Tag Archives: Dallas

5 for 5: The Rivalries

harden sefolosha durant thunder rockets

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

For the third part in this series, I wanted to focus on the rivalries. Sports are only as good as the competition they incite. Playing driveway basketball against your kids when they are 5 years of age can quickly get boring (although palming misdirected shots in midair like you’re Serge Ibaka can be entertaining for at least an hour or so). But, try playing your kids when they are 18 years old and have had 12 years of playing experience. Then it becomes an entirely different ballgame.

When it comes to competition, I’ve always looked at the career of Floyd Mayweather Jr. with a sliver of disappointment. That he’s a great boxer with arguably the best defense in the history of boxing is without question. The issue that I’ve had with his career has been the level of competition of his opponents. Now, I’m not saying that falls squarely on Mayweather. The guys in his weight classes have not been particularly consistent in the past decade. He’s also “luckily” scheduled the right fights at the right times, choosing to fight boxers that were either on the downward slide of their career (Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley) or fighters that were too inexperienced to compete with him at the time of their fight (Canelo Alvarez and Victor Ortiz). He’s never had that one opponent that defined him. Mike Tyson had Evander Holyfield. Arturo Gatti had Mickey Ward. Mayweather has…… (and therein lies the problem with his career).

mayweather alvarez boxing

If fans are the life blood of sports, then rivalries are the engines that keep them running.  You naturally root against your opponent because they are competing against you and you want to win. Pretty simple concept. But if you add something more to that competitive fire, it can act like an accelerant, creating an even bigger blaze. Rivalries, and the differing reasons for them, can be that spark. When it comes to the Thunder, I’ve categorized their rivals under 4 different categories.

1. Regional Foes

Geography and competition are probably the easiest ways to breed a rivalry. Whether it’s an intracity game between two high schools or a game between professional sports teams 200 miles apart, that desire to be superior to those closest to you is an innate characteristic of the human psyche. Even if the two teams aren’t on equal footing at the time of the game, the rivalry aspect of the game often lends it to be a close affair. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Rivalries

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On the Road Again

I’m a child of the late 80’s / early 90’s. It was during that time that I was in elementary school learning, as most of the world was, about computers. And, of course, the best way to learn is to interactively play games that also teach you about the subject matter. My favorite games to play on those old floppy-disc induced Apple computers was Oregon Trail. If you, either, don’t remember, or were too young to know what a floppy disc was, it was a story-based game of a journey through the Oregon Trail. You are the wagon leader of a party of settlers going from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley over the Oregon Trail in an oxen-drawn wagon. Along the trail, you have to make decisions concerning food and directions to survive the trail. You and your fellow settlers can die from a range of maladies from drowning to snake bites to dysentery. Needless to say, it is a game about the difficulties of being on the road.

 

Many teams in this young strike shortened season are probably looking at their road records and wondering whether the entire team is suffering from a bout of cholera. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, only 6 have a winning record on the road. While most teams struggle on the road in any given season, shortened or not, the upper echelon teams usually buck that trend and win wherever they play. Such has not been the case this season. 

  • The Southwest-leading San Antonio Spurs have an 8-4 record overall, but are an awful 0-4 on the road.
  •  The Pacific-leading Los Angeles Lakers are also 8-4 overall, but carry a 1-3 road record. 
  • The veteran Boston Celtics, a team that is supposed to know how to play on the road, is 1-3 in its games away from Massachusetts.

 Winning on the road usually involves a balanced combination of veteran leadership, youthful legs, good defense, and good bench play. It should come as no surprise that the 6 teams with winning road records have some semblance of each of those 4 characteristics needed to be a good road team.Oklahoma City (5-1), Chicago (7-2),  Miami(5-2), Orlando(4-2), and Indianapolis and Atlanta(both at 4-3) are all defensive minded teams with a nice mix of vets and youth, and good to great benches.

  •  5 of the 6 winning road teams are in the top 10 for point differential. 
  • 4 of the 6 winning road teams are in the top 10 for opponent’s PPG. 
  • 5 of the 6 winning road teams are in the top 10 for opponent’s FG%. 
  • Oklahoma City and Chicago have 2 of the best benches in the league.

 

 While it is still early in the season, trends like these don’t tend to change too much throughout the course of the season. We are already at least 1/6th of the way through the season (unless you are the Los Angeles Clippers). At this point, most teams are Denny Green (“They are who we thought they were!”). In the playoffs, you have to know how to win on the road. So take a good look at the 6 teams with winning road records. More than likely 2 of those teams will end up playing in the Finals.

 

Thunder Rumblings – Week In Review (Jan 2 – 8)

Oklahoma CityThunder: Week in Review (Jan 2nd – Jan 8th

Record for the week – 3-2

Overall record – 8-2 

Games played: 

Jan 2nd (@ Dallas)

After starting the season winning their first 5 games, the Thunder were looking to stay on pace with the Miami Heat to remain the only unbeatens in the league. This was the 4th meeting between these two teams within a 2 week period, and started to take on the feel of a playoff series. With the Mavs looking to get their season on track, the Thunder came out flat and ultimately lost the game 100 – 87. The Mavs bench dominated the Thunder’s, outscoring them 47-25. The only good news of the night came with the fact thatMiami also lost their first game, and lost it, chronologically speaking, before the Thunder game was over.

 Jan 3rd (vs.Portland)

Looking to get back on track after their first loss of the season, the Thunder went back home to face division rival Portland. With starting SG Thabo Sefolosha out with an injured foot and flu-like symptoms, 6th man of the year candidate James Harden was inserted into the starting lineup. The teams played pretty evenly in the first half, with the Thunder taking a 2 point lead into halftime. Behind the great play of Lamarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant’s shooting struggles,Portland took over in the second half and won the game 103 – 93. With Harden starting, the bench scored an anemic 14 points and could not muster much when they were in the game.

 Jan 6th (vs.Houston)

Looking to get back on the winning track, the Thunder took on the Houston Rockets, who were 0-4 on their previous road games. With Thabo Sefolosha returning to the lineup, the rotation normalized and the Thunder jumped out of the gate to finish the 1st quarter up by 10 and never looked back, eventually winning 109 – 94. The starters rested in the 4th quarter, and every player that was active played.

 Jan 7th (@ Houston)

If games were played purely on paper, then this game wasn’t worth playing. The Thunder had beat the team by 15 on the previous night. The only difference was the locale. Well, the Rockets came out and gave the Thunder a good game, matching them bucket for bucket for much of it until late in the 4th quarter. The Thunder got a couple timely stops late in the game and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook worked the two man game in the 4th to perfection with Durant scoring the Thunder’s last 13 points. The Thunder escaped with a 3 point victory 98 – 95. The only blemish in the game was the loss of back up PG Eric Maynor to a torn ACL in the 4th quarter.

 Jan 8th (vs.San Antonio)

The dreaded 3rd game in as many nights. The strange thing is that every team that has played a back to back to back, has won the 3rd game. So why should the Thunder be any different? While the first half stayed pretty close, the 3rd quarter belonged to the Thunder who blew the lid off the game, outscoring the Spurs 37-21 in the quarter. The Thunder had a 22 point lead heading into the 4th quarter and the starters sat for the entire period. Rookie Reggie Jackson saw his first extended action of the season, replacing the injured Eric Maynor as the Thunder’s backup PG, and scored 11 points on 4-9 shooting with 4 assists. 

My Takes: 

  • The loss of Eric Maynor could prove to be big. If you’re are looking at it, strictly, from a statistical point of view, then Maynor’s 4 points and 2 assists per game may seem inconsequential. But from a game manager point of view, his loss could have major ramifications on the Thunder’s bench play. Maynor set the tone on the 2nd unit, and provided a change of pace to the starters whenever necessary. There will be games where this aspect of what he brought to the table will be sorely missed. Here’s to sending a get well wish to Eric Maynor.
  • Its amazing how the return of a defensive minded SG could have such a positive effect on the offense. In the two losses, the offense seemed out of sync with the loss of Sefolosha. The players, especially Durant and Westbrook, seemed unsure of themselves and the bench suffered with Harden’s insertion into the starting line-up. Here’s to Scott Brooks not messing with the lineup unless he has to.
  • Durant seems to be efficiently scoring again and Westbrook seems to be returning back to form after starting the season in a bit of a funk. Here’s to realizing that this is a weird season, and players (even superstars) will probably have more ups and downs than an oscillating wave. 

Player of the Week: 

While Durant and Westbrook both struggled a bit in the beginning of the week, James Harden remained consistent throughout the week, averaging 19.5 points on 51% shooting from the field and 43% shooting from 3 point land, while contributing 3.8 boards, 3.8 assists, and 1.3 steals. If the Bearded One continues this, I don’t just see a 6th Man of the Year award in his future, but also an All Star nomiation.

Be Careful What You Wish For…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In late February of last season, when the Oklahoma City Thunder first acquired Kendrick Perkins, one of the biggest changes occurred on the offensive end of the floor. The lanes that were once open with the spacing provided by the perimeter games of Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green were no longer there. In its place, those lanes were replaced by “box and 1” defenses with defenders hedging off of Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. 

Mainly used for his defense, Sefolosha’s inability to consistently hit jumpers limited the first team’s offensive production. The opposing shooting guard, usually one of the better ball hawks on the floor, was able to play off of Sefolosha and help defend throughout the floor, whether it was doubling down on Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, or plugging up an open lane in the interior. In addition, the team replaced one of the better shooting centers in the league with one of the more offensively-challenged centers in the league. Perkins does all of his work in the interior. While he may step out and try a 15 footer from time to time, his best play is no more than 5 feet from the basket. Krstic’s biggest offensive impact wasn’t necessarily his shooting; instead, it was in keeping the opposing center away from the basket. Also, Serge Ibaka’s midrange game had yet to develop any type of consistency. In essence, the team seemed like it was playing 2 on 5 on the offensive end with this line-up most of the time. 

This had the biggest effect on the play of point guard Russell Westbrook, whose game is predicated on using those lanes to drive to the basket. Westbrook’s stat line for the regular season remained consistent at 22 ppg on 44% FG shooting to along with 8.2 assists. But when the game slowed down as it usually does in the playoffs, his scoring increased to 23.8 ppg, but it was on 39% FG shooting to go along with 6.2 assists and 4.6 turnovers per game. Westbrook became less efficient in the playoffs and the offense, as a whole, became less efficient because of this. It was during these playoffs that the glaring need for a spacer became very evident. 

Once the season ended, the consensus was that the next step in the evolution of this team was to replace Sefolosha with 6th man James Harden in the starting 5. Harden was a much better shooter and creator than Sefolosha, which would’ve added another dimension to the starting 5. No longer would the wing defender be able to help by hedging off of Sefolosha, as Harden’s ability to consistently hit 3’s would negate this. This would’ve opened at least one extra lane for Durant and Westbrook to drive through. Add this to Ibaka’s improving midrange game, and this should have brought the offense back to where it was pre-trade, with good spacing and perimeter options. Seemed simple enough.

 But the devil’s advocate to this move has always been to ask where the bench scoring was going to come from once Harden was lifted off the bench. Every great team has at least one player from the bench that is able to take over when the bench unit is in there. The Mavs had Jason Terry and JJ Barea. The Lakers had Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. The Spurs had Manu Ginobili. The Bulls had BJ Armstrong (first 3-peat) and Toni Kukoc (second 3-peat). And who could forget the Bad Boy Pistons and Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. Due to the Thunder’s great durability and good luck, we’ve never had to see what the second unit would look like without James Harden for an extended period of time. 

The Thunder’s bench unit has been a well-oiled machine for the past 2 seasons. With point guard Eric Maynor running the show, Harden doing the scoring, Daequan Cook providing spacing, and forward Nick Collison providing the muscle, the Thunder bench has been one of the most efficient in the league during that time. This season, the bench averaged 39 points per game in the first 5 games, with Harden doing the most damage at 16 ppg. Where the starting line-up falters, the bench usually picks up. 

Then the last two games happened. With Sefolosha dealing with a sore foot and flu-like symptoms and Cook also dealing with flu-like symptoms, the Thunder’s usual 10 man rotation was shortened to 8, with rookie Reggie Jackson and second year player Lazar Hayward filling in the missing pieces. With Harden in the starting line-up for the second half of the Dallas Mavericks game and starting outright in the Portland Trailblazers game, Thunder fans got a glimpse of what life would be like with Harden in the starting lineup. 

In the second half of the Mavericks game, the trio of Durant, Harden, and Westbrook scored a combined 31 points with 3 assists while trying to come back from a second half deficit. The rest of the team scored 9 points in the second half with only 5 coming from one bench player (Maynor). In thePortlandgame, the trio combined for 64 points and 16 assists, but struggled from the field, shooting only 40% from the floor combined. The bench, on the hand, had only 14 points on 6/17 shooting. 

While the trio figure themselves out, the bench is left to fend for itself without a valid scorer on tap. This is where an acquisition like Jamal Crawford, Vince Carter, or Tracy McGrady could’ve come in handy. While I like what I see from the future starting line-up, I also think the team is incomplete without a scorer off the bench. Which leads me to the weirdest thing I’ve said this young year: Damn, I miss Thabo Sefolosha.