Last season, it wasn’t even a question worth asking.
This season, things are going to be different in Oklahoma City. Picture the situation: Thunder down one, :12 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the ball is being inbounded on the side. Who gets the shot? Russell Westbrook took them all last year, and he knows how to close out games with the best of them. Last season in Indiana Paul George was ticked when he didn’t get the last shot even though it was the right basketball play. Carmelo Anthony has hit more than his share of game-winners, too.
So who takes that shot?
Royce Young explored this at ESPN, and that included asking coach Billy Donovan, who said exactly what you expect a coach to say.
“Carmelo’s been a closeout guy the places he’s been, the same thing with Paul. But any time you have a team you have to do it by finding the open man,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Clearly for us last year, somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else, it was Russell. But obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here, I think it’s about making the right play and right decision.”
This gets into the central question about the Thunder, the one that will define just how good they are this season — are Westbrook, George, and Anthony really willing to make the sacrifices to their games needed to push for a title? Of course, the guys are saying all the right things.
“All three of us are comfortable with whoever has that shot,” George said a couple of weeks ago. “… I trust Russ, I trust Carmelo, that they are going to do whatever is best for the team. I trust they are going to knock that shot down. Really I have no concern when it comes to that. I know with those guys, they are going to give us a chance to win. That’s ultimately what we want.”
“Whoever’s open. It’s simple,” Anthony said. “We’ll run the play, and whoever gets open will take the shot. It’s not like I’m coming and saying, ‘I want the last shot,’ or Russ is saying he wants the last shot, or Paul. Whoever’s open will take the shot. We all feel comfortable in those situations and those moments, so no need for any one of us to demand it at that point.”
Part of the challenge is that all three of them — Westbrook, George, and Anthony — get a lot of buckets out of isolation sets. They are all comfortable in that spot. Last season Westbrook isolations were the go-to end of game call for OKC (and first quarter call, and second quarter, and…) but now does Donovan call another number? Does he want a pick-and-roll action between George and Westbrook, with Anthony spacing the floor on the weakside?
ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy was on Zach Lowe’s podcast recently and had a great line (which I paraphrase here): Stars always say the right thing about sacrificing for the team, but they don’t think that applies to them. I’d say that changes over time, but look at how much Chris Bosh and then Kevin Love had to change their games to fit with LeBron James, and it took both more than a season to do it.
Westbrook had the ultimate green light last season, will be comfortable doing more playmaking for others and not taking those key shots? Will we see Olympic ‘Melo or Knicks’ ‘Melo? Will George be good with fewer touches and points heading into a contract year (not that it impacts his value much) for the betterment of the team?
I think eventually OKC’s big three will figure it out — I predicted Oklahoma City will reach the conference finals — but not until after some bumps at the start of the season. How the stars will handle end-of-game situations is a fair question to ask. Much like the Warriors last season, where Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry took a while to figure clutch situations, the Thunder have some hard questions to answer that will take some time.
And in the end, my money is still on Westbrook creating, he’s just got better passing options now.