In his thorough and very official preview of the Western Conference Finals between Dallas and Oklahoma City, Rob Mahoney imparted some sage thoughts about how the Mavericks, despite lacking an elite perimeter defender, could frustrate the dynamic Russell Westbrook:
Kidd doesn’t try to go chest-to-chest with [Westbrook], but backs away, affording Westbrook all the opportunity to give into temptation and fire off his pet pull-up jumper. Westbrook isn’t a horrible shooter, but this is far and away the preferred result of any Thunder possession. Not only does it often result in a low-percentage shot, but it creates a scenario in which Westbrook has to turn down open shots on every single possession in order to get the ball to Durant or any other Thunder player.
The result in Game 1: Westbrook got to the line 18 times, but also only shot 3-15 from the field and recorded only three assists against four turnovers. He routinely failed to initiate productive offense, particularly against Dallas’s zone, and spent multiple possessions dribbling out the shot clock before finally hoisting a mid-range attempt.
The cause of his frustration seemed to be the ready availability of decent, but not great, shot opportunities. I doubt very much that Westbrook will shoot quite so poorly on those same attempts for the rest of the series, but the question that plagued Westbrook in Game 1 will persist: is this the best shot my team can get on this possession?
Joachim de Posada (no relation to Joakim Noah OR Jorge Posada) has some advice for the young point guard: wait. Posada conducted a study with a bunch of kindergarten age kids to see how many could go 15 minutes alone in a room without eating a marshmallow, tantalizingly left in front of them, with the reward being two marshmallows. He found that those children who were able to withstand this barbaric test were much more likely to have success later in life.
That’s because the children who could wait had learned an invaluable lesson. Argues Posada “already four, the child understood the most important principle for success, which is the ability to delay gratification–self discipline.”
Watch video of Posada’s presentation:
Now, I don’t want to suggest that Westbrook, a young man who has quite obviously put thousands of hours of hard work into his game and takes the effort necessary to reach greatness very seriously, lacks some discipline gene. But I do think he likes to shoot, and score, and that he struggles when asked to delay this impulse for the betterment of his team and his own play.
It’s arguable that Scott Brooks has spent two seasons indulging Westbrook in his aggressive desire. It was likely a pragmatic decision: the Thunder needed points, Westbrook could provide them. In fact the ability to relentlessly pressure the rim is Westbrook’s greatest strength. But Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has turned this strength into a liability through shrewd gameplanning.
Westbrook is truly a superior scorer and in order to reach the Finals his team will need him to do just that. But Dallas is going to keep asking him to wait, to police his reflexive reaction to open space. For an instinctive player like Westbrook, this is problematic. He’s a 22 year old second year point guard, and reigning in his impulses, learning when to take and when patience will be rewarded by a second marshmallow, is the next lesson he must learn.
One way or another, this series will be a meaningfully instructive moment on Westbrook’s journey to point guard greatness. He’s got the perfect tutor opposite of him in Jason Kidd. It’s Kidd’s habit to shotfake, penetrate and then, with an open 16-footer slapping him in the face, wait, keep his dribble alive and find an open teammate.
Westbrook has been rewarded for gorging on that first marshmallow all year. Now, the Thunder must hope he can break a positively reinforced habit by learning on the fly.