With 6 minutes and 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter on Thursday, Russell Westbrook picked up his first assist of the game: a feed to Serge Ibaka for a layup. The basket cut the Thunder's deficit to 10 and a full-bore run at the Grizzlies was on.
From that point on, including overtime, Thunderers not named Westbrook or Kevin Durant would get exactly two more shot attempts. One: a Kendrick Perkins putback. Two: a meaningless Thabo Sefolosha jumper with the game basically over. The other 19 attempts in that 11-minute span would come from Westbrook or Durant. And despite a couple of heroic baskets to close that gap and get the game into extra time, the pair shot 5-19 in the stretch with four turnovers. They'd score 20 points in 27 possessions, which is, to say the least, not good.
Now, they trail the Grizzlies, 2-1. Memphis can win the series without winning in Oklahoma City again if they just close at home.
The heavy doses of Westbrook and Durant aren't new or even surprising. Westbrook has in recent years been the league's No. 1 creator. To create a shot, you either take one yourself without the benefit of an assist from a teammate or you set up a teammate to shoot. The Thunder do a lot of work at the line, and that figures into creation estimates as well. Westbrook takes a helluva lot of shots (field goal and free throws) and racks up plenty of assists, particularly to Durant and Ibaka. Durant has won four of the past five scoring titles and recently has begun racking up more assists.
Of course, possessions used are a zero-sum game. Every shot taken by Westbrook is a possession that guys like Ibaka, Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson or one of the other guys doesn't get. Every possession used by Westbrook is, of course, one that Durant doesn't get, which is a famous concern in basketball analysis. What often gets overlooked in such discussions is that Durant gets plenty of possessions. Westbrook's outsized role doesn't so much impact Durant as it impacts the Thunder's Nos. 3, 4 and on down.
This season, on a per-game basis, Durant and Westbrook were responsible for 46 percent of OKC's field goal attempts, 64 percent of their free throws, 57 percent of their assists and 48 percent of their turnovers. The other 5-7 guys in the rotation split the leftovers.
Down the stretch of Game 3, there were no leftovers. In those final 11 minutes and change, this is what the Thunder offense looked like.
The heavy doses of Westbrook and Durant worked out over the course of the regular season, as the Thunder finished with the league's No. 6 offense. OKC has been in the elite range in that category a few years now. It's really hard to stop the Thunder.
But it didn't work in Game 3. Perhaps Memphis is simply too good defensively to let the pair kill them -- Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are especially brilliant when defending the Thunder. Or maybe Westbrook and Durant simply took too many bad shots, forcing the issue. I mean ...
Let Westbrook be Westbrook (and not pass to the guy standing underneath the basket) pic.twitter.com/bv1UEQcpMS— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) April 25, 2014
I'm one of Westbrook's biggest supporters, but that is just not healthy. And the Thunder are two games away from a painfully early exit.
It's premature to spend too much time on the subject -- the Thunder have survived a 2-1 deficit before -- but I can't stop wondering what the Thunder do if this postseason goes upside-down fast. If Memphis pulls out the series, the season will have been an abject failure for Oklahoma City. And given Durant's status as one of the two best players in the league and expressed desire to win championships, the ghost of LeBron's Cavaliers hang over this whole saga.
Remember, Cleveland made the NBA Finals back in 2007. They didn't get back there in the following three seasons despite LeBron's greatness and some decent players being added around him. Durant led the Thunder to the 2012 Finals. If they exit early this time around, that's two straight seasons of falling short. Durant isn't a free agent until 2016, which means that Oklahoma City has two more postseasons after the current one to get Durant his ring before he has the option of leaving.
Durant and LeBron are different, to be sure. Not totally different -- for every LeBron vanity moment you cite, I'm going to point you toward Thunderstruck -- but they are generally different cats. A striking similarity, though, is that Durant is motivated by the same goal that enthralled LeBron five years ago: the Larry O'Brien Trophy. LeBron had to leave to capture it. That won't be lost on Durant ... or Sam Presti.
With two more chances to give Durant what he so desperately wants, what will Presti do? Is it enough to replace Scott Brooks and find a new answer in place of Kendrick Perkins? Will he trade Westbrook for a less aggressive playmaker? Will he consult Durant and give him some measure of control and, potentially, blame for the decisions made? Will Clay Bennett, who writes the checks and can imagine what a 2016 Durant exit might do to his bank account, consider bringing in another GM to finish the job? Will Durant speak up?
As I said, it's wholly premature for this type of talk. But the questions won't get out of my head as I watch Tony Allen destroy Durant's dream again. You can be sure that in the lulls of the adventure, it's something Durant, Presti and all the rest think about, too. Ignoring the questions won't mean they cease to exist.