OKC Thunder: Russell Westbrook goes back to his defensive roots
Jenni Carlson: The former Pac-10 defensive player of the year tormented Jason Terry and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
To understand how Russell Westbrook emerged as a defensive stopper in the playoff series against the Mavericks, you only need to know the story behind his back-to-back steals in Game 4.
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You remember those plays, don't you, Thunder fans?
I mean, there were a lot of big-time, late-game highlights in that series-clinching victory. James Harden driving to the basket. Kevin Durant draining 3-pointers. Serge Ibaka throwing down big dunks.
But those Westbrook steals in the fourth quarter disrupted a Dallas offense that was finding a rhythm and threatening to match Oklahoma City basket for basket.
They were the crowning moments in the re-emergence of the defensive dynamo that terrorized college basketball at UCLA and enamored Thunder decision-makers on draft day.
“We drafted him because he was going to provide us a tough defensive skill set,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He has the defensive toughness. He has the skill to be a good defender.
“I think the last two years, he's shown it with more consistency.”
And never was the Thunder point guard more consistent than against the Mavs.
What Westbrook did against Jason Terry throughout the series was as impressive as anything anyone in Thunder blue did. While Durant and Harden stole the headlines with their offensive heroics, neither would've had the opportunity to be heavyweights without Westbrook's defense.
He cut off Terry the way Marvin Hagler used to cut off a boxing ring.
Terry comes off the Mavs' bench, but he is their second-best offensive option behind only Dirk Nowitzki. He can heat up in a hurry. He can take over a game on his own.
Everyone saw as much early in Game 1 of the series. Terry hit the first six shots he took. He hit shots off screens. He hit shots from behind the arc. He looked like he might just hit anything he threw toward the basket during the series.
Harden couldn't guard him.
Thabo Sefolosha did better.
But in the fourth quarter, when Terry has a tendency to do some serious damage, the Thunder stuck Westbrook on him.
Terry touched the ball once on the offensive end in the last six minutes of the game.
And his one touch didn't even pose a threat to the Thunder. Terry used a screen to shake Westbrook for an instance, but Westbrook recovered, keeping his balance despite getting held a bit by the screener, and forced Terry to catch the ball on the midcourt logo.
Terry took a couple dribbles, then passed to Dirk and never touched the ball again in the game.
Never recovered his hot shooting touch either.
After those first six makes in Game 1, Terry hit only 14 shots the rest of the series. Westbrook, who also averaged 22.8 points a game in the series, wasn't the only guy who guarded Terry, but a vast majority of the responsibility was his.
“I was just trying to limit his touches,” Westbrook said. “He's a great scorer when he has an opportunity to do what he wants offensively.”