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NBA Saturday: Westbrook Has Been Incredibly Clutch This Season

Beyond his triple-doubles, Russell Westbrook has been incredibly effective in clutch situations this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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The MVP race continues to stir serious debate amongst fans and those in and around the NBA. However, in this space we are not going to try and compare the top candidates against one another to determine who should win this year’s award. We aren’t going to discuss Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles (aside from congratulating him on becoming the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season on Friday night) or James Harden’s overall incredible work as the quasi-point guard of the Houston Rockets. Rather, we will focus in on just how incredible Westbrook has been in clutch situations this season.

We have some generally accepted thoughts and beliefs about the closing minutes in a tight basketball game. The game slows down, teams generally can shut down an opposing star player more effectively, referees are less likely to call a questionable foul and so on. Westbrook doesn’t care about any of these conventional understandings of late-game situations. Whether the game is seemingly out of reach or right there for the taking, Westbrook plays a hyper-aggressive brand of basketball in clutch situations that forces his opponents to adapt quickly or risk suffering a heartbreaking defeat.

A nice example of this is the Thunder’s 92-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks on March 27. Westbrook posted 37 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. More importantly, he led the Thunder to a furious 14-0 run late in the game, scoring 12 of those 14 points himself, which erased a significant deficit and resulted in a win for Oklahoma City.

“It just happened so fast,” Mavericks center Nerlens Noel said after the game. “They were just playing more aggressive than we were late in the game.”

Thunder center Steven Adams scored two points during that furious comeback but stated that he and his teammates were simply trying to let Westbrook take over the game like he has done so many times this season.

“It was just, like, trying to get out of his way,” Adams said. “And he did the rest, which was awesome.”

Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have played in 39 games this season that involved clutch time play, according to NBA.com. Oklahoma City has gone 24-15 in these games and has a +20.4 net rating, which ranks second overall, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs. In these late-game situations, Westbrook has essentially done what he always does, but on an even higher level.

Westbrook leads the league in usage rate (41.7 percent) this season and carries an incredible workload on offense for the Thunder. However, in clutch situations (commonly understood as when the score is within five points during the last five minutes of a game), Westbrook’s usage rate catapults up to a whopping 62 percent. Westbrook also maintains a 58.3 assist percentage, which means that he is essentially scoring or assisting every made basket for the Thunder in clutch situations. He also is sustaining a 56.4 true shooting percentage in these situations, which is very impressive considering his incredible usage percentage and the fact that opposing defenses know that the ball is always going to be in his hands.

Despite ranking 25th in total clutch minutes played this season, Westbrook leads all players in points (241), made field goals (80) and field goals attempted (181). He is also tied for first in three-pointers attempted (56), tied for second in three-pointers made (18), fifth in free throws made (63), fifth in free throws attempted (74), fifth in rebounds (52), fourth in assists (28­) and tied for second in steals (11).

While some may argue that Westbrook has the ball in his hands too much or that he isn’t incorporating or utilizing his teammates effectively or that this sort of approach may not work in the postseason, the fact is that the Thunder don’t have the personnel or talent that would allow Westbrook to relinquish control in these situations. Oklahoma City is 25th in three-pointers made and 28th in three-point percentage this season and outside of Westbrook and perhaps Victor Oladipo, no one on the team is able to consistently make a play for himself or his teammates. Westbrook has no choice but to have the ball in his hands on every possession and considering the circumstances, it’s incredible that he’s been so successful up to this point in the season.

In fact, Oklahoma City’s numbers in the clutch are a clear representation of how effective Westbrook has been in clutch situations this season. Oklahoma City is scoring 116.1 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations while maintaining a 105.03 pace. That offensive rating eclipses the Golden State Warriors’ league-leading 113.3 points per 100 over the course of this season and Oklahoma City’s pace would lead the league as well. This is significant since the game tends to slow down in clutch situations and efficiency, for the most part, tends to decrease as well. But Westbrook is constantly grabbing defensive rebounds, generating steals and pushing the pace in transition to attack scrambling defenses. Not many players or teams do this in late-game situations, but it has served Westbrook and the Thunder well this season.

“The thing that I think is really great for our team, and the thing that any coach wants from his team, is to have a never-say-die attitude and to work and to be relentless and passionate and to play all the way to the final buzzer,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said recently. “[Westbrook] embodies that in every possible way, shape or form it could be. It’s just, he’s got this desire, this drive and he’ll just find a way. Nothing’s too insurmountable to overcome. It’s a great credit to his disposition and competitiveness, and I also think it trickles into our team, especially during timeouts and huddles, because he really encourages and inspires the group.”

Westbrook’s ability to bring his team back in games that are seemingly lost is part of the reason the Thunder’s record isn’t even better in clutch situations. For example, Oklahoma City had almost no chance of winning that game against Dallas on March 27. But Westbrook’s incredible run and the Thunder’s lockdown defense allowed them to win a game that 29 other teams would have likely given up on. The flip side to that is the Thunder often times fall short in these longshot efforts, so their record isn’t quite as impressive as we might expect considering Westbrook’s incredible overall performance in the clutch this season. However, Westbrook shouldn’t be penalized for this, but rather we should applaud the fact that even in dire situations, Westbrook and his teammates seemingly never give up or throw in the towel.

“I just come out and compete every night,” Westbrook said recently. “I just try to find ways to help my team win and always ‘never quit,’ that’s my mentality. Always keep it going.”

Westbrook has his flaws, but it’s hard to impeach his performance in clutch situations this season. Between his incredibly high usage rate, assist rate, scoring efficiency and his unwavering confidence that seems to trickle down to his teammates, Westbrook has been historically effective in the clutch this season. That’s something that should be noted regardless of whether he ends up winning this year’s MVP award.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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