The Oklahoma City Thunder rely on a lot of factors, like every other NBA team, but the performance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook determines almost everything for them, especially in close games, which have been a problem this season.
Not all the time. They beat the Houston Rockets 111-107 in a close and filled with lead-changes game, thanks to a surprising defensive play by Dion Waiters of all people, who stole the bad pass from James Harden to Dwight Howard, which would have set up Howard with an easy two points to tie the game. Instead, leading 109-107, Westbrook got to be fouled, make two free throws and close the game with his 15th triple double of the season, finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists.
Westbrook is a bottle of energy waiting to be unleashed. You can see him at his best on the open floor with some of the most powerful dunks in the league and emotion oozing out of him when things are going well. But he also shot 0-for-7 from beyond the arc (30% shooter this season, which isn’t stopping him from taking 4.2 shots per game. With the Thunder leading by just one point heading into the fourth and quite a few blown leads late in the game this season, all eyes went to Westbrook.
Why him and not Kevin Durant? Durant does make mistakes in the fourth, but he doesn’t lose his head. Westbrook, in close games with little time on the clock, tends to stop thinking. He goes for the craziest gambles on defense which often don’t work and loses all discipline on offense, taking bad shots with plenty of time on the clock and often ignoring his teammates and even Durant during these moments, unlike most of the game when he puts up great assist numbers and shows vision and willingness to give up shots for others.
This time it was different. Westbrook took just one three pointer (missed it) and two pull up jumpers, making them both. He was 5-of-7 from the field in the fourth, finishing with 13 points out of his 21. Not every shot he took was what the textbook said about shot selection, but when you’re one of the best players in the NBA, you’re going to get a free pass to rely on your judgement and talent. Westbrook didn’t let the moment spin him, instead making the most of almost every opportunity he had.
This season, Westbrook’s shooting is at its worst during the fourth. He makes just 40% of his field goal attempts (45.5% the rest of the time) in the fourth and his eFG% drops to 44.7%, when it’s 49% for the entire game. That’s not too drastic of a fall, but there’s definitely a difference in most games between Westbrook early on and his performance and especially shooting efficiency later on. Heading into the playoffs, The Thunder are crossing their fingers (because that’s the best they can do about it) he picks up on that, and manages to blend a more restrained approach at times with everything else that makes him such a great player.