If he sees those (gaps) he’s aggressive, and he’s able to hit them, and he does that anywhere. So, for us, I think we’ve got to have everybody ready to guard everybody. —Jazz coach Quin Snyder, on guarding Russell Westbrook
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s no secret, reigning MVP Russell Westbrook is struggling in the first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star made history in the regular season as the first player to average a triple-double for back-to-back years, but isn’t having the same effect through the first three games of the round-one postseason series.
OKC trails Utah, 2-1, after Saturday night’s 115-102 loss at Vivint Arena.
Although Westbrook continues to average a triple double with 20.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists, he is doing it inefficiently while shooting 36.1 percent from the field with 5.3 turnovers per game.
In the last two fourth quarters, Westbrook has failed to hit a field goal and was spotted getting treatment on his upper body late in Game 3.
Still, he refuses to make any excuses.
“A lot of (expletive) going on with my body, but that’s everybody right now,” Westbrook said of any potential injury.
Utah’s approach to guarding Westbrook is simply staying in front of him at all times.
With Westbrook’s explosiveness, the team knows it isn’t possible to completely stop him for 48 minutes, but containing him isn’t far-fetched.
Ricky Rubio guarded Westbrook for much of the first half until Jazz coach Quin Snyder decided to go with Donovan Mitchell for a different look during the second half.
Westbrook would end Game 3 with 14 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and eight turnovers while going 5 for 17 from the field. He is 22 for 61 from the field and 3 for 11 from beyond the arc to start the series with 16 total turnovers.
“It’s just an adjustment we made throughout the game just to put a little bit more length, but I think that was it,” Mitchell said of defending Westbrook. “Just trying to contain him. I think I did a pretty good job. There were times where I kind of fell asleep, but I think overall I did a pretty good job and I’ve just got to be able to contain him because he likes to get out in transition and get downhill, and I just tried to limit that as much as possible.”
Not letting Westbrook see any gaps in the defense is also a major key.
Even with Jazz big men Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors protecting the rim, Westbrook is so great at attacking the basket that he can rise over most guys, so that’s another strategy being implemented.
“If he sees those (gaps) he’s aggressive, and he’s able to hit them, and he does that anywhere,” Snyder said. “So, for us, I think we’ve got to have everybody ready to guard everybody.
“Whoever that means on our team has to step up, and if we do get cross matched where there’s switches or it’s transition, guys just have to be disciplined in what they’re doing.”
Staying aware of his every move and forcing him to take — and make — the tough shots has benefitted the Jazz to this point, but with a player as talented as Westbrook, everyone knows he can go off at any time. With that said, Snyder doesn’t want his guys to get discouraged if he does go off for a breakout performance.
After the Game 3 loss where Rubio went off for a triple-double, Westbrook vowed to slow him down.
“He made some shots,” Westbrook said of Rubio. “Too comfortable, but I’ma shut that (expletive) off next game, though. Guarantee that.”
Jazz players are certainly aware of his bold declaration, with social media being so prevalent, but aren’t into making it an individual battle. Both teams returned to practice on Sunday afternoon with Game 4 set for Monday.
Time will tell if Westbrook delivers on his promise, but for now he can’t seem to crack the stingy Jazz defense. Nobody is scared of him.
“Well, he’s capable of doing that, and I think that’s something they can impact the game that way,” Snyder said. “People forget a little bit that Ricky’s played in a lot of big games. He’s played in a gold medal game when he was 17 and I don’t think you overreact to that stuff.
“One of the reasons Russell Westbrook’s a great player is that his competitiveness, so I think that’s a natural thing that you want to compete collectively and individually,” he added. “It doesn’t become really about us for any one matchup.”