Monthly Archives: May 2014

2014 Western Conference Finals Game 6 preview

durant duncan leonard thunder spurs

We’ve been here before. Game 6 of the Memphis series (and the subsequent Game 7). The only thing different in this series is the team who holds the home court advantage. The Thunder will be playing Game 6 in the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. And if this series holds true to form, then we’ll see a Game 7 on Monday. The home team has won by resounding fashion in each of the first 5 games of the series. There is no clear cut way to tell who has the advantage other than to say the Spurs have played much better in San Antonio than the Thunder have in Oklahoma City, but not by much.

This what you want, though. An elimination game played on your home floor. You would like that elimination game to be Game 7, but no matter when you face the elimination game, you want it to be on your home court. This won’t be a repeat of 2012. The Spurs made sure of that in Game 5. Now, the onus will be on the Thunder to protect their home court.  This will be the 2nd elimination game for the Thunder at home this postseason. They only had one home elimination game in the 3 seasons prior to this season (Game 7 of the 2nd round series against the Grizzlies in the 2011 playoffs).

Keys to the Game:

1. Stop over-helping – The Spurs killed the Thunder in Game 5 by making the extra pass and pump-faking their way into the paint. Every time the ball swung, a Thunder defender would go flying back to the Spurs player on the perimeter. The Spurs player would then simply pump fake to get the Thunder defender in the air and then drive into the paint to cause more havoc. Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and, yes, even Kendrick Perkins, did a great job of defending the paint in Games 3 and 4. But in Game 5, with Ibaka out of the paint having to defend the likes of Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw, the Spurs’ players found it easier to get into the paint and suck the Thunder defense in. With the defense sucked in, the Spurs punished the Thunder with 13 threes in Game 5 (their most in a game this postseason).

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder

2. The Others – The Thunder players, not named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, need to step up and help their superstar duo out. Other than Reggie Jackson’s 11 points (all in the 1st quarter), no other player on the Thunder roster came within 4 points of reaching double figures. The Thunder are at their best when “the others” are also scoring as it opens up the floor for their play makers (Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson).

3. Pick and Roll involving the PF when Duncan is the center – The Thunder have to take advantage of the pick and roll when the PF in the game is not Tim Duncan. Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw cannot keep up laterally with any of our guards and Ibaka and Nick Collison can hit the mid-range jumper. The Thunder took advantage of this in the first quarter (especially Reggie Jackson), but quit going back to it throughout the game.

durant thunder

4. Kevin Durant – Last time we questioned him, it was in the form of a headline. This time, I’m wondering whether he has anymore left in his tank. Durant is always talking about that extra level that he can reach, but so far, in these playoffs, its been Westbrook that has been the Thunder’s best player. For the Thunder to reach the next round, Durant will need to go more Slim Reaper or Junkyard Dog instead of settling for KD.

2014 Western Conference Finals after 4 games: Swinging Pendulums and Rear-view Mirrors

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three

One of my favorite Jay-Z songs from early in his career was “A Week Ago”. The basic premise of the song deals with the chronology of living a drug dealer’s life and how things can change in the span of a week. One minutes things are going good; the next, you’re left wondering how things could have gotten so screwed up when it was all good just a week ago.

Rewind back to May 22nd.  The San Antonio Spurs were coming off another blowout victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, held a 2-0 lead in the series, and were looking completely unstoppable. The Thunder were thought to be the worst match-up possible for the Spurs. A team that had beaten the Spurs 10 out of the last 12 times they had played, to include the 2012 Western Conference Finals. But the Thunder were without their best defensive player and without one of the main components of their offense in Serge Ibaka. A lot like the Russell Westbrook injury from last season, the Thunder were not very familiar with life without their athletic power forward. In the past 4 seasons, Ibaka has only missed 3 games total, none in the playoffs. As is  the case with most other changes, there was an adjustment period to get used to. And it showed in the first two games of the series.

The Thunder were unathletic and slow. They couldn’t defend the paint, and when they overcompensated, they were punished from the 3-point line. The Spurs averaged a blistering 60 points in the paint in those first 2 games and made 9 threes in each of those games. The Thunder offense was unimaginative and stagnant. Without the release valve that is Ibaka, the offense was left in the hands of Kevin Durant and Westbrook (and Reggie Jackson, but his production can be inconsistent at times). While great, those 3 players aren’t enough, especially for a great defensive unit that is keying in on them. And so, the media was already writing out the Thunder’s obituary on the 2013-14 NBA season: A great season that was marred by injuries at the wrong times.

parker perkins ibaka thunder spurs wcf

But then came word that Ibaka’s calf was responding to treatment a lot better than expected. The swelling had subsided to the point where the team changed his status from OUT to DTD (day to day). His only obstacle would be his ability to play through the pain. If you know Ibaka’s story, you know that physical pain is the least of his worries. The question was never whether Ibaka would play. With little to no risk of compounding the injury, the only worry was in reinjury. And with an entire offseason ahead, Ibaka could easily rehab a strained calf muscle during the summer. The question was how effective would he be. Would he be the dominant defensive player that we’ve all come to know in the past 4 seasons or would he be a shell of himself?

That question was answered emphatically in the first three minutes of Game 3, in which Ibaka had 6 points on 3-3 shooting, 1 rebound, and 1 block. Even though he limped noticeably at times during the game, an Ibaka at 80% is a whole lot better than no Ibaka at all. The Thunder took control of the game in the 2nd quarter and kept the Spurs at bay the rest of the game. The end result was a 106-97 victory for the Thunder and a proverbial pendulum that had possibly reached it’s maximum height.

After that Game 3 victory, the same media members who were writing the Thunder off just days before, started to feign the other way. Could the Thunder repeat what they had accomplished in the 2012 Western Conference Finals? If you remember, the Spurs also held the home court advantage in that series and went up 2-0. Of course, those first two game were a lot more competitive than the first two games this year. But the results were still the same: San Antonio leads 2-0. The series switched over to OKC and the Thunder won their two at home. Tie series. The Thunder then won a close one in Game 5 in San Antonio and closed the series out in 6. Gentleman’s sweep. Could it happen again?

Spurs Thunder Basketball

If anything, Game 4 was the biggest game of the series for the Spurs. Win that one and you not only kill any of the momentum built by the Thunder from Game 3, but you also kill any of the ghosts from the 2012 series. Lose Game 4, and the Spurs all the sudden turn into the speeding driver looking in his rear view mirror after he passes a police officer. The Spurs looked like they were all business, opening up Game 4 on an 8-0 run. From there, the Thunder went on to outscore the Spurs 58-35 in the first two quarters and the rest of the game was but a mere formality.

Pendulum completely in full swing the opposite direction and the Spurs nervously looking in the rear view mirror. It was all just a week ago. But that has been the theme these entire playoffs. Every game has been a narrative in and of itself. And Game 5 will be no different. Can the Spurs recover mentally from the PTSD-like nightmare that may be haunting them? What is Reggie Jackson’s condition and will he be effective? So many questions that will be answered on Thursday. Pendulums could swing again and rear view mirrors may become obsolete after tonight.

3 Thoughts about Serge Ibaka’s Return

serge ibaka thunder

On Friday, the Thunder released a statement stating power forward Serge Ibaka had progressed enough in his recovery from a strained calf to be upgraded from OUT to DTD (day to day). With the Thunder being down 0-2 in the Western Conference, is this the boost they severely need to get back in the series? Here are three thoughts on what could happen with Ibaka’s return:

1. The Willis Reed Effect

I know. This isn’t Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Madison Square Garden. During those days, most fans didn’t know who the starting line-up of a team would be until they started warming up. With the 24/7 sports news cycle that we have nowadays, there was no way that Ibaka was going to surprise the masses by walking into the arena right after the national anthem while ripping off his warm-ups to reveal his uniform and a heavily tape calf muscle. (Side bar: That would have been EPIC, though.)

It isn’t the same….but it almost feels like it. We’ve already been on the brink of elimination this season. Games 6 and 7 of the Memphis series and Game 5 of the Clippers series. All games that we needed to win, and did. This feels like that type of game. Throwing all the “nobody has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit in the history of the NBA” talk out the window, this is the make it or break game. Either we win tonight and make a series out of it or we go down like a sinking ship.

willis reed knicks

The emotional boost Ibaka’s return could provide may prove to be the spark the team has needed since the series began. Without their defensive anchor in the middle, the Thunder have looked lost on both ends of the floor. Their spacing on the offensive end has been Charles Barkley turrible, and their paint defense (and subsequent perimeter defense) has seen better days. Even if Ibaka doesn’t provide you with much, the fact that he is there may be enough to see the Thunder through this game.

Remember, for all the hoopla surrounding Reed’s return in Game 7, he only went on to score 4 points in the game. But the defense he played on Wilt Chamberlain in his 27 minutes in the game, proved to be the deciding factor in the Knicks winning their first championship.

The Great Unknown for the Spurs

For a team as organized as the Spurs, uncertainty can throw them for a loop. You can be sure that Gregg Popovich has devised at least 3 different game plans: one for the Thunder without Ibaka, one for the Thunder with a hobbled Ibaka, and one for the Thunder with a healthy Ibaka. The first few minutes of Game 3 will be telling for the Spurs. Do they put Ibaka through a spin cycle of pick and rolls? Do they drive right on him to test that calf?

This can work in the Thunder’s favor though. If the curiosity over Ibaka’s health gets the Spurs to deviate from their game plan even one bit, then the Thunder could have a marked advantage. This is the Thunder’s one trump card. Once the Spurs have film on how the Thunder plan to use Ibaka, the surprise factor of Ibaka’s return goes out the window. That’s a big reason why Game 3 is so important to the Thunder.

What will Ibaka give the Thunder?

The great variable. What will Ibaka actually give the Thunder? He could give the Thunder 20 extremely valuable minutes or he could give them 6 “why the hell is he out there” minutes. The possibilities could literally run the gamut.

ibaka durant westbrook thunder

 

One thing for certain is that Ibaka would not be out there if he had not received the go ahead from the team doctors. The Thunder organization is very meticulous about not putting their players at risk of further injury, regardless of what is at stake. If there was any concern about compounded injury to Ibaka, he would have been held out. Is there a risk of reinjury? Of course. Kendrick Perkins played with an oft-injured groin in the 2012 playoffs, and had to sit out the 2nd half of at least 2 games in that playoff run that went all the way into the Finals. Calf muscles, much like the groin, are heavily used in basketball and the risk of reinjury is there.

But I think Ibaka’s return will have more of a psychological impact on the team. No team in the NBA is more dependent on their core players than the Thunder. So even if Ibaka is not at 75%, just having him out there may ease some of the stress that the Thunder seem to be playing with. And if that is the case, then his return will have been a rousing success.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs Western Conference Finals preview

durant jackson ginobili parker thunder spurs

A running theme for me these playoffs has been fate. It was fate for us to face the Grizzlies in the first round to exorcise the demons from last season. It was fate for us to face the Clippers in the second round, as they have players that are interwoven into Oklahoma’s history. And again, I believe it is fate for the Thunder to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs are the model by which the Thunder are built. A sort of big brother, if you will. Many of the main components on the Thunder come from the Spurs organization, from the owner to the GM. Over the past three seasons, the Thunder and Spurs have been the best two teams in the conference and this is something of a rubber match.

Unfortunately, Serge Ibaka won’t be participating in this series. A Grade 2 calf strain will cause the power forward to miss the rest of this postseason. While both teams won’t be at full strength, this has never stopped this series from being competitive and fun.

Regular Season Series

Even since the Thunder did a gentlemen’s sweep of the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder have dominated the Spurs in the regular season. They’ve won 6 of their last 8 meetings, including all four this season.

duncan perkins spurs thunder

 

In the first meeting of the season, the Thunder ended an 11 game winning streak by the Spurs, upending them 94-88, behind a big third quarter (25-15). In that game, Ibaka (sad face) dominated inside with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks. In the second game, the Thunder used a big game from Russell Westbrook (31 points and 8 assists) and a big 2nd quarter (40-29) to defeat the Spurs 113-100. In the 3rd meeting of the season, the Thunder won 111-105 behind monster games from Kevin Durant (33 pts, 7 rebs, 5 asts) and Reggie Jackson (27 pts and 8 asts). The 4th meeting of the year, also known as the annual “if we win this game we might catch the Spurs in the standings” game, saw good performances by the Thunder’s top 4 players, leading to a 106-94 victory.

Series Schedule

  • Game 1 – Monday, 19 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)
  • Game 2 – Wednesday, 21 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)
  • Game 3 – Sunday, 25 May 2014 at 7:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 4 – Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 5 – Thursday, 29 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)*
  • Game 6 – Saturday, 31 May 2014 at 7:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 7 – Monday, 02 June 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)*

* If Necessary

Probable Starting Line-Up

San Antonio Spurs

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

 

  • Bench Depth – Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Perry Jones
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

 

  • Bench Depth – Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher

3 Keys to the Series

1. 75/30 – With Ibaka out, the scoring onus continues to fall on Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson. Ibaka is probably the most consistent scorer in the leauge, always scoring between 13-17 points. To make up for that, the big 3 for the Thunder will probably have to average about 75 points per game, while the other players will have to somehow come up with 30 points. Can it be done? Of course. But the margin of error will go down with the loss of Ibaka.

2. Perimeter Defense – The Spurs have 6 players that are shooting at least 38% from 3-point land in the playoffs, with noted Thunder-killer Ginobili pitching in 31% from deep. The Thunder have had measured success in the defending the 3-point line because they have been able to keep Parker in front of them and out of the lane. Unfortunately, when Parker does get into the lane now, Ibaka will not be there to erase any of the Thunder’s perimeter mistakes.

reggie jackson duncan spurs thunder

 

3. Bench – If ever there was a series for Butler, Fisher, and Jackson to consistently hit shots, this would be it. The Spurs bench is leading the remaining playoff teams in scoring at 41.3 points per game. The Thunder bench averages just under 29 points per game in the playoffs. While the Thunder is top heavy, with 2 of the top 5 scorers in the playoffs, they will still need their bench to spell them during games.

X-factors

For the Spurs – Rebounding – With Ibaka out, the Spurs, not known for their rebounding, will have more opportunity to grab offensive rebounds and get more scoring opportunities. On the other end, the Spurs have the opportunity to limit the Thunder to just one shot.

Another X-factor for the Spurs is the health of Parker’s hamstring. He was taken out of Game 5 of the Portland series and has not practiced with the team. Maybe something to watch as he tries to defend Westbrook throughout the series.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs -Game Two

For the Thunder – Transition opportunities – The Thunder do a good job of forcing the Spurs into turnovers. That may be a bit muted now with Ibaka out in the series. Without the shot blocker in the paint, the Thunder have less leeway to gamble on steal opportunities.

Prediction

Spurs in 6

I love my team, but the loss of Ibaka may be too difficult to get over in this series. Ibaka puts a lot of pressure on opposing offenses that live on dribble penetration. The Spurs’ guards would have second thoughts of taking the ball inside with Ibaka patrolling the paint. Now, the defense will have to help out more and that may open up the 3-point shooting for the Spurs. Can the Thunder win it? Of course. But they have to play close to perfect basketball on the defensive end for the full 48 minutes. Unfortunately, that has never been their greatest strength.

Five Thoughts from the Clippers Series

durant griffin thunder clippers

With a 104-98 win in Game 6 of their 2nd round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in four years. Before we look ahead to the San Antonio Spurs, here are 5 thoughts from the electrifying series that was.

1. Point Guard Supremacy

If there was a match-up that was going to determine how this series would play out, it was definitely this one. Chris Paul is widely considered to be the best point guard in the league, while Russell Westbrook is its most polarizing. One is a maestro, leading a meticulous concerto of dunks, alley-oops, and 3-point shots, while the other is the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil incarnate. The match-up basically came down to this: Would Paul be able to control Westbrook’s game. Defending Chris Paul means defending everyone on the floor. Yes, you have to stay in front of him. But it’s when the opponent strays away from one of the other players on the Clippers that Paul does his most damage.

westbrook paul thunder clippers

On the flip side, defending Westbrook is a completely different story. Due to the chaos he causes, a defender never knows how they are going to defend him. The best approach is to lay off of him, but even that has proven to be difficult as Westbrook will look for any opportunity to run in transition and is usually the quickest man on the floor. Add to that the fact that he’s had a couple games of double digit assists while scoring at least 20 points in the playoffs, and you are looking at a monster.

The numbers in the series basically cancel each other out:

  • Westbrook – 27.8 points / 6.0 rebounds / 8.8 assists / 1.8 steals on 49/35/88 shooting splits
  • Paul – 22.5 points / 3.7 rebounds / 12.0 assists / 2.5 steals on 51/46/75 shooting splits

While Paul assisted more and scored more efficiently, Westbrook scored more and grabbed more boards (over 2 offensive boards per game). The difference between the two floor general lied in the chaos they caused. More, specifically, in the free throw attempted. While Paul mainly settled for jump shots, Westbrook consistently challenged the defense by getting into the paint and looking for his own shot. Some may say that’s the staple of a scoring wing, not a prime time point guard. But with the way the rules favor dribble penetration, it may be time to stop looking at point guards as just facilitator and more as attackers. While I think Paul is still the best pure point guard in the game, Westbrook did a lot in this series in changing the way people think of the point guard position.

2. The Emergence of Steven Adams

When the Thunder made Adams the 12th pick in last season’s draft, many people envisioned a season of trips on I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Adams was expected to be a project that would not pay dividends until, at the earliest, next season. But, as they say, that is why they play the game. Adams started the season as the Thunder’s back-up center and never wavered. He even started 20 games when Kendrick Perkins went out with a groin injury in the 2nd half of the season.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, in his infinite quest for veteran intangibles, barely played Adams in the first 5 games of the postseason. After averaging 14.8 minutes per game in the regular season, Adams was only notching 4 minutes a night (and 1 DNP-CD) against, of all teams, the Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol-led Memphis Grizzlies, in those first 5 games. With their backs against the wall and trailing 3-2 in their first round series, Brooks relented against his default settings, and played the rookie significant minutes (22.5/game) in the next two games (both wins).

A look at Adams’ numbers don’t explain his impact. Since Game 5 of the first round, Adams has averaged 21.8 minutes, 5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. But it’s his combination of physicality and athleticism that has the most effect on the game. Usually, teams can do a lot of their damage in the paint when the starting big men are on the bench. In fact, James Harden made a living off of this when he played for the Thunder. Harden would come into the game and immediately begin attacking the other team’s back-up big. With Adams in the game, though, the other team has difficulty in scoring inside.

In the Clippers series, Adams was tasked with guarding all of the LA’s big men (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Glen Davis). Surprisingly, Adams probably struggled the most with Davis. Griffin wanted no part of backing down Adams in the post and settled for mid-range jumpers. And Jordan struggles with anything not resembling a lob pass. It’s almost as if Adams is a combination of Serge Ibaka and Perkins. Someone with the athleticism of Ibaka, but with the brute strength of Perkins. The only thing missing is the experience, which Adams is gathering in heaps this postseason.

3. Resiliency

durant westbrook jackson thunder

They say great teams win the close games. But, damn, does every game have to be an ESPN Instant Classic? After the “cardiology office visit inducing” series that was the Memphis series, my health didn’t need this series, especially games 4-6. But, that the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals speaks to the resiliency of this team.

There’s a comfort level that’s achieved when the core of a team has been together for a number of seasons. That’s what you see with the Thunder in late game situations. Everybody knows their roles and plays them to a T. Now, why they can’t do that in the first 45 minutes of a game? I have no idea. Being that they are still a young team, they probably play the game in a fashion similar to the thought process high school/college students have towards homework. When a student is given an assignment with a due date two weeks from then, 75% of those students will wait until the night before to start working on their assignment. That’s the Thunder in a nut shell right there.

4. Defense definitely wins playoff series (and championships too)

During the regular season, the Clippers averaged a league high 107.9 points per game. They upped the ante during the Golden State series, increasing their average by 3 points to 110.9 points per game. For the Thunder series, the Clippers averaged a paltry 106.3 points per game. Seriously though, that 1.5 point drop (and 4.6 point drop from the Warriors series) may have been the difference between the Thunder winning Games 5 and 6.

The Thunder did a great job defending Griffin and Jordan on the inside in the series. After posting up 12.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game in the Warriors series, the Thunder limited Jordan to 6.7 points and 9.5 rebounds. Griffin’s points and rebounds went up slightly in the Thunder series, but his efficiency went down.

ibaka adams griffin thunder clippers

With the inside locked down, the only other options for the Clippers were Paul’s penetrations and their plethora of 3-point shooters. The Thunder did a great job of going under the screens and negating the driving lanes for Paul. With Paul not getting into the lane as much, the perimeter defenders were able to stay on the shooters for an extra bit longer. The trio of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, and JJ Redick averaged 0.6 less 3-point FGs made in the Thunder series, and Crawford saw his 3-point percentage drop 8.4 percentage points from the Warriors series. All these factors combined made it difficult for the Clippers to do what they did best; which was to score at will.
5. Coming through in the clutch

Many people will look at this postseason run and wonder whether Westbrook had a better postseason than Durant. The numbers suggest this is a very distinct possibility. All things being equal in the Memphis series (when Durant played bad, so did Westbrook, and visa versa), Westbrook has surprisingly been more efficient in the Clippers’ series. But in terms of making the necessary MVP-like plays in the final 3 minutes of games, Durant is still the man. In Games 4-6, in the final 3 minutes of play, Durant scored 16 points on 4-7 shooting (1-1 from long range), 7-8 FT, and only had 1 turnover. Conversly, Westbrook scored 11 points on 2-7 shooting and 7-7 from the line.

The mark of an MVP is not necessarily their stats throughout the game, but how they pull through in the clutch. Durant has proven time and time again that no matter how the first 40 minutes of the game play out, he’s usually there in the final few minutes when the team needs him the most.

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Game 5 preview

Westbrook thunder

There won’t be a riveting MVP speech or a controversial headline this time around. The Oklahoma City Thunder know what’s at stake. Lose tonight, and you go back to the lion’s den facing elimination. We did it in the last series, but why keep testing the law of averages? When a lower seed has a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 (their court), they win 65% of the time.

For the first 39 minutes of Game 4, the Thunder were on cruise control. They led 32-15 after the first quarter, led by 11 heading into halftime, and increased that lead by 1 heading into the 4th quarter.  Three minutes into the 4th quarter, the Thunder were up by 14 points. Then, the Thunder stopped defending the paint. And when they attempted to defend, they ended up fouling. The Clippers had lay-ups or dunks on 11 of their last 12 made FG. In that same time frame, they made 8-9 FTs. The Thunder couldn’t keep up and ended up getting outscored 33-17 in the final 9 minutes of the quarter.

5 Keys for Game 5

1. In-Game Adjustments – During the Clippers’ run in the fourth quarter, Scott Brooks had his vaunted small-ball lineup in the game. The Ibaka-Durant-Butler-Westbrook-Jackson lineup is great in close games or in making up a deficit (as evidenced by Game 3). But if you are up big and the opposing team starts to make a run, shouldn’t you start to sub in your defensive specialists? Brooks didn’t bring in Thabo Sefolosha until 2:57 was left in the quarter and the Clippers had trimmed the Thunder lead down to one. From there on in, it was a game and the Clippers had all the momentum. Brooks needs to be quicker in making these types of decisions.

2. Get Kevin Durant moving – A lot like how Kendrick Perkins likes to move other centers out of their comfort spots, smaller, stronger defenders like to push Durant away from his comfort zones. If the Thunder and their offense can get Durant on the move (catching passes off a curl, using a pick, moving without the ball), it takes away the advantage smaller defenders have on Durant. But if Durant remains stationary, the defense is able to set itself up to defend him.

chris paul serge ibaka thunder clippers butler

3. Defend the Paint – The staple of the Thunder defense was completely obliterated in the 4th quarter of Game 4. The Thunder pride themselves in defending the paint, even to the extent that they dare you to shoot and make deep perimeter shots. As I mentioned in the 2nd paragraph, the Clippers last 11 of 12 made shots were either lay-ups or dunks. The other made shot was a 3-pointer by Jamal Crawford after the defense collapsed on a penetrating Chris Paul. What worried me in Game 5 is the Thunder focusing a lot of their energy on defending the paint and the Clippers going off from deep like they did in Game 1. There needs to be good defensive balance.

4. The Other Scorers – The Thunder have 3 other players, outside of Durant and Westbrook, that can give you at least 10+ points (Ibaka, Butler, and Jackson) each on any given night. When those three give you at least 30 points combined, the Thunder are 5-1 in the playoffs. In the one postseason victory where those three didn’t give you at least 30 points, Sefolosha and Perkins chipped in for an unexpected 22 points combined. In the 5 losses this postseason, the trio averages 23 points per game combined.

thunder

5. Defend Home Court – Win tonight, and you have a little bit more room for error heading back to LA. The Thunder have been quite vulnerable at home the postseason, posting a 3-3 record.

Where the Thunder Stand After 4 Games (Round 2)

griffin clippers

Four games in: a blowout for each team and a close victory for each team. Series tied 2-2. Pretty much what you would expect from the 2 vs. 3 match-up in the Western Conference playoffs. The only caveat is how the Thunder lost Game 4. Up by 16 with a little more than nine minutes left should be a comfortable lead, even in the playoffs. But it’s how the Thunder lost the lead that has Thunder Nation in a bit of a tizzy. After a string of 4.75 out of 6 games where the Thunder looked like world-beaters, the Thunder reverted back to their bad habits in the fourth quarter relinquishing Game 4 to the Clippers.

The offense became extremely vanilla, with most of it consisting of Russell Westbrook dribbling for 10 seconds, while Kevin Durant tried to get position on all 6 feet of Chris Paul (really, Chris Paul…c’mon Kevin). Once Durant got the ball, one of two things happened: either the Clippers sent a hard double team, with a soft third defender, which led to 3 turnovers in the quarter or Durant got the ball in the basket (4/5 FG, 10 points in the 4Q). While Durant’s “success” on offense would lead you to believe the Thunder were either maintaining their lead or building on it, the Thunder’s defense told a different story. With Westbrook and Serge Ibaka hampered by foul trouble in that 4th quarter, the Thuder weren’t able to be as aggressive on defense, which led to undisciplined overplays and unsuccessful reach-arounds as Paul and Darren Collison were able to get into the lane without much resistance.

Another little discussed faux pas was Scott Brooks’ inexcusable over-use of timeouts. At some point, when the other team is making their run, you have to hold onto to at least two timeouts in case the other team actually completes their run. This is the second time in these playoffs where Brooks’ mishandling of timeouts has put undue strain on the Thunder. The first time, in Game 5 of the Memphis series, Brooks was bailed out by the steal and subsequent game-tying dunk by Russell Westbrook with a few seconds left in the game. This time, though, the Thunder lucked into a hurried miss by Blake Griffin, but still could not capitalize on a last second shot by Russell Westbrook. A timeout and the ability to move the ball to halfcourt could have helped the Thunder in trying to tie the game. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s Scott Brooks we’re talking about. Anything less than five seconds left on the clock is usually accompanied by a 29 foot fall-away 3-point attempt by Durant with two defenders in his face.

Durant Barnes clippers thunder

In the end, the Thunder got a split in Los Angeles and wrestled back home court in the series. Mission accomplished? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how you look at it. The narrative in these playoffs tends to change by the game. After the Game 1 blowout by the Clippers, most people were ready to shovel dirt on the Thunder’s grave. Then came two convincing victories after the galvanizing MVP speech by Durant, which led to people wondering whether the Thunder would lose again in these playoffs. Finally, the Game 4 collapse has allowed the pendulum to swing once again, this time back in the Clippers’ direction. Media fandom in the playoffs can be so fickle at times.

Kevin Durant officially named the 2013-14 MVP

durant thunder

Kevin Durant was officially named the MVP of the NBA for the 2013-14 season.  Durant garnered 119 of the 125 possible 1st place votes to win by a landslide. He led the Thunder to the 2nd best record in the league, while also filling in for Russell Westbrook who missed almost half the season recovering from various knee ailments. He averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on 50/39/87 shooting.

Let it sink in Oklahoma. A decade ago, we were a fly-by state with little to no chance of ever landing a pro-sports franchise. Now, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player resides here, in the 405. Enjoy the moment and appreciate the fact that we are watching greatness. Congratulations Kevin Wayne Durant, your 2013-14 KIA NBA MVP.

Durant will be presented with his MVP trophy on Wednesday night, before Game 2 of the Clippers vs. Thunder series.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers Round 2 series preview

ibaka griffin thunder clippers

Whew! That was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. The Memphis Grizzlies had the Oklahoma City Thunder on the brink of elimination with a 3-2 series lead and heading back to Memphis. Fortunately, the “Lost” ad for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s shooting stroke worked and they found their offense in time to put together two great games and advance to the 2nd round.

Just like in the first round, the finger prints of fate, are strewn all over this series.  Even though we’ve never faced the Clippers in the playoffs, the inevitability of this series happening has been building for the past 2-3 seasons now. Not only have the Clippers entered into the conversation as one of the contenders in the Western Conference, but their main players have an interwoven history with Oklahoma City that does not involve the Thunder. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are about the closest thing to basketball Prodigal Sons that Oklahoma City has. Now, those two players are in the way of the Thunder advancing to the Western Conference Finals.

Regular Season Series

westbrook paul thunder clippers

The Thunder and Clippers split their season series 2-2, with each team winning one on their respective home courts and losing one on their respective home courts. In the first meeting, the Thunder were cruising in the 2nd quarter, before a scuffle in the 2nd quarter between Serge Ibaka and Matt Barnes led to the ejection of both players. With Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (who was out due to the death of his grandfather) out of the game, the Thunder’s 9-point halftime lead eventually evaporated in the 3rd quarter under a rain of shots in the paint from the Clippers. The Thunder went on to lose that game 103-111. The second meeting was one of those games where the Thunder came out hot and never relented, winning 105-91, going away. The third game occurred when the Thunder were in their transition period of working Russell Westbrook back into the line-up after the All-Star break. They ended up losing that one 117-125. In the final meeting of the season, the Clippers were without 6th Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and lost 107-101.

Series Schedule

  • Game 1 – Monday, 05 May 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 2 – Wednesday, 07 May 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 3 – Friday, 09 May 2014 at 9:30 PM CST (Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Game 4 – Sunday, 11 May 2014 at 2:30 PM CST (Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Game 5 – Tuesday, 13 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 6 – Thursday, 15 May 2014 TBD (Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA)*
  • Game 7 – Sunday, 18 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*

* If necessary

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Los Angeles Clippers

  • PG – Chris Paul
  • SG – JJ Redick
  • SF – Matt Barnes
  • PF – Blake Griffin
  • C – DeAndre Jordan

 

  • Bench Depth – Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis, Darren Collison, Danny Granger

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

 

  • Bench Depth – Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Series

1. Perimeter Defense – The Memphis series and this series could not be anymore different. While the Grizzlies were all about pounding the ball inside, the Clippers are more about getting dribble penetration to suck in the defense and then finding open shooters on the outside. With Chris Paul attacking the basket, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes will all be camped out on the 3-point line ready to shoot. This is where Thabo Sefolosha may be key in this series. While he may not start, he could provide valuable defense on either Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford in spots.

durant crawford thunder clippers

2. Rebounding – DeAndre Jordan has turned into a rebounding fool in these playoffs, averaging 15.1 boards per game in the Golden State series. With Blake Griffin contributing 6.3 rebounds of his own in that series, the front line for the Clippers did not let many missed shots get by them. Also of note, though, is that Golden State played the series with a front line consisting of David Lee, Draymond Green, and a hobbled Jermaine O’Neal. If the Thunder can control the boards, that should aid them in getting their transition game going.

3. Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson – With Chris Paul a bit hobbled, I see no wing defender on the Clippers that can stop either of the Thunder trio. Crawford and Reddick aren’t known for their defense, Collison is too small, and, if they dust off Jared Dudley, he’s too slow. The Clippers only real line of defense is Jordan, and that only occurs once the players has beat all the other lines of defense.

X-factors

For Los Angeles – Chris Paul’s health. If Paul is as hobbled as he seems, this may be an extremely difficult series for him. Russell Westbrook is a completely different animal than Steph Curry. While Curry is more perimeter-oriented, Westbrook is all out attack. And, unfortunately for the Clippers, they have no one else defensively that can stay with Westbrook and give Paul a reprieve on that side of the ball.

perkins griffin thunder clippers

For Oklahoma City – Foul Trouble. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s mastery of theatrics (aka flopping) can quickly put the Clippers in the bonus and also get key players out of the game because of foul trouble. It’ll be very important for the Thunder stay disciplined, not only defensively, but also emotionally.

Prediction

Thunder in 6.

The Thunder got their wake up call in Round 1. They know they nearly blew their opportunity to contend for this season. I don’t see them reverting back to the Thunder we saw in Games 2-5 of the first round. They know, offensively, they can probably get what ever they want. And defensively, they know what they have to do to beat the Clippers.

Five Thoughts from the Memphis Series

durant ibaka westbrook thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 120-109 on Saturday to move onto the 2nd round of the playoffs. But before we move on, here’s 5 thoughts about the series that was.

1. The Overtimes and the plays leading up to them.

Four consecutive overtime games. Let that sink in for a minute. Your adrenaline pumps and heart races for one overtime game. But four…..in a row. The life span of the average Oklahoman (and Memphian, for that matter) probably dropped by about 2.5 years in this series. But the overtimes only tell half of the story in those four games.

The mad dashes that led to the overtimes were even more impressive. Here’s a recap of the major plays that led to the 5th period in those games:

Game 2: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 18 seconds to go.

  • Fall away 3-pointer by Durant in the corner while being fouled by Marc Gasol. Free throw good. Thunder down 1.
  • Free throw by Mike Conley. Grizzlies up 2 with 12 second left.
  • Russell Westbrook 3-point miss rebounded by Kendrick Perkins who goes up for a put-back with no time on the clock. Tied game. And on to overtime.

Game 3: Set-up – Thunder down by 17 with 7:30 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Thunder go on a 17-0 run to tie the game at 81 with 57 seconds left.

  • Tony Allen lay-up to put the Grizzlies up by two with 45 seconds.
  • Tony Allen steal and lay-up puts the Grizzlies up by 4 with 33 seconds left.
  • Russell Westbrook 4-point play ties the game at 85 with 26 seconds left.
  • Each team misses their finals shots. And on to overtime.

Game 4: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 1:20 left, after starting the quarter with a 12 point lead.

  • Reggie Jackson (the only effective Thunder player the entire night) launches (and makes) a step-back three with 59 seconds left. Thunder down by two.
  • After stealing a pass off of Beno Udrih, Durant passes to Jackson who runs off of a pick and roll and scores on a floater with 30 seconds left to tie the game.
  • After a mad scramble on the defensive end in which the Grizzlies had 2 opportunities to tie the game, Jackson ends up with the ball with 4 seconds left, but inexplicably heaves a 60 footer that bounces inbounds as the clock expires. And on to overtime.

Game 5: Set-up – Thunder down by two after the first of Tony Allen’s two free throws goes down with 30 seconds left. (Of note: The Thunder have no timeouts left)

  • Allen misses the 2nd free throw, but Tayshaun Prince gets the offensive rebound. After almost getting the ball stolen, Memphis calls a time out.
  • After the time out, Mike Conley dribbles at the top of the key. With the shot clock running down, Conley makes a move towards the basket, but Westbrook reaches across Conley’s body, knocks the ball loose, and takes it the other way for a game-tying fast break dunk. And on to overtime.

In all honesty, the overtimes proved to be a bit anti-climatic in comparison to those crazy final minutes in the fourth quarters.

2. Interior Defense

When you play the Grizzlies, the one thing that has to be on point is your interior defense. If you don’t have a set of defensive bigs that can combat what Memphis throws at you, then you might as well pack it up. Last season, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bore through the Thunder’s interior defense like a hot knife through butter. It was so much of an embarrassment, that Kendrick Perkins felt the need to apology for his play after the series. But this time around, Perkins, Ibaka, and Steven Adams proved up to the task, essentially neutralizing the Grizzlies’ biggest offensive strength.

perkins jackson ibaka gasol thunder grizzlies

In last season’s playoff series, Gasol and Randolph shot 68/146 (47%). In this playoff series, the interior duo for Memphis shot 89-220 (40%). Everybody talks about the struggles that Westbrook and Durant experienced during the series, but equally as damning for their team, was the struggles that Gasol and Randolph had with scoring. And once Durant and Westbrook got going again in Games 6 and 7, it was too difficult for the the Memphis duo to keep up, especially with Randolph being suspended for the final game.

3. The Role Players

Many people wondered why Caron Butler decided to sign with the Thunder, instead of with the two-time champion Miami Heat. If Butler was title chasing, the easiest route would have been to latch on with Miami and probably be a 9th man for them. But Tuff Juice probably saw an opportunity with the Thunder to not only compete for a championship, but also be a regular part of the rotation.

Many people like to label Butler as a champion since he was a member of the Dallas Mavericks team that won the championship in 2011. What many people fail to mention is that Butler had a knee injury mid-season, and didn’t participate in any games for the Mavericks in the playoffs that season. Yes, he got a ring, but I wonder if he feels like that ring hardly holds any weight. Pride can easily turn happiness into a question mark that stays on the mind.

So, when Butler’s number was called on to start in place of an ineffective Thabo Sefolosha for Game 6, he showed that he was ready for this moment. He only scored 7 points in that game, but the effect of Butler as a perimeter threat, opened up the lanes enough for Westbrook and Durant to get back in their groove.

butler westbrook jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson has the hardest job in the world. He has to be the main facilitator and scorer on a bench unit that is about as hot and cold as it gets. Then he has to be the third option on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. If he does something bad during his time on the floor with the superstar duo, then the spot light shines on him. But if he does something good, then it probably had to do with the fact that Durant and Westbrook took so much of the defense’s attention which allowed Jackson to have an open lane or a wide open shot.

Then Game 4 happened. I’ve never seen a situation where two alpha males completely give the reins to the game over to somebody other than themselves. A lot of times, Durant and Westbrook are like the Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett of the NBA: “We ride together, we die together, bad boys for life”. But in this one instance, whether it was their own insecurities in their play or a new confidence in another player not seen since the Harden days, Durant and Westbrook allowed Jackson to take over the game and in the end, win it for them. In reality, Jackson saved the season with his mini-explosion in Game 4.

4. Durant and Westbrook returning to form

Probably the biggest narrative of this series was the slump that both Durant and Westbrook faced in the Games 2-5. Without an unexpected career game from Jackson, the series would have probably been done in 5 games, much like last season. In those 4 games, the duo shot 73-209 from the field. That is a whooping 35% for two All-NBA players. Many media member started playing the Westbrook vs. Durant angle to the point that Westbrook felt the need to address it in an interview after Game 3.

durant westbrook allen conley thunder grizzlies

Then the Oklahoman decided to print one of the dumbest headlines since the Chicago Tribune declared Thomas E. Dewey the winner of the 1948 Presidential election. Mr. Unreliable. A name that describes many people, namely deadbeat dads, parole violators, and teenagers. Not a name that describes Kevin Durant, the basketball player. If anything, he’s been Mr. Reliable his entire career. The attempted explanation and subsequent apology explained what the headline itself was trying to convey, but the damage had already been done to the newspaper.

Durant took it in stride, but you could tell that the headline perplexed him a bit. Great players always play their best when the cards are stacked against them. Down 3-2 with an elimination game in Memphis, Durant and Westbrook slowed their games down a bit, and started playing their brand of basketball. In Games 6 and 7, the pair averaged 60.5 points, 18.5 rebounds, and 12.5 assists per game on 54/53/88 shooting.

5. The Wake-Up Call

The Thunder needed this kick in the rear end. They slept walked through the final month of the season, and probably had this aura about them that they could turn it on or off at any point in the playoffs. But this season’s playoffs were a bit different. The 7th seeded Grizzlies were probably more of a 3 or 4 seed, were it not for injuries and having to play in the tough Western Conference.

But, the name of the game is surviving and advancing, and the Thunder did just that. If the Thunder are fortunate enough to rack up 12 more victories, they should look back on this series and appreciate the fact that Memphis made them work so hard to get to Round 2.