I never wanted to write this article.
Kevin Durant was my boy. I knew he was going to be great when the rest of the basketball world thought my Sonics (soon to be Thunder) were a joke.
Even when David Stern, Howard Schwartz and Clay Bennett ripped my team from my backyard and made me root against this new doppelgänger version deposited somewhere in the Midwest, I would surreptitiously check the Thunder box scores and notice glimpses of KD’s future greatness. That only lasted the better part of half a season as it’s hard to root against a team while rooting for their best player. A player unlike anything I’d seen before in my 20+ seasons as a NBA fan.
Fast-forward a couple years to where I remember telling my dad as we hung drywall while remodeling the house I had just bought that I thought (incorrectly it turned out) Durant could average 35-10-5 with a couple steals and a block or more per game in the near future. He laughed, as Dads will. I didn’t care. I’d seen greatness before, I knew this was it again.
Fast-forward a little more and suddenly Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka are the greatest accumulation of under 23 year old talent in NBA history and multiple dynasties seemed almost preordained as In Sam We Trust Presti seemed incapable of misfiring on any of his bold moves.
Then Miami dismantled them in the finals, exposing Harden completely and generally beating up on a not title ready Durant and Westbrook . That was fine though. I’d been down this road before as a kid when I would get off the school bus and race home to finish my chores as fast as possible so I could couch mode it at 4:30 sharp for the tip off of the Bulls games on WGN.
I’d watched an ethereal talent drag a less talented team kicking and fighting to ever greater heights, only to be dashed down by more experienced and stronger teams ( the Pistons and Knicks specifically) before finally breaking through that wall as they learn to play the way title teams must play.
In my mind, this was no different. A once in a generational talent surrounded by even more supporting talent than the Bulls had. This loss to Miami in the finals was just a stepping stone on the path they must take to realize greatness.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
The narrative goes the Presti panicked and traded Harden for pennies on the dollar (therefore dismantling the dynasty before it ever had a chance to launch) or some people give Sam a pass and blame it on playoff injuries to Durant, Westbrook and and Ibaka. Others like to blame it on Brooks and his inability to adjust in game two opponents’ adjustments. The truth most likely contains parts of all of these.
But what if the largest factor influencing the Thunder’s ability to put a championship trophy on the shelf lies instead with the inability of their best (former) player to perform well when it matters?
Kevin Durant has played in 22 playoff games that had the potential to eliminate his team or close out an opponent. 13 of those games have come since that finals loss against Miami when they were firmly entrenched as the next great NBA team.
These games represent Durant’s (and the Thunder via his back) opportunity to stamp a legacy in the history book.
Harken back to the Bulls of yesteryear, where Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest player of his generation (possibly generations) because when crunch time was upon us and winners or losers were going to be determined, no one was better. He was the definition of clutch.
It wasn’t that you expected Jordan to come through in crunch time, you knew it was happening. He was going to take and make tough shots in the closing minutes. It’s what he did. It’s why he was a six time champion (maybe eight if he didn’t like to gamble so much!).
So how does Kevin Durant compare in similar moments? You can box score scout some impressive performances and assume that the Thunder lost games despite him being Jordan-like. Take a deeper look though and that line of thinking fails to pass the sniff test.
The crunchiest of crunch time is the final moments of must win games.
Everything is amplified. Every possession is vital. Every mistake has a butterfly effect on ensuing possessions. Games swing on one or two trips down the floor.
With this in mind, I charted every play where Durant had a positive or negative impact on the play inside the final 6 minutes (and one five minute overtime session) of closeout or elimination games since that loss in Miami back in 2012.
Why the 6:00 mark? Why such an arbitrary number? Why not 4 minutes or 2 minutes?
At six minutes left, the game is almost 90% over and if still a competitive game, plenty of time for either team to assert themselves.
At four minutes left, a lot of games are decided already but some will hold the same undetermined outcome as a six minute game.
Two minutes is only 5 to 7 possessions in most games. It seems unfair to label a player clutch or not based such a short sample size (but we’ll revisit that later).
Six seems fair as a “crunch time” benchmark…not too much time left, not too little. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.
Durant has played 77 of these crunch time minutes in close out or elimination games in his last three trips to the playoffs, covering thirteen such games.
It’s been fairly well documented by Matt Moore and others about Durant’s inability to gain position and fight for the ball against superior defenders in the playoffs. Also, it’s been widely discussed that the Thunder (lack of) offense, Westbrook and Scott Brooks have all played their role in limiting Durant’s production. All of that may be well and true, but what about what happens after the ball finds its way into Durant’s hands?
KD shot 13/36 from the field in the critical minutes of these games.
Not great but not completely terrible considering how much defensive intensity ratchets way up when games get close at the end.
However, 6 of those makes are dunks or layups.
Ultimately, big time scorer Kevin Durant is shooting 7/30 outside of 5 feet at the end of games that determine someone is going home!
To make matters worse, he’s turned the ball over 15 times in those 77 minutes (7.0 per 36 minutes!) and other than getting fouled a lot (rip move for the win!) and making the subsequent free throws, hasn’t contributed many other positive plays at the end of the games that matter.
Edit: That’s not completely true. He grabbed 20 defensive rebounds in this time frame and defensive rebounds end opponent possessions so there’s value there.
He’s totaled 1 offensive rebound, one steal, zero blocks and nine assists while scoring 54 points (25/26 from the line!) in these crucial minutes.
Prorated into the Per 36 minute ratio that everyone loves to over use, he’s produced a 25.2 point 9.8 board 4.2 assist 0.5 steal 0 blocks 7 turnover line on 36.1% shooting (25% on triples and 96% from the charity stripe, the latter is fantastic).
For his career, he’s at 26.1 points 6.7 boards 3.5 assists 1.2 steals 1.0 blocks 3.1 turnovers on 48.3% shooting (38% on triples, 88% from the line).
Scoring about the same, rebounding is up, assists slightly up, defensive stats down, turnovers WAY up, shooting WAY down.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story….
Makes a jumper to make it a two possession game but then misses twice in the final 70 seconds where if he makes one or both it’s a one or two possession game instead of season over. But wait, there’s more….
Four point game with four minutes to go. Considering his usage and negative production, it’s amazing this loss wasn’t by more than seven points. At this point, momentum has shifted and everybody knows the Dubs have taken the Thunders best punch. Series is over.
Three (or two) possession game with just under 4 minutes to play. Durant steps up to be the guy on multiple possessions but other than a nice move to the rim and getting three freebies on a rip move, he doesn’t hit anything. Chance to send the Warriors fishing gone.
Now to be fair, we should look at a couple previous games where the Thunder closed out series before the Western Conference Finals.
Couple double digit leads in the waning minutes and Durant plays pretty well. Notice he makes all three shots, including two dunks. No real make or break moments here so hard to argue the impact of either of these games on his “clutch status”.
Obviously no playoff games in the preceding season (2014-2015) as Durant suffered the foot injury and subsequent surgeries (remember when we were terrified he was about to go full Oden on us?) so the next opportunity to analyze his play down the stretch is 2013-2014 in an overtime closeout loss to the Spurs.
Oh boy. Is there a Thunder fan out there that didn’t have multiple heart attacks during this game? Durant turns the ball over with 18 seconds to go, Manu somehow misses the second freebie and Russ wills himself to the line to tie it up with 9 seconds left. All for naught though as Durant’s only contribution in the extra period is missing 3 shots in a one possession game. This is not the clutch you are looking for….
Previous chance to this was the Game 6 win to advance against the Clippers.
Overall, lot of green (if you haven’t figured it out by now, green is a positive play, yellow is negative) down the stretch but he misses both jumpers and both of them are when the game is at 2-3 possession status. It’s almost like when the games get tight the jumper goes. Almost.
Before this, two blowouts against the Grizzlies to come back from a 3-2 deficit and advance in Game 7.
Yeah, you’re reading that correctly. His only contribution in Game 7 in the latter part of the 4th was a defensive rebound. Probably because he was so tired from torching the Grizzlies for the previous 42 minutes. Fair is fair, Durant was huge in both these games and because he played so well, they had leads of 13 and 21 points coming into the 4th quarter in games 6 and 7, respectively.
Again, I’m not bringing into question Durant’s greatness here, only his clutchness. No real big time moments to prove it either way here, other than how big he showed up earlier in these two games.
The season (2012-2013) following the title round loss the Heat, Durant had a chance to shine outside Westbrook’s super sized shadow (usage really at this point but shadow illiterates and usage doesn’t so I’m leaving it) as RWB had suffered yet another knee injury in a seemingly doomed season. But maybe Durant would rise above and put the team on his back. Maybe.
Eliminated in 5 games in the Divisional round to then rival Memphis. But at least Durant didn’t have any opportunities to extend the series…
They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll keep it brief. Doesn’t get much more crunch time than final seconds shots to tie or take the lead. Seeing the pattern yet?
How about the round before against the Rockets? In Durant’s first playoff run sans Westbrook, OKC vaulted out to a 3-0 lead and then struggled to close out the series for multiple games. A couple interesting trends show up in the following charts.
First, the series clinching win. Up by only 1 going into the 4th, the team played well enough to have a 10 point lead after a Durant dunk right before the 6 minute mark and pretty much cruise to the win as Durant goes into playmaker mode, handing out 3 assists.
In the Game 5 loss, the Thunder trailed by 12 entering the 4th but cut it to a two possession game with 4:16 to play to on a nice Durant assist. And then Durant commits 3 fouls, 2 turnovers and a technical foul while missing all three shot attempts in the final 4 minutes.
In the first blown chance to clinch the 1st Round series (Game 4), the Thunder came into the 4th trailing by 7, cut it to 6 with under 6 minutes to play, have a chance to tie the game with under a minute left after Durant wills them back into with some strong crunch time play…and then turns it over on his second offensive foul of the final minutes.
I’ve included the color coded charts so you can visually see what my eyes have told (but I didn’t want to admit to myself) for years….Durant rarely makes big time shots in big time moments with significant outcomes on the line.
He’s not afraid to take them but some combination of factors combines to him rarely making them.
Still not convinced? How about we use the 4 minute mark instead of 6 minutes?
- 54.5 minutes played (5 of them in that dreadful OT loss to the Spurs)
- 9/29 shooting (31%)
- 2/10 on 3’s (20%)
- 20/20 FTs
- 13 rebounds
- 4 assists
- No steals or blocks
- 7 fouls committed
- 12 Turnovers
- 40 points scored (thank you for the rip move and superstar calls!)
Per 36, that looks like 26.4 points, 8.6 boards, 2.6 assists, 4.6 fouls committed and an amazing 7.9 turnovers while the shooting percentages get worse.
4 minutes not crunch time enough for you? How about 2 minutes or less? Note: this sample size is 11 games not 13 as Durant checked out of two blowout wins before the 2 minute mark.
- 26 minutes played (5 in OT)
- 5/18 shooting (27.8%)
- 1/8 on 3’s (12.5%)
- 10/10 FTs
- 8 rebounds
- 3 assists
- No steals or blocks
- 2 fouls committed
- 6 turnovers
- 21 points
Per 36, we get 29.1 points, 11.1 boards, 4.2 assists, 2.8 fouls and 8.3 turnovers while, somehow, his shooting gets worse.
If I had to sum up Durant’s play in the final minutes of big games I’d say gets fouled, makes the freebies, misses big shots in crucial moments and turns the ball over at an astonishing rate for a superstar.
You might not agree with that statement but it’s accurate from the context that the more you ratchet down the sample size into make or break moments in win or go home games, the worse Durant performs.
Games Within 3 Possessions With 6 Minutes To Play (6 games):
- 40.5 minutes, 30 points, 9 boards, 2 assists, 1 steal, 4 fouls, 7 turnovers
- 40% from the field, 28.6% on 3’s, 92.3% from the line
Under 6 Minutes To Play Within 1 or 2 Possessions (11 games):
- 38 possessions, 11 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 fouls, 3 turnovers
- 26.7% (4/15) from the field, 0/4 on 3’s, 75% from the line
Final Minute Only (11 games):
- 33 possessions, 14 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 fouls, 4 turnovers
- 25% (2/8) from the field, 0/3 on 3’s, 100% (1o/10) from the line
Pick a size, any sample size and it becomes clear. While Kevin Durant is a great player, he’s not a great crunch time player.
Personally, I feel that only his ability to defensive rebound (ending opponent possessions) and get to the free throw line (score points without time usage) are keeping him from honestly being considered a bad crunch time player.
As my friend Jeff said once:
You love your stats and your analytics and it’s fun to look at them but ultimately, basketball games are decided by who makes winning plays at the end of games.
Over simplied? Sure. Incorrect? No.
Thunder fans were shocked when Durant chose to go to the rival Warriors instead of stick around and rise to the occasion of moving past them in the time honored tradition of losing tough Conference Finals matchups only to come back hungrier and stronger the next season for a title push.
We shouldn’t have been.
We should have realized that while Durant is a phenomenal player, he’s never met the challenge of greatness moments before. The Oklahoman made reference to it before recanting and apologizing. The subject has been broached numerous times on the Daily Thunder comments section but those dissenting opinions were quickly shouted down. Maybe if we’d listened, we’d have been better prepared for his stinging rejection.
Those of us who grew up in the Jordan area couldn’t imagine Michael leaving the Bulls as they approached championship quality to play for the Pistons or the Knicks.
Safe to say he would have rather cut off a toe than admit subservience to an opponent. Viewed from that same prism, can you imagine Michael playing without Pippen (injured Westbrook in Durant’s case) and turning into a glorified distributor in crunch time minutes? Passing up shots to give Bill Wennington or Jud Buechler the ball repeatedly? Zero chance.
Why do I keep comparing Durant to Jordan? Because Jordan was the greatest competitor I’ve seen on a basketball court and he willed his teams to titles while the popular narrative surrounding Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder is that the Thunder held Durant back from winning titles and that’s why he left.
Maybe if Durant wanted to win titles he should have made more winning plays when it mattered.
So enjoy your super group, Dubs fans. Just don’t count your titles before they’re hatched because if you find yourself in a battle late, don’t be surprised when Durant turns the ball over or misses a big shot.
It’s what he does.