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When the Thunder needs a bucket late in a game, will Durant demand the ball?
Perhaps chief among playoff basketball needs is a scorer of whom a coach can earnestly exclaim, "With this guy, we know we can get a basket any and every time we have to have one."
Analysts and former players and coaches come on TV and tell us that playing defense, rebounding and controlling the pace are the most important metrics for playoff success, but if a team has all those yet lacks a bona-fide, supremely-confident scorer, that team will likely fall short in at least one do-or-die moment in a playoff series.
Take the last five champions as a cross-section.
Dallas didn't play great defense or control pace last year; they just hit a lot of threes and gave the ball to Dirk at the end of games.
L.A. had Kobe for their back-to-back titles, though 6-24 still remains fresh in the memory of most.
The Celtics had three guys who could potentially fit that bill, but one who needed to rise late in games. That was Paul Pierce.
Way back in 2007, Tim Duncan was still the alpha-dog of his Spurs, the undisputed go-to scorer late in games.
Fast forward to the present: The Lakers still have Kobe, who had a pair of vintage Kobe moments down the stretch in the Denver series in which he strapped LA on his back and simply took over without missing shots. Fans are excited by this because they're accustomed to 6-24 Kobe, the one who stubbornly and foolishly forces shots and extends no trust to the other four purple and gold jerseys on the floor.
Basketball fans are more confident (or horrified) in Kobe's closing ability right now than at any time in the past three years, or at least I am. This shouldn't be taken lightly as LA continues to trudge deeper into the playoff forest.
Oklahoma City appears to have solved their late-game scorer problems that reared in last year's Dallas series. In that series, point guard Russell Westbrook decided he was a jump shooter, and being the most aggressive offensive player on that team, he ostensibly shot his team out of the series while Kevin Durant stood on the wing watching.
This year, Durant finished second in the NBA in clutch time scoring per 48 minutes, trailing only Cleveland rookie Kyrie Irving. Westbrook actually shines on that list, accruing a higher shooting percentage than Durant both inside and outside the arc and ranking fourth in the league in clutch scoring.
Durant's assertiveness, grouped with Westbrook's real end-game improvement and James Harden's alpha-dog candidacy, mixes a combustible cocktail. All three will be on the court in every fourth quarter minute that matters in this series, so it is incumbent upon the three of them and Scott Brooks to sort out the scoring pecking order before the Thunder have a repeat of last spring.
It doesn't matter how many unstoppable scorers you have at the end of games because only one guy can score at a time. The fact that OKC has a wealth of options does more to complicate the end-game than it does to simplify and clarify it.
Conversely, the fact that everyone knows Kobe will have the ball in his hands for the Lakers is to their underrated advantage, whether he shoots or draws defenders and passes.