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Russell Westbrook all but averages a triple-double with a league-high 31.8 points per game to go with his 10.6 assists and 9.6 rebounds a night. The 28-year-old point guard has been an All-NBA lock when healthy since his third year in the league and All-Star Game MVP each of the past two seasons.
Westbrook does not, however, have an All-Defensive honor bearing his name. Some have posited that Westbrook fails to match his extraordinary offensive exertion on the defensive end, even questioning whether his penchant for statistics, namely steals or rebounds, takes priority over winning basketball.
True or not, Westbrook will not be submitting his defensive effort on the final play of Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers — a sequence that saw Nick Young steal a pass from his own teammate and mend a broken relationship with another all in one game-winning swoop — to the academy for Defensive Player of the Year consideration this season. And neither will his teammates.
In what could be interpreted as a not-so-subtle shot at his backcourt mate, fellow Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo expressed his frustration over having to hedge on Brandon Ingram and chase down a wide-open Young when he began the last-second inbounds play guarding Lou Williams.
“It was a little confusing. It seemed like I was guarding three people at one time, but it is what it is — you know what I mean? He kind of came out of nowhere. It looked like it was going back to Lou [Williams]; he kind of came out of nowhere, grabbed it and shot it. Made a big shot for them.”
Indeed, Oladipo left Williams to help stop the ball after Ingram beat Thunder forward Jerami Grant off the dribble, then hustled back to defend Williams when Ingram kicked it out, only to realize Young had picked off the pass and Westbrook had opted against guarding either Lakers guard on the game-winner shot. A pessimist might even suggest Westbrook was angling for his ninth rebound, which would have drawn him closer to a third straight triple-double, albeit with only five seconds remaining.
What possessed Westbrook to leave his defensive assignment, Young, who happens to be a 39.2 percent shooter from 3-point range, at a most critical juncture? Game tape doesn’t provide an answer:
Neither did Westbrook. Oladipo offered his take, and Thunder coach Billy Donovan couched it a bit:
“We got behind the play and right when the play started we had an opportunity to switch, and we didn’t switch correctly,” said Donovan, via The Oklahoman’s Erik Horne. “We had two guys go to one and try to come back and then Jerami (Grant) got shot faked, the guy drove the ball and made an extra pass, so we got behind the play.”
Here, Donovan seems to be laying some of the blame on Oladipo, who stayed with Williams instead of switching to Ingram on a handoff, leaving both he and Grant defending Williams and nobody on Ingram. That explanation disregards the fact Grant a) could have easily stayed with Ingram and b) still could have closed out on Ingram without biting on the shot fake. Either way, there’s no mention of Westbrook leaving two teammates to fend for themselves against three Lakers on the perimeter. (To say nothing of the fact Donovan also cited a potential missed travel call as reason for Young’s winner.)
So, was Oladipo’s postgame commentary a shot at Westbrook or merely a catharsis? Was his “it is what it is” statement an acceptance of Westbrook’s shortcomings or coming to terms with an odd play — a player stealing a game-winner from his own teammate — nobody saw coming and probably won’t ever see again? These are questions the Thunder may only be answering internally going forward.
After all, it is difficult to criticize Westbrook, especially after he carried them back from a 97-83 deficit with 6:45 remaining, scoring or assisting on 24 straight Oklahoma City points before a Steven Adams put-back of an errant Westbrook shot gave the Thunder their 109-108 lead before Young’s winner.
Then again, is that offensive tour de force worth it if opponents are getting those points back with little resistance on the other end? According to Synergy Sports, no starting guard has seen his defensive assignment make more 3-pointers this season than Westbrook. Opponents’ field goal percentages are rising seven percent opposite Westbrook, including a whopping 13.1 percent better from inside of 10 feet, where foes are shooting almost 70 percent with Westbrook defending them.
Yet, Westbrook leads the league in scoring and ranks second in assists, so that has to count for something. It counts for quite a bit, actually, since OKC outscores opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor and posts a defensive rating (99.1) on par with the NBA’s top-five outfits. Without him, the Thunder are being outscored by 17 points per 100 possessions and have a defensive rating (107.3) that compares favorably to the the league’s bottom-five defensive teams.
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More clearly, here is Westbrook’s production against opposing starting point guards this season:
Thunder 103, 76ers 97: Westbrook 32 points (61.9 true shooting percentage)-12 rebounds-9 assists | Sergio Rodriguez 12 points (54.6 true shooting percentage)-4 rebounds-9 assists
Thunder 113, Suns 110: Westbrook 51 (48.3 TS%)-13-10 | Eric Bledsoe 17 PTS (42.6 TS%)-5-6
Thunder 113, Lakers 96: Westbrook 33 (69.8 TS%)-11-16 | D’Angelo Russell 20 (47.9 TS%)-5-5
Thunder 85, Clippers 83: Westbrook 35 (51.5 TS%)-6-5 | Chris Paul 15 (55.0 TS%)-11-9
Warriors 122, Thunder 96: Westbrook 20 (47.3 TS%)-6-10 | Stephen Curry 21 (59.9 TS%)-1-7
Thunder 112, Timberwolves 92: Westbrook 28 (65.1 TS%)-6-8 | Kris Dunn 7 (32.9 TS%)-4-3
Thunder 97, Heat 85: Westbrook 14 (40.4 TS%)-5-11 | Goran Dragic 11 (44.2 TS%)-1-4
Raptors 112, Thunder 102: Westbrook 36 (53.1 TS%)-7-7 | Kyle Lowry 19 (45.5 TS%)-9-13
Clippers 110, Thunder 108: Westbrook 29 (50.1 TS%)-14-9 | Chris Paul 17 (52.5 TS%)-6-10
Magic 119, Thunder 117: Westbrook 41 (70.9 TS%)-12-16 | Elfrid Payton 23 (57.9 TS%)-7-9
Thunder 105, Rockets 103: Westbrook 30 (60.4 TS%)-7-9 | James Harden 13 (34.1 TS%)-7-13
Thunder 124, Nets 105: Westbrook 30 (64.7 TS%)-10-13 | Randy Foye 2 (33.3 TS%)-1-3
Pacers 115, Thunder 111: Westbrook 31 (42.8 TS%)-11-15 | Jeff Teague 30 (75.2 TS%)-5-9
Lakers 111, Thunder 109: Westbrook 34 (52.8 TS%)-8-13 | Jose Calderon 12 (120.0 TS%)-6-4
So, yeah, the Thunder win the point guard battle on most nights (although, Westbrook’s performance opposite those All-Star-caliber point guards obviously isn’t so favorable). As a result, OKC may have to live with a handful of missed assignments. At the same time, Westbrook should probably make sure one of those isn’t a game-winning shot attempt, so Oladipo doesn’t have to defend multiple players.
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