be talking about any of this."
There is clear frustration building for Westbrook (he ripped off his standard shooting sleeves in Sunday's game). He has a league-leading 11 technical fouls in only 28 games -- five away from a one-game suspension. Westbrook's free throw rate (the ratio of foul shots to field goal attempts) is 28.3 percent, the lowest of his career by a wide margin. And if you're saying it's because he's taking too many jumpers, that's not it: Nearly 40 percent of Westbrook's attempts have come in the restricted area this season, the second-highest rate of his career.
"I'm the best rebounder at my position, the best passer at my position, the best defender at my position. I can do everything, and I pride myself on doing that."Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is far more self-critical and self-aware than many realize. A few weeks ago, after going 1-of-14 from 3-point range in a loss, he stayed nearly three hours after the game, returning to the floor to get in some extra shooting. So as he tends to do, when one area dips, he tries to make up for it somewhere else. He doesn't shoot like Steph or pass like LeBron, but with a dogged determination to "do everything," as he says, he has made an improbable Hall of Fame career out of it.
"Scoring the basketball is not the only thing I can do," Westbrook said after Sunday's loss to the Mavs. "I'm the best rebounder at my position, the best passer at my position, the best defender at my position.
"I can do everything, and I pride myself on doing that."
On top of his rebounding (10.7 boards per game) and playmaking (10.1 assists per game), Westbrook leads the league in steals (2.8 per game) by a wide margin and has spent the past few weeks ball-hawking at an absurd rate. (In December, he averaged 3.4 steals per game.) The Thunder have been the league's best defensive team most of the season and are doing it with a frenetic, disruptive style that blitzes offenses. They force turnovers in bunches and transition to breakneck offense instantaneously -- the basketball version of a scoop-and-score.
Much of that can be credited to Westbrook, who is probably playing the best defense of his career.
"I see a big jump defensively in him, where he's taking those matchups and won those matchups," George said. "Defensively, he's getting after guys."
WESTBROOK HAD JUST dropped 40 in a win over the Phoenix Suns last Friday, one game before the Mavs setback -- his first game with at least 25 points in more than a month -- as he gathered himself for his on-court interview.
"I'm just trying to find my way, man," Westbrook said.
George had unexpectedly sat out with a quad bruise, and it allowed Westbrook to dust off classic Russ for the night, with the freedom and space to roam the floor unfettered in search of any shot he desired. He started quick -- 11 points in the first five minutes -- and appeared to have something going that he hasn't had much of this season: rhythm.
The midrange jumper was dropping. Driving lanes were open and Westbrook was knifing through them. His mind was clear; his game was unlocked. Westbrook was dynamic and sensational, flashing back to his 2016-17 triple-double MVP revenge tour and slamming the door on the Suns with a fourth-quarter flurry. His final line: 40 points on 17-of-29 shooting, 12 rebounds and 8 assists.
The performance had the feeling of something important for Westbrook. Ask anyone around the team and they'll tell you he's still working himself into shape after missing all of training camp following a September knee procedure, or that a Nov. 5 ankle sprain set him back. In the middle of all that, his wife gave birth to twin girls.
There's also the element that he's trying to play a little differently, more efficiently, and that might not be meshing with his trademark swashbuckling style. Westbrook has focused on a new approach -- less time on the ball, more straight-line attacking, diversifying the OKC offense. It's no coincidence that three fellow starters are experiencing the best seasons of their careers: George is getting MVP talk, Steven Adams is emerging as one of the league's most complete bigs and Jerami Grant is already outperforming his new contact.
"It's not really about me," Westbrook said a couple of weeks ago. "My job is to make sure we win games, and that's it. I'll be fine. I'm good.
"I know about what I'm able to do, and I don't really worry about none of the other stuff. It's irrelevant."
The Thunder as a whole are deeper and more refined than in recent seasons, climbing into the upper tier of a Western Conference still sorting itself out. They have the look of a contender, with the conference's best net rating, a stifling defense, two superstars and a cast of ascending role players.
But even as George scales the roster hierarchy, the heartbeat of the team remains OKC's former MVP, albeit one still trying to strike a new balance after possessing an irrevocable hall pass the past two seasons. After posting usage rates as high as 40 percent in his MVP campaign and 32.5 percent last season, his usage rate is at 29.1 percent this season, his lowest mark since the 2009-10 campaign.
Westbrook has worked to refine and adjust his approach this season, and it has not been without its bumps. It's for the greater good, tipping the scales of the roster a bit in the meantime, but once -- or maybe, if -- it all eventually aligns, the Thunder will really have something. Westbrook's career has been about conquering inconsistencies, overcoming inefficiencies and filling the gaps to make up for what he lacks. The harder something is and the more he's doubted, the more he responds.
"If it was somebody different, that didn't have that kind of will and drive and belief and determination," Donovan said, "it maybe would concern me a little bit more. It doesn't with him because he thrives on stuff like this. He thrives on challenges."