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.
by Jenni Carlson Published: May 9, 2012

Westbrook didn't allow him to do much of anything. Go back and watch the game replays, and you'll see Westbrook picking up Terry at midcourt. He shadowed him. He hounded him.

Granted, he was helped by other players being able to guard Mavs point guard Jason Kidd. Derek Fisher could. Ditto for Harden. That freed Westbrook to concentrate on Terry.

“He made big play after big play,” Harden said. “When Jason Terry don't touch the ball during a possession, that really helps us.”

Durant said, “His activity was phenomenal, the way he was getting his hands on the basketball, getting some steals and getting some easy baskets for us.”

Durant acknowledged that there were lots of offensive stars in the series.

“But Russ' defense is the reason why we pushed over the top,” he said.

Which brings us back to those steals in Game 4.

The first heist was a pickpocket of Dirk. The Mavs star had the ball near the top of the key, but he was holding it a bit behind him. And since he had his back to half the court, he didn't see when Westbrook came up behind him.

“Dirk wasn't paying attention,” Westbrook said. “I got momentum and went for it.”

Westbrook snagged the ball, drove the length of the court and dished back to Ibaka for a dunk.

A moment later, he heard the Mavs calling out their next play and knew exactly what was coming. Brooks says that during the playoffs, when the coaches challenge the players to memorize their opponent's plays and sets, Westbrook is always one of the guys who does.

When Jason Kidd dribbled to the left side of the court, Westbrook knew Nowitzki would be coming through a screen from Terry trying to get to the left corner for a 3.

“I just waited and waited, and as soon as Jason Kidd threw the ball, I stole it,” Westbrook said. “I knew that play just from the scouting, and I just timed it perfectly.”

The first steal was toughness and instinct.

The second was experience and know-how.

Westbrook always had the toughness and instinct. That was obvious during his college days; he tormented then-USC star O.J. Mayo during his Pac-10 defensive-player-of-the-year season, forcing him into 10 turnovers and holding him to four points.

That type of grit is invaluable when you're chasing Jason Terry around for a couple hours.

But the experience and know-how that Westbrook showed on the defensive end against the Mavs have come with time in the NBA. When he came into the league and the Thunder asked him to be its starting point guard, there was a lot on his plate. There still is — “You have to orchestrate the team on both ends of the floor,” said Brooks, a former point guard himself. “You don't get a possession off” — but Westbrook better understands the madness swirling around him.

“You kind of have a sense of control,” Brooks said of how four years in the league has helped Westbrook. “He's controlling the game more so now.”

Good for the Thunder and scary for the rest of the NBA, more than ever before, he's controlling it on both ends of the court.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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