Oklahoma City Thunder Late-Game Strategy Killing Title Chances

Dylan MurphyFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 13:  Scott Brooks head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder addresses the media after the game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 13, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Game 5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Los Angeles Clippers series was, quite clearly, bananas. Missed calls, turnovers, crazy shots and replay controversy all played a part in handing the Thunder a comeback victory, and OKC now finds itself with two chances to close out the series. 

Applaud Kevin Durant for nailing a nearly impossible three-pointer over Glen Davis to bring OKC within four. Congratulate Russell Westbrook for stripping Chris Paul with the Thunder down two and on the verge of fouling to keep the game alive. Hail Westbrook for draining three free throws to gain the lead late in the game.

Those were certainly all great plays, and not the only ones. But in the grand scheme of late-game basketball, OKC got lucky. Every call (or non-call) went its way, and every shot dropped. That doesn't happen very often, and it won't continue if OKC keeps handling end-game situations as it did last night (and has before). 

Though basketball is a results-based business, and the Thunder certainly found themselves on the right side of the result last night, it's the process by which a result is attained that is more important. Over the long haul, better process ensures better results. But in any individual event, a result can still be favorable even if the process is not. 

That's what happened to Oklahoma City last night. Its late-game strategy and execution was poor, but timely plays masked the underlying issue. 

Afterward, Durant chalked it up to his team's unrelenting effort, via USA Today's Sam Amick: "I have never seen a game like this with us. It just shows that we just keep going. You can never keep us down, and we are going to fight until the end."

Fort Westbrook, it's his gun-slinging attitude on the floor that makes him so good. As Welcome to Loud City's Juan Toribio put it after the game:

"He attacked, attacked and attacked. Good defense couldn’t stop him from getting to the rim, drawing fouls or sinking his patented pull-up jumper. He was sheer chaos at the end of the game, and there might not have been a crazy comeback win without him."

But late-game execution isn't a matter of will or fight; while that might be a part of it, it's more about making smart plays. This time, it just so happened to work out by some great stroke of luck. 

This execution issue has cropped up for OKC throughout the Durant Westbrook era, and much of the blame has fallen on head coach Scott Brooks—particularly relating to his uncreative play-calling down the stretch of close games. 

And that's certainly an issue at times, especially when an opposing offense can key on two players and ignore the rest. San Antonio, one of the most effective late-game teams in the NBA, thrives because it utilizes all players on the floor. Last season, a play for Danny Green (with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as decoys) netted the Spurs two wins late in the fourth quarter. 

In Oklahoma City, the ball is always going to Westbrook or Durant. That certainly makes sense, but at times the Thunder probably need to show other looks if only to open up opportunities for their stars. Because teams can focus on Westbrook and Durant when the clock is winding down, overloading on defense to stop them becomes that much easier. 

But the bigger part of OKC's struggles down the stretch relates to its hero-ball mentality. It's not just that Brooks puts the ball in the hands of his best players; it's that his best players play hero ball, often ignoring time, score or the correct basketball play to win the game by themselves. 

Last night was the perfect example of this, except it just so happens that the ball went in. While that was great in the short term, the execution as a whole poses long-term problems for future close games. 

Let's start with Durant's three-pointer with 43.7 seconds remaining to cut the Clippers' lead to four points. It starts with OKC taking the ball out on the side. Westbrook is on the block, Perkins is on the elbow, and Durant is the inbounder.

On sideline out-of-bounds plays, most teams run a "zipper" cut for the point guard to get the ball. This entails the big on the elbow (Perkins, in this case) to step toward the point guard (Westbrook) and set a screen. The point guard then pops to the wing and catches an inbounds pass. Here it is illustrated:


Brooks actually does a nice job here of using that action as a decoy. Westbrook instead takes one step as if he's making a zipper cut but then steps directly to the ball.


On the catch, Westbrook has the ball in the post against Chris Paul. Next we have Perkins setting a flare screen for Durant in which he fades along the three-point line looking for an over-the-top pass from Westbrook. Because the Clippers are switching every screen (as most teams do at the end of games), they cut it off easily. 


Still, Westbrook makes the pass to Durant, and he sinks an unbelievably difficult three-pointer. 

Now here's the problem with this play on the whole: It's Brooks' job to realize that the opponents will switch everything. Therefore, a simple flare screen has almost zero chance of freeing Durant, which in turn neutralizes the entire play. 

What's more is that there is no secondary action going on. Let's say, for argument's sake, that Durant can't get open. Now what? Westbrook has to go one-on-one, which is not the best proposition for an easy score. Or what if Durant can't immediately catch and shoot? He has to go one-on-one, too.

To be fair, one-on-one plays by Westbrook and Durant are better than most other one-on-ones. But one-on-one should always be a last option, and OKC should be looking for other designed options before settling. Whether that's secondary movement for Westbrook or Durant or weak-side action with Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, the play needs more options.

Then there's the matter of Durant's shot selection here, which is nothing short of terrible. OKC doesn't need to launch an off-balance, contested three-pointer. There's still plenty of time left in the game, and Durant should be looking to attack.

Fast forward to 11.3 seconds left, after the controversy involving the replay. Oklahoma City has the ball under the basket down two points, looking to tie the game up or take the lead. 

The play design calls for Durant to curl around three screens toward the strong-side corner and Westbrook to make the opposite curling cut to the weak side. 


The Clippers defend it well, and Westbrook is forced to bring the ball back up to the wing on the catch. 

The rest, well you remember what happened. Westbrook launches a three-pointer, Paul fouls him, and OKC escapes with a win.

Once again, the same issues rear their ugly heads. From Brooks' perspective, this play call is a bit perplexing. Plays like the one above are designed for catch-and-shoot opportunities. But with 11.3 left seconds in the game, it isn't exactly prudent for OKC to shoot it immediately. If it scores too early, the Clippers have a chance to win the game.

And that's exactly what happens, but luckily the Thunder prevented Paul from getting the shot off. From Westbrook's perspective, his shot selection is worse than Durant's on the previous possession. This time, his team is only down two points and not in need of a three. Not to mention that there's seven seconds remaining when he releases the ball, which is way too early to be shooting.

A smarter play would have been to attack the rim and get something closer. There's no need to play hero ball with a contested three-pointer—it's only a matter of good fortune that Paul bails him out with a foul.

In all late-game situations, second-guessing after the fact is easy. In the moment, coaches only have moments to make proper substitutions, inform players of strategy on the fly and draw up plays. The situation is nothing short of chaos, and very few teams are able to get through it flawlessly. 

What's troubling in OKC is that there's no focal point for blame. Brooks' play calls and substitutions could be better. Durant could make smarter decisions and take more shots down the stretch. Westbrook could stop playing hero ball.

What's even worse is that OKC has been a contender for multiple years now and should have at the very least hammered out some of these late-game gaffes. Rushing shots and ignoring time/score/situational basketball are the markings of inexperienced teams. Though Durant and Westbrook are still young players, they've been around the block numerous times.

Whether it's in this series or the next, Oklahoma City will face another late-game situation. To win a title, you have to pull out some close ones. Sure, luck will always be involved on some level. But if the Thunder hope to swing luck to their side more often than not, they'll have to get it together when the game is on the line.