Westbrook likely to get increased playoff load

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder were disciplined in managing Russell Westbrook‘s workload and minute distribution throughout the regular season, but head coach Billy Donovan says Westbrook’s minutes will increase in the postseason.

“Yes, I do see his minutes going up in the playoffs,” Donovan said. “But I see a lot of our guys’ minutes potentially going up.”

Even with becoming only the second player to ever average a triple-double, Westbrook finished 18th overall in minutes at 34.6 per game. He didn’t play more than 40 minutes in any regulation game this season and hit the 40-plus mark just five total times. By comparison, LeBron James played 40 or more minutes 23 times this season, and James Harden did it 15 times.

“The medical staff does a great job with all his data throughout his entire career, how many minutes he’s played, all those kind of things,” Donovan said of Westbrook. “And you also want to help him in his minutes, putting him in a position where he can be an efficient and effective player. Thirty-five, 34, 36 minutes, somewhere in that range we felt like was a really good number, just based on the medical staff looking back on his career.”

As Westbrook chased history with his 42 triple-doubles with an all-time high usage rate, much of the conversation focused on his perceived burdensome workload. But in reality, Westbrook’s minutes were on track with the rest of his career (34.1 per game).

The Thunder have studied Westbrook’s minutes throughout his career, focusing on the type of minute bursts where he’s most efficient and effective. The takeaway was that there are diminishing returns when Westbrook spends overly extended amounts of time on the floor.

“I think it’s really hard for a player that puts it on the line the way he does every single possession to play 12 or 14 straight minutes. That’s hard,” Donovan said. “Not saying he wouldn’t want to do it or give everything he has if he had to do it, but I think being mindful of how many consecutive minutes he’s played is important.”

Donovan and the Thunder were rigid with Westbrook this season, resisting the temptation to play him an entire fourth quarter even as the Thunder bench let leads slip (OKC was outscored 8.9 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the bench). Even as a few potential wins slipped away, the Thunder maintained the long view throughout the season, and it was easy to do because Westbrook accepted the plan.

“That’s up to coach,” Westbrook said of his minutes increasing. “I just go out when my name is called. I go out on the floor and play.”

As the Thunder prepare for the Houston Rockets, they can find some upside in the fact that the Rockets only outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor, versus 7.3 per 100 with him off. With Westbrook set to play more in the series, that’s good news for OKC.

Last season, Westbrook averaged 34.4 minutes per game but increased that to 37.4 in the postseason. Donovan said the more balanced playoff schedule and built-in rest is helpful with that.

“This time of year, because you’re not in back-to-back situations, but you’re going to play at the earliest every other day, there’s more rest time in the playoffs,” he said. “The playoff schedule is different, and because of that, there’s a way where through the rest he is able to play more minutes, and I think most players’ minutes probably do go up.”

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