The latest wrinkle in this superb Thunder-Grizzlies series involves a scheme to stop Russell Westbrook.
Memphis, keeping consistent with its tendency to throw the kitchen sink at Oklahoma City, has unleashed bulldog defender Tony Allen on the Thunder's All-Star point guard. The Grizzlies unveiled their latest strategy from the opening tip of Game 5.
Only the Thunder made such quick work of the Grizzlies — turning a first-quarter stalemate into a second-quarter breeze and, eventually, a second-half rout — that Memphis' modification never had much of a chance to make an impact.
But don't be surprised if the Grizzlies, now facing elimination, stick to the same strategy in Friday night's Game 6 inside FedExForum and hope for stronger results. The decision by the Grizzlies is designed to put the clamps on Westbrook. But the move also sparks a series of side effects.
Most importantly, Allen exerting his energy on Westbrook means he isn't attached to Thunder forward Kevin Durant. That's a good thing for the Thunder. It was Allen's “grit, grind” mentality that shut down Durant in Game 3, limiting the reigning two-time scoring champ to 2-for-10 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime in the Grizzlies 101-93 win. With the Grizzlies unable to control Westbrook, though, Memphis has moved point guard Mike Conley over to Thabo Sefolosha and assigned Sam Young to Durant.
“Tony Allen is a good defender, and that tells you just how good he is,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He can guard the best scorer in the league and one of the quickest, toughest point guards to guard in the league.”
Or can he?
Though the sample size is incredibly small, Allen didn't seem to have a huge impact Wednesday. In the early going, Westbrook still was able to get to his desired spots and create good looks at the rim or from mid-range while also setting up his teammates for quality shots. The Thunder already runs a number of high screens for Westbrook, but the amount could increase to help free Westbrook even more and pressure Allen into more struggles.
“When he's guarding Russell, we just have to put him in different spots,” Brooks said. “Pick and rolls are hard for even the great defenders to guard, and Russell's a terrific pick-and-roll player.”
Allen on Wednesday attempted to exploit one of Westbrook's biggest weaknesses, his still inconsistent jumper. Allen intentionally gave Westbrook space on screens and isolations, backing up and giving up the jumper.
“A lot of teams will do that with Russell, and you kind of pick your poison,” Brooks said. “They were going under screens and backing off and kind of promoting him to shoot the mid-range pull-up. And Russell can make that shot and he has all year long.”
Remember, though, that all this is nothing new for Westbrook and the Thunder.
It was Game 5 of last year's first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers that 11-time All-Defensive Team member Kobe Bryant pushed Derek Fisher aside and accepted the challenge of defending the speedy Westbrook. L.A. had incredible success with the move. Westbrook averaged 21.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and just 1.5 turnovers on 55 percent shooting in the first four games. But in the final two, with Bryant smothering him, Westbrook's averages dipped nearly across the board to 18 points, five rebounds, 7.5 assists and four turnovers on 33.3 percent shooting.
But the Lakers were a veteran bunch rolling toward a title. And Westbrook is now a year older, a year wiser.
The biggest key, however, just might be fore Westbrook's teammates to alleviate some pressure. Sefolosha, who is 1-for-7 from 3-point range in the series, must find his shooting stroke to space the floor; especially with the smaller Conley defending him. Durant, meanwhile, should be in attack mode from the get-go if Young again starts on him. Durant's scoring average, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage are all 10 percent below his average with Allen on the court in this series, according to NBA.com's StatsCube. With Young on the court in this series, Durant's points, field-goal percentage and plus-minus are all up per 36 minutes.
But everything starts with Westbrook setting the tone and winning his individual matchup.
“Russell's really good when he's aggressive and when he's not only looking to attack but (looking for) pull-ups and push-aheads,” Brooks said. “When he does all those things, he's a special player.”
And there might not be a wrinkle known to man that can stop him.