They were two plays on one night of the NBA playoffs, but added together, they told us a lot of what we needed to know about the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder and their postseason chances.
In Oakland, Chris Paul harassed Golden State Warriors top gun Stephen Curry into a controversial airball on the final shot of a two-point game. On a bum right hamstring and with a 100-degree temperature earlier in the day. After the Clippers floor leader was content to play ball distributor for monster forward Blake Griffin (32 points) and others for much of the first three quarters, the sign of a contender that had its stars in alignment.
“I was gonna take (Paul) out, I think it was the middle of the third (period,” Clippers bossman Doc Rivers confessed to reporters afterward. “I told our trainer, ‘That’s it.’”
“(Paul) said, ‘Just trust me. Please trust me.’”
A short time earlier, the Thunder trailed by three points with 40 seconds left in overtime when itchy-fingered point guard Russell Westbrook launched a 27-footer while teammate Serge Ibaka stood all by his lonesome near the basket. Then again, Westbrook and sidekick Kevin Durant seemed to be caught up in a game of Can You Top This? the entire series. Westbrook bricked 45 of 73 field goal tries (38 percent success rate) in the first three games, while Durant misfired on 45 of his 80 attempts (44 percent). That means two players attempted 60 percent of the shots for their team, hardly the ideal formula for championship success.
Of course, as far as the Memphis Grizzlies are concerned, Westbrook can shoot from Graceland, the Pink Palace Museum or his hotel balcony for all they care.
“We’re fine with Westbrook taking shots,” Grizzlies guard Courtney Lee told the Oklahoman. “I mean, that’s kinda what you want. The more shots he takes, the less Durant takes.”
I expected as much two summers ago, when the Thunder unloaded James Harden rather than visit luxury-tax hell. I was among the few who thought they had dealt the wrong guy. For one, Westbrook had the higher trade value of the two players at the time. Better to hand the reins to Durant then sign a veteran point guard to run the offense when he’s on the bench, I said at the time. At 6-foot-9, Durant had the size, selflessness and ball skills to make those around him better, become something of a sugar-free Magic Johnson with a jump shot.
While there’s not much to choose from between the games of Harden and Westbrook overall, there is one significant difference among them. Westbrook is the more well-rounded player, but Harden is the more efficient shot-maker, which makes him better suited for the Batman role. The numbers have confirmed as much since the trade. In the last two regular seasons, Harden ranked 19th and 38th in true shooting percentage in the league, while Westbrook fared no better than 165th and 190th in the category. Harden also averaged nearly four more free throw attempts per 48 minutes in that span.
Durant has some work of his own to do -– a post-up game ranks at the top of the list — but the Thunder should be his team, no questions asked. Yet Westbrook is talented and driven enough to have his own team as well. At his peak, I see him as a taller Allen Iverson, a strong will who needs the ball in his hands and the license to shoot it at any time to be most effective. Who knows? In the right situation, he might even able to lead a team to the NBA Finals like Iverson did once.
But as long as the Westbrook-Durant combination is intact, the Thunder may be doomed to remain a talented-but-flawed team whose sum is less than its parts in the postseason. It’s an identity problem that the Clippers don’t have at the moment, which is why I trust Paul and company more than any team in the West right now.