Monthly Archives: January 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder at Brooklyn Nets preview (Game 48 of 82)

Brooklyn Nets vs Oklahoma City Thunder

  • When: Friday, 31 January 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

After finally beating the Miami Heat for the first time in 7 games (to include the playoffs), the Oklahoma City Thunder are on the 2nd leg of their 3-city revenge tour. Okay, it isn’t that serious, but it sure makes the 3 game road trip sound even awesomer. What is completely awesome, though, is the play of one, Kevin Wayne Durant. Twelve straight games of 30 points or more, which is the third longest streak in the last 30 years. I have a feeling that OKC fans will begin to hate Brooklyn after this season. With all the talk about them targeting Durant (like 28 other teams won’t try either), the countdown has already started for Durant’s “Decision”.

This is the 2nd meeting of the year between these two teams. The Nets won the first game on a Joe Johnson jumper at the buzzer to cap a furious comeback. The Thunder led by 11 after three quarters, but let the veteran Nets hang around long enough to get off one last shot. In that game, Durant led the Thunder with (ONLY!) 24 points, while Deron Williams and Paul Pierce combined for 47 points for the Nets.

The Opponent

Alan Anderson, Deron Williams, Reggie Evans

The Thunder game seemed to galvanize the Nets’ season. They have gone 9-2 since that game, after starting the season 10-21. At risk of being labeled one of the biggest busts in sports history due to their high pay-roll and star player acquisitions, the Nets have seemingly saved their season and find themselves in position to make the playoffs in the East (which honestly, isn’t saying much). In their defense, the Nets have suffered some injuries; most notably, the season ending broken foot to Brook Lopez and the lingering ankle issues affecting Deron Williams. In the absence of Williams, the Nets have been helped by the transplanted Celtics trio of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry. While at times it seems like the trio has aged 5 years in one offseason, there are also times where their greatness shows. The resurgence of Shaun Livingston has also helped to ease the absence of Williams. The bench is veteran laden with dependable role players like Terry, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, and Andrei Kirilenko. Also of note, Williams will be coming off the bench in this game.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Brooklyn Nets

  • PG – Shaun Livingston
  • SG – Joe Johnson
  • SF – Alan Anderson
  • PF – Paul Pierce
  • C – Kevin Garnett

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Match-Up Problems – With Pierce being the de-facto power forward, how does that affect how the Thunder defends the starting line-up for the Nets. Ibaka would be better served to guard someone like Evans or Blatche, but those guys are coming off the bench. It’ll be interesting to see how Ibaka defends Pierce.

2. Transition – Other than Mason Plumlee, nothing about the Nets screams young. They are an older veteran bunch. If the Thunder are able to force turnovers or long misses, they should be able to jump start a lot of their offense via transition.

durant thunder dunk

3. The Streak – It has officially become “a thing”. From here on out, every team will try to stop Durant’s scoring streak. Luckily, Durant is not the type of player to focus solely on the streak. He’ll make the right basketball play (which is usually him scoring) and won’t go all lone wolf on the team. 

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat preview (Game 47 of 82)

lebron james kevin durant thunder heat

  • When: Wednesday, 29 January 2014 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

Game 47 of 82. Just another game, right? WRONG! All the players and coaches will say the same clichéd “this game is no different than the rest of them”. But they are lying to you. This game is very important for a myriad of reasons for both teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the hottest team in the league right now and the Miami Heat are the hottest team in the NBA this decade.

The NBA always prides itself in pitting the best players (and their teams) against each other. Unfortunately, a rash of injuries have prevented that from happening consistently this season. But here is where the NBA finds itself a few weeks before the All-Star break. The Pacers and Trailblazers both have great underdog stories. The Spurs are like that old guy at the YMCA that consistently drains mid-range jumpers while sporting 2 knee braces and goggles. But the NBA knows what it wants…the two best players pitted against each other. Luckily, the two best players are also possibly on the two best teams and have a possibility of meeting in late May/early June (health permitting, of course).

This is the first meeting of year between these two championship contenders. Dating back to Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder have lost 6 straight games to the Heat. Taking Game 5 of the Finals out of the equation, each game has come down to the final minutes of the 4th quarter. The two teams will meet again the Thursday after the All Star break.

The Opponent

miami heat harlem shake

The Miami Heat find themselves at 32-12, two and a half games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They, of course, are the winners of the last two NBA championship and feature the winner of the last 4 of 5 MVP awards, Lebron James. Many have said that the Heat are currently coasting and not necessarily playing their best ball. I honestly don’t blame Miami, though. They’ve played in the last 3 NBA Finals, so their extended schedule may feel like they’ve played 4 seaons in 3 years. Add to that the fact that the major players on the team also participated in the Olympics during that span, and you can see why they might be coasting a bit this season. Regardless of coasting, the Heat are still in the top 10 in points scored and points allowed. Their Achilles heel may be rebounding where they rank dead last in the league. The Heat are led by their big 3 of James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. All three are performing at high levels with Wade having to implement a resting plan due to knee issues. Their offense depends greatly on dribble penetration and 3-point shooting. The Heat are in the top half of the league in made 3-pointers (8.1 makes/game), and make them at a high clip (37.4%, good for 7th in the league). James and Wade are usually the dribble penetrators who dish out to a bevy of shooters in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers. The bench is veteran-laden and can be dangerous at times, with Norris Cole, Michael Beasley, and Chris Andersen providing the relief.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

  • PG – Mario Chalmers
  • SG – Dwayne Wade
  • SF – Lebron James
  • PF – Shane Battier
  • C – Chris Bosh

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Scott Brooks – Will he adjust his line-up accordingly to combat Miami’s use of space or will he stubbornly stick with the line-up he’s always used? That will be the question heading into the game. I have no doubt that Brooks will adjust his line-up throughout the game after the first 6 minutes of the 1st quarter and the first 6 minutes of the 3rd quarter. But, the starting unit has had its issues with the Heat coming out of the gate. In the past six games against the Heat, the Thunder have yielded 31 points to the Heat in the time it takes from Perkins to be substituted out of the game. That’s an average of over 5 points that the team has to continuously claw their way back from early on. That’s takes a toll on a team heading into the final quarter.

perkins brooks thunder

And let me reiterate…I’m not putting this on Perkins. He is great against traditional post players and that may come into play if the Heat begin to use Greg Oden more often. But putting Perk on Bosh is just a bad match up and causes the defense to over correct and compensate for defensive lapses leading to open threes and blown coverages.

2. Picking your poison defensively – The Heat are going to do one of two things: either drive the basketball or dish it out for a perimeter shot. James and Wade are great at getting into the lane and sucking in the defense. Once in the lane, their options open up like a Golden Corral buffet. They are extremely adept at finishing (even with contact) or they can pass it out to one of their 3-point shooter or to Bosh for the mid-range shot.

The key is to try to stay in front of James. Kevin Durant is the best defender against James as his length bothers him, but that sometimes means that you are exposing KD to foul trouble. To combat this, the Thunder will shuffle defenders against Lebron, sending Sefolosha, Ibaka, or maybe even Perry Jones to guard James in order to ease the load on Durant.

When the ball is kicked out, the Thunder need to hustle back to the 3-point line and use their long wingspans to their advantage. This is where it may be advantageous to have Jackson on the floor due to his wingspan.

3. MVP – Will the MVP race be decided today? Probably not. It is currently Durant’s to lose. But if James defeats Durant, the national narrative will probably begin to change in favor of James. The stats mean nothing if your team is constantly losing to the team the competitor is on. If Durant truly is tired of coming in 2nd, tonight will go a long way to changing that narrative.

durant james thunder heat

(Bonus) 4. Getting the gorilla off the Thunder’s back – Even though it doesn’t count until June, the Thunder need to exorcise some demons in regards to their futility against the Heat. Regardless of whether the Thunder are missing their second best player or not, they’ve been playing in a fashion that if they do lose this game, it will still be a disappointment. For the psyche of the team moving forward, they have to win one of these next two games against Miami.

Kevin Durant and the evolution of his Alter-Egos

slim reaper kd

If you know me, you know that I used to be a huge fan the East Coast hip-hop scene in the 90’s to early 00’s. In fact, my favorite hip-hop group of all time is the Wu-Tang Clan. Two seasons ago, I wrote an article comparing the members of the Wu to the 9-man rotation the Thunder were using at the time. One of the things that I loved about the Wu was how they used all their aliases. For example, Rza, the musical genius and de facto leader of the group, went by a couple of aliases that related to his mood. If he felt like a partying B-boy, his alias was Bobby Digital. If he wanted to incite deep thought through his lyrics, he was known as the Rzarector through his side group, the Gravediggaz. And if he wanted to hit you with some street-inspired raps, he was known as Bobby Steels. It’s a trend that many rappers used. Eminem was probably the best known artist to use this technique. Eminem has three alter egos: Eminem (the rapper), Marshall Mathers (the tragic, real life figure from where the pain comes from), and Slim Shady (the YOLO, don’t give a (word) psycho that offends anyone and everyone while waving two middle fingers in the air).

In essence, though, we all have differing alter egos. No matter how much you try to deny it, you act differently when you are around different people. The “hanging out with friends” you is different than the “having dinner with the parents” you. The “going to church” you is different than the “just had a few drinks and now I’m loose” you. Alter egos are just ways to adjust to different situation. Artists have taken that concept and turned it into an art form. And, of course, as the saying goes, “musicians want to be athletes and athletes want to be musicians”. So, it was only natural, that athletes would start to participate in this act.

Rockets v Lakers

You could say that Daryl Dawkins started this trend when he decided to name his dunks. But the trend reached its zenith when Shaquille O’Neal decided to name himself every possible nickname available to man. The alias could be regional (The Big Shaqtus for when he played for Phoenix), heroic (Superman), or philosophical (The Big Aristotle). No matter how corny the names were, they worked for the big jovial lug. It became the norm to give yourself a nickname. Kobe Bryant, probably tired of being called just Kobe, and needing a marketing ploy, decided to coin himself Black Mamba. And though it felt forced, it actually became second nature to refer to Kobe as the Black Mamba.

I miss the days when nicknames were, not only original, but earned from outsiders. Gone are the times when a guy could come into the league with the moniker “Magic”, and become a magician on the court. Or when a guy was bestowed the name Air because of his ability to seemingly transcend gravity. It got to the point where originality was lost and most nicknames became shortened versions of the player’s name (VC, TMac, AI, DWade, etc).

But then, in comes this man. A man whose physical attributes warrant a nickname, but whose game warrants another nickname. A man whose style of play warrants even another nickname. Kevin Wayne Durant came into the league in 2007, and since then, people have been looking for that one name that sticks. But really, every nickname that been bestowed on Durant makes the man.

Durantula

The name given to Durant since the beginning of his career because of his physical attributes. A 6’11” frame (don’t give me that 6’9″ poppycock) with a 7’4″ wingspan. Tall, lean, and rangy, but also with the fluidity to move around like a guard. When those arms go out and frame gets down into a defensive crouch, that’s over 7300 cubic inches of real estate to get around, taking into account 83 inches for height and 88 inches for length. It can almost seem like Durant has got 8 arms with as much ground and air space that he can take up.

But that name never really took off. I mean, it was used on shirts and print, and was semi-popular, but Durant never really endorsed it. And then some guitarist with an inferiority complex named Mark Durante decided to sue Durant, claiming that he used the nickname Durantula first. So, that basically spelled the end of it for that nickname.

Velvet Hoop

A Nike ad campaign for House of Hoops in 2009 gave Durant the nickname Velvet Hoop. Nothing ever really came out of it, but I have always loved that moniker. It personifies Durant’s game so well. Smooth like velvet. But unfortunately, it also makes for a stupid nickname. Too long and an inability to become personified. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. “At forward, 6’9″, from Texas, KEVIN ‘VELVET HOOP’ DURANT!!!” Yeah, on to the next one.

KD

kd nike

The brand. While originality lacks when it comes to this nickname, it still works great. It’s short and rolls off the tongue. It’s not shrouded in any emotional or negative imagery. It’s just two letters. A “K” and a “D”. It works well with adult and children alike. Durant is able to put his full support behind it without any fear of litigation. They are his initials and there are no copyright infringement laws when it comes to a person’s initials. This is the empire that Durant (and Nike) will continue to build off of.

The Junkyard Dog

Think of a junkyard dog. What descriptive images come to mind? Something that is snarling and over-salivating. Something that elicits fear. Something big and strong. When Durant starts to take charge of a game, he is all these descriptors wrapped in one. It is during these runs that he tries his hardest humiliate and emasculate the opponent. The Junkyard Dog doesn’t come out very often, but when he does, opponent are usually left trembling in fear in his wake.

The Slim Reaper

The Slim Reaper comes out very seldom. Always in the 4th quarter and always when the Thunder are down. But when he does show up, his antics are spoken of near and far. It usually starts when something gets Durant angry. The trigger could be as slight as a missed call, a harassing player, a technical foul, or just plain annoyance. But when the fuse is lit, the ride is just beginning. We’ve seen glimpses of the Reaper. Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets in the 2011 NBA playoffs. The Thunder found themselves down by 9 with four minutes left in the 4th quarter. Lose the game and you risk having a Game 6 in Denver. Then the Reaper showed up and outscored the Nuggets 14-6 in the final four minutes to win the game and clinch the Thunder’s first playoff series. Then the Reaper went dormant. He would show up occasionally, but it was sometimes difficult to discern between The Junkyard Dog and the Slim Reaper. 

durant thunder slim reaper

It’s usually something in a game that brings the Reaper out. But this time, I think it was a game itself that turned Durant into the Reaper. When the Thunder faced the Memphis Grizzlies on January 14th, the team reverted back to it’s playoff mode of depending on Durant to do everything. The team fell behind in the third quarter, and could never make up that deficit. But something happened in Durant that night. Maybe he looked at the schedule and saw that 4 of the team’s next 5 opponent were against the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Maybe he finally realized how to play in the absence of Russell Westbrook. Maybe he embraced that fact that, for this team to win, he would need to shoulder the load offensively and be more aggressive. Maybe he realized that the best option on the floor 90% of the time is the guy whose jersey number is 35. Or maybe he just got hot at the right time and realized the no one, no team, and no scheme in the NBA, can guard him.

The results have been terrifying for the league. Eleven straight games of 30 points or more. A triple double mixed in there. Averages of 38.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 6.4 assists in the last two weeks. In addition, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson have greatly benefited from the added attention Durant has been receiving. The Reaper is a man on a mission. Durant said before last season’s playoffs started that he was tired of finishing second. Well, the Reaper is the devilish conscious that continuously reminds Durant that he has finished 2nd his entire career. And, to the chagrin of the NBA, I believe the Reaper is here to stay.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Boston Celtics preview (Game 44 of 82)

jackson pressey thunder celtics

  • When: Friday, 24 January 2014 at 6:30 PM CST
  • Where: TD Garden, Boston, MA

The Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in a precarious situation. They’ve just scorched the earth with 4 of the top 6 teams in the Western Conference, but now head out East to play two of the lower tier teams in the league. Add to that the fact that the Thunder may be looking forward to Thursday night’s romp against the Miami Heat, and this sets up perfectly as a trap game candidate.

This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder defeated the Boston Celtics in the first game, 119-96. In that game, Reggie Jackson destroyed the Celtics, setting a then career high with 27 points on 9-12 shooting from the field.

The Opponent

rondo green celtics

For most teams wear losing records like a scarlett letter. But the Celtics have much to be proud of, regardless of how their 15-29 record looks. This is  a team that completely gutted it’s roster in the offseason, trading mainstays Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets. In addition, star PG Rajon Rondon was out until recently, recovering from a torn ACL. To say that this team has overachieved would be an understatement. They struggle scoring, but have a top 10 defense in terms of opponent’s points per game. The Celtics are led by Rondo, who  is playing in his 4th game back since returning from injury. Veteran Gerald Wallace has had to play out of position due to injuries to many of the SG on the roster. Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, and Brandon Bass provide the Celtics with their biggest position of strength at forward. Green is able to provide a perimeter game, Sullinger does most of his business in the paint, and Bass excels at the mid-range game. The bench is nearly non-existent due to bevy of injuries.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Boston Celtics

  • PG – Rajon Rondo
  • SG – Gerald Wallace
  • SF – Jeff Green
  • PF – Jared Sullinger
  • C – Kris Humphries

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant*
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

* – Durant is listed as questionable due to a shoulder injury

3 Keys to the Game

1. Post defense – The Celtics rank near the bottom of the league in 3-point FG’s made and 3-point FG%. If they are going to do damage, it will be on the inside with Bass, Sullinger, and Humphries. It’ll be up to the Thunder big men to stay disciplined on the boards and defend the paint.

2. Jeff Green – Green is the only player on the Celtics capable of catching fire and taking over. He did it in their last game against the Wizards, going off for 39 points on 8-16 shooting from 3-point land. Contain Green and the Celtics struggle to score.

lamb durant adams ibaka thunder

3. Bench – With the Celtics’ struggles with injury, their bench has been decimated. It’ll be a good game for Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison, and Perry Jones to enforce their will.

Thunder Halftime Report: 2013-14 Edition

durant fisher thunder

Forty one down, forty one more to go. The first half of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder has played out like a full season. From injuries, to returns, to reinjuries, to MVP pushes, it has been a roll coaster of emotion that has run the gamut. Through it all, the Thunder have found a way to win 31 games and remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.

Here are 10 thoughts from the first half of the season:

10. The Western Conference is head and shoulders above the Eastern Conference in terms of competitiveness.

The Western Conference features 10 teams at .500 or above, while the Eastern Conference, until recently, only had 3 teams with that same win percentage range. Within the past week, three teams have joined the fray in the Eastern Conference with records of 20-20. The fact still remains, though: there’s an ocean sized gulf in the competitive balance between the two conferences. While Indiana and Miami are the crème de la crème of the EC, the West has at least 6 suitors for the top spot.

I have no doubt the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers will be a great 7-game affair. But the amount of work that both of those teams have to put in to get to that point will pale in comparison to the battles that will be waged in every single round of the Western Conference playoffs. While that makes for a battle tested representative from the West, it also makes for a tired or injured representative that has survived a war of attrition. Something to watch for as we move on.

9. Scott Brooks needs to be considered for Coach of the Year.

Coach of the Year is usually given to the coach whose team unexpectedly excels despite what the prognosticators predicted in the preseason. If that is the case, then this award will come down to a battle between Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns or Terry Stotts of the Portland Trailblazers. When Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have only combined for 3 COY awards between them, you know this is a fresh-face award. And that does not bode well for Brooks’ candidacy.

brooks jackson thunder

But consider this, the Thunder are tied for the 3rd best record in the league, while missing a top-10 player for about half the season so far. When Russell Westbrook was in the line-up, the Thunder had the best record in the league during that stretch. And the Thunder have had to incorporate new young players into the rotation that did not garner heavy minutes last season. The balance and willingness to adapt that Brooks has shown throughout the season makes this his best coaching job to date, and one that I think garners consideration for COY.

8. Serge Ibaka has been the glue that has held this team together.

Through all the changes that have occurred this season, the only constant has been Serge Ibaka. From Westbrook to Reggie Jackson to the young bench’s emergence to Kevin Durant’s dominance, the one factor that usually determines a Thunder victory is how well Ibaka plays. In games in which he has a double double, the Thunder are 14-3. In games where Ibaka scores 16 or more, the Thunder are 16-2.  It’s as simple as this: if Ibaka plays well, the Thunder usually win. And he’s been playing a lot more consistently this season. He’s gotten smarter defensively and is concentrating more on positioning than on chasing every shots that comes into the lane. His play has been solid enough this season to garner a real look at him making the All-Star game.

7. Kendrick Perkins currently has more value to this team than Thabo Sefolosha.

For all the chastising that Kendrick Perkins receives from fans and media members alike, he still has value on this team. Is he probably the worst offensive center in the league (starting or not)? Yes. What takes longer to get off the ground: Kendrick Perkins or an 18 wheeler using a manual jack? Probably Perk. But the experience Perkins has as a post defender is invaluable when the opponent has a player like Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, or LaMarcus Aldridge. His knowledge of defensive principles in the post also helps the Thunder out. And, well, he’s a hell of a screen setter. Is he worth $8.7 million (and over $9 million next season)? Of course not, but from team hierarchy perspective, Perkins is the guard dog that patrols the Thunder’s house, on and off the court.

sefolosha perkins thunder

Thabo Sefolosha is the team’s main perimeter defender and the anointed “corner 3” guy. Over the past two seasons, that role has worked out great for Sefolosha. He shot over 40% from 3-point territory and was, without question, the best perimeter defender on the team. This season though, his 3-point shooting percentage is down to 31% and his role as a one-on-one defender has started to decline. Also, the drafting of Andre Roberson and the emergence of Jeremy Lamb have given the Thunder options if Sefolosha leaves via free agency this offseason.

6. The team made the right choice in sticking with Jeremy Lamb. 

Heading into the last offseason, the Thunder’s biggest trade asset was guard Jeremy Lamb. Along with the No. 12 pick, the Thunder could have packaged their young asset to move up in the draft. Instead they kept their pick and chose to stay with Lamb. It has proven to be a wise choice. Lamb has provided valuable perimeter shooting to a team severely lacking it, and has been a great glue guy, providing whatever needs to be provided to win.

5. Steven Adams was made to play for this team.

When the Thunder drafted Adams, I envisioned a year full of trips down I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa for the big man. Instead, Adams is probably in the second tier of rookies vying for Rookie of the Year. He brute physicality and footwork have helped him adjust to the pro game a lot quicker than most expected. He has shown flashes of an offensive game (hook shots, a developing mid-range jumper) and leads the league in PEFG (players ejected from game).

steven adams thunder vince carter

He is developing in this teams’ version of Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman. A guy that who raises the ire of other players, but who also remains as cool as the other side of the pillow. He starting to develop a reputation around the league as a dirty player, but, really, he just plays strong. And this generation of player does not like getting physical.

4. When completely healthy, the Thunder are the deepest team in the league. 

The Thunder are constructed to have a little bit of everything. If you need big men, the Thunder can trot out 4 or 5 that get regular minutes. If you need veteran savvy, the Thunder can give you Nick Collison or Derek Fisher regularly. If you need scoring off the bench, I present to you Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. If you need a jack of all trades, here’s Perry Jones. And that’s without even getting into Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook. The Thunder are loaded when the entire team is available. When the starters sit, the bench has the ability to either chip away at deficits or blow the game wide open. If you want small ball, the team can put out 2 or 3 different combinations that are all very effective.

The point of the James Harden trade was to not only have financial flexibility, but also roster flexibility. Instead of having just one combo guard off the bench, you now have a combo guard, a shooting guard, and a developing big man. More parts for less money is always a win in any business.

3. Point guard is the hardest position to learn in basketball.

Combo guards sometimes have the most difficult job in basketball. A pure point guard has to worry about distributing first, then scoring. But a combo guard has to read the situation and determine whether he should pass or shoot. Sounds like the same situation, but there are two totally different mentalities involved. We saw that with Russell Westbrook, who had all the tools to be a combo guard, but had to neuter that a bit to learn how to be a starting point guard in this league.

jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson is learning how to make that transition. Even though he’s in his 3rd season, this is basically his 2nd season of playing. He was thrown into the fire his rookie season with Eric Maynor’s injury, but got sent back to the bench once the team signed Derek Fisher. In his 2nd season, he shuffled between the end of the bench and Tulsa for the first half of the season before finally being given the reins to the bench in the second half of last season. With the Westbrook injury, Jackson has had to commandeer the first team and has done a commendable job. Is he making mistakes? Yes. But he’s also showing signs of “getting it” and will be a valuable asset for the team moving forward.

2. Russell Westbrook’s health is the single most important factor in the Thunder contending for a championship.

That statement is self-explanatory. I don’t care what Russell Westbrook has to do to stay healthy for the remainder of the season. If he has to take every 3rd game off, let’s do it. If he has to be on the “Tim Duncan/Dwayne Wade” rest regiment, I’m down.  Whatever it takes to get this man healthy and ready for the playoffs. Because if he misses any time in the playoffs, the chances of the Thunder advancing drops dramatically.

Russell Westbrook

The team is able to tread water during the regular season because there a ton of factors that don’t exist in the playoffs. The scouting reports are shorter for regular season games. The travel is more daunting during the regular season, which leads to fatigue. But during the playoffs, when a team has days to scout their opponent and there are no back to backs, this is where the team will need Westbrook. Get well Russ!

1. If it wasn’t for the championship resumè, Durant would be considered the best player in the game. 

It’s funny how the narrative in a 41-game stretch can completely change. When the season started, everyone was wondering whether Paul George would overtake Durant for the No.2 spot in the imaginary player ranking that many media members have. Then, when Lebron James came out the gates shooting over 60% from the field, the MVP award was basically handed to him by most media members. But Durant just kept plugging along, doing what he does. Efficient, ruthless, and calculated.

Then when Westbrook went down again after Christmas, many thought the momentum that the Thunder had built up to that point would come crashing down. Rewind back to last season when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. Durant knew he needed to step up, and he did. But, I don’t think he trusted his teammates enough to allow them to do the heavy-lifting. Instead of focusing only on scoring, Durant instead became the de facto point guard, the best rebounder, and the best perimeter defender. In the end, that began to affect his stamina, and he found himself completely winded by the middle of the 4th quarter.

This season, though, Durant has trusted his teammates more and the results have spoken for themselves. Ibaka has started to become an extremely reliable mid-range release valve, and a great partner in the pick and roll. The team is rebounding and defending as a whole better. The bench offers more roster flexibility. And the offense, while still stagnant at times, has enough wrinkles to quickly get out of funks.

durant thunder batum trailblazers

But in the end, it’s all about Durant. And his play in January (37 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.9 apg on 52/39/88 splits) has been one for the ages. While MVP’s are not won in January, Durant is just now learning how to dominate, while not interfering in the game plan. He is doing this all within the flow of the game. It’s scary for the league when Durant is probably a season or two away from reaching his prime.

There’s forty more games to go. The Thunder defeated the Portland Trailblazers in raucous fashion to begin their next 41. The season is still a long ways from being over and many things can happen during that time. But, I, for one, am extremely impressed by what I’m witnessing from this team and what the future holds. Here’s to health and 16 more victories after the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets preview (Game 39 of 82)

harden durant thunder rockets

  • When: Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: Toyota Center, Houston, TX

Exes; sometimes it ends badly and sometimes it ends on good terms. But most people like to keep tabs on their exes mainly for comparative purposes. When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets before the beginning of last season, he went from beloved Bearded One to an ex. It’s only natural for us to keep tabs on him. And honestly, for the most part, the split has worked out for both parties. Oklahoma City is still a contender and has more salary cap flexibility than before, and Houston is on the cusp of building a possible title contender also.

This will be the second meeting of the year between these two teams. Oklahoma City won the first meeting in OKC, 117-86, blitzing the Rockets from the outset and never letting their foot off the pedal. Since the Harden trade, OKC is 7-3 against the Rockets, to include the playoff series from last season.

The Opponent

parsons howard harden lin rockets

The Rockets currently sit at 26-14, good for 5th in the loaded Western Conference. The Rockets balance a great scoring attack (105.2 ppg) with a middle of the road defense, allowing 101.7 ppg. Their attack is spear-headed by former Thunder guard James Harden, whose attacking nature and ability to playmake lends itself beautifully to an offense with an athletic big (Dwight Howard) and a plethora of 3-point shooters. The Rockets’ bench has been plagued by injuries to Patrick Beverly and Omer Asik.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Houston Rockets

  • PG – Jeremy Lin
  • SG – James Harden
  • SF – Chandler Parsons
  • PF – Terrence Jones
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Defenders defending – In most games, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are liabilities. Their inabilities to give anything to the team on the offensive end of the floor becomes a hindrance. But in games where the opponent’s best players are the center and the SG, their strengths are maximized. Earn your money gentlemen.

howard perkins thunder rockets

2. Attacking – The Rockets’ bench is thin due to injuries. If the Thunder can attack the basket and draw some early fouls against the Rockets’ major players, that will help the Thunder’s attack.

3. We’ve won before – Every game without Westbrook has been a struggle, except for the Houston game. We’ve beat this team before without Agent 0. I think, mentally, that takes a lot of pressure off the team.

Thunder sign Royal Ivey to a 10-day contract

durant ivey thunder

Royal Ivey signed a 10-day contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder to bolster their point guard depth following the loss of Russell Westbrook to arthroscopic knee surgery. This is Ivey’s second stint with the team. He played with the Thunder for 2 seasons (2010-2012), appearing in 59 games and averaging 1.9 points in 8.3 minutes per game. The 10 year vet has not played this season, after being waived by the Atlanta Hawks on October 25, 2013.

Ivey should be a great addition to the locker room and will provide added depth to the bench. He will be active for tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets.

Welcome back Cheez.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies preview (Game 38 of 82)

durant ibaka perkins fisher thunder grizzlies randolph conley

  • When: Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been, what I like to call, consistently inconsistent. In their last 10 games, the Thunder have won 3, then lost 2, then won 2, then lost 2, and won their last game. It’s your basic microcosm of life without Russell Westbrook. Strings of good games, followed by ‘scratch your head’ losses. It’s a case where you say, “the team could be doing better, but, honestly, it could also be doing worse.”

The Thunder, in their current situation, should find some familiarity with tonight’s foe, the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were the team that finally finished off the Thunder last season after Westbrook went down. After winning the first game of the series, the Thunder went on to lose the next 4 in frustrating fashion. They had shots to win all four games, but with the Grizzlies corralling Kevin Durant and him tiring near the end of games, it became too much for the Thunder in that series. This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams with the Thunder winning the first game, 116-100.

The Opponent

randolph conley grizzlies

The Grizzlies currently find themselves at 17-19, trying to claw back into the playoff race in the Western Conference. A season removed from being a participant in the Western Conference Finals, the Grizz have had their share of injuries and inner turmoil. Dave Joerger replaced popular head coach Lionel Hollins in the offseason and Marc Gasol suffered a sprained MCL in November and has gone on to miss two months. The team has trouble scoring (96.6 ppg – 21st in the league), but keep things close by boasting a good defense. The offense is keyed by point guard Mike Conley, who leads the team in scoring and assists. Recent pick-up Courtney Lee will play beside Conley and provide some perimeter scoring. Up front, Zach Randolph is a double-double machine and Kosta Koufos is a big mobile body. Off the bench, Mike Miller can still go off at any point in a game.

Probable Starting Line-Up

Memphis Grizzlies

  • PG – Mike Conley
  • SG – Courtney Lee
  • SF – Tayshaun Prince
  • PF – Zach Randolph
  • C -Kosta Koufos

Late note: Marc Gasol is active for tonight’s game and will be starting.

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Transition – Memphis loves to slow the game to a crawl and create from their half court offense. If the Thunder can force turnovers and make it more of a transition game, that will be to their benefit.

2. Conley – The key to stopping the Grizzlies from the Thunder’s perspective is to stay in front of Conley. The Thunder have plenty of players that can defend Randolph well (Collison, Ibaka, Perkins). But they need to stay with Conley to limit everything else the Grizzlies can do.

jackson conley thunder grizzlies

3. Durant’s wrist – I thought this would have been a good game for Durant to sit out, but, alas, the basketball player likes to play basketball. Keep that wrist wrapped up and let’s hope for no big falls.

Growing Pains: The Thunder’s young bench

jeremy lamb reggie jackson thunder

Injuries are an inevitability in sports. When you have bodies constantly in motion, there are going to come times when those bodies either collide or move in ways that cause injury. It’s the reason team sports have reserve players. In the wake of injuries, a team should have a healthy balance of veteran players and young, developing players. It’s the line that allows teams to sustain success while also building for the future. Have too much of either on the bench, and a team risks cutting into their current success or into their future success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have always had a decent balance of veterans and young players on the bench. But with the James Harden trade, they decided to rely on youth instead of looking for veteran help in free agency. At the time of that trade, they received rookie SG Jeremy Lamb, a lottery pick from the Toronto Raptors (that eventually turned into Steven Adams), and an early 2nd rounder from the Charlotte Bobcats (that eventually turned into Spanish guard Alex Abrines, a Euro-stash). Along with that, the Thunder already had 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson and rookie Perry Jones III in tow. In essence, the Thunder have been grooming this new bench mob for the past season and a half.

kevin martin hasheem thabeet eric maynor thunder

Another addition to the Harden trade was veteran guard Kevin Martin, who slid into the 6th man role that Harden occupied. Last season’s bench was veteran-laden with Martin, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and Hasheem Thabeet getting the lion’s share of the reserve minutes. About a third into the season, Maynor was replaced by Jackson and Derek Fisher joined the team after the All-Star break. The problem with our veteran bench last season was two-fold: there wasn’t any offensive versatility to it and it was inconsistent defensively. The scoring was either coming from Martin or it wasn’t coming at all. As his efficiency declined in the second half of the season, so did the bench’s offensive effectiveness. It got to the point where either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook had to be on the floor with the bench unit for it to be effective. Defensively, the bench struggled to match the athleticism of other younger benches.

On paper, the bench last season was a good mix of veterans and young players. But most of the young players spent their time in Tulsa and never got to test their mettle against NBA competition. Last season, Lamb spent 801 minutes (regular season and postseason combined) in the D-League and only 147 regular season minutes with the Thunder. Perry Jones spent 588 total minutes in the D-League and only 280 regular season minutes (plus 5 playoff minutes) with the Thunder.

perry jones thunder

 

Now, those two players, along with Jackson and Adams, are being asked to carry the second unit for a title contender. Veterans Derek Fisher and Nick Collison still play a prominent role off the bench, but the team is dependent on the young players to provide the team what the bench couldn’t provide last season, which was offensive versatility and defensive consistency. For the most part, the bench was starting to become one of the top benches in the league, before the Westbrook injury. After, though, it has been more inconsistent. And therein lies the problem with depending on such a young bench.

When the San Antonio Spurs suffer injuries to their starters, they can depend on veterans Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, and Patty Mills to come in and step up until those injured players get back. The same goes for the Miami Heat. When their line-up needs to be shuffled, they know they can fall back on the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Rashard Lewis. Veterans that not only know their roles, but also have championship experience to boot. These players know how to work through slumps and how to affect games in ways other than scoring. These young Thunder players are just now learning how to do these things.

steven adams griffin thunder clippers

There are positive signs though. The last time the Thunder played the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder were down for most of the game and Lamb was having a miserable game, shooting 2-7 FG with 2 turnovers. But he found ways to affect the game via his rebounding and defense, and made the plays necessary in the 4th quarter to help the Thunder win the game. Perry Jones has affected numerous games with his defense and ability to hit 3-point shots. And Jackson is showing signs of being a good combo guard, similar to Eric Bledsoe.

Reggie Jackson got his baptism by fire in the playoffs last season after Westbrook went down with his knee injury. But other than him, and 5 minutes of Perry Jones in Game 1 of the Houston series, none of the young bench players have any playoff experience. Could that come back to bite the Thunder in the rear during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals? It could, but nothing teaches quite like experience. Here’s hoping that the growing pains of the regular season turn into the epiphanies of the post season.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets preview (Game 36 of 82)

perkins faried thunder nuggets

  • When: Thursday, 09 January 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

In my opinion, this game has a bit of a must win feel to it for some reason. Maybe it’s to calm our psyche. Maybe it’s the constant pressure of needing to keep up with the top half of the Western Conference. Whatever it may be, that psyche was put a little on edge after the loss to the Utah Jazz, who own the worst record in the Western Conference. Were there factors at play that may have aided the Jazz? Of course. Two of Oklahoma City’s top three players were out when Serge Ibaka sat out with flu-like symptoms. And Utah has been playing much better since the return of Trey Burke. But still, it’s the Jazz.

Regardless, the NBA season keeps moving along. Tonight, the Thunder face their other division rival located in the Mountain Standard timezone, the Denver Nuggets. The Thunder won the first two meetings of the season between these two teams. The first meeting saw the Thunder outscore the Nuggets 32-21 in the 4th quarter to win a close one, 115-113. The 2nd game was not as close as the Thunder rode an 8 point halftime lead to a 12 point victory, 105-93.

The Opponent

faried lawson nuggets

The Nuggets have been consistently inconsistent this season. This is how their last 24 games have played out: 7 game win streak followed by losses in 11 of the next 14 games followed by the current 3 game win streak. They are a team that is highly dependent on the 3-point shot without having a consistent dead-eye shooter. Point guard Ty Lawson gets the offense going with his ability to dribble penetrate off the pick and role. Randy Foye and Wilson Chandler have greatly benefited from Lawson’s dribble drives to the tune of 35% 3-point shooting for each player. Unfortunately, Chandler will be out of tonight’s game with a strained hip. Despite their lack of size, the duo of JJ Hickson and Kenneth Faried grabs about 16.5 rebounds per game combined, and can wear a front line ragged with their energy and athleticism. Injuries and internal strife have decimated the depth of the Nuggets and turn what used to be one of the Nuggets’ biggest strengths into one of their liabilities.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Denver Nuggets

  • PG – Ty Lawson
  • SG – Randy Foye
  • SF – Jordan Hamilton
  • PF – Kenneth Faried
  • C – JJ Hickson

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pick and roll defense – Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson are great at breaking down a defense at the point of attack from the pick and role. If a defender goes under the pick, the two guards are able to punish the defenders with their shooting (over 35% 3-point shooting for both guards). If a defender tries to go over, both guards are quick enough to get past the initial line of defense. Luckily, the Denver big men aren’t great shooters, so the Thunder big men should be able to ice the picks if they happen from the free throw line and up.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets

2. Bench scoring – Injuries to JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler, along with the “suspended/awaiting to be traded” Andre Miller, have decimated the depth the Nuggets once had. The Thunder bench struggled in the last game against the Jazz, so I expect them to come out focused and ready to attack.

3. Thin air – Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson probably played more minutes than they expected on Tuesday, and appeared a bit winded near the end of the game. It will be interesting to see what happens if this becomes a competitive affair and the game minutes go into the upper 30’s to lower 40’s.