OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook won the 2016-17 MVP for a lot of reasons, but maybe the one that rose above even NBA history was a simple concept: big shots in big spots. He had a run of clutch-time wizardry that was awe-inspiring and astonishing but might have set him up for a ruthless regression to the mean.
On Friday against the Detroit Pistons, with his team down one with the ball, five seconds to go, Raymond Felton inbounded to Westbrook some 40 feet from the basket. With Avery Bradley latched to him, Westbrook took two dribbles and pulled up from 3, letting the ball fly with three seconds on the clock. It hit the rim twice, the rebound was tipped away and the Pistons handed the Oklahoma City Thunder another close loss, 99-98.
"Yeah," Westbrook said when asked if that was the shot he wanted. "In and out. Happens like that sometimes."
It might've felt as if Westbrook made them all last season, but in that exact situation, he was 3-of-7 -- including 0-of-3 from 3. It always has been an undesirable habit of his, to take a 3 when a 2 would probably be better, but a year ago, there wasn't much second-guessing because of the other available options. A Westbrook 3 seemed mostly better than an anyone-else-anything.
But this season, with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony flanking him, it's back to hindsighting Westbrook's late-game decision-making. He took 27 shots, hitting nine. He shot nine 3-pointers, hitting one. He was 3-of-10 in the fourth quarter, including 0-of-5 from 3. He had a triple-double, his sixth of the season, but the Thunder also lost for the second time in 2017-18 when he has had one. The classic Russell roller coaster.
"We going to live with the shot Russ took," George said. "Russ is a shotmaker. He's going to make difficult shots. He got to a sweet spot where he can pull up. In our eyes, that's a good look for us. He just missed it."
Westbrook has always been a serial freelancer in those situations, taking the set play and tweaking it to his own liking. Billy Donovan's play was to hit George on a curl, or Westbrook in the middle of the floor with options. At that point, Donovan passes the baton to Westbrook to decide what happens. So if you're thinking "what kind of play was that?" it's apparently the one Donovan drew up.
"It was exactly what we wanted," Donovan said.
"With really good offensive players you have to give them the freedom to get to spots and get to areas, because sometimes when you try to dictate as a coach what kind of shot you're going to get, 'take it to the rim' or 'do this,' " Donovan said. "What I did try to do is get the ball into his hands quickly or Paul's hands quickly to be able to shoot or attack. At that point, I trust those guys. Those guys are really good offensive players. I think it's pretty well-documented the way Russell was last year coming down the stretch of games."
But what about the part where it was a 3 when a 2 would've sufficed?
"You just gotta read, man," Westbrook said. "You just gotta see what's open, what's not open, who's in the paint, where's the open spot. You're just trying to get space and get a shot off regardless of where it is."
It can be easy to fixate on the final shot, and Westbrook's fourth-quarter numbers, but the reality was that the game was a cupboard full of missed opportunities, the opportune word being "missed." It wasn't always the best offense in the world, but even out of wild scrambles, Westbrook, George and Anthony found clean looks both from 3, and even point blank at the rim. Collectively in the fourth quarter, they shot 7-of-26 from the field, 2-of-11 from 3, and scored only 16 points.
What raises the eyebrow is the Thunder's inability, to once again, win both a close game, as well as one in which they built a big lead. After plowing over the defending champion Warriors in an emotional win Wednesday, the feeling was one of momentum and energy pulsing through the team.
The Thunder built a 15-point lead in the third quarter but watched it slip away as the bench units struggled. And as they entered clutch-time (last five minutes, margin within five), the Thunder fizzled. This season, they're 1-9 in clutch-time games, are shooting 36.1 percent (24th in the league), have an offensive rating of 96.5 (23rd) and a defensive rating of 138.7 (30th). They're being outscored by 42.2 points per 100 possessions in clutch-time.
"There's times where I've come in here and I've said to you it was the inconsistencies in the second half where we don't have that stamina," Donovan said, "but I don't feel that way tonight. I thought our guys gave incredible effort. I thought they played really hard. Was every moment perfect? No. But I was really encouraged. I really thought we executed down the stretch.
"For me, I thought there was progress in terms of the consistency I'm looking for. I get people are going to say, 'That's another game, it's coming down the stretch.' I really don't necessarily worry about that. I worry more about how we're playing down the stretch and I thought we played the right way down the stretch."
It was a pretty fitting summation of this Thunder experiment thus far. An empathic step forward Wednesday, and a meager step backward Friday. The Thunder are now 8-10, with nine losses coming by eight points or fewer. Five have come by four points or fewer. For a team that survived last season only because of its ability to win close games, it's baffling to see the struggle this season with the revamped roster.
If they can just figure out that part, they'll have what they thought they were getting. Until then, like Westbrook's shot, they'll have to settle for what they can get.