Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Westbrook, 43 points, and the Heat defense

Ed. note: Another non-Michigan related post. I promise I'll start writing about it more once camp swings back into focus.

This post won't surprise anyone who follows my Twitter account, but I'm pretty invested in the NBA finals and in particular, Lebron James (who yes, I am rooting for). I've told many people, even if you don't like basketball, watch these finals; they are culturally important in a way that sporting events rarely are.

Aside from James being one win away from his first NBA title, the storyline after game four was Russell Westbrook's 43-point explosion, the kind of performance that the point guard is capable of but a plateau that NBA players rarely achieve. While most talking heads and Twitter were gushing over his performance, I couldn't help but feel unimpressed (?).

What Westbrook achieved yesterday was a cut throat scoring performance, but its brilliance was overshadowed both by the Thunder's eventual loss and because of what Rajon Rondo accomplished in the previous series against the Heat: an outing in which he scored more points and doubled Westbrook's assist total from last night. I don't mean to imply that because Rondo did it, Russell's output was less impressive, but I do think it's critical to look at precisely how both of these players put up such gaudy numbers; if you ask Magic Johnson, he'll tell you these were two of the greatest playoff performances ever, which if it were true, you'd expect at least one of their respective teams to come away with a win. To wit, look at the shot charts from the games in question:

For anyone who cares about things like shot distribution, the massive amount of mid-range jumpers that each player took is troublesome. Though both players live at the rim, each took an overwhelming number of shots from the 12- to 20-foot range that NBA defenses are begging players--especially Rondo and Westbrook--to take.

11 of Westbrook's 20 made baskets came outside the paint in game 4, and zero of them came from beyond the three point line. Russell went 11/13 from the least efficient areas on a basketball court, 0/3 from the outside, and 9/16 in the paint. Similarly, Rondo hit 11/14 shots from outside the restricted area, including two long threes that he hit at the end of overtime. He was 5/10 in the paint.

These numbers aren't particularly illuminating if you didn't watch the games, however. Since Rondo and Westbrook present almost no threat from the three point line, on pick-and-roll defense, the Miami Heat defenders always go under the screener, opening up shots for the ball handler. And given their lack of shooting consistency and superior performance at the rim--drawing fouls, kicking the ball to open shooters, etc--the Heat opt to pack the lane and force mid-range jump shots. In two games this postseason, the player that Miami baits into taking long twos has gotten hot. Neither player's team won.

Now look at Westbrook's shooting distribution through games one, two and three of this series:

You see similar concentrations in the same shooting areas as game four, but rather than a bunch of orange circles, the courts are peppered with those troublesome Xs. The thing people seem unwilling to admit about Westbrook's game 4 performance (much like Rondo's 44-point game) is that Russell didn't hit very many difficult shots or work particularly hard to get the openings that he had. Throughout the series and against the Celtics before them, the Heat are practically begging Westbrook to take his signature mid-range jumper, not because he can't hit it, but because it gives the Heat its best chance to counteract an otherwise lethal offense.

Off the top of your head, how many times last night did you see the Thunder move the ball around the offensive zone like they did against the Spurs? In the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder were playing together at an extraordinary level, which prompted some people to think they'd blow through the Heat in the finals. But when the ball lands in Westbrook's hand on the pick and roll, the Heat are giving him what he thinks are easy points. Except the Heat can keep pace--and they know it--when the Thunder are taking jump shots, especially two-point jump shots off the dribble.

The Thunder are deadliest when they're moving the ball consistently and getting open looks from the corner, getting out in transition, and getting to the line for three-point plays. When Westbrook is taking 15-foot jumpers off a pick and roll with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, regardless of whether or not he makes 84% of them (like he did last night), the Heat can respond. This disruption of the Thunder offense has had obvious effects: James Harden isn't getting the open looks he has all season--his shooting has collapsed--and neither is Kevin Durant.

Something that's being overshadowed from Westbrook's 43-point performance? He took only three free throw attempts on 32 field goal tries. Especially for a player like Westbrook, who's most effective at the rim, this lack of production takes a serious toll. He took about 39% of the Thunder's field goal attempts in game 4, most of which could score no more than 2 points. He hit a lot of them, so the Thunder held serve and Westbrook put up gaudy numbers, but this is not the Thunder's best offense.

Any time Westbrook does something wrong, people are up in arms that Kevin Durant didn't get enough shots. There might be some truth to that in this instance despite both of their monster performances. Durant scored 28 points on 19 shots, and crucially took 9 free throws throughout the game. In game 4, a tradeoff between Durant and Westbrook isn't just two points for Durant vs. two points for Westbrook. Rather, it's Durant's ability to get two or three versus a 45% chance (his season shooting average) of two points for Westbrook on an open, albeit inefficient, look. That or the Thunder begin to move the ball more rapidly in the offensive zone, opening up looks for their other scorers.

The other thing that's gone unmentioned: The 33 points poured on by Heat punching bag Mario Chalmers and Norris "Flat Top" Cole, due in large part to Westbrook's porous defense (though Scott Brooks deserves some blame here as well). John Hollinger pointed this out in a column a few months ago, but the Thunder struggle to defend the paint because their perimeter defense allows too many blow bys:

The Thunder gave up 72 points in the paint Sunday, and Ibaka blocked 11 other shots, nearly all of which were sure-fire baskets. Think about that for a second. That's potentially 94 points in the paint.

Paint points have been a season-long problem for Oklahoma City, which is only 14th overall in defensive efficiency. As Ibaka showed against Denver, the Thunder's problem isn't an inability to contest shots in the paint, nor is it an inability to defend the post. It's all those blow-bys on the perimeter, which constantly leave the bigs in recovery mode.

And because their bigs are always chasing down drivers, it leads to another opening on the boards. Despite what on paper should be a very solid rebounding team, Oklahoma City is tied for 23rd in defensive rebound rate at 72.2 percent. Again, those 11 blocks are indicative -- every time Ibaka rotates to close down the lane, it leaves the boards open for seconds shots. Transition defense, as the Thunder showed, is also a problem.
That trend was in full force in game four. Though part of that was Scott Brooks ignoring the Heat guards and focusing on Lebron, Wade, and Shane Battier's three point shooting, the Heat guards are nowhere near Westbrook's skill level and they torched him on that side of the floor.

If Rondo hadn't previously put up nearly identical (and better) numbers, it might be easier to accept Westbrook's performance as an awe-inspiring. But if you're closely watching these playoffs, you'll notice that the Heat are begging opposing players (at least those without the ability to consistently stretch the floor) to take these mid-range jumpers with the assumption that Lebron, Wade, and countless open three pointers will be able to counteract a performance like Westbrook's. Gaudy numbers don't equal wins and Erik Spoelstra should get more credit for disrupting a more efficient Thunder offense and turning it into a one-man show.