Kobe Bryant’s Worst Shooting Night Ever Brings Lakers’ Woes to New Lows

Earlier this week, the iconic Kobe Bryant surpassed John Havlicek to become the NBA‘s all-time leader in missed field-goal attempts.

Friday night, he tightened his hold on that record in a big way.

The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs by a final score of 93-80, suggesting that defense may not be the only reason head coach Byron Scott’s club has gotten off to a disappointing 1-8 start. When this team needed Bryant to carry it like he has so many times before, he instead turned in the worst shooting performance of his career.

The 36-year-old shooting guard made just 1-of-14 shots, a 7.1 percent mark that trumps a 1998 1-of-10 outing as his most futile from the field. Technically, Bryant has made no shots on a handful of occasions, but never after attempting at least 10 shots.

Bryant didn’t make his first field-goal attempt until early in the fourth period, missing his first 10 tries while trying to impact the game in other ways—like tallying six assists and two blocks. He finished the game with just nine points (seven of which came from the free-throw line) and four turnovers.

Though the defense from Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard was a reason for his struggles, Bryant’s health might have been the biggest contributing factor.  

“He wasn’t feeling too well,” Scott told reporters after the game. “Nothing physically as far as a knee or Achilles, but he’s not feeling well.” 

Bryant himself cited illness as well.

“I don’t feel too good, but I’m used to playing through that,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s just tough, man. Tonight was one of those nights that make me really remember the challenge of being 36 [years old] and being 19 years in, and the body just won’t respond. You’re sick, and you used to be able to fight through those things. It just helps me remember exactly what I’m facing.”

It’s also possible there’s something wrong with his left knee. Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding noted that Bryant was wearing a sleeve over said knee for the second time this season (after having previously worn it during Wednesday’s 10-for-28 performance against the New Orleans Pelicans).

Bryant seemed to suggest he was in pretty good shape, though.

“I feel great, but tonight was one of those nights where it just caught up (with me),” he added. “I’ve got to try now and look at how to adjust to a recovery program and try to answer the challenge when I face a night like this in the future.”

Whatever the cause(s), Bryant’s ineffectiveness couldn’t have come at a worse time for a team that’s struggled to turn things around under Scott’s watch. While Friday marked his fifth consecutive outing with a sub-.400 shooting percentage, Kobe has been the one constant for Los Angeles to this point.

He’s scored at a high volume and kept the Lakers above average in offensive efficiency with 104.6 points per 100 possessions entering Friday, according to Hollinger Stats. So far, the Lakers’ principal problem has been a league-worst defense that has allowed opponents to make nearly 50 percent of their field-goal attempts.

That wasn’t the story against San Antonio.

Los Angeles’ 80 points qualified as its lowest output of the young season, a reminder that Bryant needs some help on both ends of the floor. Carlos Boozer led all scorers with 19 points, and Jeremy Lin added 15. But no one has emerged as a consistent second or third option who could ease some of the pressure on Bryant.

Nick Young’s return from injury will give the Lakers offense some new life, but not enough to make a difference. Kobe needs a supporting cast with winning pedigree and shared chemistry—the kind of stability Tim Duncan has had all these years.

“I’m extremely jealous of that,” Bryant told reporters after LA’s 109-102 loss to the Pelicans. “I don’t know if I can express to you how jealous I am of the fact that Tim, Tony [Parker]Manu [Ginobili] and Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] have all been together for all those years.

“Like, I can’t even…I can’t express to you how jealous I am of that. Not all this up-and-down stuff.”

Up-and-down stuff that’s definitely been trending downward of late.

For his part, Bryant has remained hopeful and defiant. He’s even looking to get in the way of Duncan’s shot at a sixth title.

“I want a crack at [Duncan],” Bryant added. “I want to get another crack before it’s all said and done. I would love to play the Spurs in the playoffs one more time, you know what I mean? As a competitor, you want to have the most [titles], but at the same time, it’s well-deserved.”

Somehow, titles are still on Bryant’s mind. His team looks lottery-bound for a second straight season, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the five-time champion.

After Scott said this week that he has “no doubt” the Lakers will win a championship under his coaching staff, Bryant told ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes that he agreed.

“Faith,” he said. “The Lakers’ track record. This organization is really good about turning around, period. We don’t have many dry years.”

Early indications, however, are that they’re having one right now.

If Bryant has any hope of changing that, he’ll have to find a better rhythm. Though he’s racking up plenty of points, he’s using an awful lot of shots to get there. He’s yet to make more than 44 percent of his shots in any of his first nine games. He’s made at least 40 percent of his attempts in just three games.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by a little rust, particularly on a night when Bryant was under the weather.

But there’s still a bigger question about whether he can carry this team in spite of its significant defensive liabilities and limited personnel. It’s a job that seems too big even when Bryant is at his best.

And outright impossible when he’s at his worst.

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Kobe Bryant’s Worst Game Ever Brings Lakers’ Woes to New Lows

Earlier this week, the iconic Kobe Bryant surpassed John Havlicek to become the NBA‘s all-time leader in missed field-goal attempts.

Friday night, he tightened his hold on that record in a big way.

The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs by a final score of 93-80, suggesting that defense may not be the only reason head coach Byron Scott’s club has gotten off to a disappointing 1-8 start. When this team needed Bryant to carry it like he has so many times before, he instead turned in the worst shooting performance of his career.

The 36-year-old shooting guard made just 1-of-14 shots, a 7.1 percent mark that trumps a 1998 1-of-10 outing as his most futile from the field. Technically, Bryant has made no shots on a handful of occasions, but never after attempting at least 10 shots.

Bryant didn’t make his first field-goal attempt until early in the fourth period, missing his first 10 tries while trying to impact the game in other ways—like tallying six assists and two blocks. He finished the game with just nine points (seven of which came from the free-throw line) and four turnovers.

Though the defense from Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard was a reason for his struggles, Bryant’s health might have been the biggest contributing factor.  

“He wasn’t feeling too well,” Scott told reporters after the game. “Nothing physically as far as a knee or Achilles, but he’s not feeling well.” 

Bryant himself cited illness as well.

“I don’t feel too good, but I’m used to playing through that,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s just tough, man. Tonight was one of those nights that make me really remember the challenge of being 36 [years old] and being 19 years in, and the body just won’t respond. You’re sick, and you used to be able to fight through those things. It just helps me remember exactly what I’m facing.”

It’s also possible there’s something wrong with his left knee. Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding noted that Bryant was wearing a sleeve over said knee for the second time this season (after having previously worn it during Wednesday’s 10-for-28 performance against the New Orleans Pelicans).

Bryant seemed to suggest he was in pretty good shape, though.

“I feel great, but tonight was one of those nights where it just caught up (with me),” he added. “I’ve got to try now and look at how to adjust to a recovery program and try to answer the challenge when I face a night like this in the future.”

Whatever the cause(s), Bryant’s ineffectiveness couldn’t have come at a worse time for a team that’s struggled to turn things around under Scott’s watch. While Friday marked his fifth consecutive outing with a sub-.400 shooting percentage, Kobe has been the one constant for Los Angeles to this point.

He’s scored at a high volume and kept the Lakers above average in offensive efficiency with 104.6 points per 100 possessions entering Friday, according to Hollinger Stats. So far, the Lakers’ principal problem has been a league-worst defense that has allowed opponents to make nearly 50 percent of their field-goal attempts.

That wasn’t the story against San Antonio.

Los Angeles’ 80 points qualified as its lowest output of the young season, a reminder that Bryant needs some help on both ends of the floor. Carlos Boozer led all scorers with 19 points, and Jeremy Lin added 15. But no one has emerged as a consistent second or third option who could ease some of the pressure on Bryant.

Nick Young’s return from injury will give the Lakers offense some new life, but not enough to make a difference. Kobe needs a supporting cast with winning pedigree and shared chemistry—the kind of stability Tim Duncan has had all these years.

“I’m extremely jealous of that,” Bryant told reporters after LA’s 109-102 loss to the Pelicans. “I don’t know if I can express to you how jealous I am of the fact that Tim, Tony [Parker]Manu [Ginobili] and Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] have all been together for all those years.

“Like, I can’t even…I can’t express to you how jealous I am of that. Not all this up-and-down stuff.”

Up-and-down stuff that’s definitely been trending downward of late.

For his part, Bryant has remained hopeful and defiant. He’s even looking to get in the way of Duncan’s shot at a sixth title.

“I want a crack at [Duncan],” Bryant added. “I want to get another crack before it’s all said and done. I would love to play the Spurs in the playoffs one more time, you know what I mean? As a competitor, you want to have the most [titles], but at the same time, it’s well-deserved.”

Somehow, titles are still on Bryant’s mind. His team looks lottery-bound for a second straight season, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the five-time champion.

After Scott said this week that he has “no doubt” the Lakers will win a championship under his coaching staff, Bryant told ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes that he agreed.

“Faith,” he said. “The Lakers’ track record. This organization is really good about turning around, period. We don’t have many dry years.”

Early indications, however, are that they’re having one right now.

If Bryant has any hope of changing that, he’ll have to find a better rhythm. Though he’s racking up plenty of points, he’s using an awful lot of shots to get there. He’s yet to make more than 44 percent of his shots in any of his first nine games. He’s made at least 40 percent of his attempts in just three games.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by a little rust, particularly on a night when Bryant was under the weather.

But there’s still a bigger question about whether he can carry this team in spite of its significant defensive liabilities and limited personnel. It’s a job that seems too big even when Bryant is at his best.

And outright impossible when he’s at his worst.

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Mavs get their biggest win ever, 123-70 over 76ers (Yahoo Sports)

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 13: Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks posts up against the Philadelphia 76ers on November 13, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks had no need for another big comeback when playing the NBA’s only winless team.


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Mavs demolish 76ers for their biggest win ever

Dallas led 38-10 after one on the way to a 123-70 drubbing of winless Philadelphia.

      
 

 

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Dirk Nowitzki’s Unique Path to Stardom Unlike Something the NBA Has Ever Seen

Dirk Nowitzki tallied 23 points in the Dallas Mavericks‘ 106-98 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, and he earned a couple of distinctions in the process.

With 8:56 remaining in the contest, the 36-year-old nailed a jumper and became the league’s ninth all-time leading scorer, passing Hakeem Olajuwon’s 26,946 points. In turn, the German superstar also became the most prolific international scorer in NBA history.

“Dirk has earned everything he’s gotten, and every step up the ladder he takes is a reflection of his effort and his focus,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban told reporters before Tuesday night’s contest. “To be the greatest international scorer ever is an amazing accomplishment. We’re glad to have him here.”

Nowitzki could pass two others on the all-time scoring list before long. Elvin Hayes is currently eighth with 27,313 points, and Moses Malone is seventh with 27,409.

Much like Olajuwon, Nowitzki has scored many of his points with an array of dizzying moves on the block. But the comparison isn’t a perfect one.

“I think you need a little athleticism for that move [Olajuwon's famed 'Dream Shake'],” Nowitzki told reporters after the game, via Mavs Insider Earl K. Sneed. “…I came up with my own dream shake, I guess. The white version.”

Numbers aside, the former Houston Rockets great was inimitable to be sure.

“…To pass The Dream is unbelievable,” Nowitzki added. “He was unguardable on the block. His footwork, his skill level, his hands, his touch was second to none. So, I’m pretty proud.”

For his career, the 17-year veteran has earned 12 All-Star appearances and averaged 22.5 points per contest. His credentials as one of the game’s great power forwards put him in rare company, particularly when accounting for his ability to stretch the floor and rack up buckets in a variety of ways.

It’s been a long road, and it’s been anything but a traditional one.

After the Mavericks selected him with the ninth overall pick in 1998, Nowitzki only averaged 8.2 points per contest as a rookie. Though he’d break out with 17.5 points per game during his sophomore campaign, it wasn’t initially clear that Nowitzki would become a legitimate superstar.

“I remember everybody crushing on him and killing on him as being another [Big White Stiff],” owner Mark Cuban recently said, reports Dwain Price of Fort Worth Star-Telegram. ”Everybody was like, ‘Who is this guy and will he ever make it?’

“It took a little bit, but he worked hard and he got there.”

Mavericks center Tyson Chandler offers a similar narrative.

“Everything Dirk accomplishes he deserves,” he said, per Price. “He’s been putting in a lot of work into this league. He’s one of the all-time greats and one of the all-time great professionals with the type of work and commitment that he’s had throughout his entire career.

“It’s really amazing, especially the way he started his career. The league had some doubts about whether or not he could play in this game, but he never stopped believing, and the organization never stopped believing.”

That early faith paid off in a big way.

By his third season, Nowitzki was averaging 21.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in 38.1 minutes per game. Starting with that season, the Mavericks played the playoffs without fail until 2013. Dirk remained at the center of those efforts even as his supporting cast evolved through a number of iterations.

He’s 1-1 in his two Finals appearances against the Miami Heat in 2006 and 2011, making him that rare scoring extraordinaire who also knows how to lead a winner. Nowitzki averaged 26 points per contest during the latter series and earned Finals MVP honors for his efforts.

While Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett seem to have defined this generation’s 4 spot, no one has played it quite like Nowitzki.

He’s made 38.3 percent of his career three-point attempts, and he’s just as deadly from any mid-range spot on the floor. Capable of facing up or scoring with his back to the basket, guarding Nowitzki has become among the league’s virtually impossible tasks.

And he’s not finished just yet.

Eight games into the 2014-15 season, he’s again averaging over 20 points per contest and showing few signs of slowing down. The Mavericks re-signed him to a discounted deal this summer, agreeing to pay him a reported $25 million over the next three years.

It may be the last NBA contract Nowitzki signs, but he’s taking his side of the bargain no less seriously than he did when coming up the ranks.

Indeed, he’s still trying to get better.

“I want to expand a little bit on the block,” Nowitzki said, per Sneed, when training camp opened in October. “There might be some situations where I have to shoot it, but I don’t want to rely on the fadeaway all the time.

“Sometimes you have to go middle and make a strong move there or get fouled or swing a little hook, I think. You know, I’ve just got to mix it up a little more than just a right-shoulder fadeaway all the time.”

Spoken like a man who’s serious about winning another title while he still can.

However long that may be.

Everyone better enjoy Dirk Nowitzki while he’s playing,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters, via Sneed, after Tuesday night’s game. “‘Cause there’s not going to be another one like him ever.”

Certainly none that trace his route to the top.

“Passing the Big O and knowing that only nine guys ever in this league scored more than me, that’s crazy to think,” Nowitzki said, reports Price, this week. “From where I came from—a little dump in Wurzburg, Germany—it’s been an amazing ride.

“So you know, hopefully I can have a couple more good years, and we’ll see where I end up.”

Nowitzki will end up a little higher on that all-time scoring list. And he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame sometime after that. 

He might even end up with another championship along the way.

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Kobe Bryant Says Anthony Davis Could Be One of Greatest Power Forwards Ever

Tim Duncan. Karl Malone. Charles Barkley. Dirk Nowitzki. Anthony Davis? 

According to Kobe Bryant, the 21-year-old phenom is on track to be grouped among that esteemed group of power forwards when his career comes to a close. 

Following the Los Angeles Lakers’ 107-102 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Bryant heaped some serious praise on Davis, according to the Orange County Register‘s Bill Oram

At the rate Davis has progressed on both ends of the floor, it’s hard to disagree with Bryant’s take.

After joining Shaquille O’Neal as the second player in league history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks at age 20 or younger, according to Basketball-Reference.com, Davis is playing his way into the MVP conversation behind averages of 24.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.2 blocks, 2.5 steals and 2.2 assists while shooting 51.8 percent from the field. 

And even if the New Orleans Pelicans aren’t able to qualify for the postseason in a crowded Western Conference, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes believes Davis should garner MVP consideration if he continues to post unprecedented statistical figures: 

He’s already doing more for his team than anyone else is for theirs. He’s doing more than anyone, period.

All the buzz Davis is getting now will fade if the Pelicans gradually slip from the playoff picture, and that’s not fair. AD has done all he can to put himself in the MVP conversation this season. He belongs there—now, and as long as he continues to blow us away with stats and highlights.

Owner of the league’s highest player efficiency rating (35.79), according to ESPN.com, Davis continues to redefine on-court brilliance by expanding one of the Association’s most unique skill sets on a game-to-game basis. 

Bryant will get a firsthand look at Davis’ evolving greatness when the Lakers travel to Smoothie King Center for a showdown with the Pelicans at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday night. 

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Clippers Catch Lakers In Huddle, Embarrass Them With Easiest Dunk Ever (Video)

Things just keep going from bad to worse for the Los Angeles Lakers these days.
The team has likely already lost Steve Nash and Julius Randle for the season due to injuries and have started 0-3 for the second time in three years.
To top it all off, they were embarrassed on a play that exemplified a lack of focus and showed that the team with the second-most championships in NBA history could be in for a long season.
In Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Kobe Bryant and three other Lakers were huddling near the free-throw line during an inbounds play for the Clippers. The discussion went a little too long and the Lakers never broke the huddle as the Clippers inbounded the ball to Blake Griffin who essentially walked in for an easy dunk.

Kobe rarely ever looks like a fool on a play, but the Clippers sure made him look like one.Filed under: Andre Khatchaturian, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, NBA, Top Stories

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Returned Derrick Rose Is Both at Peace and More Driven Than Ever

CHICAGO — Meet the new Derrick Rose. He’s the same as the old Rose, but he’s different in a few telling ways.

The Chicago Bulls point guard projected a calm excitement at a charity event days before the NBA season’s start, speaking as confidently as he did when he became the youngest MVP in league history back in 2011. But he also sported some new, key features to his outlook. Through two seasons of injuries, Rose has spent more time off the court than on it, and he has adopted a more complex and peaceful worldview as a result.

And although our sample size is small—Rose returned to action with Team USA just three months ago—his new attitude has shown on the court, too. Known previously as a ceaseless speed demon, embracing contact as he plunged into the lane like his team’s only jackknife, Rose is now a shrewder player.

“My IQ of the game has changed,” he told me after taking questions from students who were the beneficiaries of his recent $1 million donation to a Chicago after-school program. “I’m switching gears, playing with more paces instead of just one. I can make the game easy. I’m being patient.”

This was in line with what he preached to the students in the Adidas store of the Water Tower Place shopping mall on Michigan Avenue. Rose urged them to always follow through with their inclinations and seek new knowledge. He even cited a recent reading of Malcolm Gladwell as a hint of the rewards of a tireless, exploratory work ethic.

“I did some research and saw that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft,” he said. “That’s 10 years. You have to dedicate your whole life to something if you love it.”

We don’t have the math on Rose’s time in the gym at our disposal, but he seems to have surpassed that decade of concentrated time as a player.

In his regular-season debut against the New York Knicks, Rose rarely pressed the action, instead utilizing his quickness in brief bursts that found him alone for easy, mid-range bunny shots. Rose has always worked harder than the opposition, but in 2014, he’s also working smarter, seeing the game more like an easy chess match than a test of how far he can push his body.

A certain cocoon-like quality to Rose’s lifestyle has always enabled this sort of improvement. Growing up in Englewood—one of the deadliest of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods—Rose says he survived by insulating himself with close, trustworthy friends, many of whom now work with him.

He developed a tunnel vision for his familial circle and basketball love early on. Rose became so focused on his game as a teenager that he didn’t even watch his hometown team.

“I never went to a Bulls game. I didn’t watch the Bulls in high school, I just worked out with that guy right behind you all day,” Rose said, referring to Andre Hamlin, a former coach of his at Simeon Career Academy who now works as his security chief.

Hamlin was one of many on hand trying to wrangle the younger, ebullient Rose, Derrick’s son P.J.—whose name is short for Pooh Jr., a reference to the star’s nickname growing up. The two-year-old made the most of the store’s large, open space, giggling as he feverishly threw a basketball around to everyone in attendance.

The impact of fatherhood is another key tenet of the reimagined Rose. He said being a dad motivates his performance further. “Having my son, just knowing how he’s going to grow up, it’s different. He needs something that’s going to push him. It’s all going to make him want to push himself to the next level.”

It’s also not hard to see how the toddler’s happiness changes Rose. At one point of the event, the child’s laughter and movement in the store reached such heights that Rose stopped mid-monologue just to marvel at it. “P.J.,” he said with a bemused chuckle.

Things look fun again for Rose, who has admitted to feeling little else but stress and expectations when he tried to return from injury a year ago, only to go down again during the season’s 10th game.

“I think that was just a dark side for me, a dark period of time,” Rose told The Washington Post’s Michael Lee at Team USA camp in Las Vegas this summer. “I felt like it was damn near like a job instead of just going out there and having fun. I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t enjoying the game. I was trying not to mess up.”

Today, the point guard can’t wait to get on the floor. He loves what “feels like a new team” and thinks they can win it all.

“This is the most professional team I’ve played on. It’s no disrespect to older teammates. I’ve been on professional teams before. But on this team, from rookie all the way to veteran, everybody’s focused. You can’t do anything but respect it. We have a really good, deep team. If I was the owner of the team, I’d be very happy. We’re a contender,” he said with a proud lilt.

The Eastern Conference won’t be the one-team party it’s been in recent years—a glut of mediocrity with LeBron James standing tall above the pack. Behind a rejuvenated Rose, the Bulls are a real equal to James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and easily the biggest threat to ending LeBron’s four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

With the teeth of coach Tom Thibodeau’s renowned defense and new scoring weapons like Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, this looks to be the best professional team Rose has played on.

And as much as he tries to undersell his eagerness to thwart the King, it shows. When asked about whether there’s extra emphasis on his team’s Halloween showdown with Cleveland, Rose laughed again. “C’mon man,” he said.

 

All quotes acquired firsthand unless noted otherwise.

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LeBron James Says Return to Cavs Is One of the Biggest Sporting Events Ever

While LeBron James‘ return to Cleveland Thursday night is a pretty big deal in the NBA world, it’s probably not as significant as James thinks it is. 

While speaking with reporters Thursday morning, James stated that he believes tonight’s game is at the top of the list when it comes to sporting events. Of all time.

One thing’s for sure, people in Cleveland are definitely excited for LeBron’s return:

[YouTube]

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Russell Westbrook Under More Pressure Than Ever Without Kevin Durant

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s all about Russell Westbrook

No really, it is. 

Without Kevin Durant in the lineup as he returns from his Jones fracture, the focus is entirely on the team’s dynamic point guard, a player who often serves as a lightning rod even when he’s playing second fiddle to Durant’s first-chair violin. Of course, that’s just compounded by the other injuries the Thunder are working through, as the list seems to drag on and on, growing longer by the day.

Reggie Jackson had to be helped off the practice floor by his teammates just prior to the start of the season, suffering a right ankle injury that put him on crutches and leaves him questionable for the first game of the campaign. Jeremy Lamb’s back is hurt, while Andre Roberson has a balky ankle that he may have to fight through due to the dearth of options on the wings.

Beyond that, Anthony Morrow’s sprained MCL will keep him out for at least a month, Perry Jones III is having some trouble with his knee, and Mitch McGary fractured his foot during the preseason and will miss a significant portion of his rookie year. 

So again, it’s all about Westbrook now. More so than ever before, it has to be. 

 

There’s Always Pressure

Westbrook has basically never played without a spotlight focused firmly on his play. He’s one of those players who’s constantly being scrutinized and put under the microscope, allowing fans and analysts to try determining whether the positive production outweighs the negative. 

Everything he does gets analyzed and overanalyzed, whether it’s a breakout performance that makes it seem once more as though he’s elevating up toward the top of the point guard hierarchy or a lackluster shooting performance that might prevent the Thunder from racking up yet another win. Some players are just inherently controversial, and this floor general’s playing style takes that to another level. 

We’ve all heard the many arguments that center around Westbrook. For example, despite the simple fact that he suits up at the 1 for the Thunder, some question whether he’s really a point guard.

He’s a natural shooting guard who’s forced into playing the point. He can’t be one of the league’s best point guards because he’s really a 2-guard. He’s entirely overrated because he focuses on his own scoring and doesn‘t play like a pure point guard. He’d be so much better if he didn’t shoot as much. 

And heaven forbid he makes a crucial error late in a game or throws up a brickfest during any given night. If that happens, the world plays Chicken Little, and the performance is treated as though it’s causing the sky to fall. It gives fodder to the inane arguments that his penchant for shooting mid-range pull-ups and jumpers early in the shot clock prevent him from being a high-quality basketball player. 

He’s the one who inspires Magic Johnson to claim during the broadcast of an NBA Finals game, per the Orlando Sentinel, “I was very disappointed in Russell Westbrook. That was the worst point guard in a championship finals I’ve ever seen.”

But Durant provided a rebuttal of his own during those 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, as relayed by Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: ‘It’s not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point and people don’t recognize that. Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like John Stockton…there’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ. We need him to play the way he plays.”

The way he plays has tended to work out nicely for the Thunder more often than not, but it’s still failed to change the overall perception. Years later, here’s Charles Barkley taking a stance on Westbrook’s shot-happy ways: 

When Durant lit the world on fire and carried OKC in Westbrook’s absence, it led to notable NBA writers like Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry asking whether the team was better with Jackson, not the typical starter, playing alongside the future MVP. 

Basically, if you look up “lightning rod” in the unofficial NBA dictionary, you’ll see Westbrook’s face staring right back at you. He’s never been able to avoid the pressure, simply because everything he does is analyzed until those talking about him are blue in the face. He’s a naturally controversial player, one who creates endless arguments that will never, ever allow for either side to budge. 

But even with all that history, he’s never been thrust into a situation quite like this one. 

 

High Expectations 

The proverbial pressure cooker has always had the dial turned up to 11 for Westbrook, but now the world is finding a way to bump it up to about 15. 

Durant is gone for the time being, letting his foot heal and showing no indication that he’s going to beat the expected timetable of four-to-six weeks. The rest of the depth chart has been decimated, with players going down left and right…and up and down, apparently. And it’s not as though the expectations are that much lower for the Thunder. 

Preseason picks for ESPN The Magazine were due a couple of days before Kevin Durant’s foot injury surfaced. I had OKC winning the West if fully healthy,” wrote ESPN.com’s Marc Stein during his power rankings just prior to the start of the season. “Now? After an injury-riddled October, I might still say the same if you could assure me KD will miss only a month. But who could possibly say that with certainty?”

Durant may be missing, but the Thunder are still expected to stay in the thick of the race for a top seed in the brutally difficult Western Conference. And this is a conference in which just a few games can be the difference between earning a No. 5 seed and finishing outside of the West’s top 10. Every game counts, and it’s up to Westbrook to get his team off to a hot start. 

As Grantland’s Zach Lowe explains, it’s going to be exciting, but the offense may struggle more than we’re accustomed to seeing from these Thunder: 

It will be exciting to see Westbrook stretch himself. He’s probably going to lead the league in scoring and usage rate until Durant gets back. But he is not a multidimensional, on- and off-ball threat like Durant. He doesn’t instill panic running off screens, he can’t shoot over anyone at anytime, and he’s still in the early stages of developing a post-up game that has been useful against smaller point guards.

Defenses in today’s NBA, with loosened zone rules, can clog the paint and strangle even the world’s best drivers when they know what’s coming. Westbrook has come so far in his career, and much of the endless criticism aimed at him has been off base. He takes three or four terrible shots every game, sure, but he’s an unstoppable freight train going to the hoop, and he has made subtle improvements in his passing every season.

Durant’s gravity away from the ball, and his screens for Westbrook, have helped clear those paths to the basket. Space will be tighter now, though Brooks can tinker with the rotation to maximize it. The Thunder’s offense occasionally fizzled out when Durant was the lone scorer; it will happen more often with Westbrook.

But it’s hard to be that definitive. 

Part of the reason for the pressure is that no one really knows exactly how Westbrook will fare without Durant. It’s been fun to speculate about him in the past, wondering if he could win an MVP like Derrick Rose did as a shoot-first, do-everything point guard, but there’s limited hard data to support any claims. 

Durant carried the Thunder without Westbrook, bolstering his MVP candidacy, going on a ridiculous tear and keeping the Thunder’s win total growing at a constant rate. But can Westbrook do the same? 

Based on the severe lack of time he’s spent without the reigning MVP on the floor, we have no idea: 

Durant has been the injury-avoiding mainstay in the lineup ever since Westbrook entered the league out of UCLA for the 2008-09 season. He’s always formed a dynamic duo with his point guard, and this situation has simply never popped up, save for the few minutes that Westbrook will occasionally spend on the court while his teammate catches his breath on the pine. 

And that simply doesn‘t matter.

There will be no sympathy for the floor general if he and the Thunder stumble out of the gates. There will be no excuses made for him if he doesn‘t capitalize on this opportunity, an opportunity his playing style seems to claim he’s wanted for quite some time, even if he’s never explicitly expressed such a desire. There will be no forgiveness if he succumbs to the pressure. 

The expectations are still there, and they’re never going away. 

  

Struggles Thus Far

Let’s see what we can glean from the small samples that represent Westbrook’s performance without the league’s reigning MVP on the court, dating all the way back to his rookie season. 

We’re not as concerned with defense, given Serge Ibaka‘s continuing presence, the overall effectiveness of Scott Brook’s systems and the other defensive pieces on the roster. The point-preventing unit will suffer without Durant, but offense remains the primary concern. 

Below, you can see Westbrook’s offensive rating with and without Durant for each season of his career, per NBA.com’s statistical databases

There’s an interesting trend starting to form there, as it appears Westbrook is beginning to gain comfort operating as the leader of the Thunder. After all, his offensive rating sans his talented teammate has gone up each of the last few seasons, peaking with the 41 minutes that qualified this past go-round. In fact, that was the very first time his offensive rating without Durant had surpassed the number he produced while sharing the court. 

But is this actually a trend, or merely the product of small samples, ones that can produce wonky results rather easily?

We won’t know until there’s more data provided to us by the opening salvo of the 2014-15 regular season, but the preseason already put a bit of a damper on the hopes. As Anthony Slater detailed for NewsOK.com, Westbrook struggled throughout exhibition season after Durant went down with his devastating foot injury: 

When Durant was in the lineup, Russell Westbrook could afford the occasional bad shooting night. Those 4-of-14’s could be masked by KD’s 12-of-18’s. But with Durant gone — carrying with him that extreme efficiency — Westbrook’s makes-to-takes percentage will likely carry more weight. If he’s off, it’s tough to see the Thunder beating many good teams. In the final three preseason games, Westbrook went a combined 14-of-43 from the field. OKC lost each by wide margins. Against Utah, he had his dominant spurts — he followed a nice first-half post-up of Dante Exum by swiping the rookie and slamming in the open court. But his mid-range jumper has been off. And that’s hurt the offense. Westbrook was 6-of-16 on Tuesday night, and the Thunder was outscored by 20 points with him on the court. Can’t happen in Portland next Wednesday.

According to RealGM.com, the high-flying 1-guard averaged 12.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game throughout the preseason, but he also coughed the ball up 4.2 times during the average outing, shot 36.9 percent from the field and made only one of his 10 deep attempts. His player efficiency rating was a meager (by his standards, at least) 18.7.

It’s just the preseason, but it could be indicative of upcoming struggles. Though there’s plenty of time for him to turn things around—and perhaps he will—there are certainly some critics already salivating at the thought of tearing him apart when the Thunder don’t emerge with an elite record during the opening portion of the 2014-15 campaign. 

The pressure is on. There’s no doubt about that now for a player who’s experienced unrelenting scrutiny throughout the entirety of his career. 

Westbrook is finally getting a chance to prove himself as a No. 1 option, and there’s only one certainty heading into what’s set to be a rather interesting opening. 

Plenty of shots will fly, but excuses won’t. 

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