US Olympic Basketball Team 2012: Russell Westbrook Is Team USA's Unsung Hero
Like crazy, super, warp-speed fantastic.
The full spectrum of his fantastic-ness was on display in Team USA's Thursday victory over Great Britain at Manchester Arena—a game where he racked up 15 points and nine dimes in just over 19 minutes.
And then there was his defense.
For those that watched the Americans bludgeon their British counterparts, Westbrook's presence was unmistakable. He harassed Team GB’s overmatched ball-handlers to the point of surrender—trapping, gambling and pressuring, all with the lock-safe certainty that his athletic teammates could compensate for any errors.
It was a virtuoso defensive performance; albeit against a weaker opponent, but still an indicator of Westbrook’s indispensable value to Team USA.
He is, in comic-book terms, a character I call the The Disrupter.
At his core, The Disrupter creates chaos. He is impulsive, unrelenting and omnipresent.
Even when he isn’t disrupting, the mere thought of his instability forces opponents to re-adjust their schemes and temper their ambitions.
The Disrupter isn’t driven by logic. He isn’t an “X” on the chalkboard that you can manipulate through conventional wisdom.
He is Asante Samuel jumping a slant pattern on 3rd-and-15. He is Vladimir Guerrero golfing a 3-0 slider into the bleachers. He cannot be contained by game plans or expectations.
In Westbook’s case, it's his ferocious on-ball defending and penchant for risk taking that elevate him into this elite—sometimes maddening—category of player. You can’t account for him and you can’t blow by him.
And why does Team USA need The Disrupter?
Easy—because the Americans don’t have size.
Fret about it all you want, but the Americans aren’t getting any bigger between now and the Olympic Games.
And as much as they try to compensate for their lack of size through various defensive alignments, there will always be certain things tall people can do in this game that short people can’t.
Team USA’s top defensive priority in this tournament is to avoid the game situations where height matters most. And height has always mattered most in the half court.
When teams with size can settle their offense and work the ball down low, they can use their height to dictate the action—either by having the post player back down his defender or by deploying him as a distributor who can pass over the defense.
That’s why Russell Westbrook’s ability to force turnovers in the backcourt and on the perimeter means so much to this particular squad. He, more than anyone else on Team USA, can keep opponents out of their offensive sets through ball pressure.
Even when he isn’t creating turnovers, he forces teams to take extra precautions when bringing the ball up court—the net effect of which causes them to initiate their offense much later in the shot clock than they would like.
Defending a Gasol for 10 seconds is a lot easier than defending him for 20.
Looking out into the international field, I only see three primary ball-handlers with the dribbling prowess to counteract Westbrook’s defensive pressure: Brazil’s Leandro Barbosa, Spain’s Jose Calderon and France’s Tony Parker (maybe Australia's Patty Mills if we're being generous).
In a vacuum, I think all three could bring the ball up against Westbrook without any sort of recurring issue.
But the games aren’t played in a vacuum, and all of those aforementioned guards will have to log somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes a game. Westbrook, meanwhile, will come off the bench and either pick on an overmatched substitute or harass one of those three into fatigued mistakes.
Those are the moments that will decide Team USA's gold-medal fate.
And they won't take place in the post—an acknowledged, unavoidable weakness—but rather at half court, in that perilous place between offense and defense where The Disrupter wreaks his havoc.
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