Even for the MVP and one of the league’s top-ten players, it’s not so easy to score when all five defenders are keying in on their every move.
If they didn’t realize it before, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook surely know it by now. Memphis has done a terrific job at making life incredibly difficult for Oklahoma City’s two superstars. The Grizzlies are doing it by slowing the pace of the game, limiting possessions, and most importantly, playing relentless team defense that will henceforth be known as the “Durant-Westbrook Guidelines.”
Memphis might not be using the aggressive and ruthless tactics of the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons’ “Jordan Rules,” which were used to stop Michael Jordan in the early ‘90s. Memphis might not even have a set of rules for defending one of the league’s best duos. Maybe Memphis Head Coach David Joerger, like Captain Barbossa, thinks of rules more like guidelines anyway. Regardless of what the Grizzlies call their defensive game plan for guarding Durant and Westbrook, it’s working and has been executed to near perfection in Games 3 and 4.
If not for Reggie Jackson’s breakout performance in the second half of Game 4, Memphis would be heading to OKC for Game 5 with a 3-1 lead in the series.
Memphis is using a mix of heavy on-ball pressure and extra help defense to force Durant and Westbrook into tough shots and making tough decisions with the ball. When the Thunder try to isolate Durant or Westbrook, which is like 40 percent of their offense, Tony Allen and the Grizz make it extremely difficult to enter the ball by denying Durant/Westbrook the ball and hounding the player trying to enter the ball to them. If Durant/Westbrook does get the ball, Allen and Co. are all over them, swiping at the ball, giving them no room to shoot, and daring them to drive into the heart of Memphis’s help defense.
Durant is still averaging 28.5 PPG this series, so it’s not as if Memphis is stopping him completely, but he’s shooting below 40 percent from the field and only 27 percent from three, compared to 50 percent from the field and 39 percent from three during the regular season.
Through the first four games of the series, Westbrook is having similar offensive struggles, averaging 24.3 PPG on 35 percent shooting and an abysmal 19 percent from three. Like Durant, Westbrook’s shooting numbers are well below his regular season numbers (43% FG, 32%, 3PT).
Durant and Westbrook are still getting their points for the most part. Durant is averaging 3.5 points under his regular season average of 32.0 PPG, but Westbrook is 2.5 points more than he did during the regular season. So, either that means Durant and Westbrook are getting to the free throw line more than they did during the regular season (they’re not), or they’re way, way, way, less efficient than they were during the regular season.
That’s a bingo on the latter.
Memphis’ defensive approach is causing Durant to miss shots and turn the ball over by making him uncomfortable and putting Durant in compromising positions with three, four, and sometimes five guys around him. The only real clean looks Durant is getting are in transition, which has been extremely hard to come by in this series. In the half-court, the Grizzlies are roughing up Durant, and it’s starting to take a toll on him physically. The longer this series goes on, the harder it will be on Durant to carry the load offensively.
It’s no secret the Thunder use Westbrook and Durant to generate a lot of their offense out of the pick-and-roll. Obviously, Memphis knows that, too, and every time OKC tries to run a pick-and-roll, the Memphis defenders all have “one foot in the paint,” figuratively speaking. By that I mean, they are all ready to leave their man to make sure Durant or Westbrook don’t get to the rim or an open look.
Typically, Marc Gasol is right in the center of the key waiting for Durant and Westbrook to try to get around him. Gasol’s help is so high, Durant and Westbrook either have to challenge Gasol and finish over the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year or shoot a midrange jumper, which is exactly what Memphis wants Durant and Westbrook to do. By not taking what the defense is giving them, Durant and Westbrook are trying to force offense and it’s leading to turnovers or low-percentage, end-of-the-shot-clock shots.
If there’s a silver lining to Durant and Westbrook’s struggles, OKC Head Coach Scott Brooks finally decided to use Memphis’s defense against them. Brooks moved Durant and Westbrook off the ball (kind of), and ran Reggie Jackson in the pick-and-roll. Memphis isn’t going to leave Durant or Westbrook to cover Jackson, so if the Thunder space the court properly, the game essentially becomes 3-on-3, and with a good screen, it’s 3-on-2. Jackson was also able to exploit some one-on-one matchups with the Captain of the No-Defense team, the 98-year-old Mike Miller.
It’s impossible for me to not at least mention this: if the Thunder and G.M. Sam Presti didn’t try to save money and give away James Harden for a bag of Southwest Airlines honey roasted peanuts and a couple Slim-Jims, it would be James Harden doing what Reggie Jackson did to the Grizzlies in Game 4. In other words, Harden wouldn’t be trying to take on the entire city of Portland by himself, and he’d be running pick-and-rolls with Durant on one side, Westbrook on the other, and driving lanes for days. Just my two cents, though.
The flaws Memphis has exposed may eventually be what put OKC’s championship hopes on hold for another season. Russell Westbrook’s injury put a lot of pressure on Kevin Durant to keep pace in Western Conference. You have to wonder, after Durant’s 15 points on 5-of-21 shooting in Game 4, if Durant put too many miles on his legs during the regular season. Is it possible he could be wearing down?
When you have Durant and Westbrook, as a coach, you’re obviously tempted to push the ball up the court. That’s the Thunder’s main offensive strength, but you know the game slows down to a crawl in the playoffs against teams like Memphis. Yet, OKC’s half court offense is all pick-and-rolls and ISOs for Durant and Westbrook. In the playoffs, you have to be able to play in the half court and be efficient. A missed “heat-check” is a turnover, and it can cost more than a minute of game time with the way Memphis crashes the offensive glass.
Right now, it doesn’t feel like OKC’s rotation is ready for the playoffs. They got by most of the season with makeshift lineups because of injuries. Caron Butler and Derek Fisher are playing serious minutes for the Thunder, which IS a bad thing because it’s 2014, not 2007.
Although Durant and Westbrook are the focus of every possession offensively for the Thunder and have all of Memphis’s defensive attention, the next three games are going to come down to OKC’s role players. Will they rise to the occasion?
As much as people want to believe it, Durant and Westbrook can’t do it alone.