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Defending Russell Westbrook: how the Celtics contained the superstar

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The Celtics may lack a star, but on Sunday night, their defense on Russell Westbrook showed that they're capable of stopping one.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

To be clear, Russell Westbrook stuffed the stat sheet against the Celtics.  Coming into Sunday's game, he had two consecutive triple doubles and against Boston, he finished with 27 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks in the loss.  If you just looked at the box score, you would have thought he had a great game.  He went to the line 17 times--more times than he did combined in the Thunder's three-game winning streak leading up to last night--but was 5-for-20 from the field with four turnovers.  Did the Celtics stop him?  Not exactly, but they stymied him enough to get him off his game.  Some of it was tactical, but as the game progressed and turned physical, I think Boston's defense got into his head.


The Celtics ran their basic defensive scheme: ICEing picks with the wings pushing the ball handler to the sideline and the bigs keeping the action in front of them.  Here's the first possession with Marcus Smart taking away the middle of the court, Jared Sullinger dropping back into coverage, and Amir Johnson, Jae Crowder, and Isaiah Thomas playing a little free safety.


Against Westbrook, there did seem to be more awareness from the other players, too.  Oklahoma City doesn't run a lot of off ball action and instead, spaces the floor with Westbrook as the penetrator and kicker.  Here's the second possession with a very similar set up, but look at all the Celtics' eyes.  Even weak side defenders Crowder and Smart are aware of Westbrook's next move.

Early in the game, Boston was often late with their help and you just can't do that against an aggressive player like Westbrook.  As soon as he finds a gap, he'll exploit it.  But that layup and dunk and another layup later in the third quarter (plus two pull up three pointers to open the game) would be Westbrook's only field goals.  Everything else was a contested shot or a foul to put him on the line.

More or less, Boston has been playing the same man defense all year regardless of their opponent.  (For what it's worth, Stevens also threw a little 2-3 zone against Westbrook in the third quarter that immediately lead to two turnovers.)  I'm sure that Brad Stevens and his staff have crunched the numbers and found an analytical basis for it, but I think there's a mental part to it that goes well beyond the stats.

Westbrook shot chart

While Westbrook struggled with his shot and foul trouble, Smart was going off to the tune of 26 points on an efficient 14 shots.  It had turned into a head-to-head competition for Westbrook and that played right into the hands of the Celtics.  By cutting off driving lanes and giving Westbrook air space to shoot, you're trying to get him or any other superstar to take long-2's.  Long-2's aren't sexy and Westbrook doesn't want to shoot long-2's, so he settles for a bunch of pull up threes or forces the drive instead.

After the game, Westbrook seemed rattled by Smart's defense:

Stevens downplayed Smart's and Avery Bradley's individual effort on Westbrook, but Stevens is no fool.  He recognizes that basketball can sometimes become a mano-a-mano duel.  When asked about Westbrook's intimidation tactics, Stevens replied, "our guys aren't scared." During the game, after Smart got T'd up for complaining about a Westbrook elbow to his face, Stevens challenged the refs to call Westbrook for a technical foul whenever he complained.

The headline from this game will be Marcus Smart's individual performance or the team's defense on a whole, but the subtext here is that Boston is developing an identity if they don't already have it.  Bradley talked about Crowder's effect on the team's mentality: "I told Jae tonight, I feel he brings a toughness to our team. Even as far as talking trash, that gets us going." And here's Smart on the matchup with Westbrook: "That's the type of guy that Russ is. He loves challenges and he's gonna try to do his best every time, and vice versa with me," said Smart. "You put two guys like that going against each other and, obviously, we're going to knock heads."

I've said it in the past, but that three headed monster of Smart, Bradley, and Crowder presumably all back in the starting lineup and closing out games will be the tone setter for this team.  They're the biggest reason why Boston is now the 4th best defense in the league with a defensive rating of 94.4, but throw out all the numbers and you've got a young squad that dig in defensively and battle on every possession.