You’re up, Russell Westbrook.
After a grueling first-round series that stumped Kevin Durant for the better part of seven games, Westbrook will now be tested most against the Los Angeles Clippers as the Thunder’s second-round series gets underway Monday night.
His challenge is Chris Paul, the Clippers’ crafty floor general who is widely considered the league’s best point guard.
“They’re two of the best point guards in the league, two of the best players in the league,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They’re both very competitive. They both have just an incredible amount of desire to win the game. It’s going to be a great matchup.”
It’s the first time Westbrook and Paul have met in the postseason. They’ve met 19 times in the regular season. Paul owns a narrow lead with 11 wins.
The Thunder, as always, will try to downplay the individual matchup. But the battle between these two, at this stage, is too significant to ignore.
Both players control their team’s offense. Paul plays a more traditional pass-first style. Westbrook picks apart defenses with non-stop aggression as a scorer.
The ball will be in their hands the majority of the game, and as they go so goes their respective teams.
Paul has established himself as a much steadier player, perhaps the steadiest among all players at his position. What the Thunder gets from Westbrook will be among the determining factors of which team moves on to the Western Conference Finals.
Will the Thunder see the Westbrook that averaged 26 points on 27.3 shots (including 8.3 3-pointers) in Game 2 through 5? Or will OKC watch Westbrook show the patience, poise and precision with which he played in Games 1, 6 and 7, when he averaged 25 points on 48.2 percent shooting while displaying much better decision making?
“He’s a dynamic athlete that can force a lot of problems on the opponent,” Brooks said. “He’s an attack player. He wants to get to the lane and finish around the paint, and his pull-up game is much improved. There’s always a balance, and I think he’s done a good job the last two or three games of finding that.”
Memphis might have been the best warm-up possible for Westbrook.
“I think Mike Conley is real similar to Chris Paul because they’re small, crafty point guards that can move,” said Kevin Durant. “They use a lot of pick and rolls and can finish really well.”
Defense could possibly be a bigger key for Westbrook against Paul than offense. If the Thunder can rely on Westbrook to slow down Paul, it could disrupt the entire Clippers offense. Los Angeles leans heavily on Paul to orchestrate its offense. The Thunder can turn to Thabo Sefolosha to help manage Paul, but Westbrook accepting the challenge means the Thunder can keep a more potent offense lineup on the floor that the Clippers could struggle to contain.
“He just needs to be himself, use physicality on both ends of the floor,” Durant said. “Play with that pace that he played with throughout the whole (Grizzlies) series. And just relax and play his game.”