Film Room: Can the Clippers slow down Russell Westbrook?

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When constructing this article, I thought of using ‘stop’ in the headline instead of ‘slow down’. Then I realized no one in the NBA is stopping Russell Westbrook — the player who Clippers guard J.J. Redick believes to be the league MVP as of now — if he continues on the path blazed in the past month and a half.

Hence slow down, with the Clippers being provided the latest attempt to a do so against Westbrook as the Clippers and Thunder face off in Oklahoma City later today.

The path blazed? Westbrook is averaging 33.1 points on 45% shooting, 9.5 rebounds, 10.5 assists, and 1.9 steals per game over his last 15 games dating back to the beginning of February.

So how do you slow THAT down?

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  • Typing about it is probably much easier than actually doing it, especially for a Clippers team that lacks an elite defensive wing — though that obviously hasn’t mattered much considering Westbrook’s play of late. But if there’s one area the Clippers must focus on, it’s slowing down the Thunder point guard in transition.

    As of now, Westbrook is the current leader in transition points on the season at 7.9 points per game, 1.8 more points than the second place player in Stephen Curry — per Synergy Sports, transition opportunities make up for 26.5% of Westbrook’s offense. But since February? Westbrook has kicked things up a notch on the break, averaging 10.2 fast-break points per game.

    In general, Westbrook’s transition numbers are a bit insane. Having missed a handful of games this season (has played in 48 total), per Synergy Sports, the Thunder guard still leads to league in transition possessions (374), transition points (416), transition field-goal attempts (265) and transition field-goal makes (142). For perspective, Houston’s James Harden is second in transition possessions (350), points (390), and field-goal attempted (236) and has played in 14 more games than his former teammate.

    Following a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan expressed the right idea on how to stop Westbrook.

    “You’re not going to stop him from doing anything because of how fast he is, and once he gets the rebound he’s pushing it,” Jordan said when asked about Westbrook. “We just have to load up early, help our guards, and we have to make him play in a crowd. And if we do that and make him past the ball to other people, make the ball pop around … we obviously can’t let him score 40 and then have 17 assists. You’re gonna lose every time like that.”

    Again, easier said than done, as seen in this clip of Westbrook against the New Orleans Pelicans below.

    The same is seen here against the Indiana Pacers.

    On the season, the Clippers rank well in regards to opponents fast-break points per game, allowing only 11.8 per game, good for 23rd best in the league, and per Synergy, they allow opponents to shoot 53.6% in transition. Part of this is due to Doc Rivers‘ philosophy in which the team guards don’t crash the board for offensive rebounds, leaving that task up to DeAndre Jordan which, considering the rebounding streak he’s currently on, that may not be a bad thing.

    Because of that, the attempt at an offensive rebound for the Clippers, more often than not, looks like this, with Jordan surrounded by two or three players of the opposing teams while the other four players rush back on defense.

    In the case of Russell Westbrook, the Clippers are going to have to do what Jordan said: load up on Russell and force the ball out of his hands, which can lead to Westbrook settling for a jumper on the break as seen here:

    Make or miss, these are considered good shots for a defense to force a player into. And this shot attempt? It likely never happens if Matt Barnes doesn’t stunt toward Westbrook as he dribbles toward the paint.

    Rivers’ philosophy also puts a bigger emphasis on Spencer Hawes who stands as the lone big man between Russell Westbrook and the rim. In the case of Westbrook, there’s little — if anything — he fears, so even if Hawes, who has never been much of a rim protector throughout his career, is back he may not stand a threat. But he’s a better option than Chris Paul or J.J. Redick being the last man left to defend Westbrook running 100 mph.

    As mentioned at the top, it’s a matter of slowing down Westbrook, like it is for any other superstar in the NBA. But if the Clippers can hit Westbrook where it hurts, on the break (and avoid sending him to the line in the process), they have a decent chance of walking away from tonight’s national televised matchup winners.

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