According to Gene Hackman in The Replacements, "Winners always want the ball, when the game is on the line", and he'd know. After all, even when he was coaching a pass-first, old style basketball team in Hoosiers, his star Jimmy Chitwood says "I'll make it" in regards to why he should get the ball on the last play. (For the record, in my mind it's the same coach in both The Replacements and Hoosiers)
This is the mythos of clutch. When the game is on the line, the star needs to take the ball and will his team to a win. And the Thunder followed this blueprint. While Durant is the MVP, Westbrook has been the Thunder's best player so far this postseason. (He was atrocious against the Grizzlies however; variance happens, and Westbrook is still overrated)
That said, Westbrook took the "clutch star" role seriously last night. With a minute twenty three seconds left, the Thunder trailed the Clippers. Here's how the Thunder spent the remainder of their offensive possessions:
- Russell Westbrook slips off Darren Collison and charges toward the hoop. Danny Granger and Jamal Crawford are so shocked by this they stand and watch as Westbrook ties up the game 97-97 with a layup.
- Russell Westbrook gets the ball from a double-teamed Durant. Again he charges toward the hoop. This time Danny Granger is directly in his path. Westbrook doesn't care and keeps going until his body is stopped by Granger's. He puts up a 6 foot contested jumper that misses. (This shot comes up below. Wait for it.)
- Westbrook is guarded by Collison again. Again he charges straight at the hoop. Collison does his best matador impression as Westbrook gets another easy layup.
- After a last-second rebound by Ibaka, Westbrook gets the ball. With a second on the clock he takes a long contested three to win the game....and misses.
It would be easy to take away that I want to chastise Westbrook here. Oddly, I don't really. He took advantage of subpar defense (oh man, Collison and Granger: do something!) and took the ball to the hoop several times. Of course, as we saw on one of those plays, even basic defense (you know, stay in front of your guy) resulted in a bad shot. And the last second three point shot had a lot to do with the fact that the Thunder were out of timeouts and only had five seconds. We can ask why Ibaka gave the ball to Westbrook, who is even worse than Ibaka at three point shooting this season. But of course, there was very little time to think and act, and the Thunder did the best they could and it almost worked.
The key is the Thunder's clutch model was classic. Give the "dominant" shooter the ball and he'll take the game winning or game tying shot. And this is exactly what Westbrook did. How does this compare to the Clippers?
The Clippers' last four offensive possessions looked quite a bit different. Here's how they shook out:
- Chris Paul drives towards the hoop and is double teamed. He passes the ball back to Jamal Crawford, who is open at the three point line. Crawford shoots and scores, giving the Clippers their first lead of the game and Chris Paul his 9th assist.
- Chris Paul drives towards the hoop (again) and passes the ball to an open Collison on the three point line. Collison is a bit more gun shy than Crawford. He pump fakes Durant, drives the lane, pump fakes Ibaka and scores an easy layup. Chris Paul picks up his 10th assist.
- After Griffin rebounds Westbrook's missed shot he gives it to Jamal Crawford. Crawford spots a wide open Collison darting to the hoop. Crawford sends him a full court pass, another easy layup for Collison, another assist for the Clippers, and the game winning basket has been scored.
- Collison with the ball on the perimeter. He drives to the hoop and then passes to Blake Griffin standing right at the basket. Griffin shoots but is contested by Ibaka. Missed shot, and Ibaka gets the ball with 5 seconds left. Also worth noting, there were two seconds on the shot clock when Griffin took his shot.
Every single one of the Clippers' last shots was a pass to an open player, who was usually close to the hoop. There was no "hero ball". The Clippers had three different passers and three different scorers over four different plays. Westbrook's last second plays were contingent on him being able to outplay one or more players (which, to his credit, he managed to do two out of the three times). The Clippers plays got a player open for a good shot four times!
In a close game we can't point to one thing winning or losing the game. Over forty eight minutes, nineteen players, three officials, and two coaches all had a part in determining the outcome of the game. And even looking at Westbrook as a ballhog, his last second efforts got the Thunder as close as possible to winning. However, hero ball is hardly ever a recipe for success, as Henry Abbott has attested to many times.
As we've said before, clutch comprises a very small portion of the game. However, the Thunder's strategy to end the game was to give the ball to Westbrook. Despite his recent hot play, his shooting this game was actually much closer to average. If the Thunder keep giving Westbrook the ball and expecting him to be a hero? Well, they need to hope the Clippers continue to play bad defense or that Westbrook continues to play above his normal level. But if I had to pick the more effective style to close a game, I'd be looking at the Clippers.