The Oklahoma City Thunder’s status as the best clutch team in the NBA has been well-documented this season, sporting a massive net rating (NRTG) of 30.2 in 171 clutch minutes — both league-leading numbers. Many question whether or not this will give the Thunder an advantage in playoff games as they have experienced and dominated high-stress situations throughout the year. Nearly two-thirds of their games (42 of the 64 played) are classified as “clutch” games where either team is within five points of the opposition in the final five minutes of a game.
However, history shows that the best teams in the NBA-defined “clutch” usually don’t fare well in the playoffs. Below are the last five teams who finished with the best regular-season clutch NRTG and how their season ended:
2018-19: Clippers with a 17.6 NRTG were eliminated in the First Round by the Warriors in six games
2017-18: Rockets with a 27.1 NRTG were eliminated in the WCF by the Warriors in seven games
2016-17: Thunder with a 22.6 NRTG were eliminated in the First Round by the Rockets in five games
2015-16: Warriors with a 34.1 NRTG were eliminated in the Finals by the Cavs in seven games
2014-15: Mavs with a 19.5 NRTG were eliminated in the First Round by the Rockets in five games
The only two teams who made it out of the First Round from these five were a 73 win and 65 win team, both teams who historically dominated all season and were championship contenders. The other three teams were the bottom four seeds. If the current Thunder had to be placed in a group, they would be grouped with the latter more than the former.
Now, why did most of these clutch-leading teams fail to win a playoff series? Because the result of NBA games aren’t determined in just five minutes, they are determined in the full 48 minutes of a game. Clutch stats can be hard to use to judge just how good a team truly is because a lot of the time the results of those games come down to luck as much as talent.
Fans usually see NBA playoff games as close, back-and-forth contests that always come down to the final possession of the game. But the reality is, we already have a pretty good idea in August on which teams have an actual shot of winning a title the following season. The talent disparity in the league is massive and that leads to a bunch of playoff blowouts that fans soon forget about by the next game.
For example, in last year’s playoffs, 40 of the 82 games finished with a margin of victory of over 10 points. The formula for playoff success isn’t to squeeze out close wins, it’s to control the game as soon as tip-off so that by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, the deficit is too much to overcome in just one quarter. I fear that the Thunder aren’t capable enough of doing this because of the talent differential they will face when stacking up against the other top Western Conference teams.
When it comes to ranking Western Conference playoff team’s star players, the only player I can confidently take Chris Paul over is the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant.
Now, most know just how good the Thunder have been in the final quarter of games, but how have they performed in the other 75 percent of games? Are the Thunder a one-quarter pony or have they been performing consistently well throughout entire games?
When breaking down the Thunder’s NRTG by quarter this season, here are how the results look:
First Quarter: -3.0 NRTG (20th)
Second Quarter: 4.4 NRTG (7th)
Third Quarter: -1.7 NRTG (18th)
Fourth Quarter: 8.9 NRTG (1st)
The Thunder are a bottom-half team in odd-numbered quarters while a good-to-elite team in the even-numbered quarters. The team has been able to become one of the biggest surprises of the season because of their elite play in the final 12 minutes but that type of success is unsustainable in the long run. Especially when a team’s NRTG is in the negatives in half of a game as is the case with the Thunder.
In conclusion — winning close regular season games does not correlate to playoff success. Teams are more focused/motivated, rotations are shorten and the margin for error is close to zero. If the Thunder are to win a playoff series, they will do so by playing a better 48 minutes four more times than their opponent, not by just winning the final 12 or five minutes of a game. Regular season clutch stats don’t matter when trying to determine playoff success.