The Best Way the Clippers Can Guard Russell Westbrook? Relying on Regression


May 7, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) handles the ball against Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) during the fourth quarter in game two of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Two games into the Western Conference semi-finals and the Los Angeles Clippers haven’t done much to contain Russell Westbrook. Coming into the series, it was expected that the guard would play well due to the ample amount of wing defenders the Clippers have, all unable to contain the dynamic point guard as his combination of speed, strength, and explosion is too much for the likes of Chris Paul, Darren Collision, J.J. Redick, etc.

While everyone’s eye was on Chris Paul in Game 1, Westbrook had himself an excellent game. In Game 2, he set the tempo for the Thunder and allowed them to put their foot on the necks of the opposition. It was a brilliant performance that makes you realize why fans and writers aplenty are quick to jump to the defense of the point guard despite his mistakes.

So how does Doc Rivers adjust the defensive coverage for Russell Westbrook on the fly? Unless they can sign a defensive stopper that can immediately contribute and stifle Westbrook on the perimeter — they can’t — the Clippers will have to pin their hopes on Westbrook regressing to the mean. It’s a peculiar approach, but not too often do the numbers lie. And looking at the data behind Westbrook’s two monster games, it’s fair to think that he can’t keep this type of play up if the Clippers defense can somehow force him into low-quality shots.

Here’s a look at Westbrook’s shooting splits over three portions of this year: the regular season, round one of the NBA playoffs, and the first two games of round two:

There are two things that must be mentioned upon presenting this data:

1) It’s hard to determine how to judge Russell Westbrook’s regular season numbers as he spent a lot of time working himself back into game shape and back into Scott Brooks’ “offense”.

and 2) Both rounds of the playoffs are small sample sizes. Drawing a complete conclusion from eight games is often ill-advised, but it’s all we have to work with at the moment.

As you see, Russ’ numbers in the first round of the playoffs look a lot more like his regular season numbers unlike his round two numbers. Despite falling in seven games, the Memphis Grizzlies defense put Westbrook in uncomfortable situations, forcing him to put up shots that low-quality shots based on percentages. Basically, forcing him outside of the lane, the Grizzlies were able to make Russ hoist lots of mid-range and above-the-break threes.

Efficient scoring hasn’t been Westbrook’s only strength in the last two games. In the face of the defense, he’s knocked down an ungodly amount of contested field-goal attempts.

Looking at the above numbers, you’d think this was a collection of data from Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, two of the best shooters in the NBA. But it’s Russell Westbrook. With numbers collected from’s player tracking system, it’s showing that Westbrook is hitting a godly-amount of contested field-goal attempts, a factor the Clippers can and should bank on declining as the series goes on. Unfortunately, only displays contested/uncontested field-goal percentage on a game-by-game basis, so it’s hard to see how these numbers match up with Westbrook’s regular season and first round efforts, but it’s safe to say he wasn’t hitting 60 percent of the contested field-goals in the mentioned time frame.

In this series, Russell Westbrook has made 7-10 mid-range shots (as seen above in Figure 1). Of those seven made mid-range jump shots between games 1 and 2, all but one were contested. Regardless of who the player is, contesting 86 percent of a players attempt is good defense. But it hasn’t been enough. As seen below, here are two images of Clippers defenders (Barnes, Collison) contesting Westbrook as he elevates for the jumpshot.

As the saying goes, better offense beats better defense every time. On a few of the made mid-range shots, Westbrook finds himself in a post-up position in between the elbow and the block, taking advantage of the smaller defenders in Paul and Collision. Not using his strength at the highest capability, forcing his way to the basket, Russ chooses to elevate over the defender for the pull-up, sinking the shot. There’s literally no defense for that unless you opt for a bigger defender to guard Russ, giving up a speed advantage in the process.

Even his above-the-break shots are defended well. Westbrook just so happens to knock down the shot. And despite the result, it’s a shot the Clippers should continue to give to him. It’s what the Grizzlies did as they coerced him into 39 total from the area. Eventually he’d hit the shots when it mattered most in the last two games of the series, sending the Grizzlies home, but it disrupted the offense and disallowed the role players on the Thunder to be involved in the offense, giving the Grizzles an outside chance to win the series. Most importantly it kept Kevin Durant awaiting on the wing, watching dissecting the Grizzlies defense.

It’s easier said than done when it’s suggested to force Westbrook into jump shots as opposed to him attacking the basket. With his combination of speed, size, and strength, he’ll have his way regardless of the defender, with a struggling DeAndre Jordan the only true hope to deter him once he steps in the paint. But based on the law of averages, some of these shots won’t fall as they did in the first two games. As a believer in the “hot-hand theory” there’s a chance that he continues to hit contested shot after contested shot, but it’s not often the numbers lie.

And looking at personnel, it’s the only hope the Clippers have in stopping Westbrook and winning this series.