Monthly Archives: May 2012

Round 2: Lakers vs. Thunder

Redemption road. First it was the defending champions Dallas Mavericks. Now it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams that have knocked the Oklahoma City Thunder from the playoffs the last two postseasons. The two teams that have gone on to win the championship after they dispatched the Thunder. Oklahoma City did what they had to do in the first round, sweeping the Mavericks in a hard fought first round battle. Now, after a week of rest, they await the Lakers who defeated the Denver Nuggets in a surprising 7 game first round series.

If you want to know what this series will be like, go to your local city gym and observe the basketball court for about 3 hours. You’ll usually find at least one game pitting teenagers (ages 16-22) versus middle aged men (ages 35+). You’ll see the teenagers try to use their athleticism, but the middle aged guys will usually counter with smart basketball and mid-range jumpers. The game usually ends up being close and competitive. The Lakers, of course, are the middle aged guys and the Thunder are the teenagers.

The Thunder won the season series 2-1 in what has turned out to be one of the most contested matchups during the regular season. In the first matchup, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder turned a tight game in the first half into a blowout in the second half, taking the game 100-85. Kevin Durant had one of his better all-around games scoring 33 points on 12/22 shooting, grabbing 4 boards, and dishing out 6 assists. In the second meeting, in Los Angeles, the Lakers held a big lead in the first quarter, but got outscored 84-63 the rest of the way, losing 102-93. Russell Westbrook led the way this time around with 36 points and 5 assists. The 3rd game, also in Los Angeles, was known more for a body part than for a game. Aside from the whole ‘Metta World Peace’s elbow to the side of James Harden’s head’ incident, this was actually a really close game and the Lakers needed overtime to defeat the Thunder 114-106. The real story in this game was the Thunder’s inability to get going offensively in the second half once Harden was sidelined with the concussion.

The Opponent

The Los Angeles Lakers come into the game having won a hard fought 7 game series against the up-start Denver Nuggets. Six of the seven games were played without Metta World Peace, who was serving his 7 game suspension following the elbowing incident against the Thunder. Everyone knows the engine that still pushes the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, who averaged 29 points per game in their 1st round series. Most importantly though, Bryant called out his teammates for their lackadaisical effort following their performance in Game 6. The two teammates he was probably referring to the most after Game 6 were Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who both were very inconsistent in the Denver series, interspersing great games with horrible games. Ramon Sessions had an average series in his first tryst into the playoffs, perhaps showing the signs of someone who hasn’t consistently started in the league. The bench, which  has been shortened to three players, is probably the weakest one left in the playoffs. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill all have the ability to provide good minutes, but due to the short bench, can be overused and therefore rendered less effective.

Keys to the series:

1)      How healthy is Kendrick Perkins? The Thunder have said all the right things regarding Perkins’ condition. But sometimes, with a muscle like those around the hips, its takes longer for them to heal completely. It’s one of those muscles that you don’t think about at all unless it gets hurt. With the amount of lateral movement involved in basketball, one can only hope that the hip strain is completely healed and doesn’t rear its ugly head anymore in the playoffs. Look for plenty of pick and rolls involving Andrew Bynum early in Game 1.

2)      Who guards Russell Westbrook? The Lakers got their Kevin Durant defender back in Metta World Peace. But their biggest issue has always been defending Russell Westbrook. Put a slower guard on Westbrook, and he blows right by them and does his damage in the paint. Put a smaller guard on him, and he’ll post them up. Look for Ramon Sessions to start the game guarding Westbrook. But as was seen in the Denver series, quick guards can get by Sessions pretty consistently. Look for the Lakers to regularly deploy hedge defenders towards Westbrook, especially the player guarding Sefolosha. Or look for Bryant to take on the task of guarding Westbrook himself.

3)      Remember that Metta World Peace is the Lakers’ 4th best player, at best. A lot will be made about World Peace’s first game in OKC since “The Elbow”. But the focus of the game needn’t not be on the man formally known as Ron Artest. World Peace will be on his “best” behavior and will not do anything to jeopardize the Lakers’ chances. Will he push, grab, annoy, and attempt to intimidate? Does the sun rise in the East? Of course he will do all that. But the Thunder need not involve themselves in revenge plots and try to take cheap shots at World Peace. What MWP is doing in the media is classic instigation techniques. Hopefully the Thunder players don’t take the bait.

4)      How will the extended rest affect the Thunder? In the 9 days since the Thunder last played, France elected a new president, another underwear bombing plot was foiled, Portugal got rid of four holidays due to cost cutting measures, new data leads scientists to believe that the Maya really didn’t think the world would end in 2012, and President Barack Obama supported gay marriage. That’s a very long time to not be playing any type of competitive basketball. You can practice all you want, but you’ll never be able to replicate the intensity of a real game against a real opponent. The Thunder had a 3 day rest between the first and second round last year, and looked completely flat in the first game of their second round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. A rest this long is completely new territory for the young Thunder and may be a factor early in the series.

5)      Which Lakers team shows up? The Lakers will be all-in in this series. It’s Kobe’s nature to be completely tuned-in to every game he plays, whether it’s a pre-season game against the Washington Wizards or a Finals game against the Boston Celtics. It’s Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol that can sometimes suffer from bouts of Adult OnSet Attention Deficit Disorder (AOADD). Against the Nuggets, both these players shut it down in Games 5 and 6, thinking that the will of the Nuggets would wilt and they would have an easy road to the second round. But in this series, both these players know what’s at stake and will be fully focused. Metta World Peace won’t be the MWP of earlier this season. He’ll be playing like Ron Artest from Queensbridge. And that could be a game-changer. The wild card for the Lakers may be Ramon Sessions. If for any reason he shrinks in the pressure of the playoffs, the Lakers may be in trouble.

Conclusion:

This series will be a hard fought battle in which home court advantage will win out. Thunder in 7.

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Raising Russell Westbrook

I’ve never been the parent of a maturing teenager. My oldest is less than 10 years of age, so I have a few more years before I have to deal with hormones and rebellion. But as a newcomer to the 30 year old club, I still feel like I’m young enough to remember my teenage years, and remember the triumphs and pitfalls that my parents felt as I was coming up. I would figure that as a parent of a burgeoning adult, you would learn to take the good with the bad, and you would hope that for every bad decision, there would be a solution and a lesson learned. At the end of the journey, the ultimate goal would be to see a mature adult that is able to handle real life situations and is able to enjoy life to the fullest.

While extremely different, parenthood and fandom can also be very similar. Its takes time, money, and patience for the nourishment and development of both children and sports teams. While children usually mature in a linear chronological order, sports teams are constantly shifted and changed in an attempt to continually improve. Where the childhood of a kid may take between 18-21 years, the life of the core of a team usually never lasts more than 5 seasons. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, whose core has been together for a decade plus, is the exception, not the rule.

Being a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the things that have required the most patience has been the development of Russell Westbrook.  Westbrook is the rare case of a player that came into the league initially with no expectations, blossomed into a bonified superstar with high expectations, and has taken the brunt of criticism because he has fallen just shy of those high expectations.

Westbrook’s skill set has never been a problem. If anything, his development over the last four seasons has taken most of the league by surprise. When he came out of UCLA, he was viewed as a defensive specialist, probably comparable to fellow UCLA alum Arron Afflalo. His ceiling was definitely nowhere close to being a top 5 scorer in the league. But a lot like Michael Jordan in 1984, when the shackles of the college game were taken off, the other-worldly athleticism took over. And in the right system, those gifts manifested themselves into what you see in Westbrook today.

But just like the trials and tribulations a parent faces when they are raising a teenager, Russell Westbrook’s ascension into a Top 10 player has not been without pitfalls. The path to get to where Westbrook is today has made a bit more difficult by the fact that he plays one of the most important and difficult positions in the game: point guard. As the team’s main distributor, any weakness on the offensive end is immensely exposed because of the position’s high usage rate. Throughout his career, Westbrook’s propensity for turnovers has always been a crux to an otherwise spectacular arsenal. It’s usually what supporters and detractors, alike, point to when looking for flaws in Westbrook’s game.

As the team’s main distributor, a point guard’s main purpose is to manage the game and direct the team’s offense. The thinking is that this is made a lot easier if there are plenty of weapons out there on the floor. But what happens if you have the No. 1 offensive weapon in the game on the floor with you? Most point guards would relish that and pad their stats. As great a player as Magic Johnson was, he was made even better by playing with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, and Byron Scott. Same applies to John Stockton and Karl Malone. But what if you, yourself, are a Top 5 offensive weapon in the game also? The art of knowing when to pass and when to score is something that most point guards don’t have to think about. Westbrook had to learn the trickiest part of the trade, while learning how to play the position.

The thing that makes raising teenagers most difficult isn’t the mistakes or the bad decisions. Those are expected. You don’t learn to drive without hitting a couple curbs. It’s the rebellion and attitude associated with the mistakes. The, “I can do this by myself, leave me the hell alone” attitude. It’s a right of passage that most people go through; their need to experience life on their own, rules be damned. But when your attitude is on display for millions to see and for thousands to tweet about, it can make the progress of your development that much more difficult. When the national media senses any angle to make a story, they flock to it like sharks to blood.  

And that’s what happened in last season’s playoffs. You had the league’s leading scorer who is by all accounts, a media/NBA darling, and the non-conformist point guard who could care less about the media, on the same team. Success breeds attention, good and bad. Instead of focusing on one of the youngest teams in the league being in the conference finals, the media decided to focus on the fact that the point guard was taking shots late in close games, instead of passing it to the best scorer in the league. The players involved didn’t care. The coaches involved didn’t care. But the media ate it up and perception became most people’s reality.

One of the triumphs of parenting is watching that child grow up to become a fully functional, independent adult. One of the triumphs of being a fan, is watching that young player finally take those steps to become that great veteran that teams need to win championships. Someone that, when the road gets tough, they create diamonds instead of wilting under the pressure. During the 4-game sweep of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2012 playoffs, Russell Westbrook finally became what we, as fans, were waiting for. He scored when he needed to (which was a lot in the first 2 games), managed the game, and protected the ball. He played lock down defense on Jason Terry and was a ball hawking free safety when ever it was needed.

But the biggest sign of his maturity (and that of the team, for that matter) was what happened in game 4 of the series. With the Thunder down by 13 entering the 4th quarter, the Thunder needed a spark on both ends of the floor. What had been a shooting clinic by the Mavericks guards in the 3rd quarter (5-7 FG overall (4-5 3ptFG)), turned into a dry well in the 4th quarter when Westbrook took his turn locking down the perimeter. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Delonte West combined to go 1-6 FG in the 4th quarter. Also, Coach Scott Brooks, with the confidence that this would not affect Westbrook at all, decided to stick with the hot hand, and let James Harden run the point with Westbrook playing off the ball. What resulted was Harden getting 15 points and 3 assists in the 4th quarter, and propelling the Thunder to the victory.  

Sometimes, the most difficult kids to raise are the non-conformist. The ones that don’t allow peer pressure to dictate their paths in life. The ones that march to their own drum. The ones that stay introverted. It’s difficult to know what someone thinks or what makes them tick, if they never let it be known. That’s Russell. The media is still baffled by this guy and that makes them uncomfortable. But, what we are seeing on the court is a sight to behold. We are seeing the non-conformist point guard turning into the best point guard in the game, right before our eyes. And that, as a fan and supporter of the Thunder, makes me extremely proud.