Monthly Archives: April 2013

Enjoying the Storm: Westbrook and Reality

westbrook injury

There’s a saying for any situation in life. Believe me, I know. My mother has spouted off at least 85% of those sayings to me, all in Spanish. When the news came down that Russell Westbrook would be having surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear, I went through the 5 stages of grief pretty quickly:

  • Denial – I thought it was a joke. I mean, the man played on the injury the entire 2nd half of game 2 and racked up 29 points. One time I ripped a hang nail from my finger and was out of commission for 3 days. You’re telling me this man tore a shock absorber in his knee and was able to play 24 more minutes of playoff basketball successfully? There’s no way he would be needing surgery.
  • Anger – Damn you Patrick Beverly. Yes, the “play on the ball before a timeout” play is one that a lot of players, Westbrook included, make to the tune of a 0.00000001% success rate. But injuries very rarely happen on those plays, especially surgery-requiring injuries. The fact that he completely launched his  body into a defenseless Westbrook was reckless and inexcusable. So, again, damn you Patrick Beverly.
  • Bargaining – After realizing that this upcoming surgery was not a joke, I started bargaining on Westbrook’s knee. I figured since he played on the injury, it must not be that bad. So, if it wasn’t that serious, maybe he’ll have surgery and come back in 12 days, like Crazy Uncle Ron Ron (Metta World Peace). I figured, at worst, he’d be out for 2-4 weeks. My logic was that if we could somehow push our 2nd round opponent to more than Game 5 or actually make it to the Western Conference Finals, then maybe there was a chance that Westbrook may come back to play for the Thunder this postseason. As you can tell, there was a lot of maybe’s in my bargaining session.
  • Depression – When the news came out after the surgery that Westbrook would be out for the entire playoffs, this was when “basketball fan” depression set in. The Thunder had battled all season long, not only to garner the Number 1 seed in the West, but also to exorcise the demons that remained from the James Harden trade. And now, against Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, to have it all disintegrate on a reckless, stupid play, was completely and utterly disheartening.
  • Acceptance – Almost immediately after hearing that Westbrook would be out for the remainder of the playoffs, and after the depression wore off, I accepted that Russell Westbrook would not be walking through those doors in a jersey this season. It was after I accepted this fact that my mindset on this team changed. It was no longer championship or bust. Now it was about getting better and hardening our will for future success. Would I love to see a historic championship run this season? Of course, but the basketball analyst/realist in me knows, that without Westbrook, the mountains that are the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat just got a lot higher to overcome.

thunder starters

Once I had gone through my stages of grief, I started thinking about some of those sayings and how they apply to this current team. The first one that comes to mind is, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I’ve always wondered how this team would react to a serious injury to either Kevin Durant or Westbrook. The Thunder have been beyond blessed when it has come to the health of their players, especially the starters. Since March 14th 2011, to include the regular season, the postseason, and the first 2 games of this postseason, the starters for the Thunder have played in 96.8% of those games together. That’s unheard of in the NBA. And none of the injuries have ever been serious. Now, the team is having to regroup on the fly due to an injury to their Iron Man.

reggie jax

From a player development standpoint, though, this is not a bad thing. What better way to cut your teeth than in the NBA playoffs? Reggie Jackson has steadily progressed in the last two seasons from a wide eyed rookie using his off arm to protect his dribble in traffic to leader of the bench unit on a championship caliber team. The time he is getting as a starter will have the same effect on his confidence as when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all played in the Olympics. The “knowing that you belong” aspect of professional sports is often overlooked, but is very important in a young player’s maturation process.

Moving Jackson over to starting point guard also opens up a spot in the rotation for another bench player. Playing against a team that relies heavily on small ball lineups, pick-n-rolls, and 3-point shooting, DeAndre Liggins has done his job extremely well in his allotted minutes. Used mainly as a perimeter defender, Liggins has averaged 10 minutes per game and is a +11 combined in the two games since Westbrook’s injury. He’s disrupted the Rockets’ rhythm on PnR’s, has jumped out on the shooters, and has been surprisingly good on the defensive boards. This real time experience in the playoffs can do wonders for a player’s confidence moving forward. As the team (hopefully) moves ahead in these playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether any of the other young, seldom used bench players (Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Daniel Orton) will contribute any meaningful minutes. The “next man up” motto holds very true for the Thunder in these playoffs.

DeAndre Liggins, Omer Asik

As the Thunder continue battling in the playoffs, another saying comes to mind: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Just because one of your best players goes down, doesn’t mean that you stop playing. Look at the Golden State Warriors. David Lee goes down with a torn hip flexor in game 1 of their series against the Denver Nuggets and the team (especially Steph Curry and Jarrett Jack) responds to give them a commanding 3-1 series lead. Kevin Durant knows what’s ahead of him. He knows that from now on he will be Option A, B, and sometimes C for the Thunder. He knows that defenses will key on him with not only their best perimeter defender, but also with a 2nd and, possibly, 3rd defender. He knows this, and he’s ready. Players like Durant train for this moment their entire lives.  There was a time, six years ago, when Durant couldn’t even bench press 185 pounds. Now, he’s ready to carry, not just a team, but an entire city on his back.

durant

The last quote that comes to mind when I think of this Westbrook situation is, “after the storm, comes the calm.” The storm was the Westbrook injury and the chaos that ensued. But from this experience, I believe the team will be stronger, smarter, and hungrier. Players know that championship windows can close as quickly as they open. A snap of a ligament here, a tweak of a back there, or the stupidity of an over-zealous bench player, and your franchise could be set back a decade. The Thunder now know this. They won’t forget the fragility of championship opportunities. Though the expectations have been lessened, the excitement has not. It’s a new world out there just waiting to be explored.

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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Series Preview

james-harden-rockets-thunder

It’s a funny thing about fate. You usually see the final product taking shape from a mile away, but when it happens, you’re completely surprised by the end result. All season long the Oklahoma City Thunder have hovered around the top two spots in the Western Conference and the Houston Rockets have hovered around the 6-8 spot. It shouldn’t have come to surprise anyone that these two teams might actually meet in the first round of the playoffs. But when it happened, after the final game of the final day of the season, there was a collective, “Wow, we’re playing James Harden in the first round” train of thought.

Everyone will want to turn this into James Harden vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. I see that, but we all know, that in reality, this is going to be the Kevin Martin vs. the Houston Rockets series, right? (Crickets, crickets) Well, as fate would have it, these two teams will meet in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The top seeded Thunder versus the 8th seeded Rockets. The young, rambunctious upstarts against the grizzled veteran team (how funny is it that the Thunder are a grizzled, veteran, playoff tested team?). It wasn’t long ago that the Thunder were the young upstarts wanting to gain some respect against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Now, the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs and everyone will be gunning for their crown.

martin harden

These two teams played 3 games during the regular season. The Thunder took the first two by an average margin of 26 points. In those two games, Harden struggled mightly, while the Thunder basically got anything they wanted on the offensive side of the ball. The third game was a different story. In that game, the Thunder were up by 14 points with less than 7 minutes left to play in the 4th quarter. And then, Harden (and Lin) happened. The Rockets proceeded to outscore the Thunder 29-12 from that point to garner a 3 point win. James Harden scored 14 of his career high 46 points in the final 6:30, and Jeremy Lin chipped in with 9 points in those final 6 minutes. But that game highlighted the reason why this will probably be a short series. 

Schedule

  • Game1 – Sunday, 21 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 2 – Wednesday, 24 April 2013 at 6:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 3 – Saturday, 27 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST (Toyota Center, Houston, TX)
  • Game 4 – Monday, 29 April 2013 TBD (Toyota Center, Houston, TX)
  • Game 5 – Wednesday, 01 May 2013 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 6 – Friday, 03 May 2013 TBD (Toyota Center, Houston, TX)*
  • Game 7 – Sunday, 05 May 2013 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*

* – If necessary

Probable Starters

Houston Rockets

  • PG – Jeremy Lin
  • SG – James Harden
  • SF – Chandler Parsons
  • PF – Greg Smith
  • C – Omer Asik

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Series

1. Pick and Roll Defense – This is the Rockets’ bread and butter. Lin and Harden are great at breaking the PnR defense down and either finding the open man or driving and drawing fouls. Thabo Sefolosha is great at going under the pick, but can sometimes get caught in the mess of a pick and roll, allowing the ball handler to get to the basket. On the other hand, Westbrook is known to go over screens, which allow the ball handler a sliver of daylight to get a shot off. But the key to the PnR defense will be Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Chandler Parsons led the Rockets in 3-point % and will make Durant pay if he tries to help on defense. Ibaka is going to have to stay out of foul trouble if the ball handlers get past the initial line of defense. 

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets

2. Pace – These are the number 2 and 3 scoring teams in the league. But Houston likes a much faster pace than the Thunder. In their two wins against the Rockets, the Thunder kept the Rockets under 100 points. In their lone loss, the Rockets scored 122 points. Houston’s offense is predicated on transition baskets and pick and roll offense. If the Thunder are to win, they are going to have to slow the pace down and make the Rockets a half court team.

3. Russell Westbrook – The Rockets have no one on their roster that can come close to guarding Westbrook. Lin is too weak, Aaron Brooks and Patrick Beverly are too short, and Carlos Delfino is too slow. Westbrook should be able to get whatever he wants on the offensive end.

russ rockets

  • X-Factor: Thabo Sefolosha – His defense on James Harden will go a long way to determining how these games will go. If he gets into foul trouble early, look for Harden to be in attack mode for the entire game. Also, his shooting will be key to keeping the turnovers down. If Harden has to stay on Sefolosha, that will negate him from helping out and  jumping into passing lanes to get steals. 

How this will play out: Thunder in 5

Full Circle: Harden trade revisited

james harden

There’s a reason why teams don’t like to trade core players within their own conference. The fact that you not only have to face them more times during the season, but also possibly in a playoff series, causes many teams to take lesser deals in order to trade a core player to another conference. That scenario now becomes a reality for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In their first round match-up with the 8th seeded Houston Rockets, the team will meet up with former 6th man extraordinaire James Harden. While the teams have already met three times before during the regular season, the stakes will undoubtedly be higher for these next 4-7 games.

The trade essentially comes full circle within the same season. When Harden was traded to the Rockets 4 days before the season started, many media pundits saw this as the first step back in a franchise that had progressed forward since it first stepped foot in the Great Plains in 2008.  Many wondered whether the team that many people had tabbed as the next great dynasty was finally beginning to succumb to the many ills that small market teams face. The new collective bargaining agreement, which was supposed to help small market teams with the concept of increased “player-sharing,” had actually robbed the model small market team of one of its superstars. Even the fans, those crazy, loyal, Oklahoma City fans, questioned whether the billionaire owners were crying cheap in the wake of a possible dynastic-like run.

durant jackson

In reality, the trade turned into a win-win situation for both parties involved. The Thunder front office and scouting team puts a premium on player development. It helps that they have drafted extremely well in the last 5 seasons. For every dud that’s ever gotten drafted by the Thunder, there are two studs in their place. For every Cole Aldrich the team drafts, there’s a Serge Ibaka or a Reggie Jackson. For every Byron Mullens, a Russell Westbrook or James Harden. The team not only looks at skill, but also character. They don’t just want players with specific skill sets; they want players that want to use those skill sets to reach their maximum potential, and then want get better from there. That’s what we’ve seen from the Thunder players when adversity hits. Many people wondered where the scoring would come from when the Thunder traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins in February 2010. They were trading two double figure scoring starters for a center that struggled to average 8 points a game and was coming off of major knee surgery. After the trade, the Thunder adapted and Kevin Durant and James Harden increased their scoring to offset any loss of scoring on the offensive end. At the same token, with Ibaka getting a lot more minutes, the defense improved. The team ended that season with a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

Many wondered whether that same type of internal improvement could happen after the Harden trade. Seriously, what more could Durant and Westbrook do to improve their games? They were already 2 of the top 10 players in the league. The fact that Durant and Westbrook improved their games this season came as no surprise. They knew that they would not only have to replace the scoring of Harden, but also the playmaking. While the superstar duo’s scoring remained consistent from the previous season, it’s their assist numbers that made the team better. Durant averaged a career high 4.6 assists (up from 3.5 the previous season), while Westbrook upped his assist mark by nearly 2 assists per game. Not only did the assist go up, but the turnovers between the two went down (even if slightly). In addition, the duo became very efficient with their scoring. Durant became the newest member of the 180 shooting club (50% FG, 40% 3pt FG, and 90% FT), and Westbrook chose his spots a bit more technically this season.

But what of the other Thunder players? Incremental improvements from Durant and Westbrook alone wouldn’t be enough to replace Harden’s production. Enter Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. Ibaka’s scoring average jumped up over 4 points, but it’s in the matter in which he scored that assisted the team the most. Ibaka became one of the best mid-range shooting big men in the league. Where that helps the Thunder is in floor spacing for Westbrook and Durant. With opposing big men not being able to cheat off of Ibaka, the lanes opened up for the scoring duo. In addition to Ibaka, Sefolosha became a consistent 3-point threat and increased his scoring by nearly 3 points a game. For a team that performs optimally when the floor is spaced, the improvement of these two players has lessened the departure of Harden.

kmart

In addition, the Thunder got a comparable player in Kevin Martin. While the season has, at times, been a bit rough for Martin and his transition as a 6th man, he has filled the role seamlessly enough to lessen the blow of the trade. The bench role transition was made more difficult by the fact that the Thunder not only traded Harden, but also 3 other members of the Thunder’s bench. The Thunder were, in essence, bringing in an entirely new bench unit. On a team that finds comfort in continuity, this was a shock to the system. It took about 65 games, but the coaching staff finally found a rotation off the bench that works for the team. What once seemed like a weakness after the trade, has, once again, turned into a strength for the team.

As mentioned above, the trade was a win-win for both organizations. The Rockets finally got the superstar player that they had been trying to acquire for the past few seasons. In an attempt to acquire a superstar player, that Rockets had been loading up on assets and freeing up cap space. When they failed to acquire Dwight Howard in the offseason, the team shifted its sights onto Harden, who was in a contract squabble with the Thunder. With their combination of Martin (expiring contract/comparable player), Jeremy Lamb (lottery talent), and draft picks, the Rockets finally acquired what they hope is the first piece of their successful puzzle. Not only do the Rockets now have a good young core in Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, and Thomas Robinson, but they also have the cap space to go after another premium free agent this offseason.

rockets

And what about our old friend, James Harden? I’ve always thought that sometimes, in life, you have to get pushed out of your comfort zone to achieve your utmost potential. The reality is that Harden was too talented to be a third option on any team, regardless of who the first two options were. He was a highly efficient scorer that got to the line in droves and was a top notch playmaker, to boot. He had shown that he could perform in high pressure situations and was beginning to be one of the most noticeable faces in the NBA (and its most noticeable beard). He was ready to be a superstar, and was ready to get paid like a superstar. The Thunder offered what they thought was a respectable offer, but also knew that Harden (and his agent) may be looking for something more. The market dictates what a player is worth. If a player begins to hear that he is worth the max, he’ll be looking for that type of money. The Thunder knew this and made a decision: either Harden sacrifices by taking a lesser than market value offer to stay on the team or the Thunder had to pounce on the best deal available. The rest is history. Harden was traded, got a super max extension, and became a superstar. End of story, right?

Ibaka-Harden_original

Wrong. Much like the Thunder versus the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 playoffs, the Rockets are now the hungry, young upstarts trying to take the crown from the defending Western Conference champion Thunder. In a way, the CBA’s concept of player-sharing actually worked out this time. The reality is that when you draft enough talent, you’ll eventually run out of money to pay them all. It’s not a bad dilemma to deal with if you have the right brain trust guiding the team. In the end, after coming full circle, one team got better in this trade and the other team improved. I’ll let you decide which is which.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 82 of 82)

bucks russ

  • When: Wednesday, 17 April 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The final regular season mission has been completed. While we didn’t obtain home court advantage throughout the playoffs, we did earn home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. This accomplishment has earned us the right to treat the final regular season game like a preseason game. Limited minutes for the regulars and heavy minutes for the young guys at the end of the bench.

Other than a feather in the cap, the Milwaukee Buck have nothing to gain by winning this game, either. I wouldn’t be surprised if their regulars got plenty of rest also. The game may turn into something similar to a D-League All-Star game with all the young guys out there. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Daniel Orton, and DeAndre Liggins may give a glimpse to what the Thunder bench may look like next season. The Thunder won the last meeting against the Bucks using a 19-2 run in the 4th quarter to erase a 5 point deficit.

Kevin Durant, Larry Sanders

Fun note: If Carmelo Anthony sits out the New York Knicks’ final game as expected, Kevin Durant would need to score 70 points to win the scoring title. While this type of selfishness is not indicative of Durant’s character and team first approach, this wouldn’t be the first time that a guy of Durant’s moral ilk goes all Finding Nemo seagulls (Mine!Mine!Mine!) on an opponent to win a scoring title. Hall of Famer David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs scored 71 points on the final day of the 1993-94 season to capture the scoring title from Shaquille O’Neal.

mine

Probable Starting Lineups

Milwaukee Bucks

  • PG – Brandon Jennings
  • SG – Monta Ellis
  • SF – Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
  • PF – Ersan Ilyasova
  • C – John Henson

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Hasheem Thabeet

3 Keys to the Game

1. Come out of the game healthy – Some of the guys on the team are already suffering from, what I like to call, grind of the season injuries. Kendrick Perkins is suffering from a strained hamstring, Kevin Martin is suffering from a sore back, and Derek Fisher is suffering from a sore foot. Whatever the outcome of this game is, I don’t want to add anymore names to that list.

brookies

2. Preview of next season’s bench mob – There should be plenty of time to go around for the Thunder’s D-League All-Stars. Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, DeAndre Liggins, and Daniel Orton should all get substantial minutes in this game. I fully expect a poster dunk from Jones III in this game.

kd_harden_return

3. Appreciate this regular season – This has been one of the most trying, but also, one of the most rewarding seasons in the Thunder’s history. To lose one of your main components in a core-shattering trade 4 days before the first game of the season had to weigh heavily on the returning group of players who were itching to get back to the NBA Finals for redemption. But they adapted, learned, and improved to the point where they had their best regular season since they became the Thunder, and got the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, to boot. Thunder Up, indeed!

Sacramento Kings vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 81 of 82)

turnovers

Today’s game day preview is brought to you by the letter W and the number 1. The magic number for the Oklahoma City Thunder to clinch the number 1 spot in the Western Conference is one. A Thunder win (W) or a San Antonio Spurs loss will get us there. Considering the Thunder game is on before the Spurs game, we’ll hopefully know if the Thunder have clinched so that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can make a decision whether to rest his starters or not.

It would be the first No. 1 seed in the Thunder’s history and would put a rousing exclamation point on a season that began in such disarray with the James Harden trade. It would be an assertion of the hard work and dedication that the Thunder place on “getting better.” When a top player on a team leaves, others have to step up. And that’s what all the Thunder players have done. From Kevin Durant on down to Hasheem Thabeet, every player in the rotation has improved in some facet of his game.

demarcus

But let’s not count our chickens before they hatch just yet. The Thunder still have a game to play and must win it to ensure that the No.1 seed doesn’t come down to the final game of the season. The Sacramento Kings come into the game having lost 6 of their last 7 games. It’s been a bumpy ride for the Kings and their fans this entire season, as they have had to handle immature players, internal strife, and insecurities about whether the team will be playing in Sacramento or Seattle next season. Luckily for the Kings, the 16th technical that DeMarcus Cousins received in their last game was rescinded, and he’ll be able to play in the game tonight. The Thunder have won both games against the Kings this season, and look to sweep their Pacific division rivals in Oklahoma City.

Probable Starting Lineup

Sacramento Kings

  • PG – Isaiah Thomas
  • SG – Tyreke Evans
  • SF – John Salmons
  • PF – Jason Thompson
  • C – DeMarcus Cousins

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Hasheem Thabeet

3 Keys to the Game

1. Playoff Spoilers – There’s nothing better for a team out of the playoff race than to ruin a playoff team’s night. The Kings know the Thunder are playing for something. This will be akin to a playoff game for Sacramento. The Thunder need not give this young team any inklings of hope to turn this into a game.

kd kings

2. Turnovers – Young teams feast on turnovers. It’s the life blood that keeps them in games. The Kings have the ability to turn a live ball turnover on one side of the court into a fast break score on the other in the blink of an eye. Protecting the ball will be key to limiting the Kings’ offensive  opportunities.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Hasheem – He did a good job on JJ Hickson in the Portland game, but Cousins is a different type of player. He has a vast skill set with the ability to hit 20 footers consistently or post up in the paint. He should be consistently averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, but is derailed most of the time by his immaturity and frustration. Hasheem will have his hands full tonight and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nick Collison get his fair share of minutes.

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on the Thunder

kobe durant

There’s something to be said about big brothers. I never had one growing up, and, honestly, most of the people I associated with while growing up were the oldest children in their families. But in the examples that I did see while growing up, big brothers can help shape and mold younger brothers into something better than what they themselves are. As we’ve seen with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, big brothers don’t even have to be related to their younger brethren to have an impact.

Big brothers serve two purposes in life: to frustrate and to motivate. The frustration part comes from the big brother’s ability to dominate over the little brother due to being older, bigger, and wiser. The motivation part comes from the little brother wanting to be better than the big brother. The thing about this big brother/little brother dynamic is that the little brother is able to take notes on how to best his big brother, while the big brother just has to wing being a big brother.

bryant perk

In a lot of ways, with all due respect to Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey, Kevin Ollie, and Desmond Mason, the best example of a big brother to the Oklahoma City Thunder has been Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. With his recent season-ending (and hopefully, not career ending) Achilles tendon tear, I was forced to evaluate Bryant’s legacy when it comes to the Thunder.

If there is one word to describe my feelings towards Bryant’s basketball ability, it’s respect. Off the court, though, Bryant is one of those people that I would try to avoid like the plague. His arrogance and A-type personality, combined with a penchant to place blame on others when things don’t go his way, would be a package that I would completely avoid, if possible, in real life. But on the court, those personality traits, and the fact that he plays for the most polarizing franchise in NBA history, make for must see TV. Bryant is a five tool player that has a lethal 6th tool: the overwhelming need to completely decimate his opponent night in and night out, year after year. Michael Jordan had this 6th tool. Larry Bird had this 6th tool. Bill Russell had this 6th tool. Russell Westbrook HAS this 6th tool.

To view Bryant as an opponent is to respect someone out of fear. Fear for what he could do against your team. Fear that he’ll conjure up some bulletin board material for his mental bulletin board, and go off on your team for no particular reason. Fear that he could miss 10 shots in a row, but the 11th shot, with the game on the line, will go in without hesitation. That’s the kind of respect that Kobe Bryant garners. And yet, it’s a fear that keeps you staring in awe. He’s the type of player that fans say, “I hate what he does to my team, but I love to watch him play.”

kobe-bryant-lakers

Every successful up and coming team has that one hurdle they set their sights on. If you’re a team that is coming out of the dredges of the draft lottery, you mark successes in increments. First step is to be competitive on a nightly basis. Then the next step is to get into the playoffs. Then the next step is to be successful in the playoffs. You keep going until, hopefully, eventually, you win a championship. But along the way, especially in the early stages of the success journey, you always target that one team that’s been there and done that. For the Chicago Bulls in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was the Detroit Pistons. For the Orlando Magic in the mid 90’s, it was the New York Knicks. And for the Thunder, it was the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

kobe_thunder

As fate would have it, that 2010 playoff series that pitted the No. 1 seeded Lakers vs. the No. 8 seeded Thunder was probably the best thing for the development of the Thunder. The fact that they were able to give the eventual champion Lakers a fight in the first round did wonders for the confidence of the young Thunder. But if you broke it down to its simplest form, the Thunder didn’t give the Lakers a test. They gave Kobe a test. They planted the seed in Kobe’s head that we would be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. When the crowd would chant, “Beat LA”, they were actually chanting “Beat Kobe”. Nobody feared Pau Gasol. Or Andrew Bynum. Or Derek Fisher (hehe!). We knew that Kobe had received the message. And that was both awesome and fearful (respectful) at the same time.

As the Thunder’s two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, progressed in the NBA world, they would eventually come in contact more often with Kobe Bryant. On Western Conference All-Star teams and, most importantly, the Olympics, Thunder fans can only hope that our superstars soaked up any of the psychological warfare that Bryant uses on a daily bases. Those blurbs that you hear from media members about Bryant talking trash to Durant, Westbrook, and at the time, James Harden during the Olympics, when they heard that the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, is just classic mental warfare from Bryant. It’s the equivalent of how the military drops leaflets into countries they are warring with stating how their government is endangering them, the common citizen.

Kobe+Bryant

So with that, I say, thank you to Kobe Bean Bryant. He has as much a stake in the Thunder’s ascension and success as does any of the veterans that played for the team. He was the target that we went after when we wanted to be successful. Much like an older brother, he frustrated us. But he also motivated us. And we learned much from facing him and defeating him. Here’s hoping that Bryant does come back, while, realistically realizing, that the Bryant we knew, may have gone down in a heap in the Staples Center on Friday night. Whatever the future holds for Kobe, just realize that the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder was shaped, in part, by the man in the Lakers uniform that we feared and respected the most.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors preview (Game 79 of 82)

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors

  • When: Thursday, 11 April 2013 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: ORACLE Arena, Oakland, CA

Hello, number 1 seed in the Western Conference. It’s nice to see you again. The last time we met, you only stayed for about 24 hours before you went back with your older friend. That’s fine. I get it. But I’m ready to commit to you now, number 1 seed. Let’s work on this tonight. (…and cue cheesy saxophone music).

Once again, the Oklahoma City Thunder control their own destiny in the Western Conference. Match the San Antonio Spurs in these final 4 games, and the conference, and home court advantage throughout the Western portion of the playoffs, is yours. The more difficult stretch of those final 4 games begins tonight in Oakland versus the upstart Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors, under coaches Don Nelson and Keith Smart, used to be a team that was all offense and little, to no, defense. Under coach Mark Jackson, though, the Warriors have become the epitome of a balanced team. This balance has led to a 45-33 record, good for 6th in the conference. The defense, though not necessarily great, has focused primarily on interior defense and rebounding. David Lee is a walking double-double machine, and Andrew Bogut, while working himself back from 2 injury plagued seasons, has been consistent defensively. The offense revolves around the perimeter shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, with rookie Harrison Barnes providing most of the wing scoring. Off the bench, the Warriors don’t miss a beat with Festus Ezeli and Carl Landry providing the interior support and Jarrett Jack doing the work from the perimeter.

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The season series between these two teams has been a home affair, with the home team winning each game.  The two games in Oklahoma City were one-sided affairs with the Thunder winning both games by double digits. The one game in Oakland was a back and forth affair the Golden State took control of in the 4th quarter to win by 5.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Golden State

  • PG – Stephen Curry
  • SG – Klay Thompson
  • SF – Harrison Barnes
  • PF – David Lee
  • C – Andrew Bogut

Oklahoma City

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Board Work – Rebounding will be very important to the outcome of this game. Golden State is second in team rebounds in the league. Much like the Indiana Pacers game, if the Thunder want to shut down one of the Warriors’ strengths, they need to be disciplined on the glass. With their propensity to shoot the 3-ball, expect many long rebounds and tap outs. Rebounding will need to be a total team effort in this game.

Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka

2. Perimeter Defense – As balanced as Golden State is, their bread and butter begins with the perimeter shooting of Curry and Thompson. Making each of these two players hesitate on their shots and put the ball on the floor is a defensive victory. Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook will need to stay on their man and not get sucked into the vacuum of the interior.

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3. Kevin Martin – If this turns into a perimeter shooting contest, the Thunder will need Martin to help Kevin Durant, Westbrook, and Sefolosha from the outside. While Martin had been mired in a mini slump this month, he played great from mid-March on and had a good game against the Knicks. This would be a great game for him to break out of his funk.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz preview (Game 78 of 82)

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  • When: Tuesday, 09 April 2013 at 8:00 PM CST
  • Where: Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City, UT

One of the most dangerous things to face in the final week of a season is a team fighting to get into the playoffs. Their “win or go home” mentality surfaces with every game leading to the playoffs. Most playoff bound teams are on cruise control in the final week of the season. Some may be battling for playoff positioning, but if you are a team that has an end of alphabet letter (X,Y,Z) by your name in the standings, you’re usually pretty content. But for teams like the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, or even, Dallas Mavericks, these final few games are their play-in games to get into the NBA post-season tournament.

I don’t know if the Oklahoma City Thunder are indifferent as to whether they get the No.1 seed in the Western Conference or not. Both the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs seem pretty content with their position in the conference, and are probably both confident they can win the conference whether they have home court advantage or not. With that said, the Thunder will be facing a desperate team trying to put space between themselves and the Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff spot.

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz

The Jazz come into the game surging, having won 7 of their last 8 games. With Mo Williams finally healthy and Derrick Favors beginning to live up to his potential, the Jazz seem to finally have found their groove. They’ve settled into a consistent rotation of 8-9 players that attacks with balanced offense (inside with Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, and Favors and on the wings with Williams, Gordon Hayward, and Alec Burks) and consistent work on the boards.

For the season, it has been a home court advantage type of series between these teams with the Thunder dominating their two games in Oklahoma City and the Jazz dominating in their one game in Salt Lake City.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Utah Jazz

  • PG – Randy Foye
  • SG – Mo Williams
  • SF – Gordon Hayward
  • PF – Paul Millsap
  • C – Al Jefferson

Oklahoma City

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Control the paint – This is a team that the Thunder can actually sag off the shooters a bit and help out in the paint. The Jazz only make about 6.2 threes per game, which puts them in the bottom quarter of the league in 3-point makes per game. Kendrick Perkins has had a fair amount of success defending his former Boston battery mate, Al Jefferson.  And Ibaka and Collison have had success against Millsap and Favors. But those three can collectively change the game with the rebounding ability and offensive production in the paint.

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2. Shooters – As in, Oklahoma City shooters. Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Ibaka should all be on high alert as they should receive their fair amount of opportunities to attempt open jumpers. The Jazz always have trouble defending Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Look for the Jazz to shade a defender over, leaving someone open on the perimeter.

Serge Ibaka, Derrick Favors

3. Durant and Westbrook – Hey, no one on the Jazz can guard you guys. Begin CDI (Complete Dominance Initiative).

New York Knicks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 77 of 82)

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  • When: Sunday, 07 April 2013 at 12:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Part of the mission has been accomplished. As I mentioned in this previous article, the goal of the Thunder in the last 5 games was to catch up to the Spurs and at least tie them for the Western Conference lead. Now that that has been achieved, the Thunder hold their Western Conference destiny in their hands. All the Thunder have to do now is keep stride with the Spurs, and head into the playoffs with the number 1 seed.

The first step to that begins against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. With the San Antonio Spurs’ win against the Atlanta Hawks yesterday, they sit a half game ahead of the idle Thunder. It’s your move, Oklahoma City. The Thunder are currently playing their best basketball of season since the 23-4 stretch that began in late November. They’ve beat the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers in convincing fashion with close-out 4th quarter performances from their superstar duo.

The New York Knicks come into the game playing their best basketball of the season, having won 11 in a row. The streak, which is the best current streak in the league, can be attributed to 2 things: Carmelo Anthony (32.4 ppg) and JR Smith (23.9 ppg on 49.2% shooting) efficiently attacking teams offensively, and Tyson Chandler and, new addition, Kenyon Martin providing the muscle on the interior. Their margin of victory during the streak has been 13 points.

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It’s a funny thing that happens when you write about important stretches in a season. I had the last 5 games tabbed as the most important stretch of the season for the Thunder. But after taking care of business, this game now becomes the most important game of the season. It’s important, not only because we accomplished the goal of catching up to the Spurs, but, because, now, New York is the hottest team in the league. And they are winning by using the same formula that has hurt the Thunder in the past: dribble penetration, 3-point shooting, and 1-2 offensive stars that perform within a system. New York has surprisingly become a lot like Miami during this streak, and it will be a good litmus test for the Thunder moving forward.

Probable Starting Line-ups

New York Knicks

  • PG – Pablo Prigioni
  • SG – Raymond Felton
  • SF – Iman Shumpert
  • PF – Carmelo Anthony
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

Perimeter defense – With the absence of Amare Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby, the Knicks are hurting inside offensively. Anthony and Smith have actually pushed their games inwards during this streak, but are still very perimeter oriented. Felton is a lot like Andre Miller in that he does his damage by penetrating inside and uses his strength to power shots in. Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, and Prigioni are all ready to shoot 3-pointers at the hint of daylight. As is usually customary with Thunder coach Scott Brooks, when the Thunder get a player that was recently with another team, Brooks usually plays said player extended minutes when it’s against his old team. So, with that said, Ronnie Brewer, you’re up.

brewer

Match-up Land Mines – With the injuries to the Knicks’ front line, they have been forced to play small ball from the outset of games. With that said, do the Thunder really want Serge Ibaka guarding Carmelo Anthony at the start of the game? Or do they want Kevin Martin guarding JR Smith when the bench checks into the game? Or Derek Fisher guarding Raymond Felton? Knowing that Brooks has a very consistent substitution pattern, it will be very interesting to see how the Thunder adjust on defense. As I said before, this is a very good prelude to what Miami and Denver will do to us if we meet them in a future series.

anthony durant

Buckets – The elephant in the room. The scoring title may be up for grabs in this game. Kevin Durant leads Anthony by a tenth of a point (28.4 to 28.3, respectively). With Durant already saying that Anthony can have the scoring title, will team success have any bearing on whether any of these two players eases off the gas when it comes to scoring. Like Durant said, “I really wanted my first one (scoring title). Don’t get me wrong – – I never want to take stuff like that for granted. But if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to force it too much and think about it too much and try to get it.” The only thing for Durant, and Anthony as well, is that their games are about scoring. With as much as Durant has a tendency to stat-watch, will he try to get that extra point to one-up Anthony? Regardless, this game certainly reminds of the scoring title race in 1994, where David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal went back and forth on the scoring title till the last game of the season, where Robinson scored 71 points to finally take the scoring title. We can only hope that one of these two players puts up 50 in the game.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 75 of 82)

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  • When: Thursday, 04 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Finally, after such a long wait, we have the first game of the season. Oklahoma City versus San Antonio. After waitin…huh? What? It’s not the first game of the season? It’s only been 4 days since the last Thunder game? Really? Then I really need some help because I’ve gone through the 12 levels of grief, twice!, since the last time the Thunder played. That’s how long it has been. But, thankfully, for the sake of my health and sanity, the Thunder will lace them up tonight in what will probably be one of the most important games of the season.

The fight for the number one seed in the Western Conference probably hinges on what happens tonight. If the Thunder lose, they will be 2.5 games back with 7 to play. Those aren’t insurmountable odds, but the veteran Spurs will figure out ways to rest their starters and win the necessary games to keep the Thunder at bay. If the Thunder win, though, they’ll only be 0.5 games with an opportunity to take the conference lead the next night in Indianapolis. The Thunder, literally, control their own destiny. Not only do the Thunder split the season series between the two teams if they win, but they also own the tie breaker if both teams finish with the same record (W-L record within the conference).

The game is probably of more importance to the Thunder than it is to the Spurs. Even though Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals last season as a lower seed, the dynamics of the team have completely changed since then. The James Harden trade in the beginning of the season completely overhauled one of the strengths of the Thunder, their bench. Though the Thunder’s bench has become increasingly effective as the season has progressed, the ability to play, not only a Game 7, but also the first two games of the series at home can do wonders for the players that come off the bench.

Probable Starting Line-ups

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Kawhi Leonard
  • PF – Tim Duncan
  • C – Tiago Splitter

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Weather the runs – San Antonio is one of those teams where a 10 point lead is not large enough unless there are less than 30 seconds left in the game. In the last meeting between these two teams, the Spurs used a 26-8 run in the 2nd quarter that turned an 11 point deficit into a 7 point halftime lead. The Thunder never recovered after that. The Spurs’ 3-point shooting can become infectious, leading to big runs. Using their time outs wisely (Scott Brooks, I’m looking at you) and finding ways to score during these runs will be key to winning this game.

parker

2. Stop Parker’s dribble penetration – I know, easier said than done. But stopping Parker from attacking the paint is key to containing their 3-point shooting. If Parker gets past the first line of defense, then the entire defense sinks into the lane, opening up space for the shooters. It would probably be a good decision to start Thabo Sefolosha on Parker.

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3. Bench play – One of the Spurs’ biggest strengths is their bench. While injuries to Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili may make the bench less effective, the players that remain, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Nando de Colo, etc, are crafty, efficient players that find ways to score. Look for Ronnie Brewer to play some 2nd quarter minutes to negate the effect of the Spurs’ bench a bit.