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'Nobody else can do what I can do': How the Thunder has approached guarding Russell Westbrook this season

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Russell Westbrook returns to Oklahoma City on Thursday for the first time since he was traded to the Houston Rockets during the offseason. [AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith]
Russell Westbrook returns to Oklahoma City on Thursday for the first time since he was traded to the Houston Rockets during the offseason. [AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith]

Russell Westbrook sat back in his chair, his shadow floating next to the Thunder logo behind him.

“Nobody else can do what I can do on a night in, night out basis, and I truly believe that,” Westbrook said in his April exit interview. “If they could, I'm pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”

As Oklahoma City prepares to welcome Westbrook back on Thursday, when he steps into Chesapeake Energy Arena as a member of the road team for the first time in his career, the Thunder has a less emotional task. It has to figure out how to slow a player as unique as Westbrook on a night when Thunder fans’ allegiances are torn. And it has to do so when he’s playing alongside the NBA’s leading scorer.

“It’s going to be great,” Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo said. “He’s going to come with a lot of energy, and we’re going to come out with a lot of energy.”

The Thunder’s first game against the Rockets gave it a preliminary blueprint to work from. The team reunited with Westbrook in Houston four games into the season. At that point, the overhauled Thunder roster – pieced together in part by the trades that sent Paul George to the Clippers and Westbrook to the Rockets this summer – still looked unbalanced. Too many point guards. Not enough small forwards.

And yet, the Thunder lost by just four points, on the road, against a Western Conference contender.

Only later would Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s many three-guard lineups become familiar, and successful, in OKC. But on Oct. 28 in Houston, those undersized but quick lineups matched up against a star powered Houston backcourt.

Westbrook’s explosiveness in transition, his zipping kick-out passes, his ability to defy physics, that was all there. He scored 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting, his second-most efficient scoring night of the season. That might have had something to do with the fact that he only took one 3-point shot -- Westbrook is shooting just 23.5% from 3-point range this season. He also came just one assist shy of a triple double and added 12 rebounds.

OKC often takes a by-committee approach to defending opposing teams’ best offensive players. In the Rockets’ case, the Thunder did so for both James Harden and Westbrook.

Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder primarily defended Harden, who paced the Rockets with 40 points (1.6 points above his league-leading average). That left Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo to match up on Westbrook.

Gilgeous-Alexander had experience guarding Westbrook from last season. But Diallo only had experience from last season's Thunder practices to draw on, when going up against his former teammate.

“That’s a big part of his game as well,” Westbrook said of Diallo's defense, “finding ways to challenge himself night in, night out.”

According to NBA.com, Westbrook shot just 33.3% when either Gilgeous-Alexander or Diallo was matched up on him. Four of Westbrook’s nine made baskets came either on fast breaks or out of mismatches. Another two were putbacks.

Solid plan. The Thunder's approach to defending Westbrook just needs a few tweaks Thursday.

“It’s going to be a unique moment when he steps back on the Chesapeake floor,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a statement Wednesday, “a chance for people to recognize someone that will always figure prominently into the history of our city.”

But for the Thunder players who are on the floor with Westbrook, it will first be a test against his unique skill set.

Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›

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