The Houston Rockets came up with a simple solution for the frequent double-teams and traps that opponents threw at James Harden early in the season. They simply spread the floor, with no center in the lineup, and released Russell Westbrook to wreak havoc.
As a result, the Rockets saw less and less of that extreme defensive strategy as the season went on. But they got a large dose of it from the Los Angeles Lakers in Sunday's Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinals series. Westbrook, who is usually relentlessly confident, admitted he struggled to find a comfort zone in countering the tactic.
"Right now, I'm just running around," Westbrook said after the Rockets' 117-109 loss that evened the series. "I've got to look at film and figure out how to be effective."
The Rockets, who trailed by 21 points in the first half, managed to make Game 2 competitive despite a poor performance by Westbrook. He finished with only 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting and had more turnovers (seven) than assists (four).
Westbrook got off to a slow start this season -- coming off offseason knee surgery and a trade to a new franchise after spending the previous 11 campaigns with the Oklahoma City Thunder -- but his return to superstar form was one of the reasons the Rockets were considered a legitimate contender. From the beginning of January through the suspension of the season, Westbrook averaged 31.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 23 games while shooting 52.7% from the floor.
But Westbrook hasn't been able to get in that kind of efficient, dominant groove since the NBA's restart at the Walt Disney World Resort campus in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. After reporting late because of a positive test for COVID-19, Westbrook missed four of the Rockets' eight seeding games with a quadriceps injury that was originally diagnosed as a contusion before an MRI revealed a strain.
That injury forced Westbrook to sit out the first four games of the Rockets' first-round series against the Thunder, and he hasn't played up to his high standards since returning, averaging 15.6 points and 4.4 assists while shooting only 39.1% from the floor in five playoff games.
The Rockets were outscored by 14 points in Westbrook's 33 minutes on Sunday, when he was the only Houston starter with a negative plus-minus.
"He's still working his way back," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He'll play with a great intensity. He'll always be aggressive. He needs to be aggressive. That's why he's Russell Westbrook, and that's fine. He'll work it out.
"We're not going to win anything without Russell. That's not even a question or whatever. He's going to work through it. He's fine. He's more upset than anybody. Hey, he's a great, great player. He'll be fine. Not worried about him."
With Westbrook struggling, the Lakers were able to succeed in their goal of often getting the ball out of Harden's hands. Harden finished with 27 points and seven assists, but he attempted only 12 field goals, making half of them, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
"Russ will be fine. He's great," Harden said. "The great thing about Russ is he does more to affect the game other than score the basketball. He's so athletic, he's so great, that he can affect with his defense. He can be a playmaker. He does a variety of things to impact the game of basketball for our team, so we're not worried about him."
In Game 2, Westbrook was uncharacteristically reliant on the 3-point shot, the biggest weakness of his offensive game. He was 1-of-7 from 3-point range in the loss. It was the most 3s that Westbrook had attempted in a game since Christmas, as he had emphasized playing to his strength of attacking the basket, using the space teams gave him as a runway to drive instead of an invitation to shoot.
Westbrook's seven turnovers were perhaps more problematic for the Rockets than his poor shooting, particularly considering that the Lakers were able to convert some of those into fast breaks. Westbrook also committed seven turnovers during Houston's Game 6 loss to the Thunder.
"Some of it is my fault; some are missed calls," Westbrook said. "But you know, it's on me. I don't point fingers at nobody else. It's my own game. I own my mistakes. I own what I do, and that's that."
Westbrook, however, took umbrage with a question that suggested he was in a funk.
"I'm confused," Westbrook said. "You said snap out of it. Snap out of what?"
Specifically asked about his shooting woes, Westbrook said, "That happens. It's OK. I'm going to come back next game and be ready to go. The series is 1-1."