NBA Star Index: Russell Westbrook is rekindling his MVP fire, and the small-ball Rockets look dangerous
Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season.
Westbrook is in the middle of one of the most sizzling stretches of his career, and obviously that’s saying something. After posting 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a win over Boston on Tuesday, Westbrook has scored at least 20 points in 25 straight games, which is the longest current streak in the NBA and the fifth-longest streak of Westbrook’s career.
Since January 1st, Westbrook is leading the league in scoring at 33.1 points per game on over 52-percent shooting, which is the third-best mark in the league among guards attempting at least 15 shots a night. Where is the efficiency coming from? Westbrook has trimmed his 3-point attempts by over half — from 4.9 per game through December 31st to 2.3 since the turn of the calendar year.
Translation: He is going to the hole like a madman. Even at 31 years old, there still isn’t a defender in the league who can stay in front of him, and whenever the opportunity presents itself he’s taking advantage of the attention defenses give James Harden to explode through sea-parting lanes. No settling. Very little perimeter shooting.
At the trade deadline, the Rockets quadrupled down on the Westbrook experience, sending Clint Capela to Atlanta as part of a four-team trade that brought Robert Covington to Houston, which is now committed to playing without a traditional center. With shooters all around the arc dragging defenders away from the rim, Westbrook is doing a lot of this:
In the three games since the trade, the Rockets have defeated the Lakers and Celtics and were one Bojan Bogdanovic 30-foot buzzer-beater from beating the Jazz. In those games, Westbrook has scored 41, 39 and 36 points on 57-percent shooting.
Who knows if playing this small will be sustainable in the playoffs. It’ll be a tough road if the Rockets match up with a team like the Lakers, who are collectively humongous. Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert are two potential true-center matchups that would be an uphill battle for P.J. Tucker.
But that problem swings both ways. Can Gobert and Jokic come out on the perimeter and defend the Rockets’ five shooters? Can they run with Westbrook, who has pretty much single-handedly turned Houston into an attacking transition team that plays at the second-fastest pace in the league?
We’ll see. But with the way Westbrook is playing (MVP level, without question, over the last six weeks), you’d probably be foolish to leave the Rockets, depending on matchups, out of the Western Conference title conversation.
With 32 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, LeBron recorded his 12th triple-double of the season — tied with Luka Doncic for the league lead — in a on Wednesday. The last game before the All-Star break is typically the first day of vacation for NBA players, but the Lakers continue to take every game seriously and it starts with the guy who’s 34 years old with every reason in the world to mail in the occasional game. Instead, he’s still doing this …
If Embiid’s goal is to become the signature NBA heel, he’s succeeding. He’s even shushing his own fans — who, in typical Philly fashion, have been, shall we say, aggressively vocal in their displeasure with the Sixers’ underachieving ways.
“I don’t care how it looks… I’m just getting back to myself, being a good a–hole, just playing basketball and trying to dominate,” Embiid told reporters.
The “good a–hole” thing is perfectly Embiid, who played off the back and forth with the crowd, and indeed the Philly faithful was back in his corner not too long after the Sixers took down the Clippers.
Beating the Clippers at full strength is a statement win anywhere, but it does come with some qualification being that it was in Philadelphia where the Sixers have been nearly unbeatable all season. Through Thursday, the Sixers are a league-best 25-2 at home and 9-19 on the road. If Embiid and company don’t figure things out away from the comforts of home, they’re going to have a short postseason.
Lillard is fourth in the league in scoring and sixth in assists. He is having arguably the best season of his career, but so far it has been largely for naught. Things just aren’t going the Blazers’ way. They’ve been decimated by injuries, and are currently five games out of the final playoff spot in the West.
The Blazers have suffered two crucial defeats in their last two games — one to the Pelicans, who are right behind Portland in the standings, and one to Memphis, which is the team the Blazers are chasing for the No. 8 seed. Last Friday, Lillard and the Blazers were by a blatantly missed goaltending call that potentially cost them the game against Utah.
Seriously, how do you not call this?
That would’ve tied the game with less than 15 seconds to play. Utah might’ve scored on the final possession or won in overtime, but the Blazers deserved their chance to decide their own outcome. And now comes the news that Lillard will miss the All-Star festivities — he was scheduled to compete in the game and the 3-point contest — with a strained groin. Devin Booker will replace him in the All-Star Game.
Williamson posted a career-high 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists — while shooting 10-for-17 from the field and 11-for-14 from the free-throw line — in a win over the Blazers on Tuesday. He did all this in 28 minutes.
Williamson, who’s averaging 21 points per game, has scored at least 20 points in seven of his first nine career games, which puts him, yet again, in historic company. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Williamson is the only player over the last 30 seasons to accomplish that feat. The only two players who’ve come close are Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill, who both scored 20 points seven times in their first 10 career games.
Taking it a bit deeper, Williamson is now the 20th player in history to score at least 14 points in each of his first nine career games, with 15 of the previous 19 players to do it being in the Hall of Fame, per Elias Sports. The last rookie to score at least 14 points in each of his first nine games was Dikembe Mutombo in 1991-92. Prior to that, a couple of guys you may have heard of were the most recent to achieve such a mark.
Yeah, that’s Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. Not exactly bad company for Zion, who regularly looks like a man playing against boys despite being just 19 years old.
Whether the Pelicans, who hung onto J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday at the trade deadline, will crack the playoffs this season remains to be seen. But either way, with Williamson and All-Star Brandon Ingram leading the way, and Lonzo Ball continuing to show a lot of promise, the future is certainly bright in New Orleans.