Westbrook’s Defense, Leadership Fueling Thunder

With knees bent, arms spread wide and eyes glued to his opponent’s chest, Russell Westbrook is the first wall of defense for the Thunder.

This season Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club is only allowing 95.6 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting, figures that become more remarkable when factoring in the up-tempo pace at which the Thunder plays. Led by Westbrook at the top, all five players on the floor for the Thunder at any given time are locked in and playing with effort, enthusiasm and focus.

“They all have to be committed to it,” Brooks said. “I think everybody competes on the defensive end. That’s what makes us a good defensive team.”

Westbrook has had a knack for pressuring opposing ball-handlers into difficult nights throughout the season, which has helped propel his squad to a 19-4 record to start the year. In fact, the fifth-year point guard is averaging a career-best 2.0 steals per game, which has put him in the top five in the NBA in that category. The up-tick in performance from the springy Westbrook has come as a result of hard work, dedication to studying opponents and a coalescence of all the knowledge he has acquired in his playing time over the last few years.

“He watches film, he has the on-court experience, the practice court experience, all of the things he has learned in the last four or five years is starting to come together,” Brooks said. “It’s paying off now. He understands our system very well and he’s the vocal guy also. He’s not only the defensive guy with his effort, but he’s the defensive guy with his words.”

Fellow defensive ace Nick Collison has noticed an improvement too. Ever-concerned with the fundamentals, Collison noted that while the steals certainly are nice because they start the Thunder offense, often with a fast break, Westbrook’s most noticeable defensive improvement has come in a less flashy way.

“I think him staying in front of the ball better than he has is more important to our defense,” Collison said. “He’s fighting over screens and when he’s really good at the point of the ball, it makes such a difference.”

NBA teams are prone to running the pick-and-roll upwards of 60 times per game, making it one of the most important defensive coverages the Thunder has to employ each night. The way Westbrook has been doing his work early on that play and communicating with his teammate coming over to hedge or double team has been essential to stopping opposing point guards from gaining advantage situations. When quick point guards get in the lane they have options with the ball, but Westbrook has been preventing those opportunities at a higher rate this season.

“You don’t have to help and that’s what you try to do in the NBA on offense, is try to break defenses down by making guys help and then kick,” Collison said. “When he can stay in front of his guy, that’s big for us.”

As Westbrook continues to grow and mature, he hopes to only become more of a well-rounded player. His exploits on the offensive end jump out as both an elite scorer but also as a floor general. The ability to be a one-man fast break is a threat to opponents’ transition defenses and the way he drives and dishes to open teammates makes the Thunder offense versatile and balanced.

The addition of an aggressive, physical and smart approach to the defensive side of the floor to his offensive repertoire is what makes Westbrook one of the most special players in the league, and one that drives the Thunder further each day.

“I think he has been defensively as good as he has been offensively this year,” Brooks said. “He’s so consistent, we know he is like a spark plug on our defense. He starts it off, he has good ball pressure with the pick-and-roll coverages, and he’s getting his hands on a lot of basketballs. He’s in the right spots. I really believe he’s one of the best two-way players in the league.”