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How the Lakers slowed down Russell Westbrook in the 2020 playoffs, and what can be learned from it

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The Los Angeles Lakers negated Russell Westbrook during the playoffs en route to a title in the bubble. Should that have them worried about his future in Los Angeles now?

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Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

There has been an elephant in the room since the Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook earlier this offseason. Because while Westbrook is unquestionably still one of the most unique players in the league and still talented enough to average a triple-double last season with relative ease, or Lakers fans, that image most remember was one year ago ,when Westbrook was so entirely negated that the Lakers won going away against the Houston Rockets in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs inside the NBA bubble. How can the same guy who became such a non-factor that his time became better spent jawing with Rajon Rondo’s brother than trying to complete a comeback be some type of missing piece to push the Lakers back into title contention?

Two weeks ago, I looked at how Westbrook flourished in Houston alongside James Harden after a rocky start between the two. The version of Westbrook that Lakers fans saw up close and personal in that series was vastly different, both physically and how he played, though. So I wanted to refresh my memory: How were the Lakers able to neutralize Westbrook and is it something they now have to worry about with him donning the purple and gold?

First, it must be noted that Westbrook was far, far removed from the player he was pre-pandemic physically. On top of dealing with a quadriceps injury that limited him to just one non-playoff game in the bubble and ruled him out of the first four games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, Westbrook also was coming back from COVID, which he had during the league’s multi-month shutdown.

In that sense, when looking at film, he hardly looked like himself. He wasn’t the explosive player he’s made a reputation for being, and it was most noticeable when watching him attack the rim. Whereas before he would be able to launch at defenders and finish over them when fully healthy, now those defenders were winning those aerial duels, and Westbrook was struggling as a result.

Whereas Westbrook shot 64% at the rim from the start of January through the league’s shutdown in March, he shot 59% inside the bubble at the rim and 58% in the playoffs. It was a subtle change statistically, but a noticeable one on the floor, and shaped how the Lakers defended him throughout the series.

Part of what made Westbrook effective alongside Harden at his best was when he attacked after teams doubled Harden. Even with his limitations, the Lakers saw him do that early on and sporadically throughout the series.

But the Lakers weren’t simply going to allow open lanes for Westbrook to drive into the whole series. With the Rockets playing ultra small ball, Anthony Davis was assigned to Westbrook and he had just as much to do with Westbrook’s poor play as anything else.

Davis’ size, speed and athleticism allowed him to serve as a help defender in the paint while also slowing down Westbrook.

This defensive gameplan also stems from the fact that Westbrook’s 3-point shooting did not worry the Lakers. Even great defenses give up something, and the Lakers were willing to live with the consequences of allowing Westbrook to shoot open 3-pointers, especially if it allowed them to play Davis on him as well.

In the five games of that series, Davis was the primary defender on Westbrook throughout, playing just a tick under 80 total possessions on Westbrook based on NBA’s matchup data. Westbrook shot just 9-of-25 (36%) from the field, 5-of-11 (45.5%) from the 3-point line and 2-of-2 from the free throw line while scoring a total of 25 points with Davis defending him. And yes, that means Davis committed one singular shooting foul on Westbrook in 80 possessions across five games.

So, when looking at what derailed Westbrook in the playoffs against the Lakers, it largely had to do with Davis being a cheat code that other defenses don’t have. The amount of players that can both guard a player on the perimeter, stop them from driving and block them at the rim is very, very short.

And thus, once it became clear that Davis was going to swallow up Westbrook at the rim anytime he drove there, Westbrook’s mentality changed. He started settling for 3-pointers, a decision also made easier by being unable to explode at the rim like he could earlier in the year.

No longer was his mentality to catch the ball moving forward and attacking the space the defense gave him. Instead, he hoisted 3-pointers at a high rate. In five games, he shot 27 3-pointers. From Jan. 1 to March 15, he only shot 51 3-pointers in a span of 23 games.

By the end of the series, the Lakers — and specifically Davis — were wholly unworried about Westbrook’s 3-point shooting, and Westbrook was wholly uninterested in the idea of driving into the paint to challenge Davis, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard and whoever else awaited him.

Westbrook tried other avenues of attacking, cutting off the ball to try to find open spaces, an area game he’s long excelled at but sparingly used. However, once he got away from Davis, it was often LeBron James waiting for him next, leading to similarly poor results for Westbrook.

There is no singular reason Westbrook struggled against the Lakers in the playoffs. A big part of it was injuries and COVID. Another big part was going up against Davis on a nightly basis. Blend those two together with other smaller factors like the Rockets’ roster construction, the Lakers’ team defense, a small sample size and the circumstances of the games in the bubble and it’s the perfect mixture for a subpar performance on a big stage.

In that sense, none of that should be problems for the Lakers. Health is out of their control, and he’ll be lining up alongside Davis now. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be worried about. Westbrook’s willingness to shoot 3-pointers is worrisome, and remains one of the biggest questions about his fit with the Lakers.

Westbrook has taken 3,481 3-pointers since entering the league and connected on just 30.5% of them. Twenty-two other players have taken at least that many 3-pointers in NBA history, and all of them have a higher 3-point percentage than Westbrook. In fact, of the 101 players in league history with at least 3,000 3-point attempts, Westbrook ranks worst, 101st in 3-point percentage.

If things go awry in Los Angeles for the Lakers this season, it just might be because Westbrook resorted to hoisting from range with the space given to him. This series is a showcase of how poorly that will go if that’s the choice he makes.

The hope is that James is the type of player and leader that can keep Westbrook focused, along with Davis and head coach Frank Vogel. Westbrook has said the right things leading up to the season, but as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. And at his best, Westbrook can be a key piece on a team like the Rockets, a group many predicted would beat the Lakers, or at least make them work for a series victory. But at his worst, he can be the virtual non-factor he became by the end of the series in Houston. Which version the Lakers get will get a long way in determining their ceiling.

Let us know what you think in the comments below, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.