With a military background, it’s clear that San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich relishes the mental game within the physical. At this level of the playoffs, it’s the toughest teams mentally that come out on top, and he has identified a weakness in the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s been well documented here why we think Russell Westbrook is not a championship point guard, and it’s been fascinating to watch Popovich try and prove our point.
We’ve seen Westbrook stew over bad plays, remain angry when teammates score because he didn’t get a foul call on the play, and take himself out of the game with his mental approach. The difference in Game 2 was that the game plan appeared engineered to cause this meltdown.
Tony Parker ran Westbrook through so many screens and attacked him so incessantly, you could see in his body language and in his decisions how it made him play worse. This culminated in a sequence in the third quarter where Russ simply grabbed Parker because he couldn’t stop him, then threw Boris Diaw to the ground when Diaw tried to set a screen on him. It was that possession where the Spurs took their biggest lead of the game at 22 points, and never were seriously threatened.
As the breakdown shows, Tony Parker decimated the Thunder by scoring and getting into the paint. He finished the game with 34 points on a remarkable 16-21 fg’s. Parker also added 8 assists and committed only 2 turnovers.
Westbrook has tried to combat that with his own offense, but his shooting percentage and assist production hasn’t been enough. His 10-24 fg’s (42%) is normally not that poor. But in a game with incredible offensive efficiency-Spurs shot 55% while Harden & Durant shot 67% on 20-30 fg’s- Westbrook’s inefficiency is somewhat glaring.
To Westbrook’s credit, he bounced back in the fourth quarter with 11 points, 2 assists, and 4 rebounds, but it was all too little, too late. One play in particular stands out as a reason why he hasn’t yet achieved championship point guard status: down 8 points with 57 seconds left, he dribbled up the court with Manu Ginbobili waiting for him at the three point line. He simply pulls up 3 feet behind the line and tosses up a brick. You miss that shot, the game is over – and the decision to ignore three better shooters is very telling. Harden was on top by himself, Kevin Durant and Derek Fisher on the weak side spacing the floor with only Kawhi Leonard in position to defend them both. This is something he will need to learn, to consistently make the right decision that most benefits the team, not himself. While he has wondrous ability to do incredible things with the basketball, as the primary ball handler going against elite defenses, he will hold the Thunder back from winning a championship until he changes his approach.