Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has never been a player who's minced words or given much thought to reporter's questions. He's upfront with his dislike for the media, and in turn, laughing off questions (as seen above) isn't surprising behavior from him. Reporters expect non-answers or scoffs from Westbrook at this point. But this time, it's different.
After Thursday night's 120-111 road loss to the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, ESPN reporter Michelle Steele asked Westbrook and running mate Kevin Durant if they thought Warriors point guard and back-to-back NBA MVP Steph Curry was "underrated" as a defender.
All Westbrook could do was laugh.
To save the press conference from silence, Durant went ahead and answered with a backhanded compliment for Curry's defensive prowess.
He went on to explain that Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors' two best perimeter defenders, often guard Westbrook over the course of the game — a fact Curry earnestly acknowledged when asked to respond to Durant's quote.
That's just Russ being Russ.
Durant and Westbrook are wrong though. In this series, Curry has been guarding the Thunder's best point guard during these Western Conference Finals, and he's been doing it well. After the Warriors' Game 4 loss in Oklahoma City forced them down 1-3 in the series, the lineup decision to put Curry on Westbrook so often was heavily criticized. As the takes read, Curry's poor shooting performance in Game 4 could be attributed to the exhausting assignment of guarding Westbrook's all-turbo-everything style — all of which is exasperated by his lingering knee injury.
But as great as Westbrook's been this series (28 points, 11 rebounds, 6.6 assists on average), Curry's actually given him fits. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, Curry's been Westbrook's primary defender for 25 of his shot attempts. On those plays, Westbrook has only hit 32 percent of them for 0.70 points per play. When anyone else on the Warriors takes on Westbrook, he's shot 44 percent on 84 attempts, good for 0.97 points per play.
In the Thunder's Game 4 win, Westbrook shot 3-8 when Curry guarded him, and in Game 5, he shot 0 for 3. In fact, Curry was arguably the best defender on the court on Thursday night, putting up the highest defensive rating (101) of all players who played over 30 minutes. Across both games, Curry has shadowed Westbrook's kinetic offensive attacks, keeping Westbrook in front of him through tough pick and roll screens.
None of this is new though. When needed, he's been a top defender for his position for over a year. His Defensive Rating during wins this season has been 102, and he finished 10th in the league in Defensive Win Shares, per Basketball Reference. And while it's not the best defensive metric, Curry did lead the NBA in steals per game this season. Curry's defense has never been "underrated," but it seems like Durant and Westbrook won't give the handsy guard his due.
So, as for Durant's comments: We'd say this Game 5 defense on Durant is "pretty good."
Game 6 heads back to Oklahoma City on Saturday. The Warriors are still down 3-2. Westbrook can afford to laugh for now, but come Saturday, Curry will surely use Westbrook's flippant reaction as fuel to go home to play a decisive Game 7. And that's nothing to laugh at.