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Head to Head: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers break down Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense

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Russell Westbrook saw his second straight All Star matchup at point guard, and though he looked better on offense, he and his teammates had no answer for Kyrie Irving on the defensive end.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing about this losing streak makes sense.

There was that story yesterday about the Thunder's poor defensive percentage on contested shots, which contradicted the fact that they are a top 5 defense in just about every other defensive category, making it kind of an outlier. Only, as Schuhmann pointed out, maybe there was something to it.

Then there was last night's stunner to the lowly, dysfunctional Cavaliers, where the Thunder gave up 42 points in the fourth quarter - including more than a few shots that seemed uncontested. So much for that outlier thing.

Then, another crazy thing: the Cavs loss made it three straight home losses for the Thunder. That's the first time that's happened to the team since they moved to Oklahoma City. Only, unlike that season, when they finished as the second-worst team in the league, they're now the best.

And here's one more fun one: Russell Westbrook hasn't played in a basketball game where his team won since Christmas Day, 2013.

That's obviously a ridiculously naive statement, given how many factors go into the Thunder's play, but it still looks funny when written down. Plus, it continues to make his comeback all the more confusing.

To this point, the road back couldn't have been tougher. First, it was a game against the defending world champions. Next, the best point guard in the NBA. Then last night, while the rest of the team had advantages anywhere you turned, Westbrook still had to worry about Kyrie Irving, one of the league's brightest young stars and already one of the best point guards in the NBA.

Games 1 and 2 of the Westbrook Return were sloppy, brief, underwhelming, but also forgivable. Basically, it had been so long since the brodie had been on the court, it was just nice to have him back.

Except that sort of started to fade after his incredibly ill-timed 3-pointer in the final minute of the Clippers game on Sunday. That of course led to more "Would the Thunder Be Better Off Without Westbrook" speculation - which has taken over the "Do KD and Russ Hate Each Other?" storyline as the Thing That Basketball People Like to Bring Up Over and Over Because 82 Games Is A Lot and We Get Bored.

All of that, though, led to last night's matchup with Irving. For Westbrook, the honeymoon phase of his comeback was fading. Spoiled Thunder fans wanted to see results. Could he start to find that old Russell magic?

The Players:

Russell Westbrook

#0 / Guard / Oklahoma City Thunder



Nov 12, 1988


Kyrie Irving

Cleveland Cavaliers



Mar 23, 1992


By now, you know all you need about Westbrook, because I just talked about him in last game's head-to-head. There's also the part where he is averaging a pretty impressive, some may even say historic (ahem, me) numbers in points, rebounds and assists in the games he has played this year.

In his first two games back, though he struggled adjusting to the minutes restriction, his per 36 numbers actually stayed pretty much in line with those season averages: 21.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists. Again, this game was basically just about settling back into the flow of the game-by-game grind of an NBA season.

That was supposed to be relatively easy in this matchup, considering the Cavs are a mess. They've already fired their GM, they've had their center fully quit on them and were forced to dump him, and there are rumblings of Irving, the one bright spot for the organization, wanting out of Cleveland as soon as his contract allows it.

None of that has really affected Kyrie Irving, the NBA basketball player. If he wasn't already on everyone's radar, his MVP performance in the All Star Game certainly announced his ability to hang with the big boys.

Looking at his numbers for his first three seasons, though, he really isn't all that different from Westbrook in his first three seasons. Check out the numbers over that timeframe:


Irving averaged 3 more points per game, but it was actually Westbrook that had the higher average in, expectedly, rebounds and, far more surprisingly, assists. The percentages also favor Irving, as you would expect given Westbrook's reputation as a gunner, but the discrepancies aren't quite as vast as you may expect.

It is an interesting portrait into how we shape our narratives about certain guys. Westbrook goes through three years like that, after never really playing point guard at all at UCLA, and it's sort of looked at as "This guy is a shooting guard playing point guard." And yet, Irving, playing for a far less talented team, is given more lee way despite being, statistically, even more of a score-first point guard. In fact, Irving is averaging a career-high 6.3 assists this year, a number Westbrook has eclipsed in four of his six seasons.

Obviously, a lot goes into all of that, not the least of which being that the Cavs are not, and have not been, a very good basketball team even with Irving there. Still, it's something to consider in the big picture when talking about the best point guards in basketball.

Of course, last night's game is also something to consider. While Westbrook still put up good numbers, the real story came on defense, where neither he nor any of his teammates had an answer for Irving.

The matchup:

We're actually just going to go straight to the highlights, because they give a nice summary of how the game went from being the Westbrook show to the Irving show.

Matchup highlights:

1.) Westbrook gets off to a hot start:

Remember how last game I wrote about how it seemed like Westbrook was struggling with the restriction on his minutes? Basically, it's putting on all kinds of pressure on him starting out hot instead of allowing him to feel out the game. When Westbrook is struggling to start, he usually uses that entire first quarter to find what he has workingand adjusting accordingly, though never taking his foot off the gas pedal. He doesn't have that luxury with the restriction.

Still, when Westbrook is at his best, he comes out, guns blazing, with his midrange game working, and that opens up his bat outa hell drives to the rim and ability to find other guys cutting off the ball later in the game.

That's how he started against the Cavs, as you can see.

He gets a quick stop-and-pop in transition to start, then a filthy and-1 from the other elbow. That's always a good sign for the Thunder coming out of the gate because, again, it opens up so many other options for the offense. He even showed off that ridiculous offensive rebounding ability, barreling in to gather his own miss and putting it back in for second-chance points.

It was a terrific start, the kind the Thunder have needed from Westbrook. Only, that minutes restriction meant he still had to come out early, and the Thunder were only able to squeeze so much out of that hot start.


Fast forward now to the fourth quarter. This was where Kyrie Irving's talents were on full display. He went 4-for-5 in the fourth, inclduing 3-for-3 from 3-point range,  for 14 points. He also added three assists. It was part of a 42-point fourth quarter for the Cavs that absolutely buried the Thunder and embarrassed a defense that, up until the All Star break, had been one of the best in basketball.

Let's break down Irving's fourth quarter, and how he was able to pick apart the Thunder defense.

The initial defense isn't bad. Westbrook fights through a screen, they force the ball to the other end of the floor. But as the Cavs continue to screen, and finally get penetration, the Thunder get sucked in to far, leaving Westbrook to have to choose to either bolt to Hawes and prevent the short two, or Irving for the wide-open three. He chooses Hawes, and Irving makes him pay with, oh no, an uncontested jumper!

More than just three points, it gets Irving into a rhythm, and he is able to take that and carry it through the quarter.

Irving finished with three assists in the fourth quarter. The first came on an inbounds pass that the Thunder failed to cover, resulting in an easy jumper. The video here shows the next two, and you see just how easily Irving was able to carve up the Thunder defense.

The first: Hawes simply slided down the middle of the key, Irving hits him with an easy bounce pass, and it's an easy layup at the rim. It's a prime example of the Thunder chasing Irving instead of defending Irving. Collison comes up too high on the screen to combat an Irving drive and Irving slips behind. Durant rotates, but still keeps his eyes fixed on Irving, allowing Hawes to catch the pass uninterrupted. By the time Durant finally shifts his attention, Hawes is already laying it in.

For the next assist, Irving just dribbles in and out while Thunder players haphazardly swipe their hands at it.  To be fair, the guy they left open was Anthony Bennett, probably the one guy you're comfortable leaving open if you're the Thunder. Still, an NBA player, even Anthony Bennett, can hit an open jumper from the elbow, and when it's getting to be crunch time in a game like this, there's really no excuse for a guy to get that easy of a look.

Just two more plays where Irving was able to get easy points for his teammates and keep the Thunder from getting any sort of lead.

Here he is a little over a minute later, now with Sefolosha on him. Only, he's feeling it at this point, and pulls up from wayyyyy deep and buries it right in Thabo's grill. There's really nothing you can do differently defensively there, but it's another example of how a guy can get hot and become unguardable. But hey, at least the jumper was contested.

After the game went back and forth a bit more but Irving has proven that he's warming up, the Thunder simply lose him on defense. It's not even entirely clear what Sefolosha is doing here. he clearly sees Irving on the wing and points to him, except Irving is his guy. Jack hits Irving with a pass and Thabo is way too far for any type of legitimate closeout. Too late, another easy look for Irving, and all of a sudden the Cavs look serious about winning this thing. It's just careless defense, especially considering how much Irving had already torched the Thunder up to this point in the fourth quarter.

He missed!! Still a good look though, as Westbrook gets screened off and no one in there to help. Oh, and the Cavs got the rebound too. So even after Irving misses, the ball ends up right back in Irving's hands. You just see how lazy the Thunder D looked here though. Maybe they were focused on Irving too much again and forgot there were four other Cavs on the floor, but that's three white jerseys under the rim, and the one guy in red didn't even charge in all that hard. Yeah, it's unfortunate the ball barely grazed the rim and fell low enough for him to get the offensive board, but there's still no excuse for not having a body on him.

The dagger. The Thunder do a great job denying Irving the ball to begin with. After the quarter he's had to this point, that's basically the only thing they can hope to do. Only, once again, they get too enamored with him. Westbrook and Adams both gamble on the pass, and Irving is able to cut easily behind them both. Once again, the protection at the rim just isn't there either. Ibaka comes in late and commits the foul, resulting in the and-1. Game over.

There is so much that goes into guarding a dynamic player like Irving. For the most part, the Thunder trusted that responsibility to Westbrook, who didn't do all that bad for the first three quarters. In the fourth, though, as the game slowed, Irving was able to pick and choose what he wanted to do with the ball. When a guy starts cooking like that, a defense can become too obsessed with trying to cool him off. To some degree, that looks like what happened with the Thunder. It became about trying to stop Irving, which meant the other Cavs had more room to run to open spots, more room to catch passes without any pressure, and more room to get off open looks.

The Thunder, while not great in the uncontested jumper department, are still an elite-level defense at protecting the rim. They are elite in terms of overall opponent field goal percentage, as well. When the Thunder have bodies on their opponents, they do a great job at making them miss. What they have failed to do in these past three games, however, is keep up at that aggressive style that made them elite to begin with. Whether it was letting Lebron get into the lane whenever he wanted against the Heat, or DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffing having free run to the rim in transition against the Clippers, or Kyrie Irving being able to pick his poison against the Cavs, the Thunder simply hasn't played the team defense that won them so many games this season.

Is part of that because Westbrook is back? Maybe. Probably also because Perkins is out. But the fact is that Westbrook was part of that defense earlier in the year as well when it was clicking. His knee may not be where it was, but he sure looks to still have it on the offensive end, meaning there is no excuse for him on the defensive end.

Maybe it was just another case of a guy getting hot against the Thunder. No matter what it was, Kyrie Irving's dominant fourth quarter erased an otherwise solid game from Russell Westbrook.

Matchup winner:


Next matchup:

Last time the Thunder played the Grizzlies, it was Ibaka vs. Randolph. With Mike Conley back, it really should be Westbrook and Conley in yet another point guard showdown. Westbrook fatigue may change that, and depending on how Adams checks Gasol in the post, we may go to the center position. Or something else entirely. Basically, just check back after the game.