Why are the Thunder continuing to struggle in the clutch?
Statistics this early in the season often come with a massive small sample size caveat. That goes double for clutch stats, which barely hit a large enough sample size over an entire 82 game season to be useful in predicting future success. Still, it can still be interesting to look at how teams are performing in these situations and watch the film to see if there’s anything that informs a drastic change in numbers between overall and clutch performance, which brings us to the Thunder.
The Thunder have a +7.4 net rating — third-best in the league — in non-garbage time and have the second-best defense over the first 10 games of the year. So how are they a measly 4-6, more than three wins worse than their net rating would suggest? Their clutch performance has been downright putrid to the tune of -58.8 points per 100 possessions so far this season.
Again, this comes with a large, all-caps SMALL SAMPLE SIZE warning. They’ve only played 21 minutes of clutch basketball this year, meaning the statistics from this time are not necessarily indicative of where the Thunder will finish the season. However, there have been five games that have come down to the last few minutes and Oklahoma City haven’t won any of them.
Read More: Small sample size in the Four Factors
The offense is fine. Russell Westbrook’s usage goes through the roof, as it did last season, but they’re still spreading the ball around and getting good shots for all three of their stars on that end of the floor. Yet they do get a little repetitive in their actions from time to time. In their game against the Timberwolves early in the year, Billy Donovan called the same play on consecutive trips. While it worked, that sort of predictability may hurt them as the season continues.
Against Sacramento on Tuesday, the Thunder ran a pick-and-roll set with Westbrook as a decoy for the real action, which ended up in a wide-open 3-pointer for Carmelo Anthony:
They got an open shot that time down, so why not go to it again the next possession? Well, Sacramento was better prepared and locked off Anthony, who took a terrible shot anyway, even with more than 10 seconds on the shot clock.
Replication of sets is something a lot of offenses struggle with in clutch situations. Coaches have their favorite plays with which players are most comfortable, but some slight misdirection or simply mixing up late-game play calls might boost the Thunder’s offense.
The Thunder’s defense is what falls apart in the clutch. Their full-game defensive rating is fantastic, but their clutch defensive rating is worst in the league. A lot of this can be explained by opponents simply hitting shots at an unsustainable rate against them. However, there are some key changes to the Thunder defense late in games that makes things easier on opposing offenses.
There are two important differences with the team in the last five minutes of the game versus the other 43 minutes: Personnel and scheme, specifically the relative lack of Andre Roberson and their willingness to switch almost every ball screen.
Roberson’s offensive struggles have long been an issue for the Thunder. Teams just don’t guard him when he’s on the floor, and while they’ve found some ways to get him involved as a cutter and screener to take advantage of that, the results are still grim when he’s out there. The NBA’s rule change over the offseason to remove a timeout from the last two minutes of the game for each team to speed up that period has hurt them significantly — losing that timeout is one fewer time Donovan can get Roberson in for a key defensive stop and remove him for the next offensive possession. The end result is he’s played the eighth-most clutch minutes on the team, behind Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson.
The Thunder may have to revisit their crunch-time substitution pattern if their defensive problems persist. Roberson takes a lot off the table on offense but brings enough to the defensive end to make up for the difference. The offensive trident of Westbrook, Anthony and Paul George should be able to buoy the team, even with Roberson standing by himself in the corner.
Additionally, the Thunder’s defense has been very switch-happy in the clutch, to the point where they’re hurting themselves with mismatches and putting their defensive personnel in poor situations. The Thunder pride themselves on their ability to switch effectively and continue to play high-level defense, but they’ve certainly been burned by it in the early part of the season. Watch how the Kings get an easy bucket after Westbrook and Anthony needlessly switch on this possession:
It wasn’t a late-clock switch. It wasn’t such a hard screen that Westbrook couldn’t get through it. It was just a choice the Thunder made to switch every screen, whether it gives them an advantage or not. De’Aaron Fox burned Anthony on the cut because he’s one of the fastest players in the league and Anthony couldn’t keep up. If only the Thunder had an incredibly fast point guard to stick to Fox on that cut.
Against the Celtics, The Thunder did the same thing, this time with Westbrook and Adams:
Adams made his name in 2015-16 as a center who has the lateral quickness to stay in front of point guards, but pushing Westbrook through the screen on what ended up being the final defensive possession for the Thunder would have been worth the extra effort. Up three with little time left in the fourth quarter, any basket by the Celtics is going to be enough to seal the game. When Al Horford steps up to screen for Kyrie Irving, there are 10 seconds on the shot clock. Would a hard trap on Irving make sense for the Thunder here? Horford would roll free to the rim but Anthony, guarding Marcus Morris in the corner, could rotate over and cut off that pass.
Again, any basket by the Celtics beats the Thunder, so they might as well sell out to make sure they get the ball out of the hands of the Celtics’ best players. That would have been a better choice than leaving Adams on an island against one of the best ball handlers and finishers on the planet.
The Thunder have had their issues in the clutch, but it’s important to remember it’s been just 21 minutes of action and the rest of their statistical profile is consistent with expectations coming into the season. They’re still a very good basketball team that just happens to have suffered some hiccups in the final few minutes of a handful of games. If their late-game luck was anything approaching normal, they’d be 6-4 or 7-3 and nobody would be panicking.
On the other hand, perhaps this horrid performance is their regression to the mean after last year’s success in the same situations.