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Last Chance Defense: The Russell Westbrook Ripple Effect

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Still water is disturbed by only one ripple, and good defense can be for naught due to one mistake.

© Soobum Im

A ripple is a small wave on the surface of a body water, often caused by a minor disturbance. At first, that ripple has little effect on the overall surface of the pond, and will often disappear as the overall cohesive properties of the water dampen the motion. However, as the disturbances become more frequent and of greater magnitude, the ripples can propagate, forming waves that no longer disappear in a moment, but rather disrupt the entire stillness of the surface.

While watching this game, I saw so many positive takeaways on the defensive end that I would love to be writing about. Roberson and Dion were fantastic on Kawhi (he scored 6 points on that pair, not counting FTs), and Kanter played absolutely lockdown defense for perhaps the first time in his career. However, those ended up not being the defining plays because the end result was a loss. Sure, the defense played decently well, holding San Antonio to 43% shooting. But in a playoff game that ends up being decided by two possessions, you have to understand what went wrong, rather than being able to focus on what was going well.

I believe that most of us agree that Westbrook was largely responsible for the loss. While basketball is a team game, it is possible that one player can lose the game for you, especially when that player is as integral to the team as Russ is. And I don't even mean his offense in this case. That was ugly, no doubt, but you win games on the defensive end, and he continually compromised the team defense with a general lack of focus and effort.

Early in the game, I had to ask myself why the Thunder never can seem to keep their best defensive players matched up with the opponent's best offensive players. If you think back to those Memphis series we used to play annually, every offensive trip down the floor saw Tony Allen blanketing Durant. Yet somehow, we tend to get point guards matched up with forwards and good defenders on mediocre offensive players. It just seemed odd to me that we have this struggle and no other team seems to. So I started watching specifically for it, and I believe I've found the reason.

When Russ goes crashing into the lane, he tends to be slow getting up court. Whether he falls down, complains to the ref, or just jogs back, he tends to trail the play. Roberson, in an interview yesterday, he even said this is why he doesn't rebound as much as he used to. "Russell's great at attacking, getting downhill, causing havoc in the paint. We gotta have somebody come back and stop the ball, because sometimes he'll fall to the ground. They try to get it out quick, and somebody's gotta stop the ball on the fast break."

Because Kawhi is usually guarding Russ, he ends up deep in the paint at the change of possession. As San Antonio pushes, Roberson has to stop the ball for Russ, and ends up guarding Tony Parker for that possession. Russ ends up guarding Kawhi, and you can guess the results: someone on the court is getting free points.

So if you wonder why Roberson's man often scores a lot, that is your reason. He isn't given the opportunity to play lockdown defense on one man the entire game because he is too busy covering for a point guard who doesn't care about defense.

Anyway, I thought I'd break down some footage of the ripple-effect of Russell Westbrook on defense, and perhaps show how easily this game could have been won. So let's get to it.

*I saw after writing this that Russ took full credit for the loss. A little bit unusual for him, but perhaps we will see a bit more intensity in the future.

Game Film

This looks a lot like game 1.The intensity getting over the screen simply isn't there. Perhaps he expects Serge to play it more aggressively (which would have helped), but still, you simply must get back in the play faster than this.

This bothers me a lot. Russ knows that he is responsible for picking up Kawhi, and that Kawhi is an incredibly efficient shooter. And yet he never tries to apply any pressure here. Perhaps two seasons ago you allow this shot, but not now.

This gif would be humorous if the Thunder had won the game. Do you see Russ? If you aren't careful, you'll miss him. He shows up right after the shot falls through the net. Adams tries admirably to contest here, but he shouldn't have to be contesting a guard in the first place.

Russ actually gets onto Roberson for this one, but Roberson really didn't have a choice here. Russ jogged back, didn't bother committing to anyone, and Roberson had to stop ball. As soon as Dre rotated over, Russ should have immediately gone to Kawhi. Instead, he watched him shoot an open corner 3.

This effort is embarrassing. I understand Russ being behind this play. He is sitting in the passing lane to prevent Aldridge from getting a midrange shot. However, he doesn't stick with Aldridge, obviously doesn't communicate a switch, and never recovers to his man. Another wide open 3 as a result of his defense.

Again, being behind the play compromises the team defense. To Adams' credit, he recovers and contests well. But because Russ allowed penetration, Adams couldn't force Aldridge off his spot, instead having to pick him up moving toward the basket.

Russ again switches without letting anyone know, and Waiters never has a chance here. This is simply a lazy switch, as Russ isn't screened at all.

Another open 3 for San Antonio. Count the players for each team: someone is clearly missing. Westbrook doesn't make it back up court until well after this shot has gone through the net. Again, this is the playoffs, and we were within one possession down the stretch. These plays are killer, even when they occur in the first half.

This one really stuck out to me in real time. I don't know if I've ever seen a defender go so wide over a screen, but the entire defense had to rotate to adjust for Russ not getting back in front of the play. Of course, I'd argue this play was doomed anyway. Look at the matchups: Russ guarding Kawhi is a disaster waiting to happen.

Same song, 10th verse. I get that Russ is trying to sort of play help defense here, but Serge is already there for that. Additionally, for Serge to end up being the first one closing out on Russ' man should be a source of shame.

Look familiar? Five Spurs, four Thunders, and Russ shows up just in time to have a front row seat to the ball going through the rim.

Old man Parker just beat Russ in a footrace, in which Russ had the inside lane. This is like going to a race track in an Aston Martin, racing against a Ford Focus that has been handicapped, and losing. Absolutely no excuse at all for the outcome of this play.

So there you have it: a brief, thoroughly non-comprehensive look at some of the key plays last night. By my count, there were 31 points worth of egregious defense from Russ alone. After all the smack Roberson talked before the game, I was eager to get a chance to talk about him backing it up, but instead, Russ stole the show with his best James Harden impersonation. Now the Thunder has to dig in just to even the series. It will be an uphill battle to the end, and uphill battles can only be won if you truly fight harder than your opponent.