Green & Leonard help keep Westbrook, Durant away from paint, free throw line

AT&T CENTER – One adjustment the San Antonio Spurs made defensively in gave five Thursday, was by switching their perimeter defenders Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, on Oklahoma City Thunder All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Leonard had Westbrook as his assignment, while Green had current MVP Durant as his task defensively.

Westbrook and Durant finished the game with a combined 46 points on 17-of-33 shooting (52%), which on the surface was a very efficient night. However, as you dig deeper into the statistics and why Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich elected to make the switch defensively, it begins to reveal how the Spurs held the Thunder as a team, below 24 points in every quarter, after the first.

“As I’ve said before, they just tried to make those guys work as hard as they can,” said Popovich after the game of Leonard and Green. “They’re (Westbrook and Durant) great players, they’re All-Stars. They’re going to continue to be, and we’re going to hear from those guys for a long time to come, so you’re not going to stop either of them.”

“But I think Danny and Kawhi worked as hard as they could on it,” finished Popovich.

One of the key areas where Green and Leonard had an effect, was in keeping Westbrook and Durant out of the paint as much as possible, and off of the free throw line. Westbrook in particular, only got two shots at the rim, as you can see by his shot chart.

Russ Game 5

First in looking at Westbrook, he finished the game with 21 points and shot 9 free throws. Per the SportVU data, Westbrook shot 3-of-4 on contested shots, and 3-of-8 uncontested. Overall, 50% of his shots were contested by the Spurs’ defense.

“I think I did okay,” said Leonard of guarding Westbrook, a game after Westbrook had scored 40 points in game four. “We all did well as a group defensively, by just keeping a hand up and forcing difficult shots for everyone. Everyone was there with a hard hedge and just playing the game with aggression and being physical.”

In observing Westbrook’s shot attempts when Leonard and Green defended him, I charted his shots like this.

Defender vs. Westbrook FG FG%
Leonard 5/10 50%
Green 1/1 100%

Again, even though those are very efficient shooting percentages, almost all of them came from outside jumpers, not from Westbrook attacking the paint. Leonard’s length and quickness allowed him to go around screens so he could close off driving lanes from Westbrook, which forced Westbrook to settle for jumpers. With the Spurs’ defense holding the Thunder to 43% shooting on the night, it only allowed the Thunder 4 fast break points on the night, on 2-of-5 shooting. For Westbrook to only attempt 12 shots and just 9 free throws, was a quiet, efficient defensive performance by Leonard and the Spurs.

Durant finished with 25 points on 11-of-21 shooting, but he only got 4 free throw attempts in 37 minutes. Using the SportVU data, Durant shot 9-fo-15 on contested looks, and 2-of-6 uncontested. 71% of Durant’s looks were contested by the Spurs’ defense.

When I went back and charted Durant’s shooting against Green and Leonard, here’s what I found.

Defender vs. Durant FG FG%
Green 2/5 40%
Leonard 1/4 25%

In going back and looking at the game film, Durant mainly got a majority of his points off of possessions where Manu Ginobili, or one of the Spurs’ big men was caught guarding him. Against Green and Leonard, Durant wasn’t as efficient in scoring the basketball.

So exactly why did Popovich elect to go with the switch before the game? According to Green, it went back to how the Thunder were using the Westbrook – Durant pick-and-roll to take advantage of the Spurs’ defense in game four.

“Pop wanted to try something new,” Green told me, “because they like to run a lot of pick-and-rolls 1-3 with Russ and KD. We figured that we could just switch.”

“But they didn’t do it a lot tonight,” continued Green. “I guess he trusted in me and everybody else to help me out, to keep him (Durant) under control a little bit, but we know they’ll probably run more 1-3 pick and rolls in Game 6.”

As you can see from that last line by Green, you might expect to see Green on Durant and Leonard on Westbrook Saturday in game six. It worked in San Antonio on this Thursday night, the question is whether it’ll work Saturday in Oklahoma City?

(Statistics via, SportVU, Synergy Sports)

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.