Kevin Durant is a choker.
Or at least that's what people keep saying. This belief is probably in part due to the Oklahoma City Thunder blowing a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference final last season, but also because of his general lack of production down the stretch of big games. While he has had some incredibly clutch shots worthy of an all-time highlight reel, as the old saying goes, there's no smoke without fire.
To begin with let's get our geek on and take a look at some of the statistics.
The Warriors in the clutch
Below is a comparison of the Warriors top three scorers and their true shooting percentage (TS%). As every site’s definition of "clutch" differs slightly, I've decided to opt for the NBA's own definition from stats.nba.com, which is the last five minutes of the fourth quarter with a point differential of five points or less.
A few things worth noting from the above chart:
- Stephen Curry has been ridiculously clutch this season with a TS% of 67.9%
- Although Durant has a great TS% in fourth quarters it plummets during clutch situations (more on this later).
- Klay Thompson loves the big moments; statistically he appears to thrive in the clutch.
So there does appear to be some cause for concern based on this one chart. But what about before Durant arrived in the Bay — is this a recurring issue?
The next chart is looking at the last three years Durant spent in Oklahoma City excluding the 2014-15 season where he was injured for most of it.
Although there is a dip in his TS% in the clutch, it's still a respectable percentage — perhaps not to the standards we expect of Durant however.
A look back at Durant in OKC
Once again, looking at past seasons with Oklahoma City we can compare TS% in clutch situations of the regular season to clutch situations in the playoffs.
Curiously enough last season during the playoffs, Durant appeared to fall apart in clutch situations. His TS% in the clutch last season was an abysmal 29.3%, which isn't just bad by Durant standards but simply flat out terrible.
As fans it would be easy to see these numbers and draw a very short-sighted conclusion. However, these statistics don't tell us the full story, which brings us to the next point: Durant needs to play like a Warrior.
Watching OKC over the last three years or so, it was clear to see that they had two plays they would run in the clutch:
- A high screen pick and roll with either Westbrook or Durant as the ball handler.
- Isolate either Westbrook or Durant.
That was it.
They rarely attempted moving the ball around and relied heavily on "hero ball" to get the job done. While both Durant and Westbrook are incredibly talented players — the former being the greatest scorer of his generation — you can't become dependent on their individual talent to bail you out.
On January 7 of this year, the Warriors had a 24-point lead on the Memphis Grizzlies. A fourth quarter catastrophe saw that lead crumble to just two points with 40 seconds left on the clock. It was the most crucial possession of the night. Durant begged for the ball, Curry reluctantly gave it up to him and set the most unenthusiastic screen I have ever seen. Durant waved off the screen and isolated himself against the far more sluggish Zach Randolph. Enraged by Durant’s decision, Draymond Green couldn't do anything other than stand in the corner screaming and shouting as Durant forced up a contested three over Randolph.
The sound of the bricked shot clanging against the rim would stick in the heads of every Warriors fan for a while. The game itself may have been meaningless and the loss inconsequential but that wasn't the issue. It was the reluctance of Durant to run a play or move the ball around to try and break down the defense. His uncompromising determination to be "the man" and play that Oklahoma City brand of hero ball that the Warriors have tried so hard to stay away from since the dawn of the coach Kerr era.
Mimicking the San Antonio Spurs’ selflessness, Kerr's emphasis on ball movement in the beautifully simplistic motion offense was supposed to make the things more fluid, more balanced. It's supposed to create misdirection and keep the defense guessing. Sure, the Warriors have been prone to over-passing and trying to do too much, but during the Kerr-era they have very rarely relied on hero ball to win games.
Learning new habits
Can we really blame Durant? It is after all the only way of playing that he's ever known. He cited the Warriors play style as one of the reasons he chose to sign with them this off-season. This implies that he was tired of handling the bulk of the offense, tired of always having to bail out his teammates. And yet here we are just a few months later and we are watching him make the same mistakes he made in Oklahoma despite having a much better system in place.
Although some of the Warriors’ issues in fourth quarters come from the bench blowing leads—along with inexplicable lapses in defense—there could be a psychological reason behind the way Durant plays in the clutch.
For most people, recurring failure has a tendency to stick with you. Once it's happened enough times, it becomes more than a criticism—it becomes a trait that people associate you with. For normal people it can be difficult to overcome; Kevin Durant however is not a normal person. He has no reason not to be confident in those situations regardless of his history. If he can execute in the other three quarters, he can do it in the fourth. He's a once in a generation kind of talent, if anyone can find a way to regain focus and composure in the clutch it's him.
I will not label him a choker, even if he has choked in the past. He has a chance this year (particularly in the post season) to prove that he is anything but a choker. Nothing makes sports fans forget your mistakes more quickly than winning. Just ask Michael Jordan.
"I've missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I've lost almost three hundred games. Twenty six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life... and that is why I succeed".
*All statistics compiled from stats.nba.net and basketball-reference.com; accurate as of January 15th 2017.