Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks preview (Game 46 of 82)

stoudemire collison thunder knicks

  • When: Wednesday, 28 January 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

The roughest part of the schedule is behind us. The Thunder went 3-2 against some of the more elite teams in the Eastern Conference. They pushed their record above .500. Now, it’s go time in regards of getting at least to the 8th seed in the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns (the current 8th seed) have one of the toughest second half schedules in the league and the New Orleans Pelicans (the current 9th seed) have injury issues. Luckily, the Thunder still have two games against both these teams. In a way, the Thunder still control their fate in regards to getting to the playoffs.

This is the second and final meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder defeated the Knicks in late November, 105-78, in what was Russell Westbrook’s first game back from a broken hand. In that game, Westbrook tallied 32 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists in resounding “I’m baaaack” fashion. That game was missing the past two scoring champions, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, due to injury.

The Opponent

anthony galloway calderon smith knicks

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014-15 New York Knickerbockers. I have no idea where the wheels fell off with this team. I predicted they would sneak into the East playoffs at the beginning of the season. With a record of 8-37, the Knicks are currently tied with the 76ers for the second worst record in the league. The rank 29th in points scored per game and rebounding, and have an MOV of -8.0. Injuries have played a part, but chemistry and personnel have been the bigger issue. In turbulent times, though, when a team starts to trim the fat and rebuild itself anew, you sometimes find diamonds where there was only coal. Langston Galloway, an undrafted rookie free agent, has emerged as a consistent starter for the Knicks since his signing a week into the new year. He is averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game in the last 4 games, with the Knicks recording a 3-1 record in those games. New York lost a lot of its guard depth in the trade that sent JR Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. So finding a player like Galloway has been a bit of a life saver for New York. The Knicks have been using Jose Calderon as the other guard, but he may be still recovering from a bruised knee suffered in their last game played. If he can’t go, expect Tim Hardaway Jr. to start in his place. Carmelo Anthony has had a most disappointing season and appears to be on the “Play one game, miss one game” veteran plan. He can still fill up the scoreboard (24.1 points per game), but appears to be looking towards April instead of any game in January – April. If he can’t go, look for former Thunder player Lance Thomas to take his place. Probably the most consistent players for the Knicks this season have been Amar’e Stoudemire and Cole Aldrich. Now, consistent doesn’t necessarily mean great, or even good for that matter, but it’s a start. Unfortunately, those two players come off the bench in favor of Lou Amundson and Jason Smith. Another veteran that provides good minutes off the bench is Pablo Prigioni.

New York Knicks

  • PG – Langston Galloway
  • SG – Tim Hardaway Jr.
  • SF – Carmelo Anthony
  • PF – Lou Amundson
  • C – Jason Smith

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Perry Jones
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Trap Game Potential - This just feels like one of those games where a Langston Galloway or a Tim Hardaway Jr. could erupt for 30-40 points on us. Many are looking at this game like a guaranteed win, but I see this game as a huge trap game. The Thunder are missing Kevin Durant and have been in an offensive slump in the past 4 games. With the Knicks on a bit of a hot streak, playing at home, and playing against their coach’s old team, I could see them coming out full bore against the Thunder.

2. Bench Production - With Durant out and the team struggling offensively, the bench stepped up to help the Thunder beat the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. They scored 45  points between four players (Reggie Jackson, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, and Nick Collison). Were they efficient? Not necessarily, but they put pressure on the Wolves and got a lot of open looks (some of which, they actually made). The Thunder reserves will likely have to be just as aggressive in this game.

westbrook roberson thunder

3. Russell Westbrook - Westbrook is such a nice guy. Every time he sees a player, especially a rookie, that is playing well, he wants to absolutely destroy that player to let them know he exists. Langston Galloway, you’re next on the list. Initiate “New Point Guard Destruction” protocols.

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Washington Wizards preview (Game 42 of 82)

Washington Wizards v Oklahoma City Thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 21 January 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Verizon Center, Washington D.C.

Finally! It took exactly half the season to get a game over .500. With the Thunder injurious past (hopefully) behind them, it is now time to conquer the next mountain, which is getting the 8th seed in the Western Conference. The schedule makers did the Thunder no favors as they face three of the Eastern Conference’s top teams on the road in the next 5 days. With little room for error, the Thunder need to start piling up the wins in bunches in order to stay afloat in the West. The four teams above the Thunder are currently on a collective 11 game win streak.

This is the 2nd and final meeting of the year between these two teams. The Thunder beat the Wizards in OKC, 109-102 on January 2nd. On that night, Kevin Durant scored 9 of his 34 in the final 6 minutes of the 4th quarter to keep the Wizards at bay in what was a very close game throughout.

The Opponent

wall nene wizards

The Washington Wizards currently sit at 29-13, good for 2nd in the Eastern Conference. They aren’t nearly as explosive as you would think with John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, but they are great defensively. They allow just under 97 points per contest (3rd best in the league) and have the league’s 8th best defensive rating. This is where their bread and butter lies. As mentioned before, the backcourt is one of the better ones in the league. Wall has become a top-10 point guard and is moving quickly into the conversation of being a Top-5 PG. Beal has regressed a bit from the season he had last year, but is still one of the best two-way SG in the league. On the other wing, the veteran Paul Pierce continues to move up the scoring list with his perimeter shooting and penchant for getting to the line. Up front, Nene and Marcin Gortat are two fleet footed behemoths that can cause problems with their size and rebounding. Off the bench, Andre Miller always gives the Thunder issues and Rasual Butler has turned into one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. Also, Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin form a pretty good back-up duo that would start on some other teams in the league.

Probable Starting Line-up

Washington Wizards

  • PG – John Wall
  • SG – Bradley Beal
  • SF – Paul Pierce
  • PF – Nene
  • C – Marcin Gortat

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense - The most important thing will be keeping John Wall (and Andre Miller, for that matter) out of the paint. Once those two get into the lane, they become chaos-creaters and can hurt you in several different ways. At the same time, the Thunder have to contend with the shooters on the outside. The Wizards have 3 rotation players that shoot 39% or better from the 3-point line. It’s a little bit of a pick your poison type recipe, as guarding a player like Wall is an “all hands on deck” type directive, while hoping that the shooters miss some of their shots.

durant wall thunder wizards

2. Pace - The Wizards are a lot like the Memphis Grizzlies in that they have two skilled big men, a talented PG, and two good shooters on the wing. So they love to run their halfcourt offense. The Thunder on the other hand, need to turn this game into a track meet by causing turnovers and getting out on the break. The last game these two teams played together was more at the Thunder’s pace and the outcome was a Thunder victory.

3. D.C. aka The Little House of Horrors - The Thunder have not won in D.C. since the 2010-2011 season. That’s 3 straight seasons of going to Durant’s hometown and losing in front of his kinfolk. That needs to stop. Not because we want to solidify our footing in the KD2016 campaign. But because we need as many wins as possible to get into the playoffs. Thinking about this season, not the offseason after next season.

On a side note, I hope Thunder fans don’t fret too much about Durant’s decision in the summer of 2016. Is it fast approaching? Yes. But this team will do everything it can to put a winning product out there on the floor. That’s what these last few moves (the Waiters trade and the proposed Lopez trade) are about. They’re not about impressing Durant. They are about putting the pieces in place to get better. The Thunder may finally have their most talented team yet, and their record would have reflected it if it wasn’t for the injuries at the beginning of the season. Enjoy this game for what it is (a match-up of two great teams) and not for what everyone outside of Oklahoma will turn it into (small market vs. big market politics).

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat preview (Game 41 of 82)

durant wade thunder heat

  • When: Tuesday, 20 January 2015 at 6:30 PM CST
  • Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

There was a time when this match-up was THE MATCH-UP. There was a point in time where this game would’ve gotten TNT Thursday night love or first available Sunday after football on ABC billing. Such is the power of LeBron James. With James taking his talents to Northeast Ohio, this game has been mitigated to NBATV exclusivity on the same day the President will be giving his State of the Union address. In other words, don’t expect a 4.9 viewership rating for this game.

The Thunder finally have a bit of a rhythm going to their game. They’ve won 2 of 3 since their five day break and have scored 127 points (non-overtime) in consecutive games. They beat the best team in the league and then molly-whooped a lottery team on their own floor. Though the sample size is small, the team seems to found a comfort zone with Dion Waiters that is paying instant dividends. The Waiters-Reggie Jackson combo is keeping the pressure on teams, even when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are off the floor. Another plus during the Thunder’s recent play has been Serge Ibaka’s play. He’s doing a much better job of mixing his inside and outside presence whenever the team needs it. In the Warriors game, Ibaka shredded Golden State in the 4th quarter, scoring 10 consecutive points on 4 shots (2 lay-ups, 1 dunk, and a 3-pointer), which were all assisted by Westbrook. Then, against Orlando, with the lane opening up like the Red Sea for the Thunder’s playmakers, Ibaka stepped to the outside and thrashed the Magic with four 3-pointers.

This is the first of 2 meetings this season between these two teams. These teams split their meetings last season, with each team winning on the other’s home floor.

The Opponent

MIAMI HEAT V ATLANTA HAWKS

The Miami Heat currently stand at 18-22, good for 7th in the Eastern Conference. They are bottom third in most statistical categories. They are the slowest team in the league (30th in pace), which helps their scoring defense out, allowing only 97.2 points per game. Unfortunately, they only score about 93.5 points per game. The departure of LeBron James has changed the way Miami plays, and they are still adjusting to life without him. Mario Chalmers still leads the current Miami attack, but is likely not getting yelled at as much. Dwayne Wade is leading the team in scoring, at 22.1 points per game, and in assists, at 5.6 per game. When Wade has been out, rookie Shabazz Napier has stepped in. Luol Deng is still one of the premier 3 and D guys in the NBA and has been a good fit for the Heat. Up front, Chris Bosh is still one of the better inside/outside big men in the league, averaging 21.6 points on 40.5% shooting from 3-point territory. Up front, Most Improved Player candidate Hassan Whiteside has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the NBA. Whiteside’s journey has seen him go from Sacramento to Lebanon to China to the D-League, and then to Miami where he seems to have finally gotten his professional footing. Off the bench, Miami has a couple veteran players (Udonis Haslem, Danny Granger, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole), but lacks a consistent scorer.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

  • PG – Mario Chalmers
  • SG – Dwayne Wade*
  • SF – Luol Deng*
  • PF – Chris Bosh
  • C – Hassan Whiteside

* – Dwayne Wade is questionable due to a hamstring issue and Luol Deng is questionable due to illness.

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace - The Heat play at the slowest pace in the league. The Thunder, when healthy, like to move the ball up the court as quickly as possible. It would behoove the Thunder to play their brand of basketball.

westbrook chalmers thunder heat

2. Bench - The Heat have one of the weaker benches in the league. With Wade and Deng a possibility to miss the game due to various ailments, the Thunder reserves can be the key to an easy Thunder victory.

3. Half-way Point - This is the 41st game of the season a.k.a the half-way point. It will be up to the Thunder to see if they finally end up above .500 for the first time this season, or if they, once again, dip a game under .500.

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Orlando Magic preview (Game 40 of 82)

durant thunder harris magic

  • When: Sunday, 18 January 2015 at 5:00 PM CST
  • Where: Amway Center, Orlando, FL

Finally! I’m pretty sure that was every Thunder fans’ reaction after defeating the Golden State Warriors on Friday night. It wasn’t just that the Thunder got a win against one of the current elite in the NBA. It was how they did it. Their way. It was waves and waves of scoring brought on by Kevin Durant’s greatness and Russell Westbrook’s chaos. It was Serge Ibaka coming in and being the third best player on the team. It was Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, and Reggie Jackson putting the pressure on the Warriors when the dynamic duo were on the bench. It was ball pressure causing turnovers. It was defense quickly turning into offense. It was beautiful. It was Thunder basketball.

This is the first of two meetings between these two teams this season. Even though these two teams are on opposite ends of the team spectrum (one is still rebuilding, while the other is (supposedly) a title contender), their games last season were surprisingly close as the teams split the season series.

The Opponent

NBA: Houston Rockets at Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic come into the game with a 15-28 record. Their season has been a series of “one step forward, and three steps back.” They’ll win one or two in a row, and then lost 3 or 4 in a row. Its the tale of a young team just now learning how to win. They are a scrappy bunch, but rank in the bottom third of nearly every statistical category, scoring only 94.9 points per game, while giving up 100.1. Leading the charge is the young backcourt duo of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo. After missing the start of the season with knee and facial injuries, Oladipo has started to come on as of late, averaging 23.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in the last 5 games. On the other wing, Tobias Harris brings a multifaceted game to the table as an outside/inside players. Unfortunately, Harris has missed the last 4 games with a sprained ankle, and is listed as day to day for this game. Channing Frye, the prized free agent signing for the Magic, has struggled this season, averaging only 7.9 points per game on 39.5% shooting from 3-point territory. Up front, Nikola Vucevic is a double/double waiting to happen and one of the better young big men in the league. Off the bench, the Magic have a veteran playmaker in Luke Ridnour, a veteran shooter in Ben Gordon, and a trio of young players (Evan Fournier, Kyle O’Quinn, and Maurice Harkless) who can be inconsistent at times.

Probable Starting Line-up

Orlando Magic

  • PG – Elfrid Payton
  • SG – Victor Oladipo
  • SF – Devyn Marble
  • PF – Channing Frye
  • C – Nikola Vucevic

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Rebounding - One way for a young team to stay in games against elite competition is by winning the battle of the boards. The more opportunities young teams have to score, the more confident they get. The Magic are one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA (28th in the league), but have a center that has amassed rebounding totals of 16, 17 (twice), and 23 in games this season. Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins will need to use their strength to push Vucevic out of position.

Orlando Magic v Chicago Bulls

2. Perimeter defense - Its not a secret that Serge Ibaka struggles defensively against stretch 4’s. Even though Channing Frye is struggling this season, he still is one of the better stretch 4’s in the league when he is on. This just feels like one of those games where Frye could go off on the perimeter against the Thunder.

3. Consistency vs. inconsistency - The Thunder had a great game on Friday, but have failed to build off of any momentum in the past few weeks. With a 5-game road trip coming up, the Thunder need to build off of their performance on Friday and carry that with them on the road.

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets preview (Game 38 of 82)

rockets thunder

  • When: Thursday, 15 January 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Toyota Center, Houston, TX

The Oklahoma City Thunder just experienced the NBA’s equivalent of an NFL bye week. They were off for 5 full days, last playing on Friday at home. Rest during an NBA season is always welcome. Probably more important, though, is the ability to hold full practices. In the 5 day break, the Thunder likely held 2 or 3 full length practices to help incorporate newcomer Dion Waiters. Hell, even Mitch McGary, who has had an injury plagued rookie season, likely benefited from the increased practice time now that he is healthy. After being shaky the last 3 games, practice time is probably something the Thunder cherished during this “bye week”.

This is the 2nd of 3 meetings between these two teams. The Rockets beat the Thunder 69-65 on November 16th. Yeah, that was the score of an NBA game that ended after four quarters played. The defense in that game was stifling, as was the offense. Of course, the Thunder were without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during that stretch. .

The Opponent

harden howard beverly rockets

The Houston Rockets come into this game with a 27-12 record, good for 4th in the Western Conference. The Rockets have been one of the more consistent teams in the league, sporting a top 5 defense with a top 10-15 offense. The Rockets used to be a strictly offensive-minded team, but that began to change when the Rockets started putting the point guard responsibilities in the hands of Patrick Beverly. The bulldog defender changed the demeanor of the Rockets and wrestled the starting spot from Jeremy Lin last season. While not necessarily an offensive weapon, Beverly is the heart of the team. On the wing, James Harden continues his excellent play as a scorer (26.9 points per game) and has shown improvements as a defender after being much maligned last season. His improvements on the defensive end have bolstered Harden into the MVP conversation this season. On the other wing, Trevor Ariza gives the Rockets the big wing defender they’ve coveted for a while. The power forward position is currently a back and forth between Donatas Montiejunas and Josh Smith. Both offer the ability to be a stretch 4, but Montiejunas has been a little bit more consistent since Smith’s arrival to the team. Up front, Dwight Howard continues to be one of the best defensive centers in the league (11.2 rebounds, 1.56 blocks), while also giving the Rockets 17 points per game. Outside of Smith, who can be inconsistent at times, and Corey Brewer, the bench is one of the weaker ones of the Western Conference elite.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Houston Rockets

  • PG – Patrick Beverly
  • SG – James Harden
  • SF – Trevor Ariza
  • PF – Donatas Montiejunas
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense - The Thunder have been having issues lately with defensive minded teams that can consistently shoot 3’s. They struggled with the Warriors a couple games ago, generally struggle with the Trailblazers, and always have a difficult time with the Spurs. With the Rockets’ new found love for defense, they now fall into this category. Where this comes into play is when the Thunder struggle from the field (especially from 3) and can’t stop the other team from consistently making 3’s. The Rockets have 4 rotation players (Harden, Ariza, Beverly, and Brewer) that shoot at least 33% from 3-point territory, with Montiejunas clocking in at 28% from deep.

2. Bench play - Jason Terry and Terrance Jones will be out for tonight’s game, and Isaiah Canaan and Kostas Papanikolaou have fallen out of the rotation. The Rockets’ bench is weaker now than it was at the beginning of the season. And the Rockets will be playing in the 2nd game of a back to back after having to travel back from the East Coast. If the Thunder bench can win the battle of the reserves handily, the Thunder should be able to win this game going away.

westbrook beverly thunder rockets

3. Beverly vs. Westbrook - This match-up always sparks fireworks. Should be fun.

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Scott Brooks and the Glass Ceiling

scott brooks thunder

Earlier this college football season, I experienced something I have never experienced since I started following and rooting for the OU Sooners about 20 years ago. That feeling of seeing something bad and knowing things were going to change from that point on. For me, it was the OU/Baylor game in Norman this season. The Sooners were out and out embarrassed by the Bears as Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty shredded the defense on short wide receiver screens all day long. The OU defense kept their corners at least 8 years off the line for fear of the deep ball throughout the game, and Baylor continually exploited that strategy. In the end, Baylor thoroughly dominated the Sooners 48-14.

OU had lost before, but this loss felt different. For the first time, it felt like the currency Bob Stoops had built up with his 2000 National Championship win was beginning to run low. Even the most ardent of Sooners supporters were calling into sportstalk radio shows asking, not necessarily for Stoops’ head, but for significant changes. The Sooners had disappointed and Sooners fans were fed up. Needless to say, after the season, changes were made. Both offensive coordinators were let go of and the defensive coordinator (who happens to be the head coach’s brother) was almost let go and will likely have a very short leash next season. Will these moves help? That remains to be seen, but in the presence of stagnation, sometimes change is all that is needed to catalyze improvement.

Which brings me to the Oklahoma City Thunder. I try not to be a prisoner of the moment, but honestly, life is about how you react to moments right after they happen. Some people are good at withholding their reaction until they’ve fully processed what transpired, while others have a difficult time getting their emotions in check. I was very reactionary after the road trip the Thunder just had, but I also chose to wait a little and see what transpired with the Utah game. Here is a summary of the Thunder’s last 3 games:

  • @Golden State – lost 117-91 – Balanced attack by the Warriors (seven Warriors scored at least 8 points or more) decimated the hapless Thunder who shot just 30.6% from the field. The Warriors used small ball throughout the game due to the absences of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. The Thunder never countered, staying with a normal line-up most of the night, and were constantly caught in bad defensive match-ups.
  • @Sacramento – lost 104-83 – Three Kings (haha, punny) scored 23 points or more as the Thunder once again struggled to find any type of flow offensively, and failed to get stops when they started building momentum. The Kings played to the Thunder’s comfort, with a regular three wings/two posts lineup, but the Thunder’s perimeter defense was almost non-existent the entire evening.
  • vs. Utah – won 99-94 – A win is a win, right? Not necessarily. While a W is always nice, this was a game where the Thunder needed to play like a championship contender. Instead, the Thunder struggled the entire evening in keeping the Jazz wing players in front of them. Gordon Hayward and Trey Burke kept finding their ways into the paint and Derrick Favors feasted off of their drives to the basket. With 8:12 left in the game, the Thunder found themselves down by 7. It was at that point that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook checked back into the game. From there, Durant, Westbrook, and newcomer Dion Waiter, went on to score every point for the Thunder the rest of the way. A win, yes. But not anything you can necessarily hang your hat on.

The Thunder, for as great as they are, still suffer from the same ills that have plagued them for the past 5 seasons: late game execution, lack of an offensive system that involves all the players (especially in crunchtime), defensive lapses, poor in-game adjustments, turnovers, being undisciplined, low collective basketball IQ, etc, etc. In my work experience, when a collective of employees continues to do the same things wrong over an extended period of time, it always comes back to the supervisor. In the Thunder’s case, the supervisor on the floor is Scott Brooks.

brooks durant thunder

Brooks has been the coach for nearly 6 full seasons. If consistency is a good thing to have as a coach, color Brooks good. But at what point does consistency become redundancy? Lately, I’ve come to compare Brooks to the cool supervisor at work. Those types of supervisors usually share similar traits. They confuse niceness and smiles with respect for authority and they tend to look the other way when their employees commit small transgressions. Eventually, the transgressions become more and more common and the supervisor is left with one of two choices: continue to look the other way or completely change course and do a behavioral 180. The problem with the second choice is that after enough time of being the “cool supervisor”, a threat no longer holds weight. Then you are left with a situation where the employees like the supervisor, but don’t respect his/her authority. When the employee/supervisor relationship reaches this point, it’s usually hard to salvage anything. Either the supervisor goes down with the ship, or the supervisor’s 180 causes his employees to despise him/her.

I feel like the Thunder have reached this point with Scott Brooks. One of my fellow bloggers commented, “The players love him (Brooks)” when I brought up my “cool supervisor” analogy. While that may be true, that’s also a symptom of the employee/”cool” supervisor relationship. If my superior is constantly allowing me to get away with indiscretions, I’d like him/her also. Its getting to a point where I almost have to wonder if the Thunder players are even listening to Brooks anymore. In practice, Brooks has to be running a system where everyone gets involved in the offense, even during crunch time simulations. But in real games, the Thunder always revert back to their default, which is Westbrook or Durant on the perimeter trying to make something out of nothing. It usually works, because Westbrook and Durant are that good. But against great teams with good coaching, that offensive plan is becoming easier and easier to guard. Teams with high defensive IQ’s (basically everyone in the playoff picture in the Western Conference) know what’s coming before it happens.

Another question that needs to be asked: Do the players still respect Brooks? Again, going back to the supervisor analogy, liking someone can easily be mistaken for respecting someone. A coach that used to play point guard likely has an unwritten kinship with his own point guard. But Brooks has usually delegated that job out to others. Be it Mo Cheeks, Kevin Ollie, or Derek Fisher, Westbrook has always had someone around to help cool him off. While I’m not entirely familiar with Westbrook’s relationship with assistant coach Robert Pack, it seems as if Westbrook is on his own this season. The results these last few weeks have been questionable. Westbrook has seemingly got hit for at least a technical per game in that time frame and was even ejected from an important game that had possible postseason implications. If this was a rookie or 2nd year player, you could understand. But this is a veteran floor general for a supposed title contender. If the head coach can’t sit him down and control him, who can? Even as an emotional player, Westbrook has to know that racking up technicals and getting a hot-head reputation can’t be a good thing.

Scott Brooks, Russell Westbrook

The other point guard on the team is an emotional mess, but on the other end of the spectrum. Reggie Jackson’s recent de-evolution from “future starting point guard for another team” to “what the hell was that?” is troubling and confusing. Jackson made his intentions known at the end of last season and the beginning of this season, that his current career goal is to lead his own team as a starter. Since the Thunder cannot supply his demand with Westbrook already in tow, it is almost a given that Jackson would likely be traded either this season or leading up to the draft. When the season started with both Durant and Westbrook shelved with injuries, Jackson did his best to lead the team and put up good numbers. He averaged 20 points, 5 boards, and 7 assists during the stretch where he was the Thunder’s best player. But lately, his play has been more reminiscent of his rookie season. He’s eschewing his bread and butter (attacking the paint) for step back rainbow threes. And his defense, always questionable, has been atrocious of late. Usually one of the players on the floor with the crunchtime line-up, Brooks instead chose to go with Waiters in the last game, which was extremely telling of how Brooks felt about Jackson in that moment.

The final thing that needs to be addressed is the lack of an offensive system. Around the league, teams are choosing to go with a Spursian model of sharing the wealth on offense instead of depending, almost entirely, on one or two scorers. Even teams that are known for their half-court offense (Memphis, Portland) have systems that play to the strengths of all of their players. The Thunder offense, unfortunately, still relies heavily on the abilities of Durant and Westbrook. As I’ve mentioned before, those two are good enough to succeed in many situations. But defenses are starting to key in on this fact, and it is getting harder and harder for the Thunder to come up with efficient shots when they need them the most. And it isn’t like the Thunder don’t have options. They have a PF/C that can shoot 3’s and is one of the best mid-range shooters in the game (Serge Ibaka). They have a 3-point specialist in Anthony Morrow that is one of the most feared shooters in the game. And now they have two combo guards, in Jackson and Waiters, that can drop 20 on any given night. But when the game gets close, the ball will likely find its way into the hands of Westbrook or Durant, and it will be a secret to no one.

I’ve never been a proponent of the mid-season coach firing. It can lead to chemistry issues and feelings of a season being lost. But once this season ends, the Thunder need to seriously think about changing the voice in the huddle, whether its changing the head coach or getting some specialist-oriented assistant coaches. There comes a point when the expectations of a coach switches from the win/loss record to finishes. Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers is currently about the wins and the losses. But Gregg Popovich is all about the finishes. And finishes have been something Brooks has struggled with. Have injuries had a hand in the Thunder’s last few shortcomings? Of course. But no fail safe system has ever been put in place to protect against such commonalities as injuries. Its a wonder if Brooks has just reached his glass ceiling with this team. A lot like Bob Stoops, Brooks appears to be burning a lot of the currency he got when he took the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012. And it seems to be playing out in real time as the Thunder struggle to get out of the hole that was built for them in the beginning of the season.

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Posted in Random Thoughts

Oklahoma City Thunder at Sacramento Kings preview (Game 36 of 82)

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  • When: Wednesday, 07 January 2015 at 9:00 PM CST
  • Where: Sleep Train Arena, Sacramento, CA

Two steps forward, one step back. Since the beginning of the season, this has been the story of the Thunder’s season. Since starting the season 3-12, the Thunder have gone on to win 14 of 20 games, which translates to a .700 winning percentage. But it seems like once they get it going, something happens that stops the momentum dead in its tracks. Be it an injury, a bad call, or a core-rattling midseason trade (we miss ya Lance), something always seems to derail the momentum train. The Thunder once again find themselves on the lower end of the win-loss spectrum. With Phoenix catching fire all the sudden, the Thunder need to put together a string of victories to at least keep within striking distance of the 8th spot. The narrative is always that there is plenty of season left. But the Thunder are 5 games from the midway point, and a sense of urgency has yet to develop within the OKC mindset. Hopefully, what I see as a lack of urgency is actually just a quiet confidence that has been fostered from experience.

This is the 3rd of 4 meetings between the Thunder and the Kings. Oklahoma City won the previous two meetings by an average of 10 points. This is the first game between the two teams where each team is relatively healthy. In the first meeting, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and in the second meeting, the Kings were without DeMarcus Cousins.

The Opponent

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The Sacramento Kings’ record currently sits at 14-20. After starting the season 9-5, The King have gone on to lose 15 of their next 20 because of injuries to key players and front office turmoil, which resulted in the firing of head coach Mike Malone. The Kings’ issues can be traced directly to their defense and their lack of ball movement. Even though they score 102 points per game (good for 13th in the league), they give up 104.4 ppg on the other end. And they rank 28th in the league in assists at just 19.8 per game. Their offense runs through Cousins, but he does a poor job of finding shooters on the wings when he has the ball. That’s unfortunate because the Kings have 3 starters (Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, and Ben McLemore) who all shoot 36% or better from the 3-point line. Inside, they have a glut of power forwards (Jason Thompson, Reggie Evans, and Carl Landry) who aren’t necessarily great at any facet of the game. Their bench is deep, but is still one of the more weaker ones in the league. Ray McCollum and Nik Stauskas will likely see more minutes off the bench tonight due to injuries to Ramon Sessions and Omri Casspi.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Sacramento Kings

  • PG – Darren Collison
  • SG – Ben McLemore
  • SF – Rudy Gay
  • PF – Jason Thompson
  • C – DeMarcus Cousins

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Rebounding - The Kings aren’t good at a lot of things, but they are pretty good at rebounding. They grab 44.5 rebounds per game, which is good for 8th in the league. Cousins averages 12.1 boards himself and the trio of power forwards grab 17.5 boards a game between them. If there’s one thing that gives struggling teams momentum, it’s offensive rebounding. The Thunder bigs need to do a good job of boxing out and getting the 50/50 rebounds..

2. Get to the bench - The Kings’ starting 5 accounts for 76.3% of the points the team scores. Two of their top scoring reserves are out for tonight’s game. If the Thunder can get the starters in foul trouble, the Kings may have to use their bench more than they would like.

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3. Dion Waiters - It’s Christmas in January! Newly acquired guard Dion Waiters will be in uniform tonight and available. It will be interesting to see how and where head coach Scott Brooks will use Waiters.

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Posted in Thunder Pre-game Report
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