You could say the team takes on another dimension, too, when Russell Westbrook plays like an All-American.
With those two in the backcourt, and if Westbrook can come close to playing consistently the way he did Wednesday, it's not difficult to say that UCLA has one of the best backcourts in the country.
Westbrook approached a triple double, leading the team with 19 points (a UCLA career high) and 8 assists (against just two turnovers), to go along with 7 rebounds. He was spectacular, now able to harness that athleticism with his growing savviness and experience. He is, easily, one of the best guards I've ever seen at breaking down a zone defense, able to penetrate into the lane almost at will to either shoot or dish to a teammate for an easy basket. GW utilized a 2-3 zone the entire night, and Westbrook cut it up. UCLA's zone offense, in fact, seems to be 25 seconds of them swinging the ball around, looking for a soft spot in the zone – and then Westbrook taking it into his own hands and penetrating into the paint to create. Everyone in the building knows it's inevitable; Sometimes you just want Westbrook to do it within the first ten seconds of the shot clock to get it over with. Signs that he's getting smarter, too, were a nice, 12-foot pull-up on the baseline instead of him trying to take it to the cup, and the proliferation of jump stops.
There were also signs that his athleticism is off the charts. Within a few minutes he had two moments in the first half that were defining. On defense, he got a steal by tipping a ball to himself, then took it the length of the court and was fouled after scoring, getting hacked on the arm when he went up but having so much strength to be able to lay it in. A about a minute later, he was on the break and he went up for the lay-in and, like a circus act, adjusted his body in the air to avoid the defender trying to take a charge, and laid in the ball and got the foul.
It was Westbrook's best game of his UCLA career.
It coincided, and probably not coincidentally (since it relieves Westbrook of so much ball-handling duty), with the return of Collison to the floor. Collison, having not played since the exhibition game against Azusa Pacific at the beginning of November because of sprained knee, was in a pretty heavy-looking knee brace. He looked a bit hindered by that, probably a step slower than he usually is and a bit rusty.
But you'll take Collison a step slower and rusty any day.
Collison, after a few minutes of getting acclimated, ran the show like an old veteran. He gave out assists, he penetrated, he created a couple of steals, he hit a three and he was fantastic on the break. In just 26 minutes, he had 14 points and five assists against no turnovers.
The biggest impact the Collison/Westbrook backcourt has, too, is probably on the defensive end. With their combination of athleticism and defensive effort, they can be smothering on D.
Overall, though, UCLA's defense was just okay. It had a pretty sizeable lapse for probably the last ten minutes of the first half, but then redeemed itself in the second half. It allowed GW 35 points in the first half, second to only Michigan State this year, but then just 25 points in the second half. And, realistically, if you take away the garbage points by the scrubs in the last six minutes or so, it was more like 20 points in the second half. UCLA wasn't ever really going to lose this game, but it won it in the first 10 minutes of the second half when it limited the Colonials to just eight points and the Bruins built its 25+-point lead.
The second half defensive stand might not have even been a surge defensively by UCLA, but possibly more George Washington losing steam and withering under UCLA's physicality and energy.
UCLA's defense, though, in that ten-minute lapse, allowed GW to get some rhythm offensively. UCLA wasn't great rotating out of their post double-team, with GW passing the ball out of the double team and around the perimeter until it found the shooter who was open. A defensive lap in the latter 10 minutes of the first half has been a somewhat recurring issue for the Bruins this year; After coming out strong and stifling a team initially on defense, it's allowed a few opponents a bit of life in those ten minutes. Right now, UCLA is good enough that it doesn't matter, and it's a small little speed bump on the way to a 20-point win. But against better opponents, a ten-minute defensive lull might be too much to overcome.
Because, again, it is all about defense. Even in a game that seemed mostly about offense, the momentum of the game was established by D. UCLA didn't outscore GW in the second half, they shut them down defensively. It's pretty obvious now, with the return of Collison, that UCLA's offense is going to be pretty potent. Even with GW doing everything it can to limit Kevin Love offensively, UCLA might have had its most effective and productive offensive game of the year. And that's without its most effective outside shooter and perhaps its best passer, Mike Roll, still out. So, UCLA's offense probably isn't going to be a question – but again, it will be about how consistently UCLA can play defense at a high level.
With Collison back, though, and Westbrook playing like he did, UCLA's offense is certainly fun to watch. Love's outlet passes are even more devastating now that you have Collison catching them. When Collison snags one at halfcourt and then finds a streaking Josh Shipp or Westbrook it certainly adds a dimension. Collison is like a great wide receiver – getting him the ball in open space is what you want to do – and he's got a great quarterback in Love.
With Collison back, it opened up the transition game that much more. UCLA got 22 of its 83 points in transition.
Love was visibly frustrated in this game. He finished with a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. He didn't touch the ball much in the post, a result of GW using a zone the entire game, one that collapsed at least a couple of defenders, and sometimes three of them, on Love. The Shove-a-Love approach, too, one that has defenders consistently beating up and even fouling Love throughout a game, which we're bound to see for much of the season, seemed to irritate Love some, but, fortunately, it doesn't affect his play and seems to motivate him more.
Is there also an element at play here that Shipp could be freezing out Love a bit and that was also the cause of Love's frustration? Hard to say. In one sequence in the second half, Love did, in fact, post up, and Shipp, who had a clear lane to provide Love an entry pass, chose not to. The Pauley crowd groaned. A minute later, Love threw a beautiful outlet to Shipp for a lay-up and Love, on a timeout, stormed off the court and wouldn't acknowledge Shipp. There have been other times in UCLA's previous six games you might have been able to interpret Shipp not giving Love the ball when he was open. We're not saying it's definitely happening, but if you're fishing around for something that isn't completely blissful on this UCLA team (which many readers might think we're doing), that is the obvious element to cite.
One of the most blissful elements of the game, however, is when Shipp lets the game come to him – which it has a tendency to do when you have Collison, Westbrook and Love on the court bringing it to him. When Shipp drives and forces the action, he can get in trouble. But when he allows his teammates to get him the ball in a position to score, he's money. In the second half, the game truly became a blow-out on two trips down the court when Westbrook penetrated the zone and then kicked out to a spotted-up Shipp, who nailed both threes. Shipp is excellent at catching Love's outlets. He finished with 15 points and made 3 of 7 from three.
Perhaps another small little bone of contention could be Ben Howland's starters still in the game with UCLA up by 25+ and with about 7 minutes left. Could you imagine the flak if Love, Collison, Westbrook or Shipp were seriously injured in garbage time? I would bet Howland, who sees everything as an opportunity to improve, is doing it to get his team more experience. Wednesday UCLA had a chance to get in some extensive work against a zone, and I would bet Howland, seeing the experience his players are getting in critical situations, just can't bring himself to take them out.
Ultimately, though, this was a game that showed another dimension to UCLA with the return of Collison combined with a more experienced Westbrook. It's exciting to consider the additional dimensions the team will benefit from when Roll and James Keefe return.