Overall, the Thunder still rank fifth in defensive efficiency, allowing a solid 100.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s pretty good.
But since Russell Westbrook’s re-return Feb. 20, the Thunder are allowing 104.7 points per 100, which would rank them 18th if it were for the entire season. It’s not just the numbers, though. It’s been obvious has soft the Thunder have played at times, allowing far too much dribble penetration, losing shooters in transition and letting guys like Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks light them up for career highs. The team keeps talking about it, saying the right things about commitment and pride and focus, but there really hasn’t been any change.
So Westbrook took the bulk of the responsibility for it at practice on Thursday.
“We’ve got to come out with a defensive mindset. Start with myself, just got to do a better job setting the tone early,” he said, almost unprompted. Then asked how much he shoulders himself, Westbrook didn’t hold back.
“All of it. I’ve got to step up defensively. Just what I’ve got to do to help us win games,” he said. “Regardless of how many points I score, how many rebounds, assists, I’ve got to defend.”
Westbrook isn’t to blame, but the numbers haven’t been great for him on that end of the floor. On the season with him on the court, the Thunder allow 103.0 points per 100. Since his return in February, that’s spiked to 108.5.
“Yeah. I am,” Westbrook said when asked if he’s disappointed with the way he’s played defensively. “I’ve just got to be better, man. Letting too many guys off the hook. Just letting them feel too comfortable dribbling up the floor, running what they want. And I’m just sitting back just chillin’. I’ve got to set the tone early and defend for my team.”
Westbrook has always had the potential to be an elite defensive player, and it goes back to him winning then Defensive Player of the Year in the then-Pac10. He’s got an incredible blend of length, athleticism, motor and instinct, but his biggest issue has always been overplaying and gambling. Sometimes he tries too hard to make the spectacular defensive play, rather than just staying in front of his man. And then sometimes he gets lazy, letting his man by him while he tries to reach around for a steal.
Again, it’s not all on him, because guarding the point guard position isn’t easy. But if you look at the tape of the Thunder’s main defensive struggles, it comes down to two things: 1) Losing their man too frequently off the ball, whether in transition or because of bad communication switching screens and 2) because of too much easy dribble penetration which forces the defense to collapse, rotate and help. And that often starts at the point of attack.
“It ain’t all on ball, it’s just me helping, sitting on defense, just me watching myself on film,” Westbrook said. “I watch film every after game, the whole game just at the house, watch myself standing around watching, not helping. I could get a lot more rebounds and just stuff I need to do to help us win games, especially in crunchtime but throughout the game to help us win.”
The Thunder remain a good defensive team, but as noted earlier in the season, some of that leans toward good fortune. The Thunder’s defensive scheme is to close down the paint, and force long contested jumpers. Too often, those jumpers haven’t been contested and while sometimes OKC escapes, other times they get burned for it.
While there’s always a heavy focus on the offensive end, because scoring is kind of the point of basketball, the Thunder realize their championship hopes reside on the other side. They can score despite themselves most times, based on pure talent and ability alone. And within that, the assumption often is when you’re carrying such a heavy offensive load as Westbrook and Durant do, it can cause a slip on the other end. But Westbrook says that’s no excuse.
“You can, but you’re just downplaying yourself,” he said. “If you want to be one of the best to play the game, you’ve got to do it on both ends of the floor. You can’t come out and say ‘I’ve got to score, I can’t guard the other team’s best player.’ Then that’s the attitude you have. But myself and Kevin we want to defend and score, on both ends of the floor.
“We gotta have it. If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to have it,” Westbrook said of a defensive mindset. “If you don’t, then we’ve got to find someone who wants to do it. But you’ve got to have the attitude to come on the floor every night and take pride guarding your man but also helping somebody else out. It’s not all about guarding one-on-one, it’s about team defense, helping each other out and trying to win games.”
Again, all the right words, but as KD would say, show me don’t [tell] me.
On if he’s disappointed in the defensive effort: “Yeah I think so. I think we want to be playing better than we are right now. We’re capable of it. There’s too many breakdowns. It’s the lack of consistency. We’ll have some stretches where we’ll be good and then we’ll have lapses and the team will go on a run. It’s hard to beat good teams like that.”
On Westbrook’s minute restriction: “We bumped his minutes up a little bit. Right at around 32 minutes a game. He went a few seconds over, not sure how many. Yeah, right around 32.”