Two minutes into the third quarter of Thursday’s 103-99 home win versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, the TNT broadcast provided a glimpse of Gregg Popovich coaching Dejounte Murray. “Be ferocious; that’s what he is,” Pop told his point guard. “Learn it. Learn it. Learn it.”
“He” in this instance is Russell Westbrook, the most aggressive, relentless and physically dominant point guard in the league. Well, at least on most nights he is. In this primetime, nationally televised matchup between two teams jockeying for playoff seeding, Westbrook was held to 7-of-19 shooting and seven turnovers compared to just five assists. The reigning MVP didn’t just happen to have an off-night, much of it was due to 21-year-old Murray, who apparently listened to his coach and learned something in this one. He flummoxed Westbrook all night, jumping passing lanes and forcing contested shots at the rim.
Murray finished the game with a versatile, albeit unspectacular stat line - seven points on 3-of-8 shooting, seven assists, eight rebounds, five steals and just two turnovers. After the game, though, Pop was gushing about Murray’s performance (or at least as close to gushing as Pop gets).
Pop after Murray stuffed the stat sheet with 7 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals and 1 block to go along with solid 'D' vs. Westbrook: "This was— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) March 30, 2018
Dejounte’s best game as a pro."
Orsborn’s proclamation of “solid ‘D’” turned out to be a solid understatement. Per NBA.com matchup data, Murray defended Westbrook during 37 possessions, by far the highest number on the team (the second most frequent matchup for Russ was just nine possessions). During those 37 possessions, Murray held the Thunder superstar to two points on 1-of-8 shooting and five (!) turnovers. Murray snared four of his game-high five steals off Westbrook passes, and each of those steals led to fast breaks on the other end:
In the play below, Murray provides off-ball help to an over-matched Patty Mills. The result is a steal, fast break and Kyle Anderson free throws during a crucial part of the game.
That wasn’t his only clutch defensive play, either. In perhaps the biggest defensive stand of the game, Murray gets caught on a ball screen from Steven Adams, but stays with the play and breaks up a potential lob to Adams, one of the best roll men in the league.
The best part of Murray’s steals in this game was that he was not gambling and putting his teammates at risk. He was playing sound defense within the team’s system, and that’s reflected by the on/off numbers. During the 30 minutes Murray was on the floor, the Spurs held OKC to 89.3 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Boston Celtics have the best defensive rating in the league allowing 101.2 points per 100 possessions. In the 18 minutes he was on the bench, OKC exploded for 120.5 points per 100 possessions (again, for reference, the Phoenix Suns own the league’s worst defense, giving up 110.8 points per 100 possessions). That disparity certainly has something to do with Tony Parker’s defensive liabilities, but it also helps illustrate Murray’s defensive value, particularly in this game.
Another major reason for Westbrook’s struggles was his inefficiency at the rim. Coming into the game, he was shooting about 60% on eight shots per game within the restricted area. On Thursday, Russ finished 5-of-12 in the restricted area, a measly 41.7%. In the play below, Murray stays in front of Westbrook in transition and slows him down, allowing for Anderson to come over and Slo-Mo swat the ball out of bounds:
Murray’s constant activity had every Thunder opponent second-guessing their decisions, as evidenced by his game-high seven deflections. And in a game of this speed, even split seconds of indecision can be the difference between scoring and a turnover. If Murray can consistently be as ferocious defensively as Westbrook is offensively, he’s going to be a problem for opponents for the next decade.
A couple more notes:
- If you actually think DJM fouled Paul George on this critical three-point attempt, I can’t help you. And, if the Spurs ended up losing because of that bogus call, it would have been a traveshamockery.
- I was positively hyped after Danny Green’s patented chase down block of Paul George (and Kevin Harlan’s incredible call of, “BY GEORGE,” which made just enough sense to not question it).
- Aldridge went on to nail both free throws, making that sequence a four-point swing . . . in a game that was decided by only four points. It’s one of my favorite plays of the year.
- Speaking of Aldridge, in the last Study Hall, I detailed his domination of Rudy Gobert, the best defensive big in the league. Particularly in the first half of this game, Aldridge absolutely had his way with Adams, likely a top-five defensive big himself, and one of the strongest players in the game. Aldridge was bodying Adams, absorbing contact and still hitting his shots. The dude has been a beast.