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Russell Westbrook ending vs Trail Blazers: a counterpoint

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Russell Westbrook ran into a lot of problems at the end of the Thunder's agonizing loss, which we broke down in video. Here are a few counterpoints.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Disclaimer: I didn't plan to make this a post, but as I kept writing and writing in the comments to Zeb's excellent video breakdown of Russell Westbrook's final 100 seconds of play, I figured it would be more useful to just turn it into a full post.

First, make sure you watch his video:

Here are my comments, and I thought I was going to lose my mind as I watched this ending. It is maddening to me, because these last two games vs the Pelicans and Trail Blazers...the Thunder really needed to win them. Playing without Durant, they still placed themselves in a position to win both, yet in both cases, they failed to execute over and over again, and this is now officially a habit for them this season. If you look at their wins and losses, OKC doesn't have a single win where you could say they finished well. By contrast, they've had a number of games (Bucks, Pelicans, Warriors) where they lost a game that they could have won by finishing in horrendous fashion. This is a growing problem, but let me take a closer look at the Blazers game specifically.

Counterpoint #1

On the 2nd sequence covered (Morrow TO, Lillard 3-ball), I like the initial set-up. No, actually, I love it. Instead of Russ just running down with the ball and posting up, they utilize an off-ball screen, not to set up a shooter, but to set up a clean entry pass. By Ibaka using that screen, they pull LaMarcus Aldridge out of the post, so there is no rim protection. I think Lillard is on Jackson; instead, I believe the double comes from Dorrell Wright(?) (weakly, I might add; Russ still had the baseline if he wanted it), this play should be OVER with either an open 3 or a dunk. Why?

Because I think the skip pass is the correct one. Sure, the kick out to Ibaka is the easy pass, and a quick swing around the arc gets the ball to Morrow anyway, but Russ has already hit him perfectly with the pass, and at that point, Morrow has a 2-on-1 with Roberson under the rim. The problem is, nobody really seems to know what to do at that point now that they've broken down the defense. Roberson should be ready to catch the pass, but he isn't. Jackson should be cutting into the lane as Lillard sags off him, but he isn't. Nobody really understands what to do; it is as if they had only expected the one pass and then an open shot. When that doesn't happen, everyone just stands around instead of utilizing the final 6-7 seconds of the shot clock, when an open shot was still possible. But nobody knows what to do.

The 3 on the other end, I'll overlook that. If you want to quibble,  the defense should have been engaged as soon as Lillard crossed half court. Other than that, he gets a weak screen from Aldridge and buries a 28 foot shot with 2 guys on him. Objectively speaking, that's a terrible shot. He just knocked it down.

Counterpoint #2

The final Lillard 3 I think is a collective disaster from everyone. The first thing Brooks should/would have said prior to the shot is that Lillard is the only guy they need to track. Yes, Wesley Matthews was having a great game as well, but Lillard was the guy most likely to be taking this shot. Before the play even began, Russ, Roberson, and Ibaka should have already talked about switching if Lillard broke high from the right corner, and Russ & Jones should have talked switch if Lillard went baseline.

Instead, Roberson tries to chase Lillard over the screen and Ibaka, who is looking directly at Lillard, mistakenly believes Roberson will stay with him. Ibaka and ignores Lillard for half a second, which is more than enough to let Lillard get the clean catch and shoot. To me, this is on everyone, not just Westbrook, who was really only tangential to the play (but should have been on top of calling the switches).

(Many have compared this play to the one Lillard had over the Rockets in the playoffs. While the shot and result were the same, I think the Rockets' defensive breakdown was far more egregious.)

Counterpoint #3

3) For the Thunder's final shot in regulation, I think Tramel says it really well:

"Why was Portland, down three with 5.2 seconds left, able to get off a better shot than was the Thunder, tied with three seconds left, inbounding from the same spot? Not how. Not what. Why? When Portland had to have a 3-pointer, and the Thunder didn’t need a 3-pointer, why was Damian Lillard’s 26-foot 3-pointer more open and more in rhythm than Russell Westbrook’s 28-footer? Westbrook can go baseline to baseline in less than five seconds. Three seconds is an eternity for an NBA offense. Why did three seconds become an instant on OKC’s final possession."

It is almost as if the Thunder have an aversion to attacking the rim in these last second situations, and this shot attempt is a microcosm of one of their biggest team flaws. We've seen this type of failed play many, many times before with KD. Check this one out. This one is no better, and arguably worse, with a whole lot more on the line, yet the Thunder can't put the best scorer in the world in a better position to score than shooting a 25 foot fadeaway with 2 guys on him. My memory is far from perfect, but I can only remember this play working a couple times over the past 3-4 years (shots vs Mavericks, Raptors in 2012 I think), but dozens of other times that have resulted in this type of horrible off-balance shot. The play simply doesn't work very well when designed as such.

However, last night  it really looks like Brooks learned his lesson from those past failed attempts. After the game though, Brooks was correct in his assessment - the ball didn't go to where it should have gone.  This is actually a much better play design - the staggered screen is well conceived and they clear out the court so there is no baseline help if the play goes where it should.  If you look at where Ibaka is, just as Z points out, that's where the play is supposed to go, and OMG I'M GOING TO LOSE MY MIND why the heck didn't Russ curl off that screen and go straight at the rim? That's what he lives for, to attack! He would have had Aldridge on his back with no help from the weak side or the corner. It's either a layup or a foul. Post game, Russ said he broke it off because the play broke down, BUT IT DIDN'T. The play was actually tight. He had a staggered screen that sealed off both Blake and Crabbe(?) and instead of using them to curl into open space with Aldridge on the move, he runs away from them, wasting the effort.

It was good that his shot didn't go in. There shouldn't be a reward for not trusting in a well-designed play.

I think that is what is shaking this team right now - there appears to be very little trust between players and players, and players and coach. Such a wasted effort.