The Blueprint for Stopping OKC Thunder's Russell Westbrook

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The Blueprint for Stopping OKC Thunder's Russell Westbrook
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Russell Westbrook either wins games or loses them, and people can't seem to arrive on a consensus opinion.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have won so many contests because of Westbrook's ability to score, defend and distribute, but the bad decision-making can be so obvious that it's hard for some to put it out of their minds. 

Westbrook is capable of posting numbers that only guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant can match, like his performance in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers, when he put up a monster line: 31 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds (unbelievable, even though Ricky Davis or Bob Sura was probably the official scorer for that tenth assist).

But the bad also comes with Russ. Although he has three triple-doubles over his past five games (this one is strictly unbelievable), he has turned the ball over at least four times in seven straight games. 

So now, when playoff defenses go up against the Thunder, they have a relatively pointed strategy when Westbrook has the ball: Let him keep dribbling. If he does, there's a decent chance he's going to take a bad shot or turn it over. 

Usually, the defensive plan is to force an offensive player into bad shots or at least into bad plays. Play aggressively, or at least decisively, make sure to contest shots, and an offense will get worse. But against the Thunder, it's a little different.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

It's odd to say, but against Oklahoma City, the strategy isn't to force; it's to bait. That's right, lather up some juicy worms, throw them on a hook, sink them into Lake Eufaula and wait for Russell Westbrook to get hungry.

That's what the Memphis Grizzlies did in Round 1. It's what the Clippers are trying to do, and so far, Westbrook is eating, but on occasion, he's getting pulled up out of the water because of it.

Against the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers blitzed the pick-and-roll, playing heavily aggressive defense on Stephen Curry. Each time they trapped Curry, it was Doc Rivers' way of admitting he didn't want the Warriors point guard shooting the ball.

As effective of a passer as Curry could be, Los Angeles would rather him create than take shots. After all, who would want the best shooter in the universe chucking up threes, even if they are contested? 

But the Clippers and Grizzlies have played Westbrook in a different fashion. Actually, the exact opposite one.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Defenders have strictly gone under ball-screens against the Oklahoma City point guard, basically allowing him to pull up whenever he prefers. And even though Russ is a highly effective pull-up shooter from mid-rangepartly because of his superb body control and ability to decelerate as quickly as he acceleratesthose are the shots opponents want him taking.

Westbrook drained 43.5 percent of his mid-range jumpers during the regular season, but those aren't really the shots he's taking now. In the playoffs, teams have conned him into threes, and when he attempts those off-balance, off-the-dribble, long-range bombs out of the pick-and-roll, it's almost always going to be a win for the defense.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Westbrook was sinking just 35.3 percent of his playoff jumpers as a pick-and-roll ball-handler before Wednesday's remarkable Game 2 performance, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). Meanwhile, he was chucking up more than six attempts a game.

Obviously, you want to take away the lane from one of the best drivers in the league. Going under screens helps accomplish that. Plus, if you give him that long jumper, he's taking it, and maybe that's a problem for the Thunder, who have lacked preferable ball-movement during their postseason run.

That's the knock on Oklahoma City's offense. It's too based on firsts. It's one pick-and-roll or one play with one option, and after that, there's nowhere else to go. Add in Westbrook's propensity to over-dribble, and that's how the Thunder offense can go stagnant at times.

So, instead of trapping Westbrook out of the pick-and-roll, the Clippers are taking a page out of the Grizzlies' book by going under screens and begging him to chuck it up. And considering Mike Conley and Chris Paul are two of the smartest point guards in the NBA (even though Paul's reputation says he struggles more against the athletic, Westbrook types), this is a strategy which the Thunder's opponents can execute well.

Look at how the Grizzlies continued to go under screens, watching Westbrook let 'em fly from beyond 18 feet:

Now, compare that to the pick-and-roll aggressiveness we saw from the Clippers in the Warriors series:

The Clippers indiscriminately went over screens when defending against Curry. They had to. Now, they don't.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, even though Westbrook found success getting to and finishing at the rim, Los Angeles' adjusted strategy worked. The Clippers went under screens and cut off passing lanes. Ultimately, that's the most important part of playing against Russ.

Uncredited/Associated Press

So, in a way, Los Angeles and Memphis are using one Westbrook's of greatest strengths (his confidence) and transforming it into a weakness. You'd think the San Antonio Spurs, who are a naturally conservative team defending the pick-and-roll, would be able to pull off the same feat if they were to meet OKC in the next round.

 

The Grizzlies found a way to execute their anti-Russ defense as well as anyone else. Part of that had to do having two First-Team All-Defense-caliber players in Conley and Mark Gasol. Some of it falls on coach Dave Joerger, as well.

The Clippers, though, have different personnel and other circumstances. And they haven't been able to execute the Westbrook defense when Chris Paul is off the floor.

Let's face it: Darren Collison is just about the last guy you want guarding Westbrook. He's scrawny, gets caught up on screens like an actual worm on a fishhook, rotates late (or not at all) when he needs to help, and allows bigger guards to overpower him. 

And guess what? Westbrook definitely counts as a "bigger guard."

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

So, in Game 2, when Paul exited the game earlier than expected with two first-quarter fouls, Collison entered and OKC started to lick its chops. 

Hmmmm, how can we take advantage of Darren Collison? I know, let's just keep attacking him in every way possible.

So, that's what the Thunder did. Again and again and again, Westbrook got the ball in isolations and post-ups on Collison, and he killed him.

It wasn't just about Russ' scoring, but also the Clippers' inability to guard him as a team. He'd drive to the hoop, and a defender would have to come over and help, leaving shooters open in the corner or on the wings.

He'd post up Collison, and the Clippers would have to double-team. And you know what that means: more open shooters. Watch how Blake Griffin, forced to leave one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA open, has to come defend Westbrook:

Ibaka is going to knock that shot down the majority of the time, and if the Clippers can't stop Westbrook from creating it, the Thunder offense is going to click.

It's funny how much we focus on Westbrook's flaws as a society. Maybe it's because they're so obvious, so in your face.

It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that James Harden's inability to defend hampers his team far more than Westbrook's "confidence." But it's much easier to see Russ' bad shot-taking than it is to recognize Harden's unwillingness to fight through screens or play any off-ball defense at all.

So, we send bullets Westbrook's way and MVP votes in the direction of Harden. But in reality, is that fair? 

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

To paraphrase Jeff Vandy Gundy on Zach Lowe's Grantland podcast from the other day, with a player like Westbrook, we can spend 99 percent of our time dwelling on the 5 percent of him that's negative or 99 percent of our time focusing on the 95 percent that's positive.

But when the negatives are so darn obvious, it's hard to look away. And now, as the Thunder playoff opponents continue to exploit those flaws—the bad shot selection, the over-dribblingit's possible, if not likely, that we're going to see the public jump on Russ if the Thunder end up losing in Round 2.

Westbrook's not a bad shooter. He just takes bad shots.

What we sometimes ignore are the positives that come from Russ' aggression: the way he dominates in transition, skies for impossible rebounds like no other guard in the league, makes on-point cross-court passes to find open shooters and barrels to the rim like a bowling ball inside a pinball machine. No one else can do some of the stuff he pulls off on a gamely basis. He just doesn't always hone it.

So, could Westbrook's confidence be a reason the Thunder get eliminated earlier than expected? Considering the way opponents are defending him, yes. Yes, it could. But could it also be the reason they win? Absolutely.

 

All statistics current as of May 8 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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