- Justin Verrier, NBA
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LOS ANGELES -- It’s almost as if the basketball universe is baiting us. Begging us, daring us to bring it up one more time.
Who should get the ball in the clutch?
Although James Harden has recently emerged as a late-game shot-creator, the Thunder often keep it simple, riding Durant with the game on the line. Other than Carmelo Anthony, Durant took more shots than any player in the regular season in the clutch (fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left of a game, within five points or fewer of the lead) on a per-48-minute-scale -- according to 82games.com, more even than Kobe Bryant.
And with a potentially back-breaking Game 3 hanging on the balance, they did just that.
Down three with 9.8 seconds to go with no timeouts to spare, Durant came off a screen and retrieved the ball from Russell Westbrook at the top of the key. Sandwiched between all 7 feet of Pau Gasol in front of him and Steve Blake to his left, Durant pulled up with under seven seconds to play and a few feet away from the arc, and let it fly.
LeBron James was lambasted for passing it off to Mario Chalmers for the Heat’s final shot in their Game 2 defeat to Indiana. Questions were also raised when Blake, not Bryant, was the one hoisting up the Lakers’ final attempt in a Game 2 loss in Oklahoma City.
But the Thunder gave the ball to their star in the time the star was supposed to shine brightest.
And there we had it, finally: Hero-ball in all its glory.
“We didn’t have timeouts. That’s about as best as you can get without timeouts,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the Lakers’ 99-96 victory. “They did a really good job of forcing [Durant] out. [Metta World Peace] does a great job of forcing Kevin off of his spots. We have to do a better job of fighting them off.”
Two possessions earlier, when there was more time, the Thunder again went to Durant. Only, like the stars before him in these conference semifinals, Durant, too, made the basketball play.
With the Thunder down one with 33.8 seconds left, Durant fought off two screens and nudges from World Peace and retrieved the ball halfway between the 3-point arc and the midcourt line with 14 seconds on the shot clock. After a deft crossover left World Peace trailing behind, Durant surged down the lane with room to breathe and no one in his path except for Gasol, who took one step toward him, looking to close the door.
But instead of pulling up, like he has so many times for the Thunder in these late-game situations, Durant dished it off to an open Ibaka on the right baseline.
Ibaka hesitated slightly, giving the defense enough time to crash down on him. He took one dribble to his left, watched World Peace fly by, and let an midrange jumper go over Bynum’s outstretched arms.
The shot was off the mark, and World Peace came out of the scrum with the ball, and soon, he was headed to the line for two more free throws to tack on to the Lakers’ 42 on the night.
But the decision to hit an open Ibaka, a 42 percent shooter from 3-9 feet, was not off the mark.
“I trust my teammates, no matter if they miss 20 shots in a row,” said Durant, who finished with 31 points. “A few times, I threw the ball to Perk under the rim. I trust him. Serge, I trust him shooting that corner jump shot. And Russ, a few 3s that rimmed out for him.
“But I was just picking and choosing my spots. I got into the paint and wanted to take a good shot. They were tough defensively, but I got to the spots that I wanted to get to. Sometimes I should’ve shot when I passed it, but like I said, I believe in my teammates.”
Who should get the ball in the clutch?
According to the guy that takes them more than most, it doesn’t really matter.
LOS ANGELES -- It’s almost as if the basketball universe is baiting us. Begging us, daring us to bring it up one more time. Who should get the ball in the clutch?