If you've read my articles over the course of the playoffs or watched my Twitter, you'll know that my main criticism of Scott Brooks has centered around his unwillingness to sit Kevin Durant. It was probably the biggest strategy shift he made when Russell Westbrook went out with injury, and it was one of the most disastrous.
At this point, I'd like to let the stats speak. Here's Kevin Durant's fourth quarter shooting performances in every game after Russell Westbrook's injury. He played at least 42 minutes in every single appearance, and only sat during the second half three times.
|Game 3, HOU||47:16||3-7||WIN|
|Game 4, HOU||42:00||2-3||LOSS|
|Game 5, HOU||44:42||0-5||LOSS|
|Game 6, HOU||43:13||4-7||WIN|
|Game 1, MEM||43:42||6-9||WIN|
|Game 2, MEM||42:34||4-7||LOSS|
|Game 3, MEM||45:44||1-4||LOSS|
|Game 4, MEM||48:19||2-8||LOSS|
|Game 5, MEM||48:00||1-5||LOSS|
Obviously these stats don't tell the whole story, but from the table, you can glean two general trends. For one, a solid offensive performance from Kevin Durant is absolutely essential if the Thunder are going to win without Westbrook. For two, you can see that as the minutes increased, his stats only got worse.
Critics might point to the fact that Durant was playing similarly long stretches during the 2011 and 2012 playoffs, where he averaged 43 minutes and 42 minutes, respectively. But in those situations, he was playing his normal role, which is basically scoring and rebounding. This year, after Westbrook injury, he was forced to be a 6'10" point guard, setting up plays and creating all of his own looks. Furthermore, he was looked to as a defensive stopper, grabbing tough assignments. During the Houston series he had his hands full with Chandler Parsons, and during the Memphis series he occasionally had to bang in the post with Marc Gasol. His presence as a post defender only increased over the course of the Memphis series, and as a result, his performance suffered.
Critics might also point to LeBron James, who successfully played under a similarly grueling pace in the 2012 playoffs. In fact, his stats from that year are almost an exact mirror of Kevin Durant's stats from this year's playoffs, except for the fact that he was more successful and efficient.
What made LeBron a better clutch player, despite playing the same amount of minutes?
For one, he always took a rest in the second half. The rest would usually go no more than two or three minutes, but it's something that was absolutely essential to his success. It gives him a time to mentally relax and prepare for the final minutes of action. Yes, I know that timeouts are longer in the playoffs, but sitting out is different than resting during a timeout.
Don't believe me? Go up in the article and look at the three times Kevin Durant happened to sit during the second half. Those came during Games 3 and 4 against Houston, and Game 2 against Memphis. They were three of Durant's f best offensive performances.
Secondly, LeBron didn't handle the ball nearly as much. He has similar assist numbers, but most of his passes come with him standing still on the perimeter, merely passing it to the open man. This works effectively because he draws pressure and the Heat have an array of shooters that love to space the floor. The Thunder are structured differently, with not nearly as many shooters. As a result, Durant has to work more for his assists, drawing pressure so that somebody can get open in the post or mid-range.
This is by no means an insult to LeBron, who would get his assists in the same way should the Heat call for it. But he wasn't always in such an advantageous ball handling situation. While playing for the Cavaliers in the playoffs, he was part of a much more traditional attack, one that basically forced him to be part-time PG, like Durant is now. His minutes were similarly high, but his shooting numbers were noticeably lower. He did see his shooting pick up as his career with Cleveland went on, but he still struggled with fatigue at the end of games.
You could also make the argument that Kevin Durant needed to play extended minutes, because the Thunder were in an incredibly vulnerable position without him. But that argument is complete hogwash. During the final four games of the Houston series, the Thunder's overall +/- without Durant on the floor was +10. During the entire Memphis series, the +/- ratio was only at -7. Basically, the Thunder can afford to play without Durant. He's important, but they're competent without him. In any case, a few less minutes of Durant can't nearly be as disastrous as a terrible shooting performance in the fourth quarter from your star player.
I'm not here to pin everything on Durant's fatigue. There were plenty of more important factors in the Thunder's losses to Memphis and Houston. At times, it seemed like Durant's poor clutch performance was the least of their concerns. But this problem as easily the most fixable. Just a few more minutes of rest, a bit more offensive responsibility given to Reggie Jackson, or a less taxing defensive assignment could have turned the tables in the Thunder's favor.
One thing that I think is lost in this whole ordeal is the fact that Kevin Durant is one of the most clutch players in the league. This is the same guy who's nailed buzzer beater after buzzer beater. He's gone through outrageously efficient stretches in the fourth quarter where the Thunder simply hand the ball off to him and let him take over. This year's playoffs saw none of that Kevin Durant, because he was simply too exhausted to make a difference.
I may be beating a dead horse at this point, with the nearly unbreakable Russell Westbrook set to return next year and this situation unlikely to repeat itself. But Scott Brooks continuously rode his best horse to death, and it may have cost Oklahoma City the whole stable.
Do you think Coach Brooks should have handled Kevin Durant's role differently? Let us know in the comments!