Tag Archives: Dirk Nowitzki

The Three That Will Never Be: The Legacies of Scott Brooks, Kendrick Perkins, and Derek Fisher

ibaka perkins durant fisher thunder

As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.

For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.

What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.

When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Head coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder talks with Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Thunder won 118-112. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).

He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season.  When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.

Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.

In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.

The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.

Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.

There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.

As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.

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Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 75 of 82)

westbrook thunder chandler nowitzki rondo parsons mavericks

  • When: Wednesday, 01 April 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Exactly a week ago, in the preview of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, I wrote that if the Thunder had visions of getting higher than the 8th seed, then that game would be one of the more important ones remaining in the regular season. The Thunder then proceeded to crap the bed in San Antonio (and in Utah two nights later), thus killing any chance the Thunder had of catching the Spurs. But, lo and behold, a week later, the Thunder find themselves in the exact same position. The Thunder currently sit three games back of the Dallas Mavericks with 8 games to play. Win tonight and that number goes down to 2, with Dallas facing a tough schedule in their next 4 games (v. Memphis, Golden State, Phoenix, and @Denver).  While Oklahoma City’s schedule isn’t necessarily a cake walk either, the possibility is there for the Thunder to make up some ground.

This will be the 4th and final meeting of the season between these two cross-state rivals. The Mavericks currently lead the season series 2-1, with each team winning on their respective home floors.

The Opponent

nowitzki jefferson barea parsons mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks come into the game with a 45-29 record, good for 7th in the Western Conference. They boast one of the top offenses in the league (3rd in points per game at 104.1 and 5th in offensive rating), while having a middle of the road defense (21st in opponents’ points per game at 100.9 and 17th in defensive rating). The team has struggled in finding consistency since acquiring Rajon Rondo from Boston on December 20th. Before Rondo, the Mavs were 19-8. Since then, they are just 26-21. Dallas was hoping to get the Rondo that dominated in Boston from 2009-2012. Instead, they’ve gotten the “not fully recovered from knee surgery” version that still believes he’s one of the top point guards in the league. The chemistry between Rondo and back-court mate Monta Ellis has been shaky, at best. From the beginning of the season through January 31st, Ellis averaged 20.5 points per game on 46.1% FG shooting. In February and March, Ellis’ numbers slipped to 16.4 points on 40.2% FG shooting. Some of that could possibly be attributed to a buildup of nagging injuries, but a lot of that has to do with the apparent bad fit of Rondo and Ellis. After struggling a bit in the beginning of the season, Chandler Parsons’ numbers have begun to climb as his role has increased within the flow of the Dallas offense. Even though he’s getting long in the tooth, Dirk Nowitzki is still someone you have to game plan for and not leave open in critical situations. Up front, Tyson Chandler is still churning out double-doubles, averaging 10 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. The Dallas bench is full of crafty vets like JJ Barea, Amar’e Stoudemire, Devin Harris, and Richard Jefferson.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Dallas Mavericks

  • PG – Rajon Rondo
  • SG – Monta Ellis
  • SF – Chandler Parsons
  • PF – Dirk Nowitzki
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Enes Kanter
  • C – Steven Adams

Three Things

1. Defense on Nowitzki – There are three players on the Thunder that can effectively guard Nowitzki. And all three (Kevin Durant, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka) are injured. Hell, the wild card that has been used on stretch 4’s to close out games recently, Andre Roberson, is also on the mend. That leaves the Thunder in a bit of pickle in terms of defending Dirk. Put Kanter or Mitch McGary on him, and the Mavs will either pick and pop him to death on the perimeter or drive around him to the basket.  Adams would probably be the best choice, but putting him on the perimeter can cause problems for the Thunder defense. Perry Jones is too undisciplined and Kyle Singler, who performed admirably against Markieff Morris in the second half of the Suns’ game, would likely be too short. It may turn into a difficult game against Nowitzki.

adams nowitzki thunder mavericks

2. Transition – One thing that usually trumps age is speed. With Westbrook leading the charge, the Thunder should be aiming to get a ton of points in transition. This will keep the Dallas defense off-kilter and will allow Westbrook to not only find openings into the paint, but also find open teammates. We lose this game if Westbrook doesn’t get his assist total into the double digits.

3. Hack-a-Rondo – Thunder coach Scott Brooks has never shied away from using the Hack-a-(player) ploy to try to get back into games. Since arriving in Dallas, Rondo is shooting just 39.4% from the FT line. If the Thunder find themselves in a close game in the 4th quarter, look for them to deploy this tactics on Rondo.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks preview (Game 32 of 82)

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When: Sunday, 28 December 2014 at 6:30 PM CST

Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX

To a point guard, the Western Conference has to feel like a field littered with land mines. At the end of that field, is a championship trophy. But, at every step, you are bound to encounter a detonation. All the land mines come in different sizes with different modes of exploding. And if it wasn’t bad enough, the Dallas Mavericks, who had some of the dullest land mines on the field, went and added another shiny land mine to the field. If this was David Stern’s vision of a handcheck-less NBA, well then, mission accomplished.

This is the first of four meetings between these two teams. The Mavericks won the season series last year 2-1. The first two games weren’t very close, but the third was an overtime game that Dallas eventually won. Because of locale, these games carry a little more meaning than most NBA games around here. It’s almost like the Red River Rivalry of basketball.

The Opponent

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The Dallas Mavericks currently have a 21-10 record, good for 5th in the Western Conference. They sport the best scoring offense in the league at 109.4 points per game and the 2nd best offense in terms of offensive rating. Their current starting line-up is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, in the NBA. The defense, though, is in the bottom third of the league in terms of defensive rating and points allowed. They score a lot, but they also allowed a lot. Leading the Dallas attack is the newly acquired Rajon Rondo. After showing that he had recovered sufficiently enough from an ACL tear from two seasons ago and a hand injury at the beginning of this season, the Mavericks made the move to obtain Rondo from the Celtics. In his first 4 games with Dallas, Rondo is averaging 13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, and 1.8 steals, whiling helping the Mavericks to a 2-2 record in that span. At the other guard, Monta Ellis’ production has seemed to wane since the arrival of Ronda. Ellis was used to being a high-usage guard that could work with the ball in his hands. Now, he’s truly an off-guard playing off the ball. It’ll be interesting to see how that dynamics works itself out. At the forward spot, Chandler Parsons is giving the Mavericks basically the same thing he gave the Houston Rockets in his first 3 seasons there: good perimeter shooting and the ability to drive when covered closely on the perimeter. At the other forward spot, Dirk Nowitzki is a lot like another ageless power forward, Tim Duncan. You think they are going to eventually slow down, but they continue performing at the same level they have for the past 5 seasons, except more efficiently. In the middle, Tyson Chandler provides shot blocking and a great target for the pick and roll. While the Rondo trade may have strengthened the starting unit, it also weakened the bench. Gone are Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, and Jae Crowder. The bench now consists mainly of veterans near the end of their careers: Charlie Villanueva, Devin Harris, and Richard Jefferson.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Dallas Mavericks

PG – Rajon Rondo
SG – Monta Ellis
SF – Chandler Parsons
PF – Dirk Nowitzki
C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

PG – Russell Westbrook
SG – Andre Roberson
SF – Perry Jones
PF – Serge Ibaka
C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – The dribble drive ability of Rondo and Ellis will open up opportunities for Chandler off of pick and rolls and for the bevy of shooters on the perimeter. It will be extremely important for Westbrook, Roberson, and Reggie Jackson to stay in front of their man and prevent any penetration.

2. Transition Opportunities – With the long ball comes long rebounds and transition opportunities. Dallas isn’t necessarily a quick team with stellar athletes, so this may be a phase of the game where the Thunder can take advantage.

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3. Bench – The Thunder bench has taken a bit of a hit lately due to its inconsistent play. With Dallas’ weakened bench, look for the Thunder reserves to assert themselves early in this game.

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

Southwest Divison

1. San Antonio Spurs

spurs championship 2014

Last season: 62-20 (1st in the Southwest Division, 1st in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy after Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • Kyle Anderson – Draft (No. 30 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Aron Baynes – Unsigned

Season Preview – Everyone keeps waiting for the Spurs to age, but every year, they come back wiser and better. The reigning NBA champs come back with the entire team basically intact. While chemistry won’t be an issue, a couple of the main players are coming back from injury. Manu Ginobili spent most of the offseason nursing a stress fracture in his leg and Patty Mills had rotator cuff surgery that will keep him out half the season. But as is the Spurs, they will turn that into a positive as Mills will be very well rested when the playoffs start next April.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Spurs repeat as champions

Projected 2014-15 Record: 59-23

2. Memphis Grizzlies

prince gasol allen conley randolph grizzlies

Last season: 50-32 (3rd in the Southwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder

Key Additions:

  • Jordan Adams – Draft (No. 22 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Vince Carter – Free agent signing
  • Jarnell Stokes – Draft (No. 35 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Jamaal Franklin – Waived
  • Ed Davis – Signed with the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Mike Miller – Signed with the Chicago Bulls
  • James Johnson – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – The Grizzlies have slowly put together a balanced team that doesn’t entirely depend on the post play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The additions of Jordan Adams and Vince Carter, and the return of Quincy Pondexter from injury should help spread the floor for the big man duo to operate a little easier in the interior. Mike Conley remains one of the more underrated floor generals in the league and Tony Allen is still a premier defensive menace, as we saw in last season’s playoff series against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Grizzlies make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 54-28

3. Dallas Mavericks

nowitzki ellis mavericks

Last season: 49-33 (4th in the Southwest Division, 8th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Al Farouq Aminu – Signed free agent
  • Tyson Chandler – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Raymond Felton – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Richard Jefferson – Signed free agent
  • Ivan Johnson – Signed free agent
  • Jameer Nelson – Signed free agent
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed free agent
  • Greg Smith – Obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bulls

Key Departures:

  • Jose Calderon – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shane Larkin – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shawn Marion – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Samuel Dalembert – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Vince Carter – Signed with the Memphis Grizzlies
  • DeJuan Blair – Sign and traded to the Washington Wizards

Season Preview – Other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Mavericks probably had the most player movement of any team in the leauge. The team that took the eventual champs to 7 games in the first round, got their defensive stopper in the lane (Chandler), and got an up-and-coming star in Chandler Parsons. The Mavs should be a little better balanced defensively, but that all depends on the health of Chandler. If he misses a big chunk of the season (15-20+ games), the Mavericks could be in trouble defensively. The point guard position is also a question mark, as each of the three possibilities (Felton, Nelson, and Devin Harris) have been starters in the past, but also have glaring weaknesses.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Mavs make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 53-29

4. Houston Rockets

harden howard rockets

Last season: 54-28 (2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers

Key Additions:

  • Jeff Adrien – Free agent signing
  • Trevor Ariza – Free agent signing
  • Clint Capela – Draft (No. 25 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jason Terry – Obtained in a trade with the Sacramento Kings
  • Joey Dorsey – Free agent signing
  • Ish Smith – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Jeremy Lin – Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Omer Asik – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Jordan Hamilton – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – After striking gold in the last two offseasons, Rockets GM Daryl Morey hit a rough patch this offseason. He traded away 2 of this team’s top 5 players (Asik and Lin) for basically nothing, and failed to resign Parsons, even though the Rockets held his Bird Rights. The reasons they made these moves was an “all in” attempt at either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. By the time those two players had re-signed with their respective teams, the damage had already been done to the Rockets’ roster. The Rockets salvaged a little life this offseason by signing Trevor Ariza. The Rockets will still win games due to the talent of James Harden and Dwight Howard. But depth will be an issue, and any injury to any of the major players on the Rockets will be a huge blow to the team’s playoff chances.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Rockets make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

5. New Orleans Pelicans

Jrue Holiday, Tony Wroten, Anthony Davis

Last season: 34-48 (5th in the Southwest Division, 12th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Omer Asik – Obtained in a trade with the Houston Rockets
  • Jimmer Fredette – Free agent signing
  • John Salmons – Free agent signing
  • Russ Smith – Draft (No. 47 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Patric Young – Rookie free agent signing (Undrafted)

Key Departures:

  • Al-Farouq Aminu – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Greg Stiemsma – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
  • Jason Smith – Signed with the New York Knicks
  • Anthony Morrow – Signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Brian Roberts – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – After a great showing in the FIBA World Cup, Anthony Davis is ready to finally take his team to another level. The acquisition of Asik will allow Davis to play his natural position of power forward. On the outside, Ryan Anderson returns from neck surgery and should help space the floor for Davis and Jrue Holiday to operate. The depth of this team is worrisome, and if the injury bug hits again, they could once again struggle to stay above water.

2014-15 will be succesful if: The Pelican make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 42-40

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Dallas Mavericks preview (Game 71 of 82)

durant nowitzki thunder mavs

  • When: Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX

There’s a couple different ways to look at this game:

1. The Thunder will be out for revenge. In their previous meeting, the Mavericks humbled the Thunder, in Oklahoma City, to the tune of a 23 point drubbing, 109-86. That was the beginning of the Russell Westbrook Rest Experiment (RWRE). The Thunder came out a little flat and never recovered from a bad start. The Thunder were down three starters and the 3’s kept falling for the Mavericks (13-24 3pt FG, 54.2%). Needless to say, it was one of the worst losses at home since the team became a playoff contender 4 seasons ago. This time around, though, they have Russell Westbrook in tow and a little momentum gained from a 4 game winning streak.

2. The Mavericks are fighting for their playoff lives. The Mavs were given one of the greatest gifts afforded to a team looking to secure one of the final spots in the playoffs: an 8-game home stand. They are 2-2 through the first 4 games and have slipped down to the 9th spot by virtue of a tie-breaker with Phoenix. If the Thunder come out flat-flooted, they may just run into a desperate animal needing to win as many games as possible to secure a playoff seed.

3. The Thunder are fighting for their own playoff seeding. A lot like last season the Thunder find themselves behind the Spurs with about 12 games to play. They have one more meeting with the Spurs in early April at home. If the Thunder could position themselves to be a game behind the Spurs when the meet on April 3rd, then they could take over first place, not only in the Western Conference, but also for the entire playoff run if they make it to the Finals. OKC already owns the tie-breaker by virtue of winning the first 2 games against the Spurs this season and San Antonio has a tendency to rest its players the final month of the season.

The Opponent

calderon marion nowitzki ellis mavericks

The Mavericks currently find themselves outside of the playoff race in the Western Conference with the same record as the 8th seeded Phoenix Suns, at 42-29. Phoenix owns the tie-breaker by virtue of having the better conference record. The Mavs are a good offensive team, scoring 104.6 points a game, but rank near the bottom third of the league in terms of opponent’s points per game, allowing 102.3. In their current home stand, the Mavs are 2-2, with defense being the main culprit. In the 2 wins, they only allow 97.5 points per game, while in the 2 losses, they’ve allowed 115 points per game. Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis do the heavy lifting on the offense, but Jose Calderon is the one who sets it in motion. Calderon, who took a hit to the face that limited him to one minute in their last game, will play in this game. The Mavs boast a veteran-laden bench that can give teams fits with players like Devin Harris, Vince Carter, and Brandan Wright.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Dallas Mavericks

  • PG – Jose Calderon
  • SG – Monta Ellis
  • SF – Shawn Marion
  • PF – Dirk Nowitzki
  • C – Samuel Dalembert

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 – Anytime the Thunder made a push in the last game, the Mavs usually answered with a 3-pointer to keep the Thunder at bay. The Thunder allowed the Mavs to shoot over 50% from 3-point territory in the last game, which would make it difficult for any team to win.

2. Bench help – While the Thunder bench was a bit muted in the last game by injuries, there should be no reason why the Mavs’ bench outscored the Thunder bench by 16 (38-22). The Thunder will face more of the same tonight, with Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins still out. Having Reggie Jackson back in his familiar 6th man role should help the bench unit out.

lamb jackson lillard thunder trailblazers

3. Russ’ knee – The MRI performed on Saturday revealed no further damage to Westbrook’s right knee. That’s the good news. But we are kind heading into unchartered territory as a fan base where we grimace every time Russell takes a tumble or grimaces in pain. Here’s to hoping he suffers no further scares the rest of the season (regular and post).

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.

hawes ibaka cavs thunder

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.

Crazy Uncle Perk

perk

We, as fans, sometimes view players as objects of entertainment. We look to them as visual and emotional toys that we unwrap every October, and hope to play with through June. When they no longer entertain us or completely frustrate us, they become highly expendable in our minds. We get on blogs and forums and completely blame that player for everything that is wrong with the team. It doesn’t matter whether the team is the best in the league or the worst in the league, there’s always that one player that catches the ire of most of the fanbase. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that they are humans too.  

There has developed a sort of love-hate relationship between Thunder fans and center Kendrick Perkins in the last couple of weeks. None of it is due to anything personal. For all intents and purposes, Perkins seems like an affable guy who is completely devoted to his family. A big extended family that includes his nuclear family and his Thunder fam. Some players talk about their team being a family, when, in reality, family just means people that they have to deal with for 6-9 months out of the year. Some players, though, really do live by the “team is family” creed, inviting teammates to their house and generally, trying to bond with them throughout the season, and sometimes, even after the season.   

As a team, the Oklahoma City Thunder are very family oriented. The leaders on the team adhere to this concept as does the organization as a whole. The foundational culture of the team is rooted in family. And included in that family, is the entire fan base. We, as fans, are all invested in the same cause, but at different ends of the spectrum. The players are the performers and the fans are the audience. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the family concept is a two way street. We, as fans, expect for the team to acknowledge us, either through charity work, through team interviews, or through slogans, such as “Team is One”. We expect players to sign autographs for us at all hours of the day, wherever we see them. But, the sad truth is that fans do a bad job of picking players up when they aren’t providing what we expect of them.   

team is one

Family means different things to different people. To me, family is the group of people you are born/raised into and the people you accept into your circle. It’s a set of people whom you accept and can depend on through the good and the bad. And as a sports family, we’ve accepted the Oklahoma City Thunder into our family. They are interwoven into our fabric from October through June. We have Thunder watch parties, talk about the team around the dinner table, and talk about the people in the organization like they reciprocate talking about us at their dinner tables.

Family dynamics are a difficult part of co-existing as a family. Not everyone is going to get along the same all the time. But if a family is to co-exist, they have to accept the good and the bad of a member and go with it. For example, every family has that one family member. You know, the black sheep that’s kind of an outcast and rough around the edges. Its usually an uncle. They may have either served some time in jail or have a short temper. And they usually have drama with a wife, ex-wife, girlfriend, or baby momma (or a combination of all four) that spills over into family events. And when something goes down involving a bar, a fight, and a woman, you know Uncle was involved. But here’s the thing about Uncle, though. He’s full of wisdom and has a great ear for listening. And, he’s great at some sort of handy work, usually mechanics or carpentry. And when you need him, he’s always there, no questions asked.

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Well, that Uncle is Kendrick Perkins. He’s a little rough around the edges with the scowl and the intimidation. He’s probably on the naughty list of most of his opponents. And, he’s had some injury issues in the past. But when we need him to guard a Dwight Howard or a Marc Gasol, he’s there with his hard hat on, no questions asked. When we needed him to play through a torn groin and a wrist that needed to be surgically repaired, he gutted it out and performed beautifully. When his young teammates need an ear to vent to, he’s there to listen with some Southern drawl wisdom to accompany it. Whenever we need Perk, he’s there. And yet, when he is used incorrectly, or he doesn’t perform to our standards, we chastise him and await his presence with a pink slip in our hands.

If comparing Perkins to a family member doesn’t help you see his value, let me give you some tangible evidence versus some of the top centers in the game:  

Before Perkins 

green nenad

  • 2009-10 – including playoffs vs. Bynum (LAL), Howard (Orl), Perkins (Bos), Duncan (SA), M.Gasol (Mem), and Nene (Den) – 9-16 
  • 2010 thru Feb 23, 2011 – vs. Duncan (SA), Bynum (LAL), M.Gasol (Mem), and Nene (Den) – 2-6 

With Perkins 

  • March 14, 2011 – end of season (including playoff) vs. Bynum (LAL), Jefferson (UTA), Nene (Den), and D. Jordan (LAC) – 13 – 6 
  • 2011 – 2012 – 66 game season including playoffs vs. Bynum (LAL), Howard (Orl), M.Gasol (Mem), Duncan (SA), Jefferson (Uta), and D. Jordan (LAC) – 19 – 11  
  • 2012 – through the New Year 2013 – vs. Howard (LAL), M.Gasol (Mem), Duncan (SA), D.Jordan (LAC), and Jefferson (Uta) – 4 – 2

Excluding the first season the Thunder were in Oklahoma City, the team went 11 – 22 against top tier centers in the league before the arrival of Perkins. That’s a .333 winning percentage. After the arrival of Perkins, the team has gone 36 – 19 against top tier centers. That’s a .655 winning percentage. Looking at the raw data, Perkins has nearly doubled the chances of the Thunder winning versus a team with a top tier center.

nba_u_randolph-perkins01_576

Understandably, the correlation is not one to one. The players around Perkins have gotten better as they have aged. But the Thunder doesn’t improve as quickly as it has without that rock in the middle. And there is no way the Thunder make it to the Finals last season without Perkins manning the middle. The defensive job he did on Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum, and Tim Duncan was a big reason the Thunder were Western Conference Champions. While his performance against the Heat in the Finals exposed his flaws, it wasn’t like he was put in a position to succeed by Coach Scott Brooks, either. Brooks needs to understand that against smaller, quicker teams, Perkins’s strengths will be negated. Conversely, Perkins needs to understand that against these teams, he may have to sit more time than usual. But that’s the thing about those crazy uncles. They are usually stubborn as a mule.

The Thunder and the 2nd Seed

With San Antonio’s win over the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder were assured of the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. While it is disappointing that they stumbled in the last month of the season to fall to the 2nd spot, the fact still remains that this is progression in a positive direction. Three seasons ago they were challenging to become the worst team in league history. Two seasons ago they were a surprise 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to 6 games in their 1st round matchup. And last season they were the 4th seed and made it to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual champs, the Dallas Mavericks. Progression from here on out will be measured by what happens in the playoffs.

Now that the Thunder are set in their playoff seeding, it is time to look ahead and see how they match up with their potential opponents, both of whom are very familiar to the Thunder. The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are both battling for the 6th seed. The Nuggets hold a ½ game lead over the Mavericks and have 2 games remaining, the first of which is against the Thunder, and the last of which is against the “nothing to lose” Minnesota Timberwolves. The Mavericks have one game remaining, on the road, against the Atlanta Hawks, who may still be battling the Orlando Magic for seeding. The Mavericks hold the tie breaker if the teams finish with identical records.

Denver

The Denver Nuggets have become the Thunder’s regular whipping boys these last two seasons. Including the playoffs, the Thunder are 9-2 in the teams’ last 11 meetings. When these two teams meet, points will definitely be scored as it features 2 of the top 3 scoring teams in the league. The Thunder’s rate of success against this team is surprising because the Nuggets have a deep collection of talent at all positions. They feature 6 players that average double figures and 4 other players that average at least 8.6 points per game. That’s 10 players that average at least 8 points per game! The crux to all the scoring, though, is that no one on the team averages more than 16.3 points per game. In crunch time, this team lacks a clearly defined offensive star to score that necessary bucket.

Defensively, the Nuggets are the 3rd worst team in the league, allowing 101.2 points per game. They are a lot like the SSOL (Seven Seconds Or Less) Suns of the early 00’s, focusing a lot of their energy on transition opportunities and increased offensive usage. With the acquisition of Javale McGee and the increased playing time of rookie Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets have become even more of a transition team. But when the Nuggets play another offensively potent team that plays good defense, such as the Thunder, the Nuggets eventually run out of gas in the 4th quarter. That’s been their M.O. in most games that they play against the Thunder.

Dallas

The defending champion Mavericks are a bit of an enigma this season. They lost their defensive anchor (Tyson Chandler), their offensive sparkplug off the bench (JJ Barea), and had a failed offseason acquisition (Lamar Odom). They have been consistently inconsistent this entire season, alternating winning streaks with losing streaks. The Mavs ended the Thunder’s season last year in the Western Conference Finals, defeating them in 5 games. This season has been a different story, though, with the Thunder winning the season series 3-1.

The Mavericks are still led by Dirk Nowitzki, but his scoring average has dipped this season from 23 points per game to 21.6 points per game. A lot of their core is a year older and a step slower. The young players (Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, and Brendan Wright) are just now getting their feet wet and are playoff neophytes. This team is middle of the road in nearly every statistical category, but still has enough championship moxie to be considered dangerous. The defense has suffered with the departure of Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson, but is still in the top half of the league, allowing only 94.7 points per game.

So who do the Thunder want to face? They already dominated the Nuggets in the playoffs last season, and have continued that trend into this season. They were beat by the Mavs in 5 games last postseason, but held the lead in the 4th quarter in 3 of the 5 games, and have dominated the season series this year. Will we see a different Mavs team emerge in the playoffs? Will they be similar to the 1995 Houston Rockets team that won their second championship in a row as a 6th seed? The answer to both those question, in my opinion, is no. The Mavs team is a shell of what it was last season. They are building for the future (ahem, Deron Williams, ahem) by sacrificing a year of their present. The Thunder finish off both of these teams in 6 games tops. The real question becomes, who do the Mavs or Nuggets want to face; the Thunder or the Lakers?

Let’s Not Get All Defensive Now

In remembering these past 2 weeks, and watching the first 6 minutes of the first quarter in the Phoenix game, I’m reminded that, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder are athletically superior to most teams, their defense will be the tell-tale sign whether they reach glorious heights this postseason. A lot of the defensive breakdowns they had last season, are back again this season. The cast of characters is the same, so the fact that improvements have not been made, is really worrisome for their future postseason success.

 Two seasons ago, when the Thunder had Ron Adams as an assistant coach, they were near the top of the league in defensive efficiency and used that to propel them to the postseason for the first team since moving to Oklahoma City. Since Adam’s departure after that postseason, there has been a lack of defensive focus that is being masked and hidden by the team’s improved offensive efficiency. When the team struggles offensively, this lack of defensive focus can have adverse effects on the Thunder’s ability to win, especially in the playoffs.

The thing about defensive breakdowns is that they are usually a combination of several defensive breakdowns in one series. It’s not just one play in a possession that causes this. It’s usually a chain reaction of defensive lapses. The first thing the Thunder struggle with is their pick-n-roll defense. The Thunder guards, Russell Westbrook, in particular, have a tendency to go over the pick, instead of fighting through it to stay in front of their man. The problem with this is if the big man doesn’t hedge over a bit, the opposing guard just blows right by them and past their primary defender.

It’s a play like this where you have to know your opponent’s tendencies. If the scenario is guarding a slower guard (i.e. Jason Kidd or Mike Conley), then the Thunder guard can go over the screen as there is no threat of a blow-by. The only threat is if the guard is a competent 3-point shooter. The big man in this situation has to know who he is guarding and decide whether to hedge or stay with his man. In this case, if we are talking about Dirk Nowitzki or Zach Randolph, then it would probably be best for the defending big man to stay on his man.

If the situation is changed to a speedier guard, such as Ty Lawson or Tony Parker, then the big will have to hedge to allow the defending guard a chance to stay in front of his man. The worst thing that can happen in this situation is a switch, where the big is guarding a speedy guard, and the defending guard is on the offensive big. This opens up a ton of options for the offense and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

The primary goal of the pick-n-roll is to allow movement towards the rim. But, against the Thunder, this is also achieved through dribble penetration. When he was drafted out of UCLA, Russell Westbrook was advertised as a defensive guard, having just won Pac-10 defensive player of the year. But what worked in college (gambling on steals, using other-worldly athleticism to pressure opponents) hasn’t worked quite as well in the NBA where the world’s best basketball players play. A lot of what makes defense work is where you are positioned. If you are not in the correct defensive position, an NBA player will blow by you in a heartbeat.

Where Thabo Sefolosha is more of a technical defender, using his length to make the opposition adjust their play, Westbrook is more an instinctual defender, always trying to go after the steal. But don’t mistake steals for good defense. When you constantly gamble for steals, you put pressure on the rest of the defense to play 4 on 5 defensively. Eventually, the open man will be located, and its usually on the 3-point line or for an easy bucket.

This, then leads to the next defensive issue for the Thunder, which is closing out shooters. After the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and the insertion of Serge Ibaka into the starting lineup last season, the Thunder went from squishy soft interior presence to hardcore interior presence. One would surmise, with that kind of support in the interior (to also include Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed), the Thunder wings would trust their bigs more and not sink in every time the ball gets into the paint. Instead, it’s become commonplace for the entire defense to sag into the paint when a breach occurs which leads to wide open three point shots. Teams like San Antonio and Dallas feast on this and always give the Thunder problems.

Once the defense has been breached and the ball is in the paint, then the advantage goes to the offense. When big men have to move around, it takes them out of their comfort zone. Our big men like to battle until the shot goes up and then box out for a rebound. But if ball is penetrated into the paint, then the bigs have to move around to defend the paint. Even with Ibaka leading the league in blocked shots, this still puts the defense at a disadvantage. If Ibaka leaves his man and whiffs on a blocked shot attempt, then his man is in position for the offensive rebound and put back. Much like steals, blocked shot don’t automatically equate to good defense. But if you are going to have Ibaka play free safety in the paint, then KD needs to slide down on defense and help out on the boards. While it may seem like this has been happening, as evidenced by Durant averaging a career high 7.9 rebounds per game, it also needs to be taken into account that the Thunder have played a lot more small ball with Durant at the 4 this season.

The most important issue with the Thunder’s lack of defensive intensity is their will. A lot of their deficiencies can be overcome by focusing more on the defensive end and working smarter. Ron Adams may have been a great defensive strategist. But even more important was that he held the players accountable for their actions on the defensive end. Once he left, there was a general sense of apathy concerning smart defensive basketball. The Thunder were content with just being good enough defensively and letting their athleticism dictate their defensive schemes. This is especially evident in the 4th quarter of close games. When the Thunder are focused, they can play great defensively and use that close out games.

It’s not all bad though. Due to their athleticism, length, and youth, the Thunder are one of the better teams at defending the fast break. They are constantly stifling transition opportunities for the opposition and cause a good number of turnovers defending the fast break. As we saw in the 4 game stretch from March 25th thru April 1st, where the Thunder played the Heat, Trailblazers, Lakers, and Bulls, the Thunder can put together a string of great defensive games. The question becomes, will that translate to the playoffs?

Now It Feels Real

01 November 2011

Dear NBA (Players, Owners, David Stern, Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher, Adam Silver, et al.),

What the hell is going on? It’s November 1st and I am not watching NBA Basketball. I should be watching the on-going rivalry between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers. I should be watching Dirk Nowitzki and the world champion Dallas Mavericks receive their well deserved championship rings during what was sure to be a raucous ring ceremony at home. Instead, I’ll probably go home and watch the new episodes of NCIS and NCIS:Los Angeles that I DVR’ed.

For the past 4 months we’ve been hearing about the lockout. BRI this. 50/50 split that. System issues. Hard caps. Soft caps. Flex caps. Decertification. Amnesty. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I feel that, in that time, I have actually become pretty proficient in labor law. I’ve explained the lockout to numerous people and have sounded more and more knowledgeable everytime I explain it. But its always felt like I was reading up on something that wasn’t real. Like I was reading a Hitchcock novel or something. You read it. You begin to gain some insight. But you never really process it as real. Well, I checked the future schedule for TNT, and it didn’t have any NBA basketball games on. It has officially become real.

So, there you go NBA. On a night where I, and most basketball fans (hardcore or fair-weather), should have been glued to our TV sets watching these 2 great games (plus one other game that we would’ve gotten on the free, beginning of the season preview of NBA League Pass), we are instead looking for alternatives. Tonight was the perfect night for an opener. No meaningful football games. The hype over LSU/Alabama still has not reached a frenzied state. The World Series is over. And I still can’t find a hockey game on cable or satellite TV to save my life. You had the slate all to yourselves……….and you blew it. You literally puked all over yourself in front of your hot prom date. Ben Stiller’s teenage character on ‘Something About Mary’ is literally laughing at how bad you blew it, and we know what he did to himself on prom night.

Let’s take a look at 10 storylines that would have dominated on Tuesday, November 1st 2011:

1. Dallas receiving their championship rings in their home/NBA opener with Mark Cuban hugging David Stern.

2. Will the Bulls continue their torrid run that began in the 2nd half of last season?

3. How will MVP Derrick Rose improve upon last season?

4. After years of epic playoff failure, how did Dirk Nowitzki spend this offseason. (He usually retreats back to Germany and engages in soul-searching.)

5. Will this be the year that age will finally begin to affect Kobe’s game, or will he find new ways to dominate? (On a related note, how will his new German-engineered plasma help his game?)

6. Can the Lakers get back on top for one final dynastic run?

7. Can the Thunder finally break-through and take the West?

8. Can Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook play their games and succeed on the same team?

9. How has KD, through his streetball tour offseason, improved his game.

10. How will a completely healthy Kendrick Perkins help the Thunder?

11. How will the rebuilding Jazz look, with rookies Alec Burk and Enes Kanter being the new faces in town?

12. The awesomeness of seeing “World Peace” on the back of someone’s jersey…..especially when that someone is crazy Uncle Ron-Ron.

13. Bonus – How did Hasheem Thabeet perform?

That’s 13 story lines about 3 games on a Tuesday night. A TUESDAY NIGHT, for goodness sakes! What other awesome thing is there to do on a Tuesday night? I’m a basketball junkie, so I’ll come back whenever it does. But, those fringe fans (the ones that actually debate whether to watch the game or Dancing With The Stars), those are the fans that the NBA will continue to lose as we move forward in this lockout. I should have been watching my team play their rivals this evening. Instead, I’m reading an article about Kevin Durant and Lebron James planning an exhibition flag football game, while watching NCIS. This is not how I envisioned my Novemeber 1st evening when the schedule first came out in mid-July. Gentlemen, we have our first real casualty of this fight. Let’s end this and bring peace to the land.

Signed,

A fan (not that you care that much)