After a slow start to the season, Russell Westbrook is finally rounding into shape in the month of December. Westbrook missed the first two regular-season games of his NBA career after two offseason knee surgeries, then proceeded to struggle in his first month back.
November saw Westbrook average 21.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, but it also saw him shoot just 38.9 percent from the field and commit 3.8 turnovers per game as well. Westbrook, usually a good finisher around the basket, could not get anything to drop from close range in the first month of the season, when he shot just 45.5 percent in the restricted area, or 13.1 percent worse than his average over the last three seasons.
While there were some "gimmes" that he couldn't finish (such as the layup while challenging Monroe in the first video above), many of his problems finishing from the restricted area stemmed from forcing shots that didn't stand much chance of going in the basket in the first place.
This has been a common criticism of Westbrook throughout his career—the forcing of early-shot-clock attempts with little to no chance of success.
He's managed to control that impulse much better over the course of his career, but in his first month back from injury, he seemed anxious to prove just how "back" he was, and to do that by driving to the basket and finishing through the trees. This resulted in a lot of missed shots, and too many turnovers as he mixed poor passes with out-of-control dribbling into traffic and the occasional offensive foul.
As he's become more comfortable, Westbrook's play has picked up in December. He's averaging 21.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game on a healthy 46.2 percent from the field. His conversion rate in the restricted area is up to 52.9 percent on the year, which puts him at 61.6 percent for the month, about 3.0 percent better than his three-year average.
He's still struggling to finish on the drive, as evidenced by the fact that he has the single-lowest field-goal percentage in the league among players who average at least 5.0 drives per game, according to SportVU data released by the league and STATS LLC. However, he has found another way to get his shot off from close range: taking his game to the post.
Westbrook has finished a play (defined as a possession that ends with the player taking a FGA, FTA or TO) 26 times this month, according to mySynergySports (subscription required), and has gone 11-of-18 from the field, with four turnovers against four shooting fouls drawn. At one point, he made seven consecutive shots from the post.
Westbrook's post game has been in the making for a few years now, but the Thunder seem more committed to it now than ever before. After averaging 1.69 post-up plays per game through the first month of last season, and 2.1 per game for the season at large, Westbrook is averaging 2.2 per game for December. He's shooting 44.8 percent from the field on his post-ups this season, according to Synergy, which would be his best full-season mark yet.
The Thunder have been going to him in the post early in games of late, likely to get him in rhythm against smaller defenders like Ty Lawson, Marquis Teague and Kyle Lowry (who is not small, but is certainly smaller than Westbrook).
What Westbrook has really leaned on in the post, though, is his turnaround jumper, as you can see in the video above. He's taken to dribbling himself into the post after nothing comes of a fast break, where he can have an entire side of the court to himself to work his way into position before turning, stepping back to create space and lofting a jumper off the glass.
He's not yet perfected this shot, as he occasionally rushes it or forces it over multiple defenders when it's not really there, but it's become an excellent weapon. It's helped him shoot just about 45 percent from the mid-range area this year, a huge reason his field-goal percentage has crept closer to normal Westbrook-ian levels over the last month.
Westbrook has once again displayed excellent chemistry with Serge Ibaka in pick-and-rolls, often finding the latter for mid-range jump shots near the elbows when blaring around a screen. The Westbrook-Ibaka high pick-and-roll is one of Oklahoma City's go-to sets primary because Westbrook loves to attack the lane when coming around the screen, and Ibaka is one of the NBA's best mid-range shooters, with no "for a big man" qualification needed.
Also dangerous as always is the Westbrook-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll, which works best when the Thunder clear an entire side of the floor for them.
The threat of a Westbrook drive is usually sufficient to draw multiple defenders and net Durant a short jumper, as above, but there are other times where Durant draws stay-attached coverage and Westbrook winds up with an open lane to the basket.
Things are still very much in flux for Westbrook right now—he's still averaging fewer minutes per game than is his custom, still turning the ball over far too much (4.3 per game in December) and still struggling a bit on the drive and from long distance. (To his credit, though, he is learning the value of the three ball over the long two.)
The rest of his game is rounding into shape, and eventually we'll see peak Westbrook again. These things just take time.
Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.