OKLAHOMA CITY — Nikola Vucevic missed his second free throw and Russell Westbrook hauled in the rebound with 12 seconds left. The Oklahoma City Thunder were down three in Orlando in late March, and as Westbrook crossed half court with 10 seconds on the clock, the Magic had already devoted two defenders, Elfrid Payton and Terrence Ross, to him on the ball. Two others, Vucevic and Evan Fournier, lurked nearby, their eyes locked on Westbrook.
Aaron Gordon was standing at the top of the key, by no one in particular, just sort of watching, leaving his man, sharpshooter Doug McDermott, uncovered in the opposing corner. Gordon knew what basically everyone in the arena did: It didn’t matter if the Magic emptied their whole bench onto the floor. Westbrook was putting up the shot.
With a little hesitation dribble, Westbrook earned a sliver of separation, planted and elevated. He was a little off balance, and a little deep. But as the ball did so often in those situations last season, it went in for Westbrook, setting up overtime. It came a night after he drilled a winner against the Mavericks, and a few days before he hit an iconic buzzer-beater in Denver that had an opposing arena chanting his name.
Westbrook owned clutch time last season, building an MVP campaign largely on late-game heroics. Westbrook attempted 184 of the Thunder’s 303 clutch-time shots (last five minutes, margin within five) last season. His usage rate was 62.3. If it was close, or the Thunder had a big shot to take, the ball was Russell Westbrook’s, full stop.
“Carmelo’s been a closeout guy the places he’s been, the same thing with Paul. But any time you have a team you have to do it by finding the open man,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Clearly for us last year, somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else, it was Russell. But obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here, I think it’s about making the right play and right decision.”
As comfortable as Westbrook was in that role last season, and as much as he relished it, it was an adjustment. His first eight seasons he spent largely deferring to Kevin Durant in clutch time.
Westbrook had his moments, of course, but so much of the Thunder’s well-documented crunch-time issues under former coach Scott Brooks stemmed from a lack of creativity or innovation. The Thunder wanted to force-feed the ball to Durant, even at the expense of reducing Westbrook to nothing more than a point guard who needed to dribble the ball past half court in under eight seconds and make one pass. That was for myriad reasons, including Durant’s insistence in having the ball in those moments. During the 2015-16 season, Westbrook’s clutch-time usage rate was 37.6 (Durant’s was 40.2). Westbrook attempted 108 shots (Durant attempted 114).
Enter George and Anthony, who come from situations where they were accustomed to having the ball in big spots. Last season Anthony took 91 of the Knicks’ 310 clutch-time shots and posted a usage rate of 35.2. George took 105 of the Pacers’ 263 clutch attempts, with a usage rate of 41.2. It was George, following a 109-108 Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers last postseason, expressing frustration about CJ Miles taking the potential game winner instead of him.
“I talked to CJ about it,” George said after the game. “In situations like that, I gotta get the last shot. I was asking for it. CJ took it upon himself.”
That was then, with Miles and Myles Turner. This is now, with the reigning MVP and a future Hall of Famer.
“All three of us are comfortable with whoever has that shot,” George said a couple of weeks ago. “… I trust Russ, I trust Carmelo, that they are going to do whatever is best for the team. I trust they are going to knock that shot down. Really I have no concern when it comes to that. I know with those guys, they are going to give us a chance to win. That’s ultimately what we want.”
Westbrook had universal freedom to operate in crunch time last season, especially in those final shot moments. It was complete clarity. There was no tug-of-war with Durant, no second-guessing by Monday Morning Point Guards. Westbrook’s head was clear in the clutch, and he excelled. He averaged 60 points per 36 minutes in clutch time. Think that usage rate in clutch time was high? It went to 81.0 in a one-possession game with 30 seconds or less left. He took 28 of the Thunder’s 36 shots in that situation. Make it a one-possession game with less than 10 seconds left, and Westbrook took 18 of the Thunder’s 23 shots.
Second in the league? Anthony, who took 13 of the Knicks’ 26 shots. (George took four of the Pacers’ 10.)
“Whoever’s open. It’s simple,” Anthony said. “We’ll run the play, and whoever gets open will take the shot. It’s not like I’m coming and saying, ‘I want the last shot,’ or Russ is saying he wants the last shot, or Paul. Whoever’s open will take the shot. We all feel comfortable in those situations and those moments, so no need for any one of us to demand it at that point.”
All three are dynamic isolation players, a staple of clutch moments. Westbrook was second in the league last season in points in isos with 486. Anthony was fourth with 386 and George was ninth with 282. Privately, the three Thunder stars have already made it a point to emphasize the collective desire to do what’s best for the group. They might be coming from situations and experiences different than this one, but their goal is the same.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in those situations. Right now, we haven’t been in that situation yet,” Anthony said. “But I’m pretty sure we’ll try to make it as simple as possible. Whoever’s open, take the shot. Try to make the shot. We all feel comfortable in those situations. We all have hit big-game shots in crucial times.”
As most things tend to, though, it will all revolve around Westbrook. He’ll be the primary ball handler, the controller in his hands. It’ll be at his discretion to create for himself, to set up George, or find Anthony. (Or maybe hit Steven Adams on a dive or Alex Abrines in the corner.) Westbrook was outrageous in the big moments last season, but he has spent the bulk of his career coexisting. It’s not a new thing for him.
“Russell’s never been like, ‘Hey I want the ball, give me the ball.’ He’s never been that way,” Donovan said. “He’s always trying to figure out what’s best for the team and I’ve always admired that and respect that as a coach.”
Westbrook conquered the clutch last season by taking it on by himself. He has often operated with a mindset of, If you want something done right, do it yourself. Westbrook is sometimes his own worst enemy, and trust has been an issue. This season, trust is critical. He doesn’t really have an option, because now he actually has options.