How Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin Will Define Clips-Thunder

We almost don’t have enough time to process it after 16 days of first-round euphoria, but holy hell, the Clippers and Thunder are about to face off in a battle of starry NBA juggernauts. It appeared just five days ago the Grizzlies and Clips were going to hip-check each other for the third straight year, more evidence Memphis was just bound to play the same three teams over and over in the postseason.

Then some stuff happened, and now we get this: Two legitimate title contenders, and four of the league’s biggest in-their-prime superstars. It’s folly to reduce a seven-game series to a few “X factors” and talking points; basketball is too fluid for that. But this matchup is fascinating for one overarching reason: Two of those four superstars rank as perhaps the league’s most polarizing players, and this particular matchup creates something of a postseason judgment day for them — a challenge that could expose their lingering weaknesses and force them to rely upon the diversity in their games.

Russell Westbrook

It has been an uneven two years for Oklahoma City since it came so close to taking a 2-0 lead in the Finals before collapsing amid a hail of Miami 3-pointers. The Thunder dealt away James Harden to dodge tax issues, and after a year of Kevin Martin in Harden’s place, the Thunder are now left with a collection of bit guys who barely play. Westbrook had three knee surgeries in less than a year, and he was slow to regain his form when he came back after the All-Star break.

Westbrook’s recovery and Reggie Jackson’s hot start renewed the debate about whether Oklahoma City might be better off without Russ being Russ, despite years of evidence that they reached a higher level with Westbrook on the floor. The stats at the end of February were ugly for Westbrook; the Thunder had functioned better by that point with Jackson in Westbrook’s place.

Funny thing: The trend has reversed completely since then, only no one has written about it. The Thunder in the regular season after Westbrook’s return were a break-even team with Westbrook on the bench and a powerhouse, nearly plus 12 points per 100 possessions, when he played, per NBA.com. The numbers were even more dramatic in Oklahoma City’s seven-game carnival ride against Memphis.

Those numbers are noisy. Westbrook benefits from playing alongside Kevin Durant, just as Jackson did when Westbrook was injured. There are other advanced metrics, including real plus/minus, that point to some dissonance between Westbrook and Durant. But the basic on-court/off-court numbers served as the primary evidence for the “better without Westbrook” narrative, and its authors should acknowledge the reversal.

Westbrook is undeniably a problematic player, though it’s hard to untangle his individual warts from those of Scott Brooks and the Thunder’s woefully uncreative offensive non-system. He takes some irresponsible shots, some of which are little more than blind flings tossed so hard they endanger the integrity of the backboard. He is almost frighteningly hyperactive, shooting just before a play really develops because he can’t help it, throwing himself into transition chances that aren’t there, and crashing the offensive glass when he should probably get back on defense. He has become perhaps the league’s worst leg kicker on jump shots, wildly star-fishing his limbs in blatant (and too often successful) attempts to draw fouls on stupid shots.

But all the attention on his offense has overshadowed a more obvious weakness: a guy who came into the league projected as a defensive stopper remains below-average on that end, and sometimes straight-up awful. Westbrook is a twitchy player, bouncy and primed for hard cuts, and that can be his undoing on defense.

He moves in wild two-foot hops, lunges hard at fakes, and gambles out of scheme for steals he has a 5 percent chance at snagging. The steals look great when Westbrook gets them, and he’s athletic and insane enough to get more than he should. But crafty point guards use Westbrook’s aggression against him, especially in the pick-and-roll. He lost Mike Conley so many times in the first round that Brooks finally had to put Thabo Sefolosha on Conley — until Sefolosha’s lack of offense become such a liability that Brooks had to yank him.

Guess what. Westbrook now faces the league’s craftiest pick-and-roll player, though whether Chris Paul’s thumb and hamstring issues allow him to reach peak craftiness might be the most important variable in this series. Westbrook has one thing going for him: Paul is predictable in that he likes to use picks. He rarely goes away from screens, even compared to other high-volume ball handlers, per Synergy Sports.

But he likes to fake away from the pick, and the Clippers can get Westbrook out of sorts by running Paul through some off-ball screens and cuts before Paul darts into a pick-and-roll with a head of steam.

Westbrook got most of the Paul assignment in all four regular-season games, and if he can handle the job in this series, Brooks can continue benching Sefolosha — a healthy thing for Oklahoma City’s offense. Meanwhile, the Clippers don’t have anything like Tony Allen on the wing to guard Kevin Durant. Matt Barnes will be their primary option, and while he’s feisty and smart he’s just not quick enough for the job.

Durant has hurt Barnes by stepping out on the pick-and-roll and using his quick first step to blow by everyone:

He can do the same one-on-one on the wing, and he has also murdered both Barnes and Jared Dudley (remember him?) on backdoor cuts while Nick Collison handles the ball at the elbow:

DUDLEY

BARNES

The Clippers, like any smart team, will make up for their Durant deficit by tilting all five defenders in his direction whenever he gets the ball:

OVERLOAD

That becomes harder to do, or at least more dangerous, if Caron Butler is on the floor in Sefolosha’s place — as he was for the last two games of the Memphis series, one of the best adjustments Brooks has ever made in a career sort of weak on adjustments. Butler isn’t a dynamic threat anymore, but he’s a better spot-up shooter than Sefolosha, and a guy defenses still respect.

The Thunder can limit Sefolosha’s minutes only if they trust Westbrook to guard Paul. Early indications are that Sefolosha will regain his starting spot, and they may need him to check Paul or chase J.J. Redick. But the Thunder’s offense is better off with Butler or Jackson taking some of Sefolosha’s time.

On the other end, Westbrook will have lots of playmaking opportunities in the half-court. You can spot him on the weak side of those Durant post-ups the Clippers load against, and when Durant has to kick the ball out, it will often ping-ping-ping over to Westbrook. When he catches in that situation, he has to go — right away. He has a tendency to stop the ball, dribble, and think about a pull-up jump shot, allowing the defense to overload against him.

The Clips also like to have their big men hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, meaning two defenders will briefly guard Westbrook at the same time:

BLAKEHEDGE

This is where good point guards shine. Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are only so-so at this (Jordan will drop back a lot on this series), and Westbrook has been able to turn the corner, get into the lane, and do damage. The Thunder got Durant a lot of good 3-point looks against the Clippers by putting him on the weak side of Westbrook pick-and-rolls, letting Westbrook attack, and forcing Durant’s man to sink into the paint as a helper:

The Thunder ran the fearsome Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll a ton against L.A., and the Clips, unlike Memphis, don’t really have the personnel to switch this play — unless they contort their defensive assignments in an unexpected way. They instead have Barnes leap away from Durant for just a split second, cut off Westbrook’s path, and then scurry as fast he can back to Durant.

That is really hard to pull off, since Barnes, like any rational human, does not want to leave Durant for long. But if Barnes doesn’t do his first job, mucking up Westbrook’s drive, Westbrook has a free lane to the hoop. Westbrook mostly made good reads on this play, hitting Durant on the roll and forcing his shot only when he had a path to the rim:

The series isn’t all on Westbrook, obviously. Serge Ibaka will get pick-and-pop jumpers and chances to attack in space when his man lunges hard at Westbrook on the pick-and-roll. Durant must be Durant, the role players have to perform, and Brooks must use optimal lineups. But if Paul is healthy, this will be among the greatest challenges of Westbrook’s career. The Thunder have been a patient organization, arguing for years they did not need to show any urgency until Westbrook and Durant hit their primes.

Westbrook is 25 now. It’s time.

Blake Griffin

The salad days of overpowering a helpless David Lee are over, and Griffin struggled at times in the last three games of the Golden State series against the stouter Draymond Green — before erupting late in Game 7.

Griffin emerged this season as one of the league’s best all-around post players, if not a particularly artful one. He draws near-automatic double-teams, whips smart passes around the court, and uses his power and speed to create unconventional little hook things that somehow go in.

But he will face an army of long-armed defenders in this series, starting with Ibaka. Griffin was a putrid 4-of-20 on post-up shots against the Thunder this season and turned the ball over on nearly 20 percent of such plays, a number that would have ranked among the worst in the league, per Synergy Sports.

Griffin uses his lower-body strength and sheer aggression to move Ibaka back toward the basket, but Ibaka has gotten better at holding his ground, and Griffin has struggled to finish over Ibaka’s shot-blocking. When Ibaka has needed a break, the Thunder have happily rotated Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, and Steven Adams into bruising battles against Griffin. Collison and Perkins are accomplished post defenders, and Adams is a brute who pisses everyone off and will use six fouls in 10 minutes if need be.

Griffin has tried to counter the Thunder’s bulk with speed. That can be as simple as running hard in transition and sealing his man early, when no help defenders are around:

SEAL1

SEAL2

Griffin will sometimes dart into the center of the paint for a quick-hitting post-up, catch the ball, and jump right into his shooting motion before a slower dude like Perk can even get off the ground. The Clips will also use lots of picks to get Griffin some separation, and, hopefully, easy buckets near the rim:

But this will be an exhausting challenge, and there’s a good chance Griffin’s post game will not be as effective as the Clips would like in this series. That would limit Griffin’s impact, and if OKC can minimize hard double-teams, the Clips may not get as many open 3s as they might against a Thunder defense that can be leaky on the perimeter.

Griffin will have to rely on his polished all-around skills — his jumper, his passing, his ability to make stunning plays in open space. He has improved his midranger, and he announced that improvement with a barrage of swishes against the Thunder in one early-season game. But that isn’t his strength, and the Thunder will live with it.

Griffin will try to face up in the post and drive by slower Oklahoma City defenders, but Ibaka has smothered those drives and the Thunder will have help waiting along the baseline:

BASELINE

Oklahoma City plays the pick-and-roll aggressively, just like the Clippers, and there will be lots of possessions in which Paul draws out a hard trap and slips a pocket pass to Griffin:

POCKET

Griffin can work 4-on-3 in these spots, and he has the skill set to punish Oklahoma City. He has become expert at drawing Jordan’s defender to him and tossing a lob to Jordan before another defender can rotate. He can spot shooters everywhere, and Barnes’s 3-point shooting might be a bellwether in this series. The Clippers envisioned starting Dudley and J.J. Redick around the Griffin-Paul two-man game, destroying teams with elite shooting, but Barnes supplanted Dudley in the rotation long ago.

Barnes is a slightly below-average 3-point shooter — the kind defenses track with some care, but leave alone if there are greater threats elsewhere. The Warriors stashed Stephen Curry on him, and the Thunder may do the same with Westbrook and/or Jackson if Sefolosha ever has to take the Paul job.

Griffin will also get some chances against Durant, on both ends. The wild card of this series might be how often Oklahoma City goes small, with Durant at power forward, and how the Clippers respond. Small ball was a much more potent weapon for Oklahoma City; a full 13 lineups with Durant at power forward logged at least 25 minutes this season, per NBA.com. Only two small-ball Clippers lineups reached that threshold, which makes sense, since Griffin and Jordan rank as two of their most important players. Going small would mean removing one of them.

The Thunder are impossible to guard with Durant at power forward, but the Clippers were actually plus-4 in 65 minutes when the Thunder went small against them in the regular season, per NBA.com.

The Clippers mixed up their responses to small ball. Sometimes they went small along with the Thunder, banishing Jordan or Griffin to the bench in favor of an extra wing player. They’ll be especially willing to do that early in the second and fourth quarters, when Doc Rivers has often used Hedo Turkoglu at power forward anyway.

But the Clips most often stuck to their guns and stayed big. That results in two awkward adjustments:

1. Griffin has to guard someone on defense, and there is only one big man available to guard. The Clips have hidden Griffin on a nonthreatening perimeter guy, usually Butler, Sefolosha, or Derek Fisher; Butler is nearly a power forward at this point in his career, anyway. The Thunder are (obviously) most dangerous when they populate small-ball groups with as many playmakers as possible — Jackson, Westbrook, Durant, and one other perimeter guy.

But the Clips have also experimented with Griffin guarding Durant, which allows the rest of the defensive matchups to remain something close to normal. And, boy, wouldn’t it be fun to see Durant try to take Griffin off the bounce? Other teams have gone this route, and Griffin has the speed to make it interesting.

2. The Thunder have only one big man who can deal with Griffin and Jordan on defense. They’ve mostly swallowed hard and had Durant take Griffin, just as they had Durant guard Marc Gasol against Memphis in these scenarios. But that is dangerous, even if Durant can front Griffin and knock entry passes away with those gangly arms. Griffin is a more aggressive post-up scorer, and he can dismantle Durant down low. Griffin has to dominate these possessions.

The Thunder might look at alternatives. Jordan has a limited post-up game, and most teams prefer to hide their smaller defender on him; the Dubs did this with Harrison Barnes in the first round. Butler might have the bulk to give it a go.

The Thunder have the tools to make Griffin’s life hard on both ends. Paul, if he’s healthy, can torture Westbrook. This is a proving-ground moment for two of the league’s most divisive stars, and Paul’s health looms as a potential series-deciding wild card.

PREDICTION: THUNDER IN SEVEN

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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