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.
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