How the OKC Thunder have grown into one of the most clutch teams in the NBA


Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few seasons we’ve seen the Oklahoma City Thunder grow into one of the best teams in the NBA. They were so young and so talented a few years ago that this rapid rise to the league’s elite surprised no one.

It’s hard to believe that it was just two seasons ago when the Thunder looked like a young, inexperienced team getting destroyed by the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Now, it’s the Thunder that always look like they’ve been there before when the game is on the line.

Let’s define “when the game is on the line” as the score being within five points with five minutes or less left in the game. This is the time when a team can rise to winning a title or wilt to disappointment.

The Thunder and head coach Scott Brooks went through a lot of criticism in these situations a few years ago. The ongoing joke was that the Thunder didn’t run any kind of offense late in games with point guard Russell Westbrook unable to initiate the offense and get the ball in the hands of Kevin Durant.

The Thunder have made great strides in this arena the past two seasons and now have a completely opposite reputation. They are great in the clutch and Durant has established himself as one of the game’s best closers.

There was a time where it appeared like Westbrook had the ball too much late in games but that isn’t the case anymore. Westbrook sees a slight increase in usage percentage during clutch situations but it is still much less than Durant.

Throughout the rest of the game, Westbrook always has a slightly higher usage percentage than Durant. That flips in the clutch which is what everyone always wanted to see from this team.

This is a good thing too because Westbrook is still unable to make great decisions with the game on the line. His shooting percentage drops quite a bit during these times while Durant’s only slightly drops and is very good overall (63.2 true shooting percentage down to 61.4).

This was most evident in the playoffs last season where in 51 clutch minutes, Westbrook had a true shooting percentage of just 33.4 (50.6 overall in playoffs). He also saw a big drop in usage percentage all the way down to 24.8 percent from his playoff average of 30.5 percent.

This was because James Harden was emerging as the Thunder’s primary ball handler late in games. This wasn’t the case in the regular season last year for the Thunder as Harden had a usage percentage of just 6.5 during clutch time. In the playoffs, that went up to 17.5 percent and for good reason because he had a true shooting percentage of 67.1.

Harden is gone this season and many people said the Thunder lost one of their closers. That is kind of true because it was going that way for the Thunder in the playoffs last year but it still comes down to Durant in clutch situations more often than not.

Durant has the highest usage percentage he’s ever had in clutch situations this season at 44.3 percent. Compare that to 32.3 percent for Westbrook and 7.9 percent for Kevin Martin.

Durant has been great in the clutch this season with a true shooting percentage of 63.2. Westbrook’s is 53.7 percent which isn’t too horrible and Martin’s is an amazing 89.3 percent. Martin has only taken 10 shots in the clutch this season however and made six of them including all five of his 3-point attempts.

During the clutch is where we’ve really seen the Thunder grow up as a team. Last year in the regular season they had a net rating of 3.4 in the clutch compared to an overall net of 7.2. Then in the playoffs that went up to a net of 11.2.

This season, the Thunder have a net rating of 16.4 in the clutch compared to their overall net rating of 9.7. Two years ago in the playoffs the Thunder’s net rating in clutch situations was -21.0.

Despite the Thunder losing Harden this year, they are still one of the best teams in the NBA at closing games. Durant is the biggest reason for this. Westbrook isn’t holding him back anymore.