Wednesday NBA Roundup: Avoiding Crunch Time Key for Russell Westbrook, Thunder

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Wednesday NBA Roundup: Avoiding Crunch Time Key for Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder found a way to fix the clutch collapses that have plagued them all year: skip close-and-late situations altogether by riding the overwhelming talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to a double-digit win.

Oklahoma City blew past the Los Angeles Clippers in a 120-108 victory that lacked the drama of the two teams' previous engagement—an OKC choke-job loss on March 2.

Westbrook was in peak I-will-devour-all-who-stand-before-me form in this one, hurtling up and down the floor on the way to 25 points, 20 assists and 11 rebounds. It was his 11th triple-double of the season and probably the one the struggling Thunder needed most.

ESPN Stats & Info had the historical context ready:

Durant's 30 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists were somehow inconspicuous by comparison.

Setting the tone with a career-best eight first-quarter assists, Westbrook had the Thunder up by 10 after the opening period. The Clippers fought back in the second but fell behind by 10 again heading into the fourth. You could forgive the Thunder for not feeling especially secure in their advantage; they've lost 10 games in which they entered the fourth quarter with a lead this year, per ESPN Stats & Info.

That crunch-time frailty was the major topic heading into the contest for good reason. There were some truly alarming numbers associated with it.

Coming into Wednesday's game, the Thunder's net rating in the final five minutes of close games (within five points) was a frightening minus-1.7, per NBA.com. For reference, the Golden State Warriors led the league at plus-41.8, the Spurs were second at plus-22.8 and the Clips ranked 10th at plus-9.0. OKC's inability to control things when it matters most drew a bright line between it and the rest of the West's elite.

Through March 8, only 41.5 percent of the Thunder's clutch field goals came via assists—the league's fifth-lowest figure. That number stands out starkly against their overall assisted field-goal rate of 55.4 percent, though teams always see assist rates drop in the clutch. In addition to turnovers and some shaky defense, the Thunder's pass-free offense has been killing them in close games.

And Westbrook's clutch field-goal percentage of 34.9 percent was the lowest on the Thunder (among players who'd taken at least 10 shots in those situations), per B/R Insights.

Westbrook played like someone keenly aware of those stats, and thanks to him, Oklahoma City didn't falter this time.

He led charge after charge in transition, finding shooters and cutters as defenders scrambled to rein him in. And though Westbrook's dime total was a career high, his facilitation never took on a Rajon Rondo-esque assist-hunt quality. These were passes made in the flow of the game, dictated by the attention Westbrook's threat as a scoring force attracted.

Besides, if all we ever do is knock the guy for shooting too much late in games, we can't very well criticize Russ for being too pass-happy.

Per Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman, Steven Adams sure couldn't:

New Zealand: understatement capital of the Southern Hemisphere.

KD had a little more to say, per Slater:

Calling this comfortable win a fix for the Thunder's late-game issues was facetious, of course. Avoiding a weakness isn't addressing it. But at the very least, Wednesday's win gave OKC some much-needed confidence after a rough stretch following the All-Star break, and it upped its record against the top four seeds from both conferences to 4-9. Better, but still not great.

It may have also offered a reminder: If the Thunder play up to their potential, they shouldn't even be in many close games. And if Westbrook realizing he can be more dangerous as a facilitator than a scorer turns into more of a pattern, maybe there's something to take away there, too.

Oklahoma City's greatest advantage is its ability to physically run over and through any opponent. Westbrook is essentially the living embodiment of that athletic superiority.

Leveraging that advantage won this game for the Thunder. Channeled the right way, it can win them a whole bunch more—against absolutely anyone—going forward.

 

Something's Happening in Charlotte

In defeating the New Orleans Pelicans by a final of 122-113, the Charlotte Hornets pushed their winning streak to five. And you didn't need to see much beyond the first few minutes to know Charlotte's trash-compacting (it's been disposing of some soft competition: Phoenix, Philly and the Wolves make up three-fifths of the streak) would continue.

The Hornets whipped the ball all over the place, pushing it in transition and finding no end to open looks. They hit five threes in the game's first five minutes on the way to a season-high 39 points in the first quarter. It would have been 42 if Jeremy Lin had converted a wide-open three from the right corner on Charlotte's final possession of the period.

Kemba Walker pumped in 14 of his 35 in the opening frame, extending his own personal streak of scorching scoring to four straight games of at least 30 points.

You have to consider the competition (both Wednesday and during the streak as a whole), but there's just something undeniably promising about the Hornets' offensive confidence and flow. There aren't many teams that ping the rock around with rhythm like the Hornets have been showing lately, and remember: This is a team mostly defined by its defense, which ranks ninth in the league.

Now, after hanging a big number on New Orleans, the Hornets offense ranks 11th. Those two rates together scream fringe contender, which feels crazy. But something's happening here, and a top-four seed in the East feels like a realistic result.

 

New Orleans Needs More

Nell Redmond/Associated Press

Aside from Anthony Davis (40 points, 13 rebounds, five assists) and Jrue Holiday (career-high 38 points, six assists, four rebounds), the Pels didn't have much to offer in their loss to the Hornets. Eric Gordon's re-broken finger means he won't be around for the rest of the season, and if Ryan Anderson's not scoring, New Orleans just doesn't have the bodies to compete.

You'd think the talent scarcity would be a sign to management that some long-term thinking is in order. But there was Davis logging 39 minutes overall and 11 in the fourth quarter. And there was Holiday, tallying 38 minutes after coming off the bench all season to preserve his health.

Very little has changed since the Pelicans' 1-11 start. They need another star, and the draft would have been the best way to do that. Instead, they've made this season a priority, compromising lottery odds in the interest of chasing, what, a 33-win season? Where's the sense in that?

The Pelicans need more. But after mismanaging the year so badly, it's not clear they deserve it.

 

Let's Check In on Greg Monroe's Rim Defense

Miami Heat rookie Josh Richardson has a nasty streak, and though his role hasn't been huge this year, he still approaches his minutes with urgency.

Urgency is not something typically associated with Greg Monroe's attitude toward interior defense, so the above highlight from the Milwaukee Bucks' 114-108 win is no great shock.

It's such an oversimplification to pin the Bucks' precipitous drop in defensive efficiency (they ranked second last year, but have dipped to 22nd this season) on their decision to replace Zaza Pachulia with Monroe in the middle. But according to Nylon Calculus' rim-protection metrics, no center logging as many minutes as Monroe has cost his team more points via shoddy rim defense.

And anecdotally, it's just not hard to see the poor fit, per NBA analyst Nate Duncan:

There's a lot to like about the Bucks: Jabari Parker's defense has picked up, Giannis Antetokounmpo (24 points, six assists and seven rebounds) is a delightful experiment at point guard and Jason Kidd mostly seems to know what he's doing. But after spending heavily on Monroe last summer, it appears there's still a hole in the middle.

 

Grit Runs Out Eventually

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Since losing so many important pieces of the old guard to injury, the Memphis Grizzlies haven't been the same grind-it-out team they once were. They've picked up the pace, downsized and become more of an offensive outfit without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. But the underlying heart and competitiveness have been familiar.

However, when Memphis ran into the streaking Boston Celtics with only nine healthy bodies (which dwindled to eight when Mario Chalmers went down in the third quarter with a scary noncontact injury to his right foot), grit wasn't enough. Chris Mannix of The Vertical relayed the scary scene:

He'll undergo an MRI on Thursday, according to ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz.

Boston used a 31-12 third-quarter run to secure a 116-96 win—its 14th straight at home. That run is the longest since the 1990-91 Celtics reeled off 18 in a row.

Memphis fought and actually held a 55-52 halftime lead behind Jarell Martin's pre-break points. JaMychal Green finished with 17 points and 13 boards, and he injected constant energy. But against a Celtics team that got 22 points from Isaiah Thomas and at least nine points from seven other players, a Memphis bench that looked this thin—photo courtesy of Friendly Bounce—was never going to be enough:

The Grizzlies have been a massive and pleasant surprise lately, surviving a genuine identity overhaul midstream. And head coach Dave Joerger deserves real praise for that, per Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus:

But against a dialed-in, high-quality opponent (sorry, Cavs, you didn't meet the first criteria in that stunning Monday loss), Memphis doesn't have the talent or depth to get it done. Still, the Grizzlies' recent run has them locked into playoff position. So they'll get a chance to test their grit in a tough first-round series.

But that'll probably be it.

 

Dallas Has a Big Problem

Jim Cowsert/Associated Press

Andre Drummond must have been licking his chops.

Coming into Wednesday's meeting with the Detroit Pistons, the Dallas Mavericks had been taking routine beatings from the NBA's big men. DeMarcus Cousins put up 22 points and 13 rebounds against them last Thursday, then Kenneth Faried erupted for 25 points and 20 rebounds Sunday. DeAndre Jordan hung 23 points and 20 rebounds on them Monday. Worst of all, Dallas lost all three games.

Loss No. 4 was Wednesday's 102-96 result against the Pistons. And, predictably, Drummond got what he wanted: 25 points and 17 rebounds.

The Mavericks' interior woes were significant enough to override their winning trend when moving the ball well. Per Tim Cato of MavsMoneyBall.com, Dallas is tough to beat when it's passing effectively:

This defeat came despite 25 assists.

There were plenty of other factors in the Mavs' loss. Reggie Jackson hit a tough triple with the shot clock winding down in the final minute, extending the lead from three to six. And no Dallas reserve played well. But if the Mavericks are going to pull out of this nosedive and salvage a playoff spot, they'll have to find somebody who can slow down opposing bigs.

This seems like a good time to mention their biggest midseason move was signing David Lee.

Oh, dear.

 

Sure, Why Not?

The latest entry in the "Stephen Curry Is Different" file comes from Marcus Thompson of Bay Area News Group:

It's true. Curry relishes heaves like the one he hit to close the first half of the Golden State Warriors' 115-94 win over the Utah Jazz—partly because he's a showman and partly because, uh, he makes them. Like, a lot. He's 5-of-13 on shots outside of 39 feet, per Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com.

Also: Chalk up home win No. 46 in a row for the Dubs. Ho-hum.

 

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played March 9.

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