For the past year in the playoffs especially, former UCLA two-guard Russell Westbrook was criticized for his lack of maturity which therefore translated to limited team chemistry (if any) in their matchup against the (now) former NBA Champions, the Dallas Mavericks. Westbrook simply pouted when he was acknowledged by coach Scott Brooks to NOT play in the fourth quarter at all. Putting all of this business behind, they finished with only one win against Dirk and company.
Now, in the 2012 playoffs, his increased play first against the former champions, and then the Los Angeles Lakers proved Russell to be a much more valuable asset if you dismiss the “maturity” factors. In the first two rounds, he seemingly got what he wanted in the mid range area – his bread and butter. For some reason, the bigs protected the drives so much that they didn’t respect Westbrook’s well improved jump shot enough and as a result, he dominated. But remember, these two former NBA champions are not the same squads they used to be at their prime, certain individuals have moved on, the only solidified persons left in these contending teams are Dirk Nowitzki (along with Jason Terry) and Kobe Bryant for the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers respectively. Hence, that is no reason or an excuse for those teams to define their lack of defense against the young Oklahoma squad.
Fast forward moving on to the Western conference finals, we see yet again more of Russell’s immaturity. Jacking up shots that fire hard off the back rim and the backboard, disruption of the offense means a dismal future in the 2012 playoffs for the OKC.
In games 1 and 2, Russell forced too many drives and mid range shots that leads to turnovers and transition buckets for the San Antonio Spurs. In game 2, where the Thunder seemed to cut the deficit, Russell yet again jacked up a long three that missed hard which disintegrated any hopes they would have of winning that game.
Also, one thing to note is that Westbrook averaged way more attempts than Durant or Harden. This is not a good stat for a point guard to take more shots than your wings. Despite that trend of the new breed of point guards, of averaging more points than assists, that still isn’t an excuse or reason to justify that your PPG and APG differ so much. In my opinion 15-20 points and 7-10 assists are ideal for a point guard and with the talent of Westbrook, there is no reason that he cannot average those numbers – he just has to put his mind to it.
In games 3 and 4 however, we saw Russell average about 15 shots per game and making only about 5-7 makes, averaging 10 PPG in those games, but only around 2 turnovers. In game 3, we saw his near triple double of 10 points, 9 assists, and 7 boards. Among our point guards in the league today, he’s one of the better rebounders (offensively too because of his athleticism ala tip ins or whatnot). Already there, an almost double-double of 10 and 10. I don’t mind Russell having those scoring outbursts (on an efficient note) time to time when the other stars ala Kevin Durant and James Harden struggle on the offensive end. I rather see Russell get double doubles like that on a nightly basis.
More technically though, especially in the latter quarters of game 4, we saw Russell play off the ball on a lot of occasions (allowing James Harden to run the point), and set off ball pin down screens (from the right post down to the right wing; free throw line extended area). On those situations, Kevin Durant put the ball hard on the floor, pulled up, and utilized his length to get those shots over the outstretched arms of Leonard, Jackson, and Neal. If you read my post before about possible things to get Kevin Durant open, well, in this game, they did so down the stretch, and they did it quite effectively.
Where does Russell’s importance come into play? Well, like I said yet again in the preview post for the Thunder’s perspective in this series, running Russell off screens off the ball as well as KD of the ball while James Harden is the facilitator is a great 3 man game. Spurs pay close attention to detail and in the upcoming game, they for sure will look to set counters for that and possibly have the two men (Russell’s defender and KD’s defender) switch on that pin down screen. The Spurs I think have one of the better defensive sets in the league in terms of understanding where to help and who to help when another is in trouble. With that being said, if they put two longer and lengthier defenders on both Westbrook and Durant, problem will be solved. They just have to switch those screens every time. And also, it really is a fundamental play right? It’s basically like anyone who does a V-Cut and then receives the basketball. Anytime you do a V-Cut there is already that space between yourself and the defender. Because the defender was trying really hard to fight thru a well set screen by Westbrook in denial of the pass that’s intended for KD, they sacrifice body attachment which therefore means separation between the offensive man and his defender.
So with this action all happening literally 10 straight possessions in the fourth, now, you can utilize KD as a decoy. Because remember, anytime you set screens (especially in the latter quarters), you pay attention to the man receiving the ball and fail to recognize the slip of the screen (by the screen setter). Hence, Russell can set that screen and as KD comes of a curl or a pin-down, Westbrook can duck in and Harden can throw a lob or maybe a backdoor pass from a weakside big, many many options can be created from just that simply (initial) play.
People fail to look at how Russell is typically a great off the ball screen setter for the wings.
The benefit of having a what we call little-big-screen, when you have a smaller guard screening for a big man (anyone basically in the front court), you get benefits because you can have high chances of that little man being fouled, possibly converting 3 point plays – more than a big man because 4s and 5s tend to control the ball with less attentiveness – and with Russell’s athleticism, no doubt in guarantees these plays and options will benefit the Thunder in the long run.
I would like to see maybe a reciprocal version of this where they bring Russell coming off the screen and Durant slipping. So many things to be explored in this.
Looking back at the effectiveness of the play, we see that when the defense collapses on KD (but in cases where he has the ball already after receiving it from Harden), they set an off ball flare screen for James either by Ibaka or Perkins and now they have what I call a Weakside Flare Cut (considered as a option #2 for the initial pin-down for KD). Now what we have is an open shot for James Harden and as great a shooter he is, he’ll knock that shot down 9 times out of 10.
Remember, that play single double I talked about in a previous post? No? Well let me refresh your memory. You typically have the two and three (or whichever guard[s] or wing[s] are coming off the ball) in the right and left area in between low post and paint area. Above them, there are the bigs on each side respectively around 3-4 feet away from those guards or wings. Typically, you want either the right or left man coming off the curl (from one screen from a guard then a second screen from a big). If the defense doesn’t bite on that, shot. Two points. If the defense keys in on the man coming off the curl, you can feed a pass backdoor two that guard screener. If the defense keys in on that side, now we can have the initial screen setter (the guard) make a fake and sprint hard to the weakside off that other big’s screen, coming of a curl, shot, two points. Obviously if either of the guards or wings receive the ball already, if the defense packs in on them, they can hit it back to their screen setters which are now deeper into the paint. You can also to an opposite duck in where the latter big who sets the screen for the initial guard screen to come off a curl. Finally, you can have the two guards or wing(s) come off simultaneously and quickly. And you can have multiple options, if not, you can always reset.
If you follow Thunder’s offensive sets for lack of better words, you can see how this play alone benefits them in so many ways. Russell as well as Durant can get so many buckets off of this set.