We need closers. We need young guys stepping up in the clutch. We need guys dashing their criticisms and shortcomings aside in the name of winning big games. We need potential to be realized quickly and right before our very eyes.
As fans in the digital age, our sense of patience has been eroded as 24-hour news cycles become 48-hour news cycles and waiting for a Twitter update causes our skin to crawl in anticipation. We need narratives and we need them to fit in with every myth and morsel of folklore we’ve ever concocted. We need individuals to shine and not detract from the team at the same time.
For a brief moment in time, the Thunder fit into our narratives in a dramatic way. Kevin Durant was supposed to be clutch and yet he was struggling at the end of games. In 2009-10 (counting playoffs), Kevin Durant shot just 8/31 (25.8% FG, 27.4% eFG) in the last two minutes of games with a chance to tie or take the lead. In 2010-11, Durant barely improved, shooting 10/34 (29.4% FG, 32.4% eFG) in those same situations. He couldn’t get himself free from strong defenders and had to catch the ball 30 feet away from the hoop.
There was Russell Westbrook, taking games far too personally and ruining the offensive flow. He was stealing shots from Kevin Durant and putting the team on his back in a way that rubbed many of us the wrong way. He was a potential malcontent, struggling for the spotlight on a team that was being run through, and rightfully so, Kevin Durant.
And there was also James Harden. In the 2009-10 rookie season, he was finding his way with a team growing before our very eyes. He was a role player and asked to be the eventual spark off the bench. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal but he had been grabbed third in the 2009 draft and guys like Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry were shining brightly on terrible teams out West. Harden was being catalogued as a mistake pick – someone who couldn’t possibly live up to his selection and those taken after him.
Fast-forward to the end of this season and everything is coming up Millhouse for the Thunder. Kevin Durant has turned into a pretty deadly end of the game closer, improving that situational shooting to 17/43 (39.5% FG, 46.5% eFG) and is 6/8 in those situations in the playoffs (75% FG, 81.3% eFG). Russell Westbrook has curbed his personal matchups on the court, created a deadly pull-up jumper from midrange and was seen setting screens for Durant at the end of games in the best set OKC has run all playoffs. And James Harden was the league’s best Sixth Man this season and has been one of the best clutch performers in the playoffs (8/11 in the final 2 minutes of the 4th or overtime).
Not only are the Thunder a young bunch of superstars taking control of the league, but also they’re shining in the second halves of games. No matter how greatly or poorly the Thunder have been in the first half of games this postseason, they’ve been annihilating their opponents in the second half. Here are some of the numbers from their second half prowess throughout the playoffs:
- The Thunder’s second half offensive rating from round to round has grown from 105.9 against the Mavs to 110.9 against the Lakers to 114.0 against the Spurs. That’s right; as the playoffs get tougher and the stakes get higher, the Thunder’s offense is just getting better.
- The Spurs lead the entire NBA in the playoffs in second half offensive rating with 112.5 but dropped down to a 109.0 against OKC.
- The Thunder had a True Shooting percentage of 61.6% in the second half against the Spurs. By comparison, the Spurs and Thunder both led the league in TS% with a 55.6% during the regular season.
- Kevin Durant had a True Shooting percentage of 66.2% against the Spurs. In the second halves of games against the Spurs, he had a TS percentage of 74.5%. Those numbers need a straight jacket.
- James Harden had a TS percentage of 64.1% against the Spurs and that number rose to 78.7% in the second half. Again, throw his percentage and Durant’s percentage into some sort of padded room.
- Kevin Durant leads the NBA in the playoffs in shot attempts in the last two minutes of a basketball game with a chance to tie or take the lead with eight. Russell Westbrook has only taken two shots in that situation. Looks like Russ isn’t ball hogging to steal the spotlight, like many feared last year.
- Oh by the way, Kevin Durant has made six of those eight shots – the best percentage of anybody that has taken more than one. By comparison, LeBron has gone 3/7 and Kobe went 0/7 in those situations.
It’s strange how much we individualize something that has proven to be a team sport in every season of its existence. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest individual athletes of all time and he won two titles in his 13-year career. Jerry West was one of the greatest scorers and crunch time players in the history of the league and yet he went 1-8 in NBA Finals appearances, losing to the Celtics TEAM concept in six of those Finals. Michael Jordan couldn’t get past the Detroit Pistons until he found a way to get the rest of his team ready for the big show. Kobe Bryant needed an All-Star big man at his side to win titles, whether he was the leader or the second banana.
We often ask players to burst through the scene, be bigger than the game itself and still have their team win. It’s almost hypocritical how we judge them and still hold their team’s success squarely on their shoulders and not anybody else’s.
What we’ve received in this version of the Oklahoma City Thunder is a team of individuals that dominate within the team concept. Kevin Durant can do whatever he wants on the offensive end of the court without a lot of guys even bothering him. Russell Westbrook can dominate at any point in the game without often detracting from his team’s success. James Harden can take the reins from these guys and show he’s one of the best pure scorers in the NBA. Scott Brooks has figured out a way to get all of these individual talents to take turns and mesh together within their team concept.
Everything that was supposed to be the downfall or shortcoming for this OKC team is now a seemingly unstoppable strength. The Thunder give us every narrative we’ve ever wanted and tuck us in tightly before they put the game to sleep.