It's clear that the only person capable of at least holding Russell Westbrook back a little bit in this Houston v Oklahoma first round series is Patrick Beverley. The Rockets finished the season as the 15th ranked defensive team, but coach Mike D'Antoni could throw a few different looks at the Thunder to maximize some short-term defensive gimmicks while raining threes on the other end.
Firstly, every team seems to understand that Westbrook is going to shoot 30 times a game, and when that ball is passed to someone else, it's highly likely they're going to shoot it (looking at you, Victor Oladipo). From that sense, it's easy to say that the Thunder are predictable and that it should be easy to figure out how to stop a team that is predicated on its defense first and foremost.
Despite that, Westbrook has had a historic season against the most stacked position in the NBA - say what you will about the usage, how he doesn't make his teammates better and chasing stats, but it's clear no team has truly stopped him this season.
So stopping the Thunder is perhaps not about stopping Westbrook, but rather exploiting everything else possible.
Here's the type of plays the Rockets have to be sharp against.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum run a half-assed pick and roll, but miscommunication between Harden and Beverley leaves Lillard wide open for a three. The Rockets are going to expect a barrage of screens from Steven Adams, Taj Gibson and Enes Kanter, so D'Antoni will do whatever he can to ensure Harden isn't facing so many pick and roll situations, but running an Oladipo/Westbrook pick and roll is the kind of surprise that forces Harden and Beverley to go under the screen as both opposing guards are terrific athletes. That leaves the ball handler with a wide open three. Westbrook is averaging 8.9 three-point attempts per game since the All-Star break and making them at an impressive 37% clip in that span. Oladipo made 36% of his threes this season, but he's showed flashes this season that he can hold his hot hand for months at a time. How can the Rockets stop that? Obviously, communication is going to be key. The Rockets may actually just accept that and stay under the screens and hope that the Thunder miss plenty of their long-range attempts, which is a fair strategy considering their roster. Alternatively, they may go over screens to make Westbrook launch more contested threes and leave the paint open for cutters and the two big men, which the Rockets are perhaps less inclined to do given their lack of interior defense at the power forward spot.
The Rockets are going to have to be seriously concerned about transition defense. Westbrook grabs a defensive rebound and steams down the floor and pulls up for a mid-range jumper or a three - swish. Anyone who has watched even one Thunder game this year has probably seen that play at least 5-6 times. It's just his bread and butter. Beverley is going to have to just play tight on him in transition and perhaps be ready for Westbrook to blow past him and make him look silly. The play above also shows the danger of the Westbrook outlet pass to Oladipo. This will be a real concern when Harden, Eric Gordon or Lou Williams picks up Oladipo rather than Trevor Ariza. The Thunder rank third in fastbreak points (the Rockets come in at four). For both sides, this is going to be an aspect that could ultimately decide the series. So what kind of schemes and ploys can D'Antoni throw the Thunder's way with a fairly thin frontline and suspect defensive two-guards?
Firstly, D'Antoni can experiment with the 'Tony Allen treatment' against Andre Roberson. The Thunder need Roberson out there to defend Harden, particularly because of how few three-pointers Westbrook actually contests. We saw the Warriors just put Andrew Bogut on Allen in the playoffs a few years ago and essentially allow him as much space as he wanted. The Rockets could decide to do something similar - perhaps put Ryan Anderson in that role and allow him to get in positions defending space around the rim and give the team more bodies on the defensive boards. Alternatively, D'Antoni could put Harden there and allow him to get into the passing lanes and keep him away from having to defend pick and rolls. Not even one of Houston's top 20 most used lineups this season had two of Nene, Clint Capela or Montrezl Harrell playing at the same time. D'Antoni knows that Anderson is going to get bullied by Gibson and Kanter, so putting him as a post defender is not ideal. Ariza is certainly an option there, although his strength can be exploited. Sam Dekker could have been an option, but his injury rules that option out. An interesting wrinkle D'Antoni has thrown in recently is having Harden defend a bigger player in the post. He has the strength to at least be a minor inconvenience and his quick hands could force a few turnovers. He also seems to be more engaged when he's guarding the post.
It's certainly an option that, if combined with making the Thunder look slow with two bigs being exploited on the perimeter, could potentially make that two bigs lineup unplayable for stretches. Of course, it's more likely to go the other way as the Thunder exploit the Rockets on the offensive glass, but it's a wrinkle that makes the series interesting. Beverley is probably not going to guard Westbrook for 45 minutes every game. It's exhausting and Gordon and Williams are too good on the offensive end not to play 20 minutes a game each. In those moments, it's likely Harden will have to guard Westbrook. The Thunder would be silly not to throw Harden in pick and rolls and hope for a slip so Adams can catch a lob pass on the roll or Westbrook can get to the rim. There's no real option for Harden here except to go under the screen and try to funnel Westbrook towards a help defender, but it's likely that the Rockets are just going to have to concede 5-10 mid-range pull-ups per game and hope for some misses. A recap on the likely matchups: Capela - Adams Anderson - Gibson (or Roberson) Ariza - Oladipo Beverley - Westbrook Harden - Roberson Things get a little more cloudy if the Rockets want to go five out with Anderson at the centre, Ariza at the four and play three guards, but that lineup is destined for a 'live or die by the three' attitude anyway. The Rockets are going to have to hold the Thunder to 110 points per game (if you can call it 'holding') in order to win four games, but their best strategy is to deny Oladipo and Kanter the ball and funnel Westbrook towards the help while hoping that they can limit points in transition and on the glass.