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May 10, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Flawed Hero

by Kevin Pelton

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Oklahoma City 133, Memphis 123 (3OT, Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 88.7
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 116.4, Memphis 103.7

If there was one play that summarized Russell Westbrook's polarizing yet pivotal performance in the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game Four win over the Memphis Grizzlies, it came late in the second overtime with the Thunder down three. After 15 seconds of dribbling, Westbrook reached the paint and drew the Memphis defense. He fired across the court to an open James Harden, who knocked down the tying triple. For most of the play, Westbrook was in danger of dribbling out the shot clock without creating anything, yet he ultimately did exactly what he was supposed to do, setting up his teammate for a good shot opportunity.

On Twitter during the game, I opined that Westbrook was in the middle of the most criticized 40-point scoring effort in NBA history. After further consideration and a few at replies, I'm going to amend that by adding the qualifier "in a win." Certainly, players get criticized for shooting too much in losses all the time, even when they put up big point totals. But do have it happen while the high scorer's team is also pulling out a needed victory is relatively unprecedented.

What we have here, as I see it, is a triumph of narrative over reality, starting with a bit of conventional wisdom (the point guard's job is to create for his teammates, not score himself) and adding an indisputable but irrelevant fact (Oklahoma City's offense was a disaster down the stretch in Game Three). Add in the fact that, as on his assist of Harden, Westbrook so often looked to be drifting rather than controlling the game and it's easy to see why his performance was so maligned. Yet when you try to find objective evidence of Westbrook costing the Thunder, the process becomes much more difficult.

Let's start with this important note: Oklahoma City's offense was in fact quite good in the late stages of Game Four (which turned out to be nearly half the game). Starting at the media timeout with 5:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had 36 legitimate offensive possessions (not counting intentional fouls and action after the game was decided at the end of the third overtime). On them, Oklahoma City scored 42 points. That works out to 116.7 per 100 possessions, which would be good under normal circumstances and is downright stellar given the strength of the Grizzlies' defense and the fact that offenses become less efficient late in games because transition opportunities are few and far between.

Individually, Westbrook's efficiency was acceptable. He scored 16 points on 16 plays, including crucial buckets with the Thunder trailing in the second overtime. Durant (13 points on 10 plays) was better, but James Harden (nine on eight) was about the same. This wasn't Game Three, where Westbrook was settling for quick jumpers and turning the ball over. Six of his 15 shot attempts were in the immediate vicinity of the rim. Did Westbrook take some bad shots? Yes, but he also again spent plenty of time playing against the shot clock with Durant under the watchful eye of Shane Battier, in position to contest passes.

While getting the ball to Durant in position to score is obviously optimal strategy for Oklahoma City, part of the issue is that there's another team out there that is well aware of this fact. The last play of the first overtime was an excellent illustration. To get the basketball, Durant needed a screen from Kendrick Perkins and did not pop free until less than four seconds remained on the clock. With Tony Allen (in as an offense-defense sub) all over him, Durant fired up a contested 30-footer that had little hope of going in. When Durant got the ball late in the first overtime, he committed a pair of costly turnovers that were forgotten in the wake of his shotmaking late in the game.

This is all at least as much a credit to the Memphis defense as it is criticism of Durant, but to ignore this factors in comparing Westbrook's shot attempts to Durant's is folly. Scott Brooks did a much better job of mixing in some other offense down the stretch, using Daequan Cook's shooting ability and giving the ball to Harden to run pick-and-rolls at times, but often the Thunder's offense came down to Westbrook improvising after the play broke down. Given the circumstances, he did more than a credible job.

The win would have been far easier for Oklahoma City had it not been for the Grizzlies' heroics. In both regulation and the first overtime, Memphis tied the game with low-percentage three-pointers by first Mike Conley and then his replacement after fouling out, rookie Greivis Vasquez. Foul trouble--Conley and O.J. Mayo both picked up their sixth when intentionally fouling at the end of the first overtime, which was entirely preventable in Mayo's case--and fatigue finally caught up with the Grizzlies in the third extra session, when they mustered just four points. Give Nick Collison a lot of the defensive credit. With Collison checking him, Randolph scored only at the free throw line during the third OT.

That the Thunder spent most of the stretch run with two big men on the floor was odd given it was smallball that got Oklahoma City back in the game after trailing by double digits early. Brooks went to Kevin Durant at power forward to get more shooters on the floor with the Thunder struggling to generate offense and was rewarded with a 31-18 surge to finish the second quarter. Durant at the four sparked another run early in the fourth before Memphis was able to rally against the lineup to force overtime. All things considered, Durant did an incredible job of checking the bigger Randolph and Marc Gasol, allowing Brooks to get away with him at power forward.

At this point, there have been so many twists and turns within individual games, let alone this series as a whole, that it's tough to know exactly what to expect heading into Game Five. About all that is clear is that recapturing home-court advantage has given the Thunder the edge--for now.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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