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Fran Blinebury

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is lethal in transition, as his triple-double in Game 7 against the Grizzlies showed.
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Mavs plan on defense by committee to slow Westbrook, OKC

Posted May 19 2011 9:02AM

DALLAS -- Kevin Durant didn't mince words.

"I would bet my whole house that Russell Westbrook won't go 3-for-15 again. You can quote me on that," Video he said.

The truth is the Mavericks are betting their house and the outcome of the Western Conference finals on it.

Given their choice of letting Durant go off for another 40 points as he did in Game 1 or letting Westbrook get fully re-engaged in the offense, it's an easy choice for Dallas.

Durant's scoring from almost anywhere on the floor makes the Thunder dangerous. But it's Westbrook in transition that can make them lethal.

It's an interesting spot for a player who's become a lightning rod for criticism, accused of shooting too much in these playoffs.

"We need Russell being Russell, doing all of the things that he's been capable of doing for us this season," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "We need his speed and we need him attacking the basket and making the defense collapse. He's a very good passer and a willing one and that's how he gets our whole offense going."

That is why the No. 1 objective on the Dallas list of things to do is to keep bodies in front of Westbrook and to limit his chances to get to the rim for layups as he did in the previous series against Memphis.

Westbrook isn't just fast, he's blindingly quick. He can break down a defense off the dribble. He can beat everyone down the floor in the transition game and he can take the Thunder from promising to fulfillment of that promise.

It was Westbrook compiling the fifth triple-double ever -- Video 14 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds -- in Game 7 of the West semifinals against the Grizzlies that allowed the Thunder to reach the rarified air of the conference finals, and it was rendering him ineffective that allowed the Mavs to win Game 1.

Believe it or not, the Thunder can live with Dirk Nowitzki scoring 48 points. They can survive with him treating the free throw line like it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, going back for more and more and more. They can even manage to get past the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals if Dirk runs through would-be defenders the same way the late Elizabeth Taylor did husbands.

What the Thunder can't live without is Westbrook.

"He makes plays for us," said Brooks. "He has to do that for us."

That's why the Mavs' plan is to make him the center of their defensive attention. They'll trap him with two defenders, smother him with three. They'll do everything they can to prevent Westbrook from turning the corner. But if he does, they'll have plenty of large bodies and long arms waiting for him.

Westbrook got shots in Game 1 -- 15 of them -- and he was able to get to the foul line enough times to attempt 18 free throws. What he couldn't get were his shots from the field -- driving layups, mid-range jumpers -- to fall.

"I definitely was happy with them," Westbrook said. "It was just one of those nights when I couldn't do too much. I got to the line. I was aggressive. I just wasn't able to knock down my shots.

I'm just gonna go out and play. It happens to the best of the best. I think it's just one game."

But it's one game plan that the Mavericks will continue to employ. They will open the game with the 6-foot-5 DeShawn Stevenson guarding Westbrook and look to get help from 38-year-old Jason Kidd.

However the key to the strategy is the work of the Mavs' front line. Any time that Westbrook found an opening in the defense and penetrated into the lane in Game 1, he found the shadows and the arms of Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood and Nowitzki looming over him.

The shot-blocking Chandler can be particularly effective in this series because he can cheat on Westbrook by leaving his own man, Kendrick Perkins, who is not much of an offensive threat.

The idea is not to put just one extra body in front of Westbrook, but two or three or more anytime possible around the basket. They want to scramble back on defense after their own missed shots and limit Westbrook in the running game. They want to turn the 22-year-old into a tentative half-court point guard who has to make decisions and passes against the teeth of the Dallas defense.

In short, if Westbrook isn't out and running fast, the Thunder aren't running smooth on offense. In the previous series against Memphis, Oklahoma City scored 125 fast-break points. In the first quarter of Game 1 against the Mavs, the Thunder got out to seven fast-break points and not coincidentally built an early 27-20 lead after one quarter.

But when the Mavs threw a wet blanket over the OKC running game, surrendering only two fast-break baskets over the next two quarters, Dallas took command.

"They didn't do anything different to Russell than teams have been trying to do all season," Brooks said. "They didn't send extra bodies out to guard him on the perimeter. They were going under picks to try to prevent his drives. What they have is Tyson cutting things off in the middle and letting him try those short jumpers. They just didn't go down. But I don't have a problem with those shots. They are shots that Russell can make. They're shots he has made all season.

"The thing is, we know that we want to get out and run and we know that they want to do everything to stop us. It's just about us playing our game."

The Thunder are 25-6 this season in games following a loss. They have shown a remarkable resiliency and Westbrook hasn't been kept down consistently by anyone.

"My concern is not on Russ," Perkins said. "I guarantee he won't be 3-for-15 again."

That's a lot of guarantees floating around for so early in a series.

But if there's one guarantee you can count on, it's that the Mavs know slowing Westbrook -- not Durant -- is their surest path to success.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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