Guarding Russell Westbrook

The Pistons lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, and watching the game put me in a bad mood. I like the players on the team, and I don’t mind them losing as long as they play hard. To be honest, I found the second half unbearable to watch. Detroit has had bad games all year, but this was the worst for me.

I think this is because Oklahoma City has everything I’d like to see in the Pistons. The Thunder have an exciting point guard, a great small forward and really good role players. Watching this team perform is flat-out fun. Their off the ball movement, their cutting, their communication. I haven’t watched lots of Thunder basketball, but you can bet I will try to catch a lot more.

When they were defending the Pistons and the audience was quiet enough, you could hear their communication clearly. Everybody was talking and moving. The Thunder suffocated Detroit for long stretches of the third and fourth quarter. I was really impressed.

Russell Westbrook causes trouble

I love watching Russell Westbrook play. Since the Pistons hardly did anything worth covering, they’ll have to live with me picking on their defense and praising the opponent’s guard. On the stat sheet he didn’t have an overwhelming game – 13 points, 11 assists, four rebounds and a steal. Even though he shot just 5-of-14 from the field, he was still +11 for the game and displayed his skills.

Today, we’ll look at the the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Thunder really pulled away.

Let’s start with a really nice play the Thunder ran. It was one of the best plays I’ve seen all year.

Westbrook is a very effective guard. He has an all-around skill set. He’s incredibly fast, he has a good jumper, he can finish at the rim, and he shoots free throws fairly well. His quickness is a problem for all NBA teams, not even the quickest of the quickest can stay in front of him, so I won’t blame any Detroit guard for not doing so.

The next two plays illustrate how Westbrook can be effective, even when he’s not shooting particularly well. Nick Collison – a very underrated player, but more on that later – sets a pick and Westbrook splits the defenders and penetrates to the basket.

Wes

The Thunder have great spacing. Look where Harden stands. He’s no position to score , but Richard Hamilton can’t leave him, because Harden is athletic enough to get to the bucket in an instant. When Westbrook gets near the basket, his teammates do a great job of crashing to the basket.

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In this case, Durant cuts hard, and Westbrook simply drops it off to him for an easy layup.

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Dejá-vu

This play is pretty much the same. Collison sets the screen on the other side, Westbrook splits Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey, again. Monroe has no chance of staying front of Westbrook. The Pistons can’t afford to switch, so Stuckey or whoever is guarding Westbrook needs to fight through the screen. Then again, Monroe should show a little bit harder and with more enthusiasm. I’m sure he will do that soon, defending the pick and roll is one of the toughest things to learn for big men. Shaq has been in the league for almost 50 years and still hasn’t learned it.

Cut

Tracy McGrady does a nice job and comes over to help in time. He leaves his man open in order to do so, which leaves Hamilton in a dilemma. Again, the Thunder space the floor so well. Rip’s focus shifts from guarding his man, Harden, to the player McGrady was guarding. He’s lost. Harden follows the advice of Phil Jackson and as soon as Harden realizes he sees the back of Hamilton’s head, he starts cutting to the basket.

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When Westbrook passes the ball, Rip is still confused and the Thunder have another easy basket.

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A beauty of a play

OK guys (and ladies), prepare for this play! It is a beauty! The screener is the intended target on this one. The Thunder have four players involved, and Detroit’s defenders are confused yet again. Eric Maynor dribbles the ball at the top of the key. On the right wing, Harden sets a screen for Daequan Cook, who’s an excellent 3-point shooter.

Harden

After the pick, Harden immediately releases to run to the 3-point line on the opposite side of the court. At that moment, Charlie Villanueva has to communicate who will follow Harden. Naturally, this takes a bit of time and Charlie loses about five feet. This distance enables Collison, who had been standing around rather inconspicuously until this point, to just stand in the way of Villanueva. This is not a screen or anything, it is just standing around effectively.

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Harden receives the pass and calmly knocks down one of his four 3s on the night.

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In my opinion, Nick Collison is one of the most underrated centers in the league. He does all the small things, like drawing a charge on Austin Daye. Collison also sets great pick. He has a good midrange shot, in short, too. He’s is a bargain at $24 million for the next five years.

I hope Dumars brings players like Collison to Detroit and models the Pistons after the Thunder! I know you can’t always get a franchise player like the Durantula, but you can model yourself after such a great team.

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