May 03, 2011
Derrick Rose(notes) is hitting less than 38 percent of his shots through six playoff games, seemingly guarded by a series of players (Paul George(notes), Dahntay Jones(notes) and Jeff Teague(notes)) that your typical late-night sports talk radio show host hasn't heard of. I've spent a lot of time driving over the last few weeks with the AM blaring, so trust me, they don't know.
Russell Westbrook(notes) is shooting way too much, turning the ball over way too much, and both these things are fineable offenses because each shot and/or wasted possession is one fewer chance for the sainted Kevin Durant(notes) to touch the ball that he was handed some 22 years ago in a manger on high. Goodness, gracious, sakes alive -- will someone think of Kevin Durant?
Both young point guards fought tooth and nail for the title of the league's best point man this season, with Deron Williams(notes) struggling and Chris Paul(notes) appearing to take every third game off. Both are in charge of teams that are down 0-1 in the second round of the playoffs, and neither can seem to get it right.
When did it all go wrong? What happened?
The answers, possession by possession, vary.
I've seen every one of Rose's possessions in these playoffs in person, and though he's acted as perhaps this postseason's most spectacular performer at his peak (not consistently, Zach Randolph(notes) fans, just at his peak), he's also mixed in some ruddy awful play. For him, it's a question of relied-upon habits gone terribly wrong. That elbow-extended 3-pointer on the left side that used to bring him so much success? It hasn't worked for him in the postseason, though that hasn't stopped Rose from trying.
Though Rose made a passable amount of treys from that area during the regular season, his 3-point shooting has sunk like a stone since he hit for well over 40 percent of his treys in December.
Thirty-six percent is the league average, and Rose made just 34 percent of his long-range bombs in January, 25 percent of them in February, and 30 percent in March and April combined. Toss in his 10 of 44 mark in the playoffs (just under 23 percent; though probably eight or nine of those were last-second half-court heaves), and we can finally start to pass December off as a fluke. We have one month out of a three-year career that features Rose as a good 3-point shooter. Everything else is far below par, unless you think chucking up 10 threes over two games while making three is a good thing for a basketball team.
This hasn't stopped Rose, who tossed up seven treys Monday night, making two. When they go in, you credit the player and tell yourself that he's improved in that area. When they don't, you give it an "ooh, so close" take before quickly forgetting. That's not good. Observers, and Rose, need to remember the bad with the good. Instead, the Kobe Bryant(notes) Effect has taken hold, where you give a guy credit for the difficulty of the shot he missed instead of discrediting him for passing up other opportunities.
Are there other opportunities for Rose? Defenses have tightened up in the playoffs, and teams are keying on him, but it doesn't have to be this way. Rose is not a selfish player, far from it, but he is an uncomfortable passer. He rarely lets a pass go toward where he thinks a teammate will end up, and that's a killer in a league that relies on pick-and-roll action so much.
Rose has to start finding teammate Carlos Boozer(notes) off screens, sending the ball to a place that Boozer will step into a second later. Because, and this was especially apparent in Game 1 against Atlanta, teams just aren't playing Rose to pass at all these days. They just follow him around with help, and Rose (though he had 10 assists on Monday and is averaging 6.7 per game in 39 minutes a contest in the postseason) just hasn't made teams pay as they should.
Worse, an unsettling development whooshed back into Chicago in Game 1. Rose failed to get to the line despite playing nearly 41 minutes and taking 27 shots. And, save for one hack job at the rim in the fourth quarter, I didn't really see any reason why he should have gotten to the free-throw line, which reminded of his play before 2010-11. Rose was often criticized for his lack of free-throw attempts heading into this season, as he'd regularly need 20 shots to score 22 points. This year, Rose's freebie attempts grew and grew, and he averaged 10 attempts from the line during the opening round.
On Monday, though, Rose was settling for jumpers and trying to worm his way around contact in the paint. We're not calling him soft, the dude is as tough as they come, but he often prefers pure basketball (not slumming for whistles) to NBA-styled basketball (watch Paul Pierce's(notes) and Dwyane Wade's(notes) up-fakes on Tuesday for an example), and that just doesn't win games at this level. Rose needs to go ugly, early, if Chicago is going to get back into an offensive rhythm.
There is absolutely no rhythm to Russell Westbrook's game these days. Between the turnovers or iffy decisions with his jump shooting, the target has been placed on the third-year guard's back, and he hasn't responded well to it.
Especially against the Memphis Grizzlies. Nobody has responded well to their pressure, year-long.
Throughout 2010-11, the Grizzlies forced turnovers at a rate that no NBA team could match. It wasn't even close, and on some nights the sheer amount of steals or wayward passes the Grizzlies forced ranked to a ridiculous degree. It was almost laughable.
So for Westbrook, at all of 22 years old and in his third season as not only an NBA point guard, but a point guard full stop? He's going to have his issues. And in Game 1, against Memphis, he had issues.
This all stems from his inexperience at the position. Even at his best, Westbrook has yet to balance out the scoring and playmaking aspects of his game into a create-as-the-defense-allows mindset that the best usually show up with.
You can see it in Westbrook's eyes. Each time down court, he seems bound and determined to either fire up a shot, no matter what the defense does, or find a teammate with a pass. His mind is made up as he gets the ball in the backcourt, and the various permutations that present themselves as a result of shifting amongst the defense or his teammates hardly matter. It's like me, a terrible video game player, attempting to play "Madden" for the first time in a decade. No matter what, I've already called the play in the huddle, I'm not looking anywhere else and I'm going to pass to that tight end. Doesn't matter who else is open. Doesn't matter how well he's covered.
Though, admittedly, we have seen a selfish streak at times in Westbrook this season, I still think this either/or play is mainly a function of his inexperience. Throw in Memphis' active hands, and you have a combustible mix.
And this is how it works, now. Both of these young men are 22, both are at the vanguard of their position, and nobody seems to realize how crazy that is. Twenty-two-year-olds are not supposed to be this battle-tested, this familiar with the professional stage, with MVP awards and world championship pedigrees to their names. Twenty-two-year-olds just aren't usually in this spot, ready to be picked apart. Outside of Magic Johnson (who dealt with all sorts of criticism for missed free throws in the clutch, his relationship with coach Paul Westhead and the large contract he signed at that age), there just isn't much precedent.
This doesn't mean we need to back off criticizing both Rose and Westbrook, because we have legitimate gripes with each of their games. We also need to understand, as we lob away, why they're in the position to be criticized -- and why they're in this particular position to begin with.
It's because these two are pretty damned special. Goodness gracious, sakes alive.