Tag Archives: Dion Waiters

Thunder sign Semaj Christon

christon

On Saturday, the Oklahoma City Thunder signed guard Semaj Christon. The 2014 2nd rounder played last season with Consultinvest VL Pesaro of Lega Basket Serie A, the top professional league in Italy. While there, he averaged 14.3 points, 3.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 33.2 minutes of playing time. Previous to that, he spent his first two professional seasons with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Blue. In addition, he has also been a member of the Thunder’s summer league team the last three seasons.

The 6’3″ point guard out of Xavier has shown a penchant for getting into the lane and causing havoc once he gets there. His sturdy frame and long arms allow him to finish in traffic, while his floor game allows him to find teammates for higher percentage shots. His jumper, while not the best, has improved over the past 3 seasons to the point where he has a pretty solid mid-range game.

With the signing of Ronnie Price earlier this offseason, the Thunder’s roster currently sits at 15 guaranteed contracts, with 3 of those contracts belonging to point guards (Russell Westbrook, Cameron Payne, and Price). So why did the Thunder sign Christon, if their roster is already at max capacity with contracts and points guards? The reasoning for that could be two-fold. Number one, the Thunder don’t appear to be done wheeling and dealing. The roster, as it currently stands, is a weird mixture of bruising big men, offensively challenged wings, and athletic guards who aren’t great at shooting. They have a sizable expiring contract in Ersan Ilyasova, and a young big they may be ready to move on from in Mitch McGary. If the right deal comes along, they could also feature Payne, who could net something substantial from a point guard starved team.

The second reason for signing Christon is to play the long game with him. While his contract can’t be guaranteed because of the Thunder’s 15 other commitments, there could be guaranteed money attached to it if he gets waived before the season starts. Then the Thunder could sign Christon to the Blue and see how the season plays out in terms of roster moves. If the trade deadline leaves the Thunder with an open roster spot, you can almost guarantee that spot will go to Christon. Another issue that is clouding the water in terms of Christon’s future is whether Price’s 2nd year is fully guaranteed.

If anything, the Thunder have secured themselves another weapon to throw at guard happy teams, while maintaining roster flexibility. Christon’s strength and wing-span could make him an asset on the defensive end of the floor, similar to what the Thunder saw from Dion Waiters in the playoffs last season. And while Christon’s offensive repertoire may not necessarily be what the Thunder need, it’s not like he’s offensively challenged. In the end, his contract is not currently guaranteed, and the Thunder have time to see how everything plays out in these next two months before the season starts.

The Oklahoma City Thunder tank conundrum: The difference between 14 and 18

adams kanter westbrook roberson waiters morrow thunder

With Tuesday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs (and New Orleans’ subsequent defeat of the Golden State Warriors), the Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in a position they hadn’t been for the past month: outside the top 8 in the Western Conference. With only four games left and with New Orleans holding the tie-breaker between themselves and OKC, the likelihood of the Thunder missing the playoffs has become a very real possibility.

The 8th spot in the Western Conference is almost guaranteed to get the 18th pick in the draft, while the 9th spot in the Western Conference is slotted to be the 14th pick in the lottery, as they would hold the best record of all the non-playoff teams. The 14th worst team in the league has a 0.5% of getting the 1st pick, a 0.6% chance of getting the 2nd pick, and a 0.7% chance of getting the 3rd pick. The team that picks in the 14th spot has never won the draft lottery a.k.a the Number 1 pick. In 1993, the Orlando Magic won the draft lottery with a 1.52% chance of winning it. They had the best record of all the lottery teams and remain the team with the worst odds to ever garner the Number 1 pick. Since then, three more teams have been added to the NBA, so the odds are even lower now.

The possibility of Oklahoma City getting the top pick is damn near slim to none. Same goes for them getting the 2nd or 3rd pick. The question then becomes what’s more important for a championship contending team that has been saddled with bad luck: a higher draft pick or postseason experience for their playoff neophytes? More simply, is there a discernible difference between the 14th pick and the 18th pick?

leonard spurs antetokounmpo bucks

Looking back at the last five drafts, those five draft spots are extremely important for getting good role players, with the possibility of getting a lower tier superstar. The top three players that have been chosen in those spots in the past 5 yeas have been Kawhi Leonard, Eric Bledsoe, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Other players of high value include Nikola Vucevic, Dennis Schroder, Terrance Jones, Marcus Morris, and Jusuf Nurkic. Of all those players, only Marcus Morris was chosen with the 14th pick. Meanwhile, Terrance Jones and Eric Bledsoe were both chosen with the 18th pick.

From the numbers, there are no discernible differences between the 14th pick and the 18th pick. Without all the injuries, the Thunder are a championship contending team. If the team is able to keep Enes Kanter in the offseason, their needs will be peripheral at best. If the team is able to draft the mythical creature known as a 2-way shooting guard, then great. We’ve all seen grainy videos of two-way shooting guards that can shoot from the perimeter and defend their position well. According to lore, they still exist. Another need that could be addressed in the draft is another good shooter. Other than those two things, health is probably the only thing the Thunder need for next season.

Well, health and more playoff experience. Some of the remaining Thunder players that have survived the triage-apocalypse that has been this season, have never been featured players on playoff teams. Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, and Mitch McGary have never been to the postseason, and Enes Kanter made it to the playoffs in his rookie season with the Utah Jazz, but didn’t play many meaningful minutes as the San Antonio Spurs swept the Jazz in what was a lopsided first round series. The experience earned, even at the hands of a sweep by the Golden State Warriors, will be irreplaceable come this time next season.

reggie jackson kendrick perkins thunder

Think back to when the Thunder first played the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 postseason. Oklahoma City lost the series in 6 games, but the experience earned in that series fueled their next four postseason runs. The Thunder have a new set of players that have replaced some seasoned vets the Thunder had in their previous postseason runs (Kendrick Perkins, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher). Those new players need to experience what playoff basketball, at its highest, it like. I’d rather they earn that experience now, than have to earn it next season when the Thunder hopefully are chasing a title and the stakes are a lot higher.

The Thunder are in a position to get the best of both worlds: a solid first round pick and playoff experience. Is there risk for injury if the Thunder make the playoffs? Of course. But there’s a risk of injury any time any of these players gets on a basketball court, whether its in an NBA game or an offseason workout. Missing the playoffs on purpose makes no sense whatsoever, especially when there is only a 0.18% chance of obtaining a top-3 pick. Plus, there’s no way Russell Westbrook will ever stand by and allow the team to lose on purpose. The Thunder will try their hardest in these last four games, and will allow the chips to fall wherever they may fall.

Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans preview (game 49 of 82)

westbrook thunder gordon pelicans

  • When: Wednesday, 04 February 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans, LA

I believe this season comes down to the 12 games in February. Do anything less than 9-3, and it becomes harder and harder for the Thunder to catch up to the Pelicans and Suns. Here’s the catch, though. Those 3 losses cannot come against the Pelicans and Suns (2 games against New Orleans and 1 game against Phoenix this month). If the Thunder lose any of the two remaining games against the Pelicans, they lose the season series and essentially fall a game behind New Orleans if both teams finish with the same record. Conversely, they’ve won both games against the Suns and need one more victory to clinch the season series (and catch up to them in the standings). It’s go time. The excuse that the Thunder have plenty of time to catch up is quickly evaporating with every game.

This is the third of four games between these two teams. New Orleans has won the first two games of the series. In the first game, the Thunder’s rhythm was thrown off by the return of Kevin Durant to the line-up and they lost 104-112. In the second game, with Durant out with an ankle injury, the Thunder battled hard until late in the 4th quarter. But critical miscues by Russell Westbrook in that final quarter led to the team losing 99-101. Kevin Durant will be out for this one with a sprained left big toe.

The Opponent

davis asik evans pelicans

The Pelicans come into the game with a 26-22 record, currently good for 9th in the Western Conference. In their last game, the Pelicans defeated the Atlanta Hawks to bring the Hawk’s 19-game win streak to an end. New Orleans features a balanced team with interior scoring and perimeter shooters. They are middle of the pack in most statistical categories, but find ways to win close games, as evidenced by their small margin of victory (+1.4). They usually led by Jrue Holiday, but he has been out for the past 2 weeks with a stress reaction in his ankle. In his stead, New Orleans has used a combination of Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon in the backcourt. Gordon has remained relatively healthy since coming back from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss 21 games. Dante Cunningham has slid into the starting SF position and has put up 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds in his last 10 games. Up front, Anthony Davis continues to play at an MVP-like pace and Omer Asik is still big. The bench features 6th Man of the Year candidate Ryan Anderson, sharpshooter Quincy Pondexter, and big man Alexis Ajinca.

Probable Starting Line-ups

New Orleans Pelicans

  • PG – Tyreke Evans
  • SG – Eric Gordon
  • SF – Dante Cunningham
  • PF – Anthony Davis
  • C – Omer Asik

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Andre Roberson
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans – In two games this season, Davis has absolutely dominated Serge Ibaka. He’s averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 3.5 blocks, and 3 steals per game in those two meetings. Davis has gone the Brow equivalent of Slim Reaper on the Thunder this season. For the team to have a chance with Durant, they are going to have to limit Davis somehow. Whether that’s by double teaming (something the Thunder never do) or by Ibaka just playing better man to man defense, something has to be done to prevent Davis from getting video game stat lines against us. Conversely, Evans has shredded the Thunder defense by getting into the paint at will. Whether its Westbrook, Roberson, or Waiters defending, they’ll have to do a better job of staying in front of Evans.

westbrook jackson adams ibaka thunder evans asik pelicans

2. Rebounding – The Pelicans are the fourth best offensive rebounding team in the league at 12.2 a game. Where they are most dangerous is when those extra opportunities lead to 3-point shots from Anderson, Gordon, or Pondexter while the defense is left scrambling. And it’s not just Davis and Asik. Tyreke Evans does a good job rebounding from the wing and Anderson and Ajinca do a good job of offensive rebounding off the bench. It’ll be very important for Ibaka, Adams, and Perkins to box out and not allow the Pelicans any more opportunities than necessary.

3. Dion Waiters – The “Dion Waiters as a starter” experiment got off to a rousing start in the last game. He scored 24 on 9-15 shooting and had a big part in Westbrook’s triple double in that game. He added a dimension to the starting line-up that is usually only seen when both Westbrook and Durant are healthy. He’ll likely have to have a similar game tonight for the Thunder to win.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets preview (Game 38 of 82)

rockets thunder

  • When: Thursday, 15 January 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Toyota Center, Houston, TX

The Oklahoma City Thunder just experienced the NBA’s equivalent of an NFL bye week. They were off for 5 full days, last playing on Friday at home. Rest during an NBA season is always welcome. Probably more important, though, is the ability to hold full practices. In the 5 day break, the Thunder likely held 2 or 3 full length practices to help incorporate newcomer Dion Waiters. Hell, even Mitch McGary, who has had an injury plagued rookie season, likely benefited from the increased practice time now that he is healthy. After being shaky the last 3 games, practice time is probably something the Thunder cherished during this “bye week”.

This is the 2nd of 3 meetings between these two teams. The Rockets beat the Thunder 69-65 on November 16th. Yeah, that was the score of an NBA game that ended after four quarters played. The defense in that game was stifling, as was the offense. Of course, the Thunder were without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during that stretch. .

The Opponent

harden howard beverly rockets

The Houston Rockets come into this game with a 27-12 record, good for 4th in the Western Conference. The Rockets have been one of the more consistent teams in the league, sporting a top 5 defense with a top 10-15 offense. The Rockets used to be a strictly offensive-minded team, but that began to change when the Rockets started putting the point guard responsibilities in the hands of Patrick Beverly. The bulldog defender changed the demeanor of the Rockets and wrestled the starting spot from Jeremy Lin last season. While not necessarily an offensive weapon, Beverly is the heart of the team. On the wing, James Harden continues his excellent play as a scorer (26.9 points per game) and has shown improvements as a defender after being much maligned last season. His improvements on the defensive end have bolstered Harden into the MVP conversation this season. On the other wing, Trevor Ariza gives the Rockets the big wing defender they’ve coveted for a while. The power forward position is currently a back and forth between Donatas Montiejunas and Josh Smith. Both offer the ability to be a stretch 4, but Montiejunas has been a little bit more consistent since Smith’s arrival to the team. Up front, Dwight Howard continues to be one of the best defensive centers in the league (11.2 rebounds, 1.56 blocks), while also giving the Rockets 17 points per game. Outside of Smith, who can be inconsistent at times, and Corey Brewer, the bench is one of the weaker ones of the Western Conference elite.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Houston Rockets

  • PG – Patrick Beverly
  • SG – James Harden
  • SF – Trevor Ariza
  • PF – Donatas Montiejunas
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – The Thunder have been having issues lately with defensive minded teams that can consistently shoot 3’s. They struggled with the Warriors a couple games ago, generally struggle with the Trailblazers, and always have a difficult time with the Spurs. With the Rockets’ new found love for defense, they now fall into this category. Where this comes into play is when the Thunder struggle from the field (especially from 3) and can’t stop the other team from consistently making 3’s. The Rockets have 4 rotation players (Harden, Ariza, Beverly, and Brewer) that shoot at least 33% from 3-point territory, with Montiejunas clocking in at 28% from deep.

2. Bench play – Jason Terry and Terrance Jones will be out for tonight’s game, and Isaiah Canaan and Kostas Papanikolaou have fallen out of the rotation. The Rockets’ bench is weaker now than it was at the beginning of the season. And the Rockets will be playing in the 2nd game of a back to back after having to travel back from the East Coast. If the Thunder bench can win the battle of the reserves handily, the Thunder should be able to win this game going away.

westbrook beverly thunder rockets

3. Beverly vs. Westbrook – This match-up always sparks fireworks. Should be fun.

Scott Brooks and the Glass Ceiling

scott brooks thunder

Earlier this college football season, I experienced something I have never experienced since I started following and rooting for the OU Sooners about 20 years ago. That feeling of seeing something bad and knowing things were going to change from that point on. For me, it was the OU/Baylor game in Norman this season. The Sooners were out and out embarrassed by the Bears as Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty shredded the defense on short wide receiver screens all day long. The OU defense kept their corners at least 8 years off the line for fear of the deep ball throughout the game, and Baylor continually exploited that strategy. In the end, Baylor thoroughly dominated the Sooners 48-14.

OU had lost before, but this loss felt different. For the first time, it felt like the currency Bob Stoops had built up with his 2000 National Championship win was beginning to run low. Even the most ardent of Sooners supporters were calling into sportstalk radio shows asking, not necessarily for Stoops’ head, but for significant changes. The Sooners had disappointed and Sooners fans were fed up. Needless to say, after the season, changes were made. Both offensive coordinators were let go of and the defensive coordinator (who happens to be the head coach’s brother) was almost let go and will likely have a very short leash next season. Will these moves help? That remains to be seen, but in the presence of stagnation, sometimes change is all that is needed to catalyze improvement.

Which brings me to the Oklahoma City Thunder. I try not to be a prisoner of the moment, but honestly, life is about how you react to moments right after they happen. Some people are good at withholding their reaction until they’ve fully processed what transpired, while others have a difficult time getting their emotions in check. I was very reactionary after the road trip the Thunder just had, but I also chose to wait a little and see what transpired with the Utah game. Here is a summary of the Thunder’s last 3 games:

  • @Golden State – lost 117-91 – Balanced attack by the Warriors (seven Warriors scored at least 8 points or more) decimated the hapless Thunder who shot just 30.6% from the field. The Warriors used small ball throughout the game due to the absences of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. The Thunder never countered, staying with a normal line-up most of the night, and were constantly caught in bad defensive match-ups.
  • @Sacramento – lost 104-83 – Three Kings (haha, punny) scored 23 points or more as the Thunder once again struggled to find any type of flow offensively, and failed to get stops when they started building momentum. The Kings played to the Thunder’s comfort, with a regular three wings/two posts lineup, but the Thunder’s perimeter defense was almost non-existent the entire evening.
  • vs. Utah – won 99-94 – A win is a win, right? Not necessarily. While a W is always nice, this was a game where the Thunder needed to play like a championship contender. Instead, the Thunder struggled the entire evening in keeping the Jazz wing players in front of them. Gordon Hayward and Trey Burke kept finding their ways into the paint and Derrick Favors feasted off of their drives to the basket. With 8:12 left in the game, the Thunder found themselves down by 7. It was at that point that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook checked back into the game. From there, Durant, Westbrook, and newcomer Dion Waiter, went on to score every point for the Thunder the rest of the way. A win, yes. But not anything you can necessarily hang your hat on.

The Thunder, for as great as they are, still suffer from the same ills that have plagued them for the past 5 seasons: late game execution, lack of an offensive system that involves all the players (especially in crunchtime), defensive lapses, poor in-game adjustments, turnovers, being undisciplined, low collective basketball IQ, etc, etc. In my work experience, when a collective of employees continues to do the same things wrong over an extended period of time, it always comes back to the supervisor. In the Thunder’s case, the supervisor on the floor is Scott Brooks.

brooks durant thunder

Brooks has been the coach for nearly 6 full seasons. If consistency is a good thing to have as a coach, color Brooks good. But at what point does consistency become redundancy? Lately, I’ve come to compare Brooks to the cool supervisor at work. Those types of supervisors usually share similar traits. They confuse niceness and smiles with respect for authority and they tend to look the other way when their employees commit small transgressions. Eventually, the transgressions become more and more common and the supervisor is left with one of two choices: continue to look the other way or completely change course and do a behavioral 180. The problem with the second choice is that after enough time of being the “cool supervisor”, a threat no longer holds weight. Then you are left with a situation where the employees like the supervisor, but don’t respect his/her authority. When the employee/supervisor relationship reaches this point, it’s usually hard to salvage anything. Either the supervisor goes down with the ship, or the supervisor’s 180 causes his employees to despise him/her.

I feel like the Thunder have reached this point with Scott Brooks. One of my fellow bloggers commented, “The players love him (Brooks)” when I brought up my “cool supervisor” analogy. While that may be true, that’s also a symptom of the employee/”cool” supervisor relationship. If my superior is constantly allowing me to get away with indiscretions, I’d like him/her also. Its getting to a point where I almost have to wonder if the Thunder players are even listening to Brooks anymore. In practice, Brooks has to be running a system where everyone gets involved in the offense, even during crunch time simulations. But in real games, the Thunder always revert back to their default, which is Westbrook or Durant on the perimeter trying to make something out of nothing. It usually works, because Westbrook and Durant are that good. But against great teams with good coaching, that offensive plan is becoming easier and easier to guard. Teams with high defensive IQ’s (basically everyone in the playoff picture in the Western Conference) know what’s coming before it happens.

Another question that needs to be asked: Do the players still respect Brooks? Again, going back to the supervisor analogy, liking someone can easily be mistaken for respecting someone. A coach that used to play point guard likely has an unwritten kinship with his own point guard. But Brooks has usually delegated that job out to others. Be it Mo Cheeks, Kevin Ollie, or Derek Fisher, Westbrook has always had someone around to help cool him off. While I’m not entirely familiar with Westbrook’s relationship with assistant coach Robert Pack, it seems as if Westbrook is on his own this season. The results these last few weeks have been questionable. Westbrook has seemingly got hit for at least a technical per game in that time frame and was even ejected from an important game that had possible postseason implications. If this was a rookie or 2nd year player, you could understand. But this is a veteran floor general for a supposed title contender. If the head coach can’t sit him down and control him, who can? Even as an emotional player, Westbrook has to know that racking up technicals and getting a hot-head reputation can’t be a good thing.

Scott Brooks, Russell Westbrook

The other point guard on the team is an emotional mess, but on the other end of the spectrum. Reggie Jackson’s recent de-evolution from “future starting point guard for another team” to “what the hell was that?” is troubling and confusing. Jackson made his intentions known at the end of last season and the beginning of this season, that his current career goal is to lead his own team as a starter. Since the Thunder cannot supply his demand with Westbrook already in tow, it is almost a given that Jackson would likely be traded either this season or leading up to the draft. When the season started with both Durant and Westbrook shelved with injuries, Jackson did his best to lead the team and put up good numbers. He averaged 20 points, 5 boards, and 7 assists during the stretch where he was the Thunder’s best player. But lately, his play has been more reminiscent of his rookie season. He’s eschewing his bread and butter (attacking the paint) for step back rainbow threes. And his defense, always questionable, has been atrocious of late. Usually one of the players on the floor with the crunchtime line-up, Brooks instead chose to go with Waiters in the last game, which was extremely telling of how Brooks felt about Jackson in that moment.

The final thing that needs to be addressed is the lack of an offensive system. Around the league, teams are choosing to go with a Spursian model of sharing the wealth on offense instead of depending, almost entirely, on one or two scorers. Even teams that are known for their half-court offense (Memphis, Portland) have systems that play to the strengths of all of their players. The Thunder offense, unfortunately, still relies heavily on the abilities of Durant and Westbrook. As I’ve mentioned before, those two are good enough to succeed in many situations. But defenses are starting to key in on this fact, and it is getting harder and harder for the Thunder to come up with efficient shots when they need them the most. And it isn’t like the Thunder don’t have options. They have a PF/C that can shoot 3’s and is one of the best mid-range shooters in the game (Serge Ibaka). They have a 3-point specialist in Anthony Morrow that is one of the most feared shooters in the game. And now they have two combo guards, in Jackson and Waiters, that can drop 20 on any given night. But when the game gets close, the ball will likely find its way into the hands of Westbrook or Durant, and it will be a secret to no one.

I’ve never been a proponent of the mid-season coach firing. It can lead to chemistry issues and feelings of a season being lost. But once this season ends, the Thunder need to seriously think about changing the voice in the huddle, whether its changing the head coach or getting some specialist-oriented assistant coaches. There comes a point when the expectations of a coach switches from the win/loss record to finishes. Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers is currently about the wins and the losses. But Gregg Popovich is all about the finishes. And finishes have been something Brooks has struggled with. Have injuries had a hand in the Thunder’s last few shortcomings? Of course. But no fail safe system has ever been put in place to protect against such commonalities as injuries. Its a wonder if Brooks has just reached his glass ceiling with this team. A lot like Bob Stoops, Brooks appears to be burning a lot of the currency he got when he took the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012. And it seems to be playing out in real time as the Thunder struggle to get out of the hole that was built for them in the beginning of the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Sacramento Kings preview (Game 36 of 82)

durant thunder gay evans kings

  • When: Wednesday, 07 January 2015 at 9:00 PM CST
  • Where: Sleep Train Arena, Sacramento, CA

Two steps forward, one step back. Since the beginning of the season, this has been the story of the Thunder’s season. Since starting the season 3-12, the Thunder have gone on to win 14 of 20 games, which translates to a .700 winning percentage. But it seems like once they get it going, something happens that stops the momentum dead in its tracks. Be it an injury, a bad call, or a core-rattling midseason trade (we miss ya Lance), something always seems to derail the momentum train. The Thunder once again find themselves on the lower end of the win-loss spectrum. With Phoenix catching fire all the sudden, the Thunder need to put together a string of victories to at least keep within striking distance of the 8th spot. The narrative is always that there is plenty of season left. But the Thunder are 5 games from the midway point, and a sense of urgency has yet to develop within the OKC mindset. Hopefully, what I see as a lack of urgency is actually just a quiet confidence that has been fostered from experience.

This is the 3rd of 4 meetings between the Thunder and the Kings. Oklahoma City won the previous two meetings by an average of 10 points. This is the first game between the two teams where each team is relatively healthy. In the first meeting, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and in the second meeting, the Kings were without DeMarcus Cousins.

The Opponent

cousins gay collison kings

The Sacramento Kings’ record currently sits at 14-20. After starting the season 9-5, The King have gone on to lose 15 of their next 20 because of injuries to key players and front office turmoil, which resulted in the firing of head coach Mike Malone. The Kings’ issues can be traced directly to their defense and their lack of ball movement. Even though they score 102 points per game (good for 13th in the league), they give up 104.4 ppg on the other end. And they rank 28th in the league in assists at just 19.8 per game. Their offense runs through Cousins, but he does a poor job of finding shooters on the wings when he has the ball. That’s unfortunate because the Kings have 3 starters (Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, and Ben McLemore) who all shoot 36% or better from the 3-point line. Inside, they have a glut of power forwards (Jason Thompson, Reggie Evans, and Carl Landry) who aren’t necessarily great at any facet of the game. Their bench is deep, but is still one of the more weaker ones in the league. Ray McCollum and Nik Stauskas will likely see more minutes off the bench tonight due to injuries to Ramon Sessions and Omri Casspi.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Sacramento Kings

  • PG – Darren Collison
  • SG – Ben McLemore
  • SF – Rudy Gay
  • PF – Jason Thompson
  • C – DeMarcus Cousins

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Rebounding – The Kings aren’t good at a lot of things, but they are pretty good at rebounding. They grab 44.5 rebounds per game, which is good for 8th in the league. Cousins averages 12.1 boards himself and the trio of power forwards grab 17.5 boards a game between them. If there’s one thing that gives struggling teams momentum, it’s offensive rebounding. The Thunder bigs need to do a good job of boxing out and getting the 50/50 rebounds..

2. Get to the bench – The Kings’ starting 5 accounts for 76.3% of the points the team scores. Two of their top scoring reserves are out for tonight’s game. If the Thunder can get the starters in foul trouble, the Kings may have to use their bench more than they would like.

waiters thunder

3. Dion Waiters – It’s Christmas in January! Newly acquired guard Dion Waiters will be in uniform tonight and available. It will be interesting to see how and where head coach Scott Brooks will use Waiters.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Cleveland Cavaliers preview (Game 68 of 82)

durant deng thunder cavs

  • When: Thursday, 20 March 2014 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH

Part Two of the Russell Westbrook Rest Experiment (RWRE). In Part One, the team looked completely overwhelmed by potential first round opponent Dallas in the game in which Westbrook didn’t play, while looking completely dominant in the game which he did play. It’s too easy to say that the team won simply because Westbrook played. Dallas is an opponent that gives the Thunder problems because of their propensity to score from the outside and because they have a premier score in Dirk Nowitzki. Chicago, on the other hand, lacks both of these traits, which enhances the Thunder’s strengths.

The first game of Part Two of the RWRE sees the Thunder face the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams, with the Cavs taking the first one in Oklahoma City, 114-104. Every season, Cleveland PG Kyrie Irving seems to have at least one “4th quarter explosion” game against the Thunder. Last season, Irving scored 13 points in the final 2:51 of the 4th quarter to turn a 1-point deficit into a 5-point victory for the Cavs. This season, Irving scored 14 of his 31 points in the 4th quarter to turn a 4-point deficit into a 10-point victory. The good thing about tonight’s game: the Thunder don’t have to worry about Irving who is out with a bicep injury.

The Opponent

cleveland cavaliers

Cleveland was supposed to be one of those up and coming teams that made the jump. A lot like the Minnesota Timberwovles, injuries and inconsistent play have derailed any chance the Cavs have of advancing to the playoffs this season. With a record of 26-42, the Cavs are still mathematically alive in the Eastern playoff race, but with less than 20 games to go, will need some help from the teams above them. Complicating matters is the fact that their best player, Kyrie Irving, may be out for the rest of the season with a biceps injury. In his absence, Jarrett Jack, who has been a disappointment this season, will be running point. On the wing, embattled 2nd year guard Dion Waiters can shoot the Cavs into games and shoot them out of them. Up front, Tristan Thompson is a near double double player and Spencer Hawes is one of the better perimeter-minded centers in the league. Anderson Varejao is still one of the better energy players in the league and comes off the bench for the Cavs. Because of injuries to key players (Irving, Luol Deng, CJ Miles), the bench is stretched about as thin as it can get.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Jarrett Jack
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Alonzo Gee
  • PF – Tristan Thompson
  • C – Spencer Hawes

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Interior Match-ups – With the Cavs PF being more of the inside presence and their C being the perimeter-oriented big, it would make sense to start Adams on Thompson and put Ibaka on Hawes. It would probably make more sense to start with a small line-up, and put Ibaka on Thompson and Durant on Hawes. But we know Scott Brooks would never do that as he has to have a classic center and a classic power forward starting every game.

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2. Perimeter defense – This will be the only way the Cavs should keep up in this game. Even if the team decides to sit Westbrook in this game, there should be no reason why the Thunder have trouble against this depleted Cavs team. But if the team plays lackluster perimeter defense and Waiters, Jack, and Hawes all heat up from outside, this could be a repeat of the Dallas or Lakers game.

3. Bench – With a couple lackluster performances behind them, this would be a good game to get some of their mojo back. Maybe Fisher or Lamb can find their stroke again in this game. It only takes one shot to go in.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 58 of 82)

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  • When: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

There is no way that a game in late February should feel like a must-win. But this game almost has that feel. Not necessarily for anything regarding the Thunder’s record or seeding. But more to get the bad taste of the last week out of our collective mouths. A week long All-Star break followed by losses against two top 5 teams in the next week. Thunder nation has not seen a notch in the win column in two whole weeks. Going that long between victories usually involves an offseason for the Thunder.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have an almost Washington Wizards-like relationship with the Thunder. It’s a game that the Thunder should win easily, based on record. But every time Oklahoma City plays Cleveland, it turns into a dog fight with somebody on the opposing team (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, etc) going off. This is the first meeting of the year between these two teams. The teams split the season series last season.

The Opponent

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Due to their streaky nature, Cleveland is an extremely difficult team to gauge. Their record currently stands at 22-36, which puts them 5 games back of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. In their last 15 games, the Cavs have lost 6 games in a row, then won 6 games in a row, and are currently on a 3 game losing streak. Some days they look like they can be righting the ship and other days they look like they should be tanking for a high lottery pick. The Cavs are led by All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving, who is currently averaging 21.2 points, 6.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. His ability to get into the paint is the key to Cleveland’s attack. On the wing, mid-season acquisition Luol Deng has yet to find his footing on this team, and his numbers have dropped since his trade from the Chicago Bulls.  Up front, Tristan Thompson has shown signs of being a double/double machine, but has had trouble with consistency. Spencer Hawes, who was recently picked up from the Philadelphia 76ers, provides a great release valve for the pick and roll attack of Irving. Cleveland’s bench depth will be impacted as Anderson Varejao, CJ Miles, Dion Waiters will all be out with injury.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Kyrie Irving
  • SG – Jarrett Jack
  • SF – Luol Deng
  • PF – Tristan Thompson
  • C – Spencer Hawes

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Small ball – Spencer Hawes is a perimeter oriented center. While Steven Adams may be more mobile than Kendrick Perkins, having to guard a perimeter oriented center completely negates his strengths on the defensive end. The Thunder will probably be best served going small for most of the game and having Durant guard Hawes on the perimeter and having Ibaka guard Thompson on the inside.

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2. Depth – With the Cavs’ depth being decimated by injuries and this being the 2nd night of a back to back, look for the Thunder to get out in transition and try to wear the Cavaliers out. Even if Cleveland keeps it close, this could be a game where they run out of gas late in the fourth quarter.

3. Point guards – More than anything, the Thunder point guards (Westbrook, Derek Fisher, and Reggie Jackson) need to establish themselves defensively. Irving is the only player on the Cavs’ squad that can create his own shot consistently and he has beaten the Thunder in the past.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Cleveland Cavaliers Preview (Game 47 of 82)

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  • When: Saturday, 02 February 2013 at 6:30 PM CST
  • Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH

Apparently the schedule makers thought one game on Oklahoma City was enough, and sent the team back on the road. After blowing out the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies, 106-89, the Oklahoma City Thunder travel to Cleveland to face Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers. Not that the blowout of the Grizzlies wasn’t without controversy. Everyone on the NBA landscape has heard about the eruption of Mount St. Westbrook. My quick reaction to this outburst is that Westbrook needs to look at things in the context that they are occurring. The Thunder were up by 25 points at the time of the incident with Thabo Sefolosha. Instead of barking back and forth at each other for “miscommunications,” that could have been a great opportunity for an ‘in-game’ video session where Sefolosha and Westbrook discuss what are the options if a similar incident occurs in the future. Instead, Westbrook gets taken out of the game earlier than usual and throws a fit which frazzles the team a bit and turns a 25 point lead into a 10 point one. That Westbrook came back into the game in the 4th quarter and performed beautifully is besides the point. Every Thunder fan knows Westbrook is an emotional player, and that emotion is what fuels him and what makes us love him. But in this situation, cooler heads could have prevailed and kept this incident in check.

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These two teams met earlier this season in Oklahoma City, with the Thunder winning it 106-91. The aforementioned Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists to lead the Thunder, while Kevin Durant had 26 points. First time All Star Kyrie Irving led the Cavs in that game with 20 points. The Cavs will look a lot different in this game than they did in the game in OKC. First difference is that C Anderson Varejao won’t play in this game (or the rest of the season for that matter) due to a blood clot. Secondly, the Cavs made the first big trade of the regular season (remember, the Harden trade was before the season), sending Jon Leuer to the Grizzlies for Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, and Josh Selby. Speights has been great in Varejao’s absence, averaging 14 points off the bench for the Cavs in 4 games.

Probable Starters

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Kyrie Irving
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Alonzo Gee
  • PF – Tristan Thompson
  • C – Tyler Zeller

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

Keys to the Game

  1. Russell Westbrook – Any time Westbrook has one of the “those” games, he usually comes back calm and composed in the next one. That’s spells bad news for the Cavaliers. As great of a player as Irving is, he’s not yet strong enough defensively to effectively guard Westbrook. The only one stopping Westbrook in this game is Westbrook. cavsrr_westbrook6_121111_1
  2. Guard the 3-point line – This team loves to shoot 3-pointers. And sometimes, a lot of them go in. The Thunder do an average job of getting back out to the open 3-point shooters and this could be an issue in this game. The dribble penetration ability of Irving and Waiters will suck the defense in and allow shooters (not just of the 3-point variety) to get open looks. imagesCA18KM2S
  3. Turnovers – Young teams feast on turnovers. Its the lifeblood the provokes their transition game. Take care of the ball and your best transition defense is not having to play transition defense at all.

….The More They Remain The Same

Any time something catastrophic happens, people always measure time from that point forward. In the show “Revolution”, everything is measured from the blackout, which is the catastrophic event in the show. Similarly, anytime something shocking happens to a sports team (i.e. trade, injury, retirement, suspension, etc), everything is measured from that time for the immediate future. No matter what they tell you, Clevelanders are still thinking about Lebron and The Decision. It’ll take a nice playoff run or two from Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and the young Cavs to start to erase the time clock from their collective memory. Chicagoans have become quite adept at handling these differentiating time clocks for the past 20 years. They’ve had Michael Jordan’s first retirement, his comeback, his second retirement, and, finally, Derrick Rose’s knee injury. They are just chomping at the bit to start the Derrick Rose comeback timeclock.

The Oklahoma City Thunder experienced something very similar a month ago. On October 27, 2012, the Thunder traded James Harden, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward, and Cole Aldrich to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, 2 future first round picks, and a 2013 2nd round pick. The Thunder were just coming off a trip to the Finals with their young core just coming into its own. They had their world-class scorer in Kevin Durant, their hyper-competitive floor general in Russell Westbrook, their pogo-stick blocking machine in Serge Ibaka, and their “jack of all trades” in James Harden. All under 24 years of age at the time. THIS team was supposed to grow together and contend for the next decade. Instead, after not being able to come to terms on a long term extension, Thunder GM Sam Presti decided to pull the trigger on the trade,  and send Harden to Houston. 

The first thought amongst Thunder fans was how Martin would compare to Harden. The players, while similar in some facets, were completely different in other facets. Both were great shooters who were very adept at drawing fouls when driving to the basket. The major difference between the two players was that Harden was more of a playmaker, while Martin was more of a scorer. That major difference was of chief concern to Thunder fans because Harden was usually the go-between when Durant and Westbrook were on the floor together in the 4th quarter. When Durant and Westbrook were out there on the floor together, teams had an idea on how to guard the duo. But add Harden to that mix, and the floor spaced out like the Red Sea of Moses.  

Basketball skills aside, the primary concern was how this trade would affect the Thunder’s chemistry. This Thunder team was one that had been hardened by its experiences. The struggles of learning how to win followed by the lessons of winning when favored. It was a 180 degree turn that many teams never experience. Many teams have trotted out young talented rosters that have either failed to pan out or were destroyed from within when it was time for contract extensions. The best comparison I have for the Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka Thunder was the late 90’s Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. Eliminate one of the Triplets from that mix, and the Cowboys aren’t winning 3 Super Bowls in four seasons. This is the current dilemma facing the Thunder.

One month in, and the transition has been about as smooth as it can be when changing out key parts. There have been some transitional growing pains, but that is to be expected when a core shattering trade is made 4 days before the start of the regular season. What is important is the Martin seems to be integrating quite nicely into his role as the team’s 6th man. Luckily, the team’s schedule has been home-heavy in this early going with the opponent’s collective win percentage being under .500. On the other hand, against teams with strong playoff pedigrees, such as the Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Celtics, the team has struggled and is 1-3 against those teams. The surprising revelation is that compared to James Harden’s stat line from last season’s first 15 games, you would almost not even notice a difference.

  • Stat                                       Harden (11-12)      I       Martin (12-13)
  • Minutes per game                     30.0                              30.7
  • Points per game                       16.3                              15.9
  • Turnovers per game                  1.8                                 1.8
  • Steals per game                         0.8                                1.3
  • Blocks per game                        0.2                                 0.1
  • Assists per game                       3.1                                 1.8
  • Rebounds per game                  3.9                                 2.7
  • FT Attempts per game               6.5                                 4.6
  • FT Made per game                     5.7                                 4.4
  • FT %                                             86.7%                           94%
  • 3pt FG attempts per game          4.6                                4.9
  • 3pt FG made per game               1.7                                 2.4
  • 3pt FG %                                       36.2%                           50%
  • FG attempts per game                 9.9                                9.9
  • FG made per game                      4.5                                4.6
  • FG %                                              43%                              46%
  • TS %                                               66%                             66.5%
  • eFG %                                            58.2%                          58.3%
  • Thunder Record                            12 – 3                            11 – 4

Other than the difference in assists per game, Harden and Martin have virtually the same offensive stats. Eventually, even the assists may be a wash, as Martin has shown a willingness to become more of a playmaker. People tend to forget that Martin has been the main offensive option on most of the teams that he’s played on and has been given the green light to shoot at will. But, with teammates like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka on the floor, Martin has shown that he can find the open man for an easy bucket or two. 

Defensively, Martin has been a liability, but Harden wasn’t necessarily on his way to being named to any of the All-Defensive Teams. This first half of the season will be one lesson after another for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook have been learning on the fly how to incorporate Martin into their crunch time offense. And Martin has been learning how to be more aggressive as a bench player. Overall, the transition has gone a lot smoother than many Thunder fans had feared. With Harden coming to town on Wednesday with his new team, the cycle seems to have come full circle. The more things change…….