HOUSTON — Rookie of the Year front-runner Ja Morant appreciates point guards who combine extreme aggressiveness and extraordinary athleticism, which is why his favorite player as a kid was Russell Westbrook.
In fact, Morant argues that Westbrook should have more fans.
“I still feel like he’s highly disrespected,” Morant told ESPN on Wednesday before playing against Westbrook for the first time. “People take his play for granted. I mean, he averaged a triple-double for the last three or four years, and I’m pretty sure they see what he’s doing this year, but it’s still the same thing. I just love that he still just goes out and plays and handles his business and doesn’t worry about it.”
Westbrook, the 2016-17 MVP and a nine-time All-Star, didn’t disagree with Morant’s opinion. Westbrook dismissed the matter as any sort of concern.
“I don’t really care what nobody else thinks about my game,” Westbrook said. “I appreciate guys like [Morant] and other guys, but as long as I’m OK and satisfied with what I bring to the table, I’m going to keep busting everybody’s ass.”
Westbrook delivered another performance of that sort in the Houston Rockets’ 140-112 win over Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies. Westbrook led the Rockets with 33 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals, and Houston outscored the Grizzlies by 37 points in his 34 minutes.
It was Westbrook’s first game against Morant, who had 12 points and nine assists. Westbrook sat out the Rockets’ previous two meetings with Memphis because of Houston’s season-long plan to rest him on back-to-backs.
Such dominance has been routine for Westbrook recently. He has averaged 31.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists in his past 25 games while shooting 50.2% from the field.
“The excitement that he brings to the game, I just don’t know another player in the league who brings that kind of intensity and is actually skilled,” said Westbrook’s Rockets co-star, James Harden, who had 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting in the win.
Westbrook’s production has been even more impressive since the Rockets fully committed to a small-ball approach. He has averaged 34.0 points on 56.9% shooting in six games since the Rockets traded center Clint Capela in a four-player, 12-team deal that brought forward Robert Covington to Houston, ensuring that the Rockets would play without a traditional center in the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
The Rockets have won five of those six games, the lone loss coming when Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic made a tightly contested, 29-foot buzzer-beater. Westbrook, who was 15-of-24 against the Grizzlies, has shot better than 50% from the field in all six games, the longest such streak of his career.
“It makes it even harder to guard him because this small-ball lineup that we have on the floor now is just all shooters, so you have no help,” said Rockets guard Austin Rivers, who scored 23 points off the bench. “It’s just one-on-one, and you can’t guard him one-on-one. He’s too explosive. He’s too strong. They try putting bigs on him because of that, and he just has the quickness advantage. There’s just really nothing you can do.”