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Monday, April 24, 2017

Houston Overcomes Westbrook's Third Straight Triple Double to Take 3-1 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook posted his third straight playoff triple double--a feat matched by only Wilt Chamberlain, who had four consecutive playoff triple doubles in 1967--but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 and take a 3-1 lead in their best of seven first round series. Nene led the Rockets with 28 points on 12-12 field goal shooting. Houston outscored Oklahoma City by 24 points when he was on the court. Nene also had a team-high 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points in reserve roles, with Houston outscoring Oklahoma City by 18 when Gordon was in the game and by 10 when Williams played. Trevor Ariza played a game-high 43 minutes and chipped in 14 points plus his usual excellent defense. The Rockets outscored the Thunder by two when he was on the court. James Harden added a quiet 16 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. He led the Rockets with eight assists but he also had seven turnovers and his plus/minus number was 0 in 39 minutes of action.

As has often been the case during Harden's Houston playoff career, when the Rockets made their run he was either on the bench or watching other players do the heavy lifting. Harden attempted seven free throws after living at the free throw line in the first three games of the series. Harden is constantly flopping and flailing but when the referees do not fall for this--and when the Thunder have enough game plan discipline to avoid foolish reach in fouls--Harden is not an elite, efficient playoff scorer. The proper way to defend Harden is play with "high hands"--if the referee sees the defender's hands then he is not likely to blow his whistle.

Harden essentially has two moves: the stepback jumper and the lumbering drive during which he extends his hands low and baits the referee into calling a foul. The Houston/Harden philosophy is to avoid shooting long two point jumpers, so it is baffling that any defender would fall for Harden's shot fakes in that range; just play Harden to either shoot threes or flop while he is in the lane. If Harden is met at the hoop by a big guy with high hands, Harden will throw his body into that player and if he does not get the foul call then the ball will fly harmlessly away; we have seen this happen several times during this series, particularly in the first halves of games when the Rockets routinely get off to slow starts. Can Harden finish at the hoop? Yes, but he is not an explosive finisher at the rim so if he is met by high hands then he has to figure out how to loft a shot over, under or around those arms.

Incidentally, the Rockets are constantly questioning calls but no Rocket should ever complain about fouls considering the calls that Harden typically gets. Harden's flopping has been somewhat obscured in this series by the fact that the Thunder have committed many stupid fouls against him but even in this series it has been clear that when Harden does not receive foul calls he is not the same player; it has also been clear that, at least against the Thunder, Houston is good enough to keep the game close even when Harden is non-factor.

Oklahoma City is awful when Westbrook is not in the game. Westbrook does not enjoy the luxury of winning despite having an off night or even just sitting on the bench for a few minutes while his teammates carry the load. The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 14 points during Westbrook's 39 minutes of action and were outscored by 18 points during his nine minutes off of the court; at that rate, the Thunder would be outscored by 96 points over a 48 minute game!

Westbrook posted 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the first half, becoming the first player in 20 years to log a first half triple double in a playoff game. He shot a respectable 5-11 from the field, yet the Thunder only led 58-54. Harden had scored six points on 2-9 field goal shooting at that point and this looked like a replay of game two, when Westbrook nearly had a first half triple double before finishing with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds: it was obvious that if someone else on the Thunder did not step up then the Rockets would win, as they did in game two.

Westbrook's gaudy numbers do not fully capture his impact; some of his first half plays were just breathtaking, like when he soared in the air to block center Clint Capela's dunk attempt off of a lob pass or when he grabbed a defensive rebound in traffic, burst up court and spoon fed Stephen Adams for a transition layup. How many point guards in pro basketball history could make such plays? 

The Thunder led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter but when Westbrook took a short breather the Thunder leaked more oil than a broken down jalopy. The Thunder struggled so much to score, defend or just do anything productive that it felt like every reasonable basketball play should be celebrated by a standing ovation or a parade.

Oklahoma City was clinging to a 77-73 lead entering the fourth quarter. Houston wiped out that advantage almost instantly as Westbrook took his customary rest early in the period. The Thunder just as quickly regained the advantage after Westbrook reentered the game. Around that point, ABC ran a graphic showing that the Thunder had outscored the Rockets by 20 points during Westbrook's 31 minutes and had been outscored by 18 points during his eight minutes of rest.

Much will likely be made of Westbrook's second half field goal percentage and/or shot selection but any intelligent, objective person understands that those things did not decide the outcome of the game; this was a double digit blowout in the Thunder's favor when Westbrook played and a double digit blowout in the Rockets' favor when Westbrook sat. That is the main story.

One of the great little sideline sound bytes from Phil Jackson when he coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was, "Don't leave Michael yet. It's not time." Jackson conveyed so much in just a few words: Jackson was not so subtly challenging Jordan's teammates by essentially saying, "I know that you are going to leave Michael but at least wait until later in the game to do so." This was almost a form of psychological warfare or reverse psychology; by asking them to not leave Michael "yet" he was really urging them to not leave Michael at all.

Jackson's point was that even Jordan could not be superhuman for a full 48 minutes but if his teammates could wait to "leave" him until the closing minutes then he could be superhuman down the stretch. Keep in mind that peak Jordan was about 6-6, 225 and peak Kobe Bryant was about the same size. Westbrook is about 6-3, 195. In terms of speed, jumping ability, explosiveness and competitive heart, Westbrook is cut from the same cloth; recently, Jerry West went so far as to call Westbrook a more athletic version of Jordan. However, in terms of size and strength Westbrook will never be able to match Jordan or Bryant and when Westbrook's teammates repeatedly surrender double digit leads in just a few minutes with more than a quarter left in the game he is not physically equipped to single-handedly save the day; even though he actually did just that in several regular season games, the task is much harder during the playoffs.

That being said, the Thunder squandered some golden opportunities down the stretch. Trailing by four, Stephen Adams conferred briefly with Westbrook before attempting the second of two free throws. Adams intentionally missed, grabbed the rebound and immediately passed to Westbrook, who launched a shot from several feet behind the three point arc. Westbrook's bomb cut Houston's lead to 108-107 and all that the Thunder needed to do was commit a foul in order to have a chance to tie or win on the game's final possession. Instead, the Thunder permitted the Rockets to advance the ball up the court with no resistance, culminating in a three point play by Nene that sealed the victory.

Five-time Super Bowl champion Coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly said that stupid players cost you games and/or that he cannot put stupid players on the field. The Thunder's late game execution in that sequence was atrocious and instead of potentially going to Houston with a chance to take a 3-2 lead the Thunder now face the task of simply avoiding elimination.

Westbrook refuses to even discuss what others call his "supporting cast," nor does he whine about not having help. LeBron James has two All-Star teammates, a great group of role players and a roster that is among the best compensated in NBA history, yet he constantly complains that he does not have enough help. When he was asked a couple years ago during the NBA Finals why he was confident that his team could win he replied "Because I am the best player in the world."

In contrast, Westbrook has defiantly challenged media members who refer to his "supporting cast." Westbrook declares that the Thunder are one team and that he does not have a supporting cast. The postgame press conference had an interesting moment. Some reporter who apparently is seeking a Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative reporting asked Stephen Adams to talk about the Thunder's drop off in performance whenever Westbrook is not on the court. Before Adams could answer, Westbrook replied that he would not let the media divide the team and that they win and lose as a group. The reporter whined that he had asked a legitimate question and that his microphone should not be taken away until Adams answers. It must really be frustrating for this reporter that he cannot just write the narrative that he wants to write--that Westbrook is a bad teammate--but if he is actually worth his salt as a journalist then he knows that Westbrook's quotes are golden and could be the basis for a wonderful story. If the reporter were not trying to make himself the center of attention, he could have pulled Adams aside privately and repeated his question.

Despite his fiery persona, Westbrook's leadership is similar to Julius Erving's or Scottie Pippen's as opposed to Jordan's or Bryant's. Erving and Pippen always sought out public and private opportunities to praise their teammates. Jordan is perhaps the first NBA superstar who talked publicly about his "supporting cast" and his leadership style was almost always confrontational; Bryant took a similar approach, though he perhaps mellowed a bit with age (that did not happen to Jordan). James repeatedly speaks about his teammates' shortcomings but the media generally frame his comments as reasonable concerns, not petulant complaints.  

Westbrook will probably score 40 points and/or post a triple double in game five but if his teammates "leave" him again then the Rockets will move on to the second round, even if Harden is again the fourth most effective player on his own team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

23 comments

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23 Comments:

At Monday, April 24, 2017 10:38:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

As before, you are right that Hou's supporting cast is outplaying OKC's.

Also as before, though, the games have all been winnable for OKC, and their inability to win that quarter down the stretch is the biggest story. So far Russell Westbrook has consistently been the best player on the floor for the first three quarters and yet unable to impose his will in the fourth.

While it seems ludicrous to ask more from a player who is averaging a 30 point triple double for the series, the sober truth is that for OKC to have a prayer of winning the series, RWB needs to shoot better than 37% from the field and either needs to shoot a lot less than 8 three pointers a game or make them at a better than 26% clip. It would also probably help if he played any sort of consistent defense.

This series is a bummer (because neither team really deserves to win; the fourth quarter yesterday was some of the worst playoff basketball I've ever seen, minus one amazing Adams/RWB play), but it's also a microcosm of RWB's whole career: he's incredibly productive, yet incredibly inefficient. He's the best player on the floor, but he needs to be better. He's doing more than anybody has any right to expect, yet he isn't doing enough. He's an offensive supernova, yet a defensive nothing.

I continue to believe that the only way RWB can win is to dial back his FGA a little bit (particularly on dumbass pull-up contested threes early in the clock; nobody in the league but Steph Curry should shoot even one of those a game, RWB jacks up about 4 or 5), gun for something like 20 APG to keep his dunderhead teammates involved, and use a little of that energy on the other end so Beverly/Gordon/Williams stop having nights where they look like All-Stars. Maybe he can't do that, in which case, well, he's not good enough to go to the second round. But that's the move, if there's a move to make.

On the silver linings side of things, Oladipo looked like an actual basketball player the last two games, so that's something.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 12:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Westbrook scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, including the clutch three that put the Thunder within 1 point near the end. So, he actually did impose his will.

Also, the entire game matters, not just select minutes. The Thunder routed the Rockets when Westbrook was on the court and were routed when he sat, as I noted in my article. That is the main recurring theme in this series.

His defensive rebounds and his block of a sure Capella dunk are just a few examples refuting the notion that he is a defensive "nothing."

I agree that in an ideal world he would shoot fewer threes but in a real world on a team with reluctant shooters his pullup three before the defense is set is, sadly, perhaps the best fourth q option among a menu of suboptimal choices.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 2:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I suppose i could have phrased that better. I meant that while RWB wins the game while he's on the court for three quarters, he has not had the same success in the fourth. Even last night, he was -1 in the quarter (and -6 average in 4th quarters this series overall). Obviously the minutes without him are the biggest problem, but the fact remains that his team has been largely unable to close, even with him.

In a related story, they allowed forty fourth quarter points last night. While a highlight block is nice, it's only one play, and is not worth any more points than the various three-pointers from Houston's guards RWB declines to contest while he sits in the paint hoping for one of those defensive rebounds of his.

But, again, perhaps "nothing" is poor phrasing. "Net defensive minus with occasional moments of brilliance" would be more accurate.

I disagree that his pull-up threes are the best among sub-optimal choices. The fact is that he has played a different style of ball late in games as opposed to early in them; he's reached halftime consistently with 8-10 assists and recorded significantly fewer in the second half. This is not a question of his teammates choking, but of him using a much greater percentage of his possessions looking for his own shot. As evidence, he is averaging 4 more shots and 5 fewer assists in the second half vs. the first (as well as doubling his 3pt attempts). He is +6.5 per game before halftime and -5.8 after it.

At the barest minimum, a contested three pointer at the end of the shot-clock after spending 15 seconds failing to create something useful is a better shot than the early-clock, man-in-his-eye pull-ups he's been jacking.

It is perhaps telling that in their one win, RWB shot a single three pointer (out of 24 shots total), but in their three losses he has shot at least 8 every time (and twice 11), on an average of 31 shots. He is their best player, but riding him to the exclusion of everyone else (especially when letting him piss away half a quarter's worth of offense on no-chance threes) is not their best chance for success. RWB is a deadly 2 point scorer, but he is a bad three point shooter who should really only even attempt then when either wide-open (and even then might be better served driving if he has the energy) or when forced to lob a late-clock hand-grenade. This isn't a point I feel is especially open to debate; the guy doesn't make those shots, they lead disproportionately to opposing transition opportunities (both because they produce longer rebounds and because he shoots them so early in the clock there are often still opposing players in the back-court waiting for outlets), and he has plenty of time to do literally anything else.

It is ok to like RWB, to think he's the best player in the series (or even the league), and still concede that his game has weaknesses. Everybody's does (minus arguably 2-3 Pantheon types). Right now, his inability to rein his in has likely cost him this series (although naturally not to the extent that his team's inability to hold a lead without him has). Houston is better than OKC, but they are not THAT much better (as evidenced by the final scores), and a smarter Westbrook performance, or a more engaged 4th quarter OKC defense, would likely be enough to overcome that advantage.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 7:10:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Good stuff David as usual. What has been your opinion on Billy Donovan's coaching this series? I believed he did great last year, but he was pretty bad during the regular season with his rotations and adjustments. Some of that has carried over to the playoffs. He was criticized for leaving Roberson in the game. His rotations have been much better the last two games and he only has so much to work with. It's not a stretch to say that he deserves some blame for the Game 2 and 4 losses.

Frauden was exposed yesterday yet again. He played poorly and yet his team still won. When the refs are not calling his BS fouls, he cannot impact a game offensively like a real superstar.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 7:22:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

It amazes me that a 6-3 guard is averaging 35/12/11 with 3 steals and is being criticized to the degree that some go way out of their way to do. It just boggles my mind.

It sucks in this day in age where stats are so readily available and used so wrong. Here's a foolish point I've seen:

Grant shot 100%, Adams shot 80%, Oladipo shot 70%, Westbrook shot 36%... Why wasn't Westbrook giving them more shots?

Well if these buffons watched the game they would clearly see that majority of those shots by Grant and Adams were mainly at the bucket either in transition, put-backs, or when they were actively positioning themselves close to the rim. Those are not points that can easily be gotten in the 4th when the defense is a little tighter, especially when said players aren't actively trying to position themselves to score.

Or how about the fact that other players are playing more minutes, why can't he play more or have more energy in the 4th? Ummmmmm.... maybe because he's carrying a historically high load and plays with an incredibly higher motor than other players. His 38 minutes are not the same as other player's 38 minutes.

I could go on, but it's disgusting how people go to great lengths to discredit him. I've seen some say that the likes of Chris Paul, John Wall, Harden, or freakin George Hill could replace Westbrook and get similar or better production out of this team. Just silliness.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 7:47:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Nick:

You have a tendency to look at numbers and then take them at face value.

"The fact is that he has played a different style of ball late in games as opposed to early in them; he's reached halftime consistently with 8-10 assists and recorded significantly fewer in the second half."... I've always said that assists are generally overrated if you take the number at face value. It takes two players to get an assist, the passer and the scorer. OKC players are not aggressive in the 4th quarter. None of them can consistently create their own shots and it is difficult to get open when you aren't aggressive and the defense is tight. Russell cannot get assists with his players playing hot potato. Sure, Westbrook does take more shots in the 4th, but have you considered it's because he knows that his teammates are not going to actively look for their own when the game is on the line?

I agree with you that Westbrook is far from being a great 3 pointer shooter. He can fall in love with the shot easily. However there are plenty of times when he is forced to shoot because the other shot is available.

Every player has weaknesses, but Westbrook's are consistently overstated by those that do not like him and by those that do not really understand basketball. We will have to disagree - Houston sans Harden is THAT much better than OKC sans Westbrook. It is Westbrook's greatness that has even kept this series somewhat competitive.

The guy is average 35/12/11 with 3 steals. Is he shooting poorly (37%), yes. However Wesbrook has never shot over 43% in a playoff run anyway. He is putting up those numbers as the only play maker on his team and as a 6-3 guard. Is Westbrook shooting a higher percentage the difference in this series? Probably not. We're talking 2 more buckets a game for him to be around 45%. That is not changing the huge gap in offensive talent these two teams have. The fact that he is averaging those numbers and we're talking about what more he could do is a testament to his greatness.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 8:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Westbrook has not been a "net defensive minus" during this series. He is active and disruptive. Is he a perfect defender? No. Is he playing at an All-Defensive Team level? Not necessarily, but he is definitely not a negative.

His coach apparently agrees with me, because when Donovan took out Roberson to prevent the "Hack a" strategy Westbrook received the primary assignment against Harden. A "net negative defensive minus" player is not going to be given the primary assignment on Harden with the game on the line.

Westbrook is averaging a 30 point triple double in this series. It would be optimal if he shot a higher percentage and if he shot fewer threes but during the three fourths of the game that he is on the court the Thunder are winning. The clear problem is what to do about the 12 or so minutes that he does not play. It is not reasonable to expect more than a 30 point triple double from anyone and if the energy he expends to reach that level of production means that he plays 36 minutes instead of 40 that is fair. Other stars may play more minutes but they are not more productive.

OKC is going to lose this series because, even though Westbrook is playing at a superhuman level, the Rockets are just too talented and too deep.

If you want to focus primarily on defense, then I would suggest--as I mentioned in my article--that OKC stop committing silly fouls against Harden and Lou Williams and instead confront them with "high hands." The dumb fouls combined with a complete lack of offense when Westbrook sits are the two single biggest issues for the Thunder. There might not be a solution to issue two but they certainly can stop fouling so much--and if they can do that while getting yet another 30 point triple double from Westbrook then they could possibly win game five and make this a competitive series after all.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 8:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

Coach Donovan is not covering himself in glory in this series but his options are somewhat limited. If I were him, I would attempt to accomplish three goals in game five:

1) Get his players to stop committing silly fouls.
2) Slow the game down when Westbrook sits and pound the ball into Kanter or Gibson.
3) Rest Westbrook in shorter bursts, even if he sits out the same total time. My understanding of recovery is that an elite athlete can recover a lot in just 90 seconds or so. I would rest Westbrook around TV timeouts to maximize his time off of the court. I would try to get away with playing him 24 minutes in the first three quarters and see if I can get a fresh 12 minutes from him in the fourth. However, Donovan may know things about Westbrook and/or other players on the team that would mitigate against the strategy that I am suggesting.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 8:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

The anti-Westbrook arguments are in many ways just the anti-Kobe arguments revisited. I am learning to just ignore certain things and not even respond. It just is not worth it. Some people are "Flat-Earthers" who can never be reasoned with or persuaded.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 9:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"It is not reasonable to expect more than a 30 point triple double from anyone and if the energy he expends to reach that level of production means that he plays 36 minutes instead of 40 that is fair."

I guess my position is that a 30 point triple double isn't working, so maybe try a 25/20/10 triple double with a little more attentive defense and see if that helps? At this point, though this is mostly eye-test, it seems clear that his supporting cast plays better on defense when they're involved in the offense; the TNT crew has been pointing this out as well, though of course they are not always right. That said, on subjects like this, that are very much about players' mentality, I tend to listen to Kenny/Charles/Shaq, particularly when they agree. In an ideal world players would play 100% at all times whether they see the ball or not, but the reality is that almost nobody does (even RWB and Lebron nap on defense); reality being what it is, keeping the Oladipos/Adams/McDermotts of the world locked in and engaged might be worth a shot.

Obviously Westbrook's superman routine is not the recipe for success against this team, but (small sample size granted) there are encouraging signs that sharing the ball more might help.

To the argument that his teammates may not want the ball in the fourth quarter, I would be surprised if that were the case (it seems like most ball players want to be the hero, no matter how ill-suited they may be). Even if it were, running actual plays to get RWB or his teammates open instead of him ISO-ing, jacking a contested three, or taking single pick before barreling into a crowded lane and hoping for a whistle might be a more fruitful strategy.

I do not disagree that Westbrook has played incredible statistical ball for most of the series (FG% notwithstanding). I think that's obvious. I think it's similarly obvious both he and his team have played markedly less transcendent ball in the fourth, so I am looking at why that might be, and what might fix it. What I saw was a gassed RWB jacking up low percentage shots at a historic rate and ignoring his teammates and defensive responsibilities.

I agree that OKC's biggest problem is the minutes when RWB is off the court (which are often also the minutes Oladipo is off the court, which boggles the mind). Assuming there is no emergency panacea for that (and there likely isn't), OKC's best hope is to make changes elsewhere.

I obviously disagree that RWB has been anything but a net defensive minus, and his coach- who, as noted above, is not "covering himself in glory"- assigning him to guard a slumping (and allegedly injured) Harden for a few plays does not sway me. RWB is not rotating consistently, is not recovering from the paint, and is not working very hard to contest his man. This is understandable given his offensive workload, but it is still not good basketball.

Speaking of Harden's injury, that may open the door a bit for OKC. Winning in Houston will not be easy, but it should be doable. It'll be interesting to see what (if any) adjustments Coach Donavan makes.

 
At Monday, April 24, 2017 9:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

"Some people are "Flat-Earthers" who can never be reasoned with or persuaded."

Hey now, leave Kyrie Irving out of this!

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 12:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I don't think that Westbrook has the option of simply aiming for a 20 assist triple double. I have seen no eye test or statistical evidence that his willingness to pass or the actual amount of passes he makes varies much from game to game. His assist totals vary because of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of his teammates. Westbrook sets them up for open shots; sometimes they make the shots and sometimes they don't.

I am also pretty sure that a 25 point-20 assist-10 rebound triple double has never happened in the NBA playoffs (Wilt had one 20-20-20 game in the regular season), so if we are to the point where we are expecting Westbrook to do the impossible (or at least unprecedented) that says a lot about how great he is.

I don't buy your apparent premise that Westbrook is unselfish for three quarters and then suddenly becomes selfish in the fourth quarter. Anyone who has played basketball or watched it with understanding knows that there are many players who just do not want the ball in the fourth quarter--and when you play with those guys, you know who they are.

I have seen Westbrook try to post up in some of these fourth quarters but Houston just double teams and when Westbrook passes he gets the ball right back with the shot clock dying. When he gives up the ball in the fourth quarter, no one on his team seems to want it. That is why I say that quick pull up threes are obviously sub-optimal but they may be the best option among many sub-optimal options. If I am Westbrook and I know that (1) my teammates don't want to shoot in the fourth quarter, (2) I am going to be trapped if I post up or drive and (3) if I keep the ball too long then I will be trapped with the shot clock dying and thus forced to shoot over two players or pass to teammates who don't want to shoot then I might very well decide to shoot early pull up threes and hope that I get hot.

I am not sure why Donovan does not either post up Kanter/Gibson or else run screen/roll actions with Westbrook in the fourth quarter but my suspicion is (1) he does not want Kanter/Gibson on the court for matchup reasons, (2) he does not trust them to deliver in the fourth quarter and/or (3) he believes that any s/r actions will result in Westbrook being trapped and not having anyone to pass to who is willing/able to make a shot.

Another factor, which Kyle alluded to in a previous comment, is the human element. Westbrook is typically going to the bench in the third quarter with OKC enjoying a lead that he is largely responsible for building. Before he can even sip some Gatorade, the lead is gone and he is being thrust back into action to save the day. That could possibly make one less apt to pass the ball in that particular moment.

Your comment about Westbrook guarding Harden is disingenuous. There is no evidence that Harden is even injured, other than his "I don't make excuses but my ankle is sore" (not a direct quote) comment to Lisa Salters when she asked him "Why couldn't you make a shot?" (also not a direct quote). The reality is that Donovan has consistently put his best wing defender (Roberson) on Harden throughout the series. If Donovan did not trust Westbrook as a defensive player then he would not have put Westbrook on Harden with less than two minutes to go and the game up for grabs.

You also seem to be trying to blame Westbrook for the production of Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley but he obviously is not guarding all three of those guys at once. They all are playing well and the problem is that OKC's team defense is pretty bad, as I have been saying for some time (and this is a major reason that I picked Houston to win this series despite the fact that I typically do not expect Houston to win a playoff series). Harden and Williams flop but OKC has also repeatedly committed some stupid fouls.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 2:15:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I resent being called disingenuous. If you think Harden is lying, that's fine, but he played obviously his worst game of the series and to my knowledge has no history of lying about an injury. I don't like Harden, but I'l take him at his word for now.

I do not buy the premise that most of the Thunder do not want to shoot in crunch time. It is possible that one or even two of Westbrook's teammates do not want the ball in the fourth quarter but it is overwhelmingly unlikely that Sam Presti somehow assembled a team of guys who don't want to shoot in the fourth quarter when nearly every ballplayer grows up wanting to be the guy who shoots in the fourth quarter. If they are all legitimately afraid of the moment, then I'm shocked that they were drafted, trained, played for seasons, and paid (quite handsomely) without anyone noticing. Much more common, I think, is the guy who wants to shoot in the fourth quarter but probably shouldn't.

I am also not interested in arguing Westbrook's motives, so suppositions about how frustrated he is or isn't are kinda pointless; my position is that he's playing in a way that is not putting his team in the best position to succeed; I'm not particularly concerned about why he's doing it. He's obviously a competitive guy and if I had to guess I would posit that the same confidence and drive that makes him so relentless also leads him to overestimate his own abilities, but again: not the point.

I also reject the idea that OKC's team defense is especially bad (at least with the starting lineup). Adams/Gibson/Roberson are all excellent defenders, Oladipo is a good one, and Westbrook is below average (and especially a poor team defender) but not to the extent of, say, Harden or Lillard (and under Tony Parker Law, four good defensive players can sufficiently cover for one poor one). They ranked 10th in the league defensively this season (the Rockets were 18th). Their team-defense is normally fine, though the inability of Oladipo/RWB/whomever to contain Gordon/Beverly/Williams is killing them at the moment.

If you believe that RWB is playing basketball that is beyond reproach that is your freedom but the reality of the situation is that after four fourth quarters (three of them in close games), RWB is -24 (-6 per game), is shooting 9.5 shots per 4th at 32% efficiency, 4 3s at 25%, and recording more turnovers than assists (and basically ignoring defense). He's also rocking a 60% Usage rate. No matter how poorly his teammates play when he is on the bench or how great he plays in the first three quarters, it is not a radical position to observe that he is playing like crap in the fourth quarter, and it is not a much further jump than that to suggest that his team can't win the series so long as that's the case.

Ultimately, supporting cast advantage be damned, OKC has had a chance to win three out of this four games. RWB's 4th quarter play is probably the second biggest reason why.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 7:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) For the entire series, Donovan has very deliberately matched the minutes of his best wing defender (Roberson) with Harden. That includes all of game four, except for the last couple minutes when Donovan benched Roberson after D'Antoni utilized the "Hack A" strategy against Roberson. Westbrook then guarded Harden. It is disingenuous to suggest that Westbrook only received the assignment because Harden is supposedly hobbled.

As for Harden, I won't say that he is flat-out lying but he has a history of whining, pouting and making excuses. When Salters asked him about his poor shooting he made an excuse instead of just accepting responsibility.

2) Do you really believe that most players want to shoot the ball in pressure situations? That is certainly not my observation after a lifetime of playing and analyzing basketball. On Sirius XM NBA Radio, former 20 ppg scorer Eddie Johnson stated that the Thunder players don't want the ball in the fourth quarter. He also referenced some comments by former Spur Antonio Daniels along those same lines (I did not hear Daniels' remarks firsthand).

Most of Westbrook's teammates were acquired to be role players while Durant and Westbrook were expected to be the primary scorers and the primary shooters in clutch time. I think that Presti hoped Oladipo could be a secondary star but that has not happened as of yet.

3) You have often speculated about the motives of various players (most notably, Kobe Bryant), so I am surprised to hear you say that this does not interest you. I think that psychology is a big part of sport and has to be considered as a factor. I don't know for a fact what Westbrook's motives are but he would be inhuman if he were not enormously frustrated by the leads that his teammates repeatedly squander and it would be only natural for him as a great player to want to try to get those leads back.

4) OKC's defense in this series has been awful. OKC's defense down the stretch of the season was a serious issue, bad enough that Donovan publicly called out his team about it. OKC is fouling too much and committing bad fouls (on three point shots, to allow three point plays, etc.). Regardless of OKC's overall defensive ranking for the season, the Thunder are not functioning as a good defensive team right now and they haven't been for some time.

5) Again, it is disingenuous to suggest that I have ever said that Westbrook is "playing basketball...beyond reproach." I have clearly stated that some of his shots are "suboptimal" and that the team needs for him to shoot a better percentage. My longstanding premise is that an elite perimeter player in today's game should shoot .450 from the field or better, so Westbrook falls short there (as does Harden). However, the main issue for the Thunder is obviously blowing leads during the 12 or so minutes that Westbrook sits, not what he is doing in his fourth quarter playing time.

It is also false to say that Westbrook is "ignoring defense." Westbrook is grabbing defensive boards, he is stealing the ball, he is contesting the shots of bigger players in the paint and he is active in general. His defense is not flawless and I would not say that he is an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but he certainly is not "ignoring" that aspect of the game. Furthermore, the mistakes that I observe him make are errors of commission, not omission; he runs so hard at a shooter that he is susceptible to a pump fake--as opposed to Harden, who just gives up on plays. A guy like Westbrook who runs at a shooter with energy (even if his angle is bad at times) is more valuable (and will inspire more from his teammates) then a guy who just gives up on plays.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

1) I remain unswayed by Billy Donovan's coaching prowess. It is possible that RWB requested the assignment, as star players are wont to do, and based on the late-game offense it seems likely that what RWB wants, RWB gets.

2) They may not want to shoot the ball in the last ten seconds, but the idea that an entire NBA team is paralyzed with fear of having to score for the last twelve minutes of a basketball game strikes me as somewhat far-fetched.

3) The Kobe case is a unique one (and one I'm not interested in re-litigating) where I felt he put himself above the team. I think RWB is playing poorly in pursuit of victory. There is a world of difference there.

4) I agree that they are not a good defensive team right now but I would put a large share of the blame for that on RWB. Not only is he the team's weakest defensive starter, but as the team's leader his example carries weight, and his example is long periods of inattention punctuated by spurts of brilliance.

5) "If you believe" is not "You said." I continue to resent being accused of being disingenuous, and that sort of ad-hominem nonsense is beneath you.

That said, I agree and stated many times that the main issue is his supporting cast. That issue is not fixable in this series, but his poor fourth quarter play might be, which is why I was looking at it.

I continue to disagree with you about his defense. He certainly makes sins of commission but often also makes sins of omission. He almost never makes a second rotation and rarely recovers after his first, and has an *especially* bad habit of lingering in the paint after rotating to "bump" the roller on a traditional PnR coverage, frequently yielding an open corner three. He has done this repeatedly in this series. He remains a disinterested transition defender (he even led the league by a wide margin in the number of times the ball beat him across the half-court line according to a recent study). He is prone to the occasional highlight steal/block and sometimes even plays several contiguous minutes of solid defense, but by and large he is alternately inattentive or overactive, and is clearly hurting his team on those plays, regardless of how many triple doubles he puts up.

As for your claim he is "contesting" so many shots, in this series he contests two shots per fourth quarter, good for eighth on his team (tied with Norris Cole). He contests 6 per game, good for 7th on the team, though you'd probably expect more for the team's leader in minutes. By comparison, Roberson (who IS a good defensive player) contests 16 shots per game and Oladipo contests 15. In the regular season he contested 7, so this is not new.

You are not wrong that he is a better defender than Harden. He is also a better defender than Irving or Thomas. That does not make him a good one.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 10:45:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Nick,
you made me laugh out loud when you suggested for Westbrook to have a 20 assist game... you obviously missed a crucial point his teammates would have to actually make those shots, and they probably won't be doing it better than now.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Beep-

You may well be right, but they have to try something different, as what they've been doing doesn't work.

For what it's worth, OKC players are shooting 55% on 20 attempts per game off RWB passes so far. Even if that drops by 10% on higher volume, it'd still be far and away their most efficient offense.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 12:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The issue is not Donovan's coaching prowess. You accuse Westbrook of having a negative impact defensively and of being an inattentive defender. I pointed out that Westbrook received the assignment of guarding the best player down the stretch of a close game; there is no rational way to turn that undisputed fact into a negative comment on Westbrook's defense and it is baffling that you won't concede that simple point. There is no evidence that Westbrook took the assignment over Donovan's objections and if your previous argument is that OKC is a good defensive team then there is no evidence that Donovan is poor defensive coach. All of the evidence that we have is that Westbrook is a very coachable player who works hard and is loved by his teammates. Westbrook accepted the challenge of guarding the best player at a critical moment. That is a wonderful example for his team. To argue that this does not matter because maybe Harden was hurt or maybe Donovan did not really ask Westbrook to do this is disingenuous, because that ignores information that we know to be true in order to speculate about things that we don't know and that most likely are not true (we don't have any reason to think that Westbrook disobeyed orders or that he only got the assignment because Donovan believes that Harden is wounded prey, so those are disingenuous arguments).

You keep asserting that Westbrook's defense and his attitude about that aspect of the game are hurting his team but you ignore all of the evidence that refutes your entrenched position. If I were playing with a 6-3 point guard who blocked the opposing team's center's dunk attempt at the rim I would be pretty fired up. You say that one play does not make up for the allegedly bad plays that Westbrook made--but you also say that Westbrook is setting a bad example despite the fact that he has made many plays that set good examples (the block, the defensive rebounds in traffic, the many steals that create extra possessions). I see no evidence that Westbrook is consistently making bad defensive plays or experiencing long periods of "inattention" but I see plenty of evidence that he is giving forth a lot of effort at that end of the court.

You may think that it is far-fetched that the OKC players don't want to shoot in the fourth quarter but it is pretty obvious that this is in fact the case and that is why Eddie Johnson and other former players are talking about it.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Note-

One thing that is fixable, and was mentioned in passing above but probably deserves more attention, is that Oladipo can't be on the bench when Russ is. Whatever you think of him, he's clearly OKC's second best perimeter creator, and they got nuked (for example) by seven points in the two minutes he and RWB shared the pine in the first half of the last game, per Zach Lowe. That wasn't the only time Donovan simul-benched them, either.

There's nobody on the bench better than either of them at much (McDermott is a superior shooter. End of list), and they struggle enough even with Oladipo in/RWB out, and even the opposite (Russ is +5 per game in the 31 minutes he shares with Oladipo, and -4.3 in the 7.5 he plays without him); perhaps that is the logic- punt on the five minutes or whatever they both sit and hope you can make it up- but it's been disastrous and they're probably better off letting Oladipo run PnRs with Adams or Kanter more-or-less nonstop whenever RWB sits. It won't light the world on fire, but at the very least it has a better chance of working than Norris Cole "I got this" mode, and at least won't create too many easy transition opportunities if they're mostly shooting at or near the rim, even if they're missing them all.

That's a bleak silver lining, I know, but when your team only has two playmakers, you probably need at least one of them on the floor at all times. A silver lining to that silver lining is that Oladipo so far has actually played much better offensively with RWB off the court (a much higher FG% and Assist%), though so far Oladipo-led lineups are some of the worst defensive combinations on OKC. Small sample size applies on both counts. I'd probably try trying to stack the non-Russ lineups with defenders; something like Cole/Oladipo/Roberson/Gibson/Adams might be able to contain Houston some and still get a few points out of PnRs or Gibson post-ups.

*Interesting note on defense: OKC plays very good D when Oladipo/RWB play together but appalling, apocalyptic, cartoonishly bad D when either sits; this probably has more to do with 1) Kanter playing most of those minutes over Gibson or Adams, and 2) the complete lack of defensive talent on the OKC guard bench, but it is nonetheless interesting. The team seems to need both RWB's rebounding and Oladipo's effort, and can't survive defensively (so far) without either.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 12:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

Allow me to clarify. I am not arguing that Donovan put RWB on Harden. I am arguing that that somehow proves he is a good defensive player. Donovan has made a lot of questionable calls this series, and to me, that is just another of them.

I think RWB is a tremendous defensive rebounder, and in that way he helps his team. He also is a poor team defender who takes plays off, and in that way he hurts his team. If he did less of that, he would help his team more. I picked the guy as my MVP so obviously this is picking nits but this series has been mostly close games and a more engaged defensive Westbrook, or a more cerebral offensive Westbrook (at least in the 4th), might be enough to swing it. That is my point, and I don't think it's a particularly daring one.

If you see no evidence that RWB is consistently making poor defensive plays, I don't know what to tell you. I see plenty, and the crowd I was watching the last game with was actively laughing at him by the end of the game (granted, Seattle, so anything bad for OKC is going to get a cheer) as he let shooter after open shooter jack up threes.

I see your Eddie Johnson, and raise you Kenny, Shaq, and Charles, all better former players who seem to think RWB needs to be working to get those guys involved in the fourth quarter.

That all said, I've been coming to this site long enough to know when we're about to start going in circles, so I'll let it rest for now. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, changes in Game 5 Nad possibly 6).

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 4:09:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Harden's ankle injury seems to be the excuse for his poor play in Game 4. It's an effective way to self-handicap his performance. What a whiner.

Everyone at this point in the season is injured with some sort of minor injury and is playing through it.

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 6:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The idea of staggering the minutes of Westbrook and Oladipo seems reasonable but sometimes coaches see things in practice or games that influence their decisions about which combinations to put on the court together at a given time.

We are likely never going to agree about Westbrook's defense or Bryant's defense. We sometimes agree in general about defense but whenever the question is specific to a given player we often disagree. I am not sure why that is but I know that the way that I perceive, analyze and write about NBA defense comports with what I gleaned from conversations with NBA coaches, assistant coaches, scouts and players during the period when I was covering games. I am not saying that I am always right but I think that there is a good chance that someone who disagrees with me significantly is probably wrong.

For what it's worth, I would take Eddie Johnson over Kenny Smith as a player but none of that has much to do with the validity of their commentary (or mine or yours). Players may say that they want to shoot and they even may actually want to shoot during the first three quarters but there are many players at all levels of the game who want nothing to do with the ball in the fourth quarter of a close contest. For all of the micro-attention that you purport to pay to every closeout that Westbrook makes, it is odd that you are apparently oblivious to the obvious reluctance of his teammates to make any kind of meaningful fourth quarter offensive contribution.

I don't expect much to change in game five. The game will be close for three quarters and if Westbrook can play like Superman in the fourth quarter then the Thunder may win. Otherwise, the series ends tonight. Either way, Westbrook will have about 40 points, 12 rebounds and 8-14 assists (depending on how well his teammates shoot; the amount of times that he passes the ball actually is fairly stable from game to game).

 
At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 7:02:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

Responding here, briefly, to some fresher topics you've brought up:

I think we're actually fairly close on Bryant's defensive ability, and just disagree about how far into his career he put maximum effort into that end. I think a large percentage of our disagreement re: RWB's defense is you give him more credit for his defensive rebounding, while I tend to think of rebounding as something of a separate third category. If we count DRB as an element of defense, I'd probably consider him a mild plus defender (and the same would go for guys like Kevin Love), though of course his warts would remain.

I do not know if RWB's teammates are unwilling to shoot in the 4th and it is difficult to say either way from watching the games since none of them have any plays run for them. I might agree that none of them want to be put in the position of trying to generate something from nothing, but I also wouldn't advocate putting them in that position in the first place, either.

RWB's low for passes in this series was 54 and his high was 75. There's a fair variance there, though I think he was pulled fairly early in G1 so perhaps that explains the low, at least. His 75 pass game was unsurprisingly his highest assist outing (14), and his teammates have been hitting fairly consistently off feeds from him for the series (55%), so it does seem like it is a question of both how often he passes and how often they hit. Relevant totals:

1: 7 assists on 54 passes (18 shots (39%) )
2: 13 Assists on 67 passes (25 shots (52%) )
3: 11 assists on 62 passes (17 shots (65%) )
4: 14 assists on 75 passes (20 shots (70%) )

So, small sample size, but more passes unsurprisingly correlate to more assists. Based on that (small) sample, his guys also seem to hit more when he passes more, but I'd hesitate to draw too much of a conclusion there just yet (though it does support the eyetest/get guys involved perspective).

Anyway, I actually expect OKC to win tonight. If Harden is banged up that oughtta help, and as a Suns fan I've seen a lot of D'antoni teams lose important G5s when they shouldn't have. Obviously if RWB has an off night or if Donovan does something incalculably stupid OKC will lose but I think they're likely to come out with something to prove after a solid week of the "RWB's teammates suck" narrative, similar to Memphis in G3 vs. SA. after Tisdale's rant.

And if they lose? Well, I'll be wrong, but Clay Bennet will be sad, and that's worth something.

 

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