Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com took the time to layout the game plan the Portland Trail Blazers utilized to slow down the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night; specifically the one-man wrecking crew that is Russell Westbrook.
For the three of you that are unaware, Kevin Durant left the Thunder in the off-season and took his wagon west to the Golden State Warriors, which left a gaping hole in the Thunder’s offensive attack. While it’s not a totally measurable concept, the impact that Durant’s departure has had on the team can be seen in they stylistic approach to the game.
In a league obsessed with the 3-pointer, the Thunder have never been that team, and this season -- without Durant -- they are especially anemic from outside. While Oklahoma City ranks in the middle of the pack in attempting 3s, the team's 32.8 percent accuracy ranks 26th in the league.
Instead, the Thunder's offense relies on beating a path to the rim. Oklahoma City takes a league-high 38.3 percent of its shots in the restricted area, per NBA.com/Stats.
Basically, sans Durant, the Thunder have become a predictable opponent, attacking the paint relentlessly, albeit with one of the most dynamic and potent guards in NBA history. Portland was able to hand the Thunder their second largest loss of the season (19 points) based on a game plan that was designed to take away the Thunder’s biggest strength.
The combination of the Thunder's non-shooting and effectiveness getting to the basket leads to an inevitable conclusion: The best way to stop Oklahoma City is to pack the paint defensively, sagging off shooters and creating extra resistance around the rim.
Nobody has achieved that better than Portland did Tuesday. After the game, Blazers coach Terry Stotts highlighted his team's "presence in the paint -- not just the guy guarding [Westbrook] or the screener, but everybody. I thought that was effective for us."
Let the irony sink in here. The Portland Trail Blazers packed the paint and took away inside scoring opportunities at the rim. The thing is, the Blazers have taken away those all season long.
When Westbrook did get into the paint, he found a big man in his path with enough help to recover and defend after a Westbrook pass. In this case, Enes Kanter missed a contested attempt over Meyers Leonard.
Despite lacking a strong shot blocker, Portland actually has surrendered the league's second-lowest shooting percentage in the restricted area at 55.8 percent this season. (The Utah Jazz, who host the Thunder tonight, are at 54.9 percent behind the more traditional rim protection of Rudy Gobert.)
For the Blazers, it shows that when they deny and contest all paint chances, not just those at the rim, they can be a solid defensive presence capable of keeping an opponent off-balance. It’s not without sacrifice though, a team that can knock down shots from the outside and maintain a presence down low will still test Portland’s ability to defend and serves as the next step in the maturation process for the Blazers.