The Los Angeles Clippers' decisive 122-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday was educational on a lot of levels, but there was no bigger lesson than this: Russell Westbrook is not in Chris Paul's league.
Paul erupted for 32 points on 14 shots, canning eight triples and dishing out 10 assists in just 28 minutes. Westbrook answered with 29 points of his own on 9-of-14 shooting from the field, but he lacked the poise and control CP3 exhibited in leading his team to the blowout victory.
Just to be clear, this isn't going to be one of those Westbrook bash-fests that crop up whenever the frustrating point guard comes out on the wrong end of a matchup. He's undeniably a very good player, hugely responsible for OKC's success in his time with the team. And it's never a great idea to rip a guy who just finished a playoff game with 29 points in 30 minutes.
What this will be, though, is an observation of the thorough, measured way in which CP3 went about illustrating his utter superiority. And in doing so, also provided an example toward which Westbrook should aspire.
The Mental Game
We can't expect Westbrook to suddenly develop Paul's otherworldly handle and court vision. He's been made into a point guard, while Paul was born one. (Every seven minutes, an insurance commercial reminds us of this fact.) But because Westbrook is so physically gifted, it's fair to ask him to add a few things to his game.
And he can do that, ironically, by subtracting.
He must take out some of his breakneck pace, pull back once in a while, slow things down and think instead of going full bore all the time.
Against the Clippers in Game 1, he turned the ball over six times. And even though his shooting met with positive results, he routinely rushed shots, failed to move the ball and imparted no sense of calm to a team reeling from the Clips' early onslaught.
Instead of sprinting into the breach, Westbrook has to be a bit more calculating. If nothing else, that approach could help free up his teammates to, you know, actually contribute.
Everybody harps on the crime of Kevin Durant losing shots to Westbrook, but the Thunder really get into trouble on nights like Monday, when Serge Ibaka gets just nine shots and the rest of OKC's supporting players hardly ever benefit from Westbrook's facilitation.
Westbrook is a the point guard—in name if not in nature—and he's got to make an effort to get others involved. He can hunt his own shot as well, but what if he just moved the ball when stymied instead of hoisting up hurried jumpers? What if he did a few more "point guard" things?
Paul offered a master class in balancing scoring instincts (and a hot hand) with ball movement.
Cliff Paul is ashamed of Chris with all this me-first scoring & "just" 3 asts.The rest of us? Amazed:17 pts on 6-7 FG (5-5 from 3) 1st qtr— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) May 6, 2014
His lights-out shooting will garner most of the attention, but handing out 10 assists against just two turnovers was equally impressive given what should have been a strong temptation to fire up heat checks until he cooled off.
Westbrook didn't act impressed in the aftermath, but he should have.
Westbrook on Chris Paul: "He hit eight 3s. He wasn't doing nothing crazy. He hit eight 3s."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 6, 2014
He'd just witnessed the best point guard of the modern era at work.
I for one welcome our new Point God overlord, the same as our old point guard Overlord.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 6, 2014
Look, nobody wants to tame Westbrook. But Paul showed it's possible to look for one's own offense without taking things away from teammates. Westbrook's aggression is a huge part of what makes him great, but we've seen it hurt OKC before. And Paul gave him a perfect example of what a dialed-back approach can accomplish.
Paul won't go 8-of-9 from long distance in every game this series. And yes, I'm comfortable out here on this limb.
But he's been shooting threes exceptionally well in the playoffs, hitting 46 percent against the Golden State Warriors in the first round on more than five attempts per game. Those figures represented marked upticks in both volume and efficiency, as Paul shot just 37 percent on 3.4 attempts per game in the regular season.
Chris Paul on his 8-9 3-point shooting: "That's what I do, that's what I do. That's a lie ... don't count on it for Game 2."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 6, 2014
A bad hamstring is likely the source of his perimeter-oriented game lately, but the reason for his adaptation isn't important. What matters is that CP3 has made changes to his style as a way to compensate for a weakness, a way to make the most of the assets at his disposal.
Westbrook doesn't do those things. He's unparalleled in his resistance to compromise.
There's something noble about the way Westbrook attacks, imposing his will and refusing to alter his game in light of any circumstance. But if Paul can change, why can't Westbrook?
Even in his reduced physical state, Paul was still playing the long game, thinking way ahead and setting up his opponents.
Chris Paul is shooting that side-hop 3 to set up rest of the series. Making sure his man doesn't cheat on pick-and-roll in ICE situations.— D.J. Foster (@fosterdj) May 6, 2014
If Westbrook would slow down a bit, he might be able to do something similar. The Clippers struck a major blow on Monday, so now's as good a time to try as any.
The Real Issue?
Maybe none of this is Westbrook's fault. Maybe he's playing this way because he knows it gives OKC its best chance to win.
After all, asking Westbrook to cool off, move the ball and take care of possessions presupposes a few things about the Thunder's offense we can't be sure are true.
For example, we assume his teammates will be in position to get shots if Westbrook surveys the floor instead of attacking. But maybe the problem is that head coach Scott Brooks' "system" simply doesn't have options beyond the initial action, which is usually just an isolation or a basic pick-and-roll.
And maybe Westbrook knows this. Maybe he's just making the most of a broken system, attacking in a seemingly thoughtless manner because there's just nothing thoughtful about OKC's offense.
The Thunder are confused by seeing a team that actually runs sets. Don't see it in practice.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 6, 2014
We've seen wild point guards tamed before. Gregg Popovich reined in Tony Parker. Doc Rivers corralled Rajon Rondo.
The fact that Westbrook falls so far short of Paul's high standard might be an indictment of Brooks, a man who may very well be squandering the once-in-a-lifetime talent pairing of KD and Russ by rolling the ball out and expecting said talent to win the day.
Here's hoping Westbrook and OKC bounce back in Game 2. And here's hoping Westbrook, in particular, absorbs a few lessons from Paul's brilliant game.
Lord knows he's not getting any from his coach.