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Russell Westbrook: From Zero to Hero

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Despite shooting 18% in the first half, Westbrook recovered to deliver a 48 point game.

Eat your heart out, Victor Oladipo.
Eat your heart out, Victor Oladipo.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We're only two games into this young 2015-16 Thunder campaign, and we've already been treated to a double-overtime classic. As a team, the Thunder were able to overcome an 18 point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime and eventually win. Russell Westbrook was at the center of it all, delivering a truly amazing performance against some world-class defenders.

But, as you can imagine, things started off pretty rocky. Scott Skiles was formulating strategies to counteract Westbrook's effectiveness, and the Magic had the size in the backcourt to carry them out. Here's a detailed breakdown of how the Magic dealt with Westbrook, and how Westbrook responded to the defense.

Russ starts off strong against Payton

1st Quarter, 12:00-8:25

Stats: 4 Points, 1-2 FG, 2 Assists

In the early part of the game, Magic coach Scott Skiles elected to have Elfrid Payton guard Russell Westbrook. This turned out to be a mistake. Westbrook was destroying Payton around screens and in the post. Payton's strategy was to overplay Russ and try to deny him the pass. Here's an example:

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It usually left Payton in bad defensive position, so it didn't take long for Payton to pick up two quick fouls. Partially due to the bad defense and partially due to the foul trouble, Skiles decided to switch Oladipo onto Westbrook.

Oladipo stifles Westbrook with pressure

1st Quarter, 8:25-2:08

Stats: 2 Points, 1-4 FG, 1 Ast

Oladipo assumed the same strategy that Payton did against Westbrook. The main difference was Oladipo's superior lateral quickness and body strength. This allowed Oladipo to burst through screens and bother Westbrook with pressure. Here's an example:

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Oladipo even managed to steal an entry pass from Westbrook during this time, which is no easy feat. But that's not to say that Oladipo gave up ground easily. Here's how difficult Oladipo made it for Westbrook to find space:

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Westbrook wasn't visibly frustrated, but it was clear that he was having trouble finding space. At one point, Westbrook even waved off an Adams screen and gave a possession to KD.

Payton picks up third foul on Westbrook

2nd Quarter, 7:52-6:01

Stats: 2 Points, 2-2 FT, 1 Offensive Rebound

As Westbrook re-entered the game for the first time, Skiles decided to go back to the original point guard matchup. But Payton was clearly overmatched again, and it didn't take long for Payton to pick up his third foul. Skiles immediately called upon Oladipo to defend Westbrook again.

Oladipo freezes Russ out, plays him deep

2nd Quarter, 6:01-0:00

Stats: 0 Points, 0-5 FG, 0-2 3PT, 1 Ast, 1 TO

Oladipo was just as effective at guarding Russell Westbrook the second time around. But Oladipo's defensive strategy was much more conservative. Instead of trying to actively steal the ball, Oladipo gave Westbrook space and let him shoot. The strategy worked well, because Westbrook wasn't shooting well. But Westbrook also had a couple of failed drives to the rim where Oladipo's conservative strategy really paid off. Check out this block Oladipo had on Westbrook, a mere nanosecond before Nikola Vucevic would have been called for a foul:

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Payton picks up fourth foul on Westbrook, can't defend

Third Quarter, 12:00-8:18

Stats: 6 Points, 1-2 FG, 3-3 FT, 1 Ast

On the first Thunder play of the second half, Westbrook goaded Elfrid Payton into his fourth foul. It was a bad sign, but Skiles left Payton on Westbrook anyway. The result was a 10-0 Thunder run, 8 points of which Westbrook was responsible for. Payton was trying way too hard to overplay Westbrook, and got caught around screens. Hilariously, on one play, Payton even anticipated a Steven Adams screen before it came. See below:

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This gave Russ the space he needed for a floater.

Westbrook gets single-minded, Oladipo and Magic bigs adjust

Third Quarter, 8:18-0:47

Stats: 6 Points, 3-7 FG, 1 Ast, 2 TO

For his third bout with Westbrook, Oladipo decided to lay on the pressure again. Oladipo wasn't as able to fight over screens this time, but he was good enough to force Westbrook into the Magic's two-man pick and roll defense. As a team, the Magic did all they could to take away Westbrook's 10-12 foot "cotton" shot while also defending Westbrook at the rim. Westbrook had to take a ton of tough shots in the lane as a result.

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The results were hit and miss.  But towards the end of Westbrook's run, he became a bit single minded. In fact, the last six possessions of Westbrook's time in the third quarter were all Westbrook. The Magic caught on, and dedicated three players to stop Westbrook's offense. Sometimes, it literally didn't even matter. Take the below play, for example.

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But other times, it did matter, and Westbrook ignored the open man.

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Westbrook shreds Oladipo, Vucevic with small lineup

Fourth quarter, 8:37-0:00

Stats: 13 Points, 5-5 FG, 2-3 FT, 1 Stl, 1 Blk, 2 TO

Oladipo continued to guard Westbrook for the duration of the fourth. But the Thunder's strategy was somewhat different. Coach Donovan decided to finally open things up by playing Kevin Durant at power forward. another big change was the inclusion of Enes Kanter at center. Despite the fact that Kanter is an effective scoring big, he only had five total minutes of court time until his fourth quarter debut. That includes no time with Westbrook until the fourth.

Basically, Kanter's screens and Durant's presence as a floor-spacing power forward opened up things for Westbrook in the pick and roll game. See below:

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Meanwhile, the Thunder's excellent speed on the perimeter allowed Westbrook to get out in transition. So, Oladipo was wily enough to get Westbrook to go where the Magic wanted him to. But good opportunities combined with Westbrook's ability to score inside proved to be the difference. In part due to Westbrook's heroics, the Thunder finished the game on a 17-9 run and forced overtime. Westbrook and Oladipo were on center stage in the final moments.

Russ returns to the cotton shot against Oladipo in first overtime

OT 5:00-3:24

Stats: 7 Points, 3-3 FG, 1-1 FT

With the game on the line and a new shot at life, Westbrook took control. On the first play, Westbrook went back to his mid-range jumper. For perspective, Westbrook hadn't taken a jumper since the third quarter, and only took one jumper in the entire second half. So Oladipo wasn't expecting Russ to pull up, as he did below:

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On the next two plays, Westbrook found space in the lane and scored. This time, it was partially due to solid screens by Adams, and partially due to the open pick and roll game provided by the small lineup.

Payton's energy disrupts Westbrook

OT 3:24-0:00

Stats: 2 Points, 1-3 FG, 0-1 3PT, 1 Offensive Rebound

With Westbrook having built a 124-119 lead, Scott Skiles decided it was time for another defensive change. Elfrid Payton was called upon to defend Westbrook again, and did a terrific job. Up to that point, Payton had only played about 28 minutes. By comparison, Oladipo had played 44 minutes. So Payton simply had a lot more energy to give. Thus, Payton was able to get around screens and force two empty possessions. See below:

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As a result, the Magic were able to bring the game within one. With about 30 seconds to go, Westbrook had one last chance to tie it up. He kept the ball in the corner of the court, and lulled Elfrid Payton to sleep. Then, Steven Adams ran in full speed from the far post to set a back screen. Payton was caught completely unaware:

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Westbrook was able to secure a three point lead with the ensuing cotton shot. But then, this happened:

Westbrook embraces team play in Double-OT

2OT 5:00-0:00

Stats: 3 Points, 1-4 FG, 0-1 3PT, 1-2 FT, 2 AST, 3 REB, 2 OREB

Coach Skiles elected to stay with Payton as Westbrook's defender for the entire second overtime. Even though Westbrook was gassed at this point, he still found a way to take advantage. On Westbrook's only scoring play of the second OT, he used a crossover to get Payton caught behind an Adams screen.

But really, Westbrook's play in the second OT was characterized by hustle and unselfishness. Westbrook assisted on two critical scoring plays in the final three minutes, well aware that the defense's attention was solely on him. Also, don't forget Westbrook's two offensive rebounds. The first offensive rebound might have been game-winning points, had Westbrook not been called for goaltending. The second offensive rebound came with 12 seconds on the clock, and gave the Thunder the possession they needed to close the game at the free throw line.

Conclusions

Aside from a stretch of overtime, Elfrid Payton's defense of Westbrook was abominable. Payton was simply too inexperienced, as he fell for Westbrook's dribble fakes and couldn't detect screens. But Victor Oladipo was a much more effective defender. This is due to Oladipo's better sense for the ball, superior quickness, and larger size in the post.

Fortunately, Oladipo can be neutralized. As we saw in the fourth quarter, going small with Kanter allows Westbrook to navigate the pick and roll game more effectively. Kanter's presence gives the Thunder their best roll threat, while Durant's presence forces a defensive man to the perimeter. Generally, that means Westbrook will have one or two more viable options in any given situation.

Moving forward, Oladipo is definitely a player that limits Westbrook's offensive potential. But given the fact that Westbrook finished the night with 48 points on 47% shooting from the field, I'm afraid of what an unlimited Russ might look like. Even without a three point shot, and even with the opposing team expecting him on every drive, Westbrook found a way to be an extremely effective point guard tonight. That is something truly special.