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Handle with care: breaking down Russell Westbrook's turnovers vs the Mavericks

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Westbrook had a high turnover night against the Mavs. Was it a result of carelessness or something deeper?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder got a much-needed win last night against the always-tough Dallas Mavericks. The Thunder were coming off of an ugly loss against the Knicks where very little looked 'right.' Against the Mavs, however, we finally saw the semblance of a system in place that was not solely dependent on Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant playing great in order to win.

Westbrook recorded what is now standard fare: 31 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals, making plays for both himself and his teammates. A byproduct of Westbrook's offensive aggressiveness was a high turnover count of 7 total, making up nearly half of his whole team's 16 turnovers. However, watching him play, I didn't get the sense that he was overly reckless, but that a number of them were functions of the Thunder trying to run offensive sets and didn't quite pull them off correctly.

To delve deeper, I took a close look at each of the turnovers. To be sure, 3 of them were simple sloppiness. Westbrook lost the ball dribbling into traffic or lost his handle. However, 4 of them came out of the Thunder's offensive sets, and I find it instructive to attempt to figure out both what was being attempted and what went wrong.

Turnover #1: Dallas ICE'd the play

In this first turnover, Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews is guarding Westbrook. Matthews is a smart defender and when he feels Steven Adams coming to screen his right side, he quickly ICE's the play. Because of Matthews' execution, Adams' man Zaza Pachulia does not need to overcommit to contain Westbrook. Pachulia also pulls a veteran move, literally and figuratively, by grabbing Adams' jersey, while Matthews holds him slightly, which is just enough to throw off the timing. Even if Westbrook bounced the pass successfully instead of the high bullet pass, it is unlikely that Adams would have had any space to finish the play. Good defense wins this time.

Turnover #2: Slipped

The Thunder offense is in a HORNS set with Adams and Serge Ibaka at the elbows. I really like this set and it is unfortunate it didn't work, because it creates numerous options. After giving up the ball to Adams, Westbrook runs a sort of V-cut after faking toward the baseline to receive Adams' hand-off. Westbrook immediately moves into a pick and roll with Adams, but Westbrook's pass to Adams is snuffed out.

I think this set simply needs some more practice and better execution, because as you re-watch it, you can see what it can open up. I think the primary mistake is that Adams slips his screen in his roll action. We often see the Thunder use slip screens with both Westbrook and Kevin Durant, primarily at the top of the key. However in this case, the action is inside the paint, so there is very little room to maneuver. Setting a solid screen would have both sprung Westbrook at the elbow as well as created ample space for Adams because Pachulia had committed to Westbrook.

Furthermore, here is where I think the action is actually going. Watch the play again, but this time keep an eye on Serge Ibaka.

Serge waits patiently for the primary action to develop, and then loops all the way around to the opposite corner for a 3-point shot, with Andre Roberson setting the great screen on Nowizki to clear out the corner. I'd be willing to guess that if Adams didn't have a layup after the primary action, the secondary action was to pivot and hit Ibaka in the corner, as we've seen numerous times this season.

Again, I love this kind of action. It has a primary action, secondary action, multiple options where the shot can come from, and it utilizes each man well. Tighten it up and this can become an offensive staple.

Turnover #3: Wrong man

If we know one thing about Westbrook and the Thunder, they like to drop the hammer whenever they can. In this play, occurring at the end of a 3rd quarter that saw the Thunder start up 8, fall behind by 10, and come all the way back to take the lead, Westbrook goes to the Thunder bread-and-butter high ball screen action with Nick Collison. Westbrook wants Anthony Morrow in the corner for a 3-pointer.  Unfortunately, he misses the primary action, which works perfectly. Slow-footed Dirk Nowitzki comes off of his man Collison to contain Westbrook, and Collison is wide open for an easy 8 foot jumper.

Instead, Westbrook forces the cross-court pass, which is perfectly covered. Collison knows where the ball is going too so, even though he is open, doesn't grab it with a better chance to finish. This is in my opinion the one play where Westbrook's over-aggressiveness cost the Thunder an easy shot attempt.

Turnover #4: Missed opportunity

As we stated earlier, Westbrook loves to go for the kill shot and will sometimes overlook the safe and obvious play. And in this case, the initial action was set up perfectly to get an easy shot.

Once again we have the high ball screen action with Westbrook and Ibaka, with the Mavs sending Matthews and tiny J.J. Barea to stop the action. This play is a mismatch no matter how you break it down, and it is critical for the Thunder to not miss these kinds of opportunities.

Ibaka slips the screen (see how much more room he has to operate, as compared to Adams above) while both Matthews and Barea chase Westbrook into a weak trap on the sideline. Westbrook has to deliver this pass to Ibaka. Not only is Ibaka in his sweet spot on the court, but even if the pass is late, Barea is the recovery man and can't deal with Ibaka's size. If Deron Williams steps up to stop Ibaka, Dion Waiters is left wide open in the corner for a three.

Unfortunately, Westbrook misses the opportunity and hangs onto the ball too long. Ibaka doesn't really know what to do as Westbrook then initiates a secondary pick and roll with Adams on the sideline, but there isn't enough space, and Adams isn't useful in that spot anyway. Westbrook has to force a tough jump pass across the court, which gets tipped.

Less a critique and more of an observation, Ibaka could have still recognized his 2-on-1 situation with Waiters and set a down-screen on Williams.

If that secondary action happens now, instead of when Westbrook gets trapped, the play moves into a nifty PnR situation with Waiters and Ibaka, with Barea not likely able to stop either one of those guys.


Of the four set-based turnovers, we see a mixture of poor execution that requires some more practice and failure to recognize the primary option when it is available. Recognition of these opportunities will result in easy baskets and a more naturally flowing offense.


Lest we think that Adams and Westbrook are not on the same page, here they are running a nifty side PnR set where a solid screen, proper roll, and an easy lob pass result in Adams' basket.


H/T to our reader Sammy1, who is perhaps our most astute observer of big man play, and led me to investigate Adams' role in the PnR sets more closely.