Looking at the Thunder in the Clutch
During the 2011 playoffs as well as during this regular season, Russell Westbrook has taken a lot of heat for his willingness to occasionally take over late in ball games. The narrative has been that the UCLA product has been far too trigger-happy late in ball games when in fact he should be looking for Kevin Durant. Given that Durant is a 6’11” stud scorer with a lethal jump shot, one can easily understand why many would be clamoring for KD to wind up with the ball in the clutch.
It all makes perfect sense, until one realizes that Durant is not always the best option late in games.
Scott Brooks’ unit is a poor passing team (18.1 assists per game, 27th in the NBA), which often times leads to some issues with execution late in ball games. In addition, the Thunder seem to have a mere two go to plays that they like to run in the fourth quarter to set up their scorers.
Indeed, the first play that OKC runs has Kevin Durant setting up shop in the pinch post while Russell Westbrook dribbles the ball at the top of the key right around the 3-point line. Then Westbrook will go pick-and-roll with Durant to either force the switch, where KD gets matched up with a point guard or simply it allows the Texas product to get an open look as Russ gets to drive the ball and the whole defense rotates towards him and leaves Durant unattended. Also, if the defense prefers to key in on KD, it will allow for RW to get an open look from midrange.
The other play that OKC likes to run in crunch time relies on getting the ball to Durant on the wing in an isolation set to allow him to get a one-on-one situation against his defender. Since Durant is such a prolific scorer, it’s an option that typically favors the Thunder, mind you with defenses closing up the lane in late game situations, more often than not, KD is left settling for a midrange jumper.
The second play is mostly indicative of the Thunder’s struggles when it comes time to execute late in games. Far too often, their players wind up with the ball at the 3-point line having to create some type of offense in an isolation situation. Consequently, they tend to settle for a lot of long jumpers if the defense packs the paint since they do not run much of a motion offense. And also, since they are a poor decision-making team (most turnovers per game in the league) this typically tends to show up in these situations.
Things become even more interesting when we look at Kevin Durant’s production in the clutch. According to StatsCube, if we were to project his clutch production (clutch is viewed as the last five minutes of the game when the scoring margin is within five points or less) over the course of a full game, KD’s averages would be an impressive 37.7 points per game on 31.6 field goal attempts per game and 40 percent field goal shooting. Contrarily to popular belief, Durant does get several opportunities to put the ball up in the last five minutes of the game, but the issue isn’t the amount of shots, but rather their location.
On the season, Durant has converted 10-if-24 attempts from midrange in late game situations and 4-of-14 3-point attempts (excluding corner 3-pointers, where he is 0-for-1). Given his length, one would hope that KD would get more opportunities in the paint, but in fact he has only converted 3-of-7 shots in the paint (excluding shots right at the basket where he is 6-for-11).
But here’s where things get dicey for OKC; Westbrook has been pretty good in these situations.
Just like we did with Durant, if we project Russell Westbrook’s production in the clutch into a full game, his averages would be of 32.1 points per game on 22.7 field goal attempts per game and 46 percent field goal shooting and 89 percent free throw shooting.
On midrange jumpers, Westbrook is 9-for-18 in the clutch; but only 2-for-8 inside the paint excluding the basket area, where he is 4-for-8 from the floor in clutch situations. Surprisingly, RW is 4-for-6 from 3-point range in the last five minutes of ball games where the scoring margin is within five points or less.
The tricky thing with Westbrook is that he gets far easier shot attempts than his All-Star teammate. Indeed, when the Thunder put him at the top of the floor and ask him to go pick-and-roll with Durant, defenses typically concede the jumper to him in an effort to protect the basket area and also keep the focus on KD. In addition, whenever the former Bruin gets the ball in a semi-isolation situation, defenders almost always sag off the Thunder point guard to protect against the drive, hence giving him the opportunity to rise up for an uncontested jumper.
Thus, there are several times when Russ is the best option for OKC down the stretch of games except for one little tiny problem: turnovers.
Westbrook just finds odd ways of turning the ball over. Whether it’s a charge, getting the ball swiped away from him on a drive, losing it on a post up opportunity, stepping out of bounds, running over a defender despite not having the ball, making a bad pass or bumping into a teammate and losing the ball; the All-Star guard just finds ways to cough it up. If we project his turnovers in clutch situations to a full game, Russell Westbrook would be turning the ball over 5.5 times per game.
He is far too careless with the ball and that puts a huge strain on OKC’s execution late in ball games.
Thus, if KD has it rolling, the Thunder can give him the ball and just get out his way and let him operate. But if the defense is keeping him out on the perimeter and he has trouble converting his midrange jumpers, the fate of OKC rests on Westbrook’s shoulders; and for the time being, that looks like a 50-50 proposition.
The Warriors have seen the good side of this equation as it pertains to the Durant and Westbrook combo, one would have to think that at some point things even out. Perhaps tonight’s the night…
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