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How post-ups have powered Russell Westbrook’s resurgence

In his last four games, Russell Westbrook has played some of his best basketball of the season, and a key part of his success has been a rejuvenation of his post-up game.

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Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers

Reminiscent of the viral picture-turned-meme of the guy who showed up to the funeral of his greatest hater “just to make sure he was dead,” there was Patrick Beverley, living it up while Russell Westbrook sunk down further. Halfway through another poor game in what has felt like a season full of them for the former All-Star guard, Beverley paced the sideline and goaded on his home fans, holding his nose at the exploits of his old foe.

The Lakers stunk, but even more specifically, Russ stunk. And Beverley was more than happy to flaunt that fact in the most disrespectful way he could. His teammates — namely Karl Anthony-Towns — were more than happy to join him and the mocking, and it felt like the final nail in the coffin of Russ’ cursed season. In a campaign that kept delivering new lows, this time it actually did seem like it was rock bottom.

Westbrook’s year, however, didn’t end that night. And the funny thing about rock bottom is that there’s no place to go but up.

In the four games since Westbrook was shown up by Beverley, he’s played some of his best basketball of the season. He’s scored well, and done so efficiently. He’s dished out assists and, beyond a bad 1st half vs. the 76ers, has mostly kept his turnovers in check (or, at least has eliminated the truly careless ones). He’s rebounding well, competing better defensively, and, maybe more than anything else, is back to playing with the type of spirit and belief that has been a hallmark of his hall-of-fame career; the type of spirit that had, honestly, been missing in the weeks prior.

His production in those games — 22 points on 52.2% shooting, 8.5 rebounds, and 9.3 assists to 4.5 turnovers — speaks for itself, but a thing that’s stood out to me is the return of Russ’ post-up game as a valuable weapon in his overall attack. Russ, at his best, is one of the elite power guards the NBA has ever seen. That power most shows up in his ability to drive and get into the lane vs. most any defender deployed against him, knocking them off balance en route to the cup. And over the course of the season, Russ is a high volume driver, ranking 9th in the NBA at 17 drives per game, according to the NBA’s stats site.

But, the next place it shows up most is in the low-post, particularly vs. smaller or like-sized defenders. While Russ isn’t a high-volume post-up player compared to the behemoths of the NBA, his 90 post-up possessions rank fourth among guards this season (only Luka, DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler have posted more). What stands out, however, is that Russ’ efficiency out of the post is so much worse than those other players. For the season, he’s scored a pretty abysmal .79 points per possession on post-ups (Luka, for comparison’s sake, is the next least efficient guard at .95 points per possession).

In the last four games, however, Russ has been much better in the post, and it’s been a key driver of his improving scoring efficiency. In watching every field goal he took in those contests, I logged nine post-up possessions by Russ (about the same volume he’s been at all season, roughly two possessions a game), and his scoring efficiency jumped to 1.33 points per possession used. Russ scored on six of the nine possessions, and did so confidently.

Here is a sampling:

A few themes stand out.

First, nearly every possession starts with Russ dribbling into his post-up rather than receiving an entry pass. This makes sense. Defenses sag off Russ whenever he has the ball, looking to take away the drive and turn him into a jump shooter. Russ, then, is smartly using the defense’s want to give ground against them by gobbling up that space and dribbling right into a post-up chance. This forces the defense to change their strategy and, as we see above, it’s often too late for them to keep him from getting an angle to get all the way to the rim.

Second, the general shape of the offense and the spacing around Russ intrigues, even when there are non-shooters on the floor. Of course, any lineup with Russ should have as many shooters and natural floor spacers surrounding him as possible. So, lineups with Melo, Reaves, Monk, Gabriel, or LeBron flanking him can and should be common. That said, a review of those plays also shows that either Dwight or Stanley have been in the game on every single one of those possessions.

What interests me, then, is where either of those non-shooters are positioned when Russ goes into his post-up. On one of the plays, Dwight is in the opposite dunker’s spot while, in another, Stanley is in the opposite corner behind the arc. These are the most common places for a non-shooter to stand when someone is in the post because it spaces them the furthest from the action and puts the better offensive teammates in spots that are easier to pass to.

But, on other possessions, you’ll also see both spacing to a different spot entirely: the opposite elbow. This is an interesting configuration, using both as dive threats, dump-off options, release valves, or back-side screeners once Russ goes into his move. It also keeps them in his line of vision for longer during the play, not only leveraging Russ’ passing ability to hit them directly, but also allowing him to keep their defender(s) in his peripheral view as they’re the most likely to come to help on him should he get into too threatening a position. It’s a nice wrinkle that I’ll be watching for more as the season progresses, and something Russ himself highlighted multiple times as a reason for the team’s improved play after their recent win over the Cavaliers.

“I think just positioning on the floor is better, and regardless of if we miss or make shots it allows not just myself, but other guys to get rhythm shots,” Westbrook said.

Third, and to his point about rhythm, Russ really does seem comfortable posting from the right block as his default spot. Remember, like LeBron, Russ is actually a natural left-hander who uses his right hand to shoot when playing basketball. Posting-up from the right side of the court, then, is a good way to leverage Russ going middle where he can best collapse the defense and kick-out to open shooters, shoot that little step-back “Dirk” fade that aligns better from the right wing, drop step back to his right to finish over the top if his defender overplays middle, and still effectively finish with his “off” (left) hand at the front of the rim if the defense can’t turn him away.

Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers
Russell Westbrook has found a more effective way to use the space defenses are gladly giving him: By posting up.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Lastly, it’s fairly obvious to say, but the more often Russ can have a smaller or similar-sized defender on him, the more he’s going to be able to wreak havoc in the post. Beyond the hustle and defense and other positive attributes that players like Wenyen Gabriel and Johnson bring to the Lakers as part of their natural skill sets, the thing that might just help most is that they’re both forward-sized players who are more difficult to defend with small guys.

With both emerging as viable rotation players, when either or both are in the game with Russ, that means there’s one fewer forward or big wing to switch onto Westbrook as the primary defender. This will only be more true when Anthony Davis returns. Imagine a potential starting lineup of Russ, Reaves, LeBron, Gabriel, and AD. It will be nearly impossible to stick a forward or big wing on Russ, simply because those players will need to defend LeBron, AD, and (potentially) Gabriel. This will allow Westbrook to find advantageous matchups more often and — when it’s against another guard — go to the post more.

I understand that it’s unlikely that Russ will be able to maintain this level of scoring efficiency moving forward. The way his season has gone to this point, it’d be silly to expect it. But it is clear that something has clicked in him in recent games. His driving is more purposeful, his finishing has improved, and, yes, he’s showing a return of his post game. And, it’s no coincidence that when Russ started to play well, the Lakers competitiveness in games has gone up too.

And, if that can continue when AD comes back, maybe Pat Bev didn’t go to a Lakers funeral after all. Maybe he only helped sparked a resurrection.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.