Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook: A Clash of Styles

A look at the Thunder-Clippers series, and how the prevailing style of point guard play will likely determine who wins it.

One of the most intriguing matchups to watch in the entire second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs is between Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Both are superstars, they play the same position at point guard, and they both do it masterfully, albeit with completely different styles.

The way CP3 plays the point guard position is like classical music. The beauty in his game is found in precision and the smallest of nuances. A crisp entry pass on the bounce is a staple, like a small, tender flourish on a finely tuned violin. The way he controls the pace of a game, knowing precisely when to get his guys going and when to take things solo, shows the professionalism and poise of a first-chair classical musician. The understanding of pace, rhythm, and proper cadence are all essential to the listening/playing experience.

Westbrook, on the other hand, plays the point guard position like jazz. The beauty of his game is in the chaos, the risks taken to go to places outside comfort zones and exploit the differences found within. Veering off the beaten path is encouraged, even celebrated, as unusual chord progressions are created and patented on the spot. The way he gets lost in his own groove, like a lead trumpet busting out a blistering and lengthy solo in a sweaty jazz club, is both excruciating and exhilarating in the way it tests what you believe to be right, while somehow making you wish it could always be done his way.

Maybe you are in the habit of throwing on a Mahler symphony in the car during your daily commute or perhaps you prefer dimming the lights at home and indulging completely and utterly into an old dusty vinyl of Miles Davis b-sides. Regardless of whether you like the traditional and controlled play of Chris Paul or the chaotic and unpredictable game of Russell Westbrook, this matchup has plenty for any hoops fan to enjoy. Let’s take a look at the story so far.

Season Series

Despite the fact that CP3 and Westbrook missed a combined 56 games this season due to injury, they both managed to be available for all four games that their respective teams played against each other this year. The teams alternated wins and finished the series at 2-2.

Chris Paul.455.33318.56.312.01.32.5+1.6
Russell Westbrook.397.23518.

Overall, they performed fairly evenly, with the exception of CP3 having the edge in shooting percentages and assists. Digging a little deeper into the matchup, according to SportVU, the two players spent roughly 55 minutes of game time guarding each other over the span of the four games, and the numbers suggest that they were each largely responsible for the other’s drop in efficiency during the series.

Westbrook clearly flustered CP3 and denied him shots, as Paul only managed to get up 6 attempts in 26 minutes of being guarded by Russ, and hit only 2 of them (.333 shooting from the floor). CP3’s lack of effective shooting was compounded by the fact that he was only able to get to the line for two free throws with Russ guarding him. He was essentially shut down as a scorer when he drew Westbrook as a defender.

Westbrook, meanwhile, was able to get up a lot more shots against Paul, but certainly didn’t make the most of his opportunities. He put up 23 shots in the 29-plus minutes that he had Paul shadowing him, but only connected on 6 of them (a shooting percentage of .261). On the plus side, however, Westbrook managed to draw a lot of fouls on Paul, as he went to the line for 12 free throws over that span. The resulting .522 free throw rate (free throw attempt per field goal attempt) is very high, and could be a key to this series if he can draw Paul into foul trouble and get him out of the game (more on that in a minute).

Game 1

The first two games of this series were heavily determined by point guard play, with both Paul and Westbrook putting up a dominant performance apiece, and each getting the win in their respective masterpieces. In Game 1, it was point god Chris Paul who got the edge and a convincing 122-105 road win in OKC.

CP3 went absolutely nova, scoring 26 points on 12 of 14 shooting from the field and 8 of 9 from beyond the arc. He chipped in 10 assists and only turned the ball over twice in an absolute game for the ages. One interesting takeaway from his stellar performance is that 13 of his 14 shots were uncontested. That’s not to diminish how crazy his percentages were at all, just to simply point out that he was left open a lot and he made the Thunder pay for it.

In that same game, Westbrook scored 29 points on 9 of 14 shooting from the field and 2 of 5 from deep. A good game on the surface, but he was criticized for only managing 4 assists while turning the ball over 6 times. He was a -16 in his 30 minutes of playing time and clearly didn’t handle his assignment of containing Chris Paul as well as Thunder fans would’ve liked.

Game 2

In Game 2 it was Westbrook who laughed last and laughed best in the Thunder's 112-101 victory. He put up an efficient line, scoring 31 points on 12 of 22 shooting from the field and 2 of 4 from long range. He chipped in 10 rebounds (4 offensive) and 10 assists to round out the triple-double, his third of the postseason (which is three more than any other player). He also reduced his turnover total to 4, resulting in a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, which was a marked improvement over his 0.66 rate in Game 1.

Paul, in the meantime, was mired in foul trouble early and never managed to recapture the rhythm he had going in the first game of the series. He finished with 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 11 assists, but shot a much more human 6 of 13 from the floor and 2 of 5 from deep. This was most likely a result of the fact that 7 of his 13 shots were contested in the second game (53.8%), compared to only 1 of 14 (7.0%) in the first.

Tonight and Going Forward

Westbrook put forth one of the best performances of his career in Game 2 to counter one of the best games of Paul’s in Game 1. Overall, the two have pretty amazing lines through two games.

Chris Paul0.6670.71424.53.510.51.52.5
Russell Westbrook0.6110.44430.

Kevin Durant is the league’s MVP and Blake Griffin came in third in the voting, but, if the first two games are any indication, this series seems like it will come down to who gets the advantage at the point guard position.

Chris Paul has been the unquestioned best point guard in the league for some time now, particularly from a traditionalist point of view. Even so, he’s never been beyond the second round of the playoffs and has that cross to bear as he tries to propel the Clippers into the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

On the other side of the coin, Russell Westbrook perpetually has everything to prove. He is often the goat in OKC when things go wrong, but it would be hard to deny that victories like Game 2 of this series and Games 6 and 7 in the first-round matchup against Memphis were largely attributed to his grit and tenacity.

At the end of these seven games, one of these players will have the proverbial monkey closer to being off his back, whether it be in Paul going the deepest he’s ever been in the playoffs or Westbrook showing that he is a big part of what makes OKC successful, no matter how much you don’t like him.

For Paul, it will be about creating open shots and getting guys like Griffin and DeAndre Jordan the ball where they can be successful. He'll also need to limit his fouls when guarding Westbrook in order to maximize his floor time. For Russ, it’ll be all about controlling the chaos and channeling it into good, smart basketball, while also sticking to his assignment and keeping Paul from shooting too many uncontested jumpers. No matter which style prevails, whether it be closer to classical or jazz, one thing is for certain:

We’re in for one hell of a show.