Tag Archives: Finals

Scoreboard Watching (2014 edition)

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If you are a fan of a team, you’re always aware of your team’s games. But, sometimes, if you are wholly invested in one team, you tend to miss what out on what is going on around the rest of the league. Last season, I wrote a similar article concerning the other teams Thunder fans should be looking out for as that season closed (namely the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors). In a vacuum, a fan should only be worried about their team. But, in reality, with playoff positioning and/or draft positioning at stake, watching how other teams perform at the end of the season can add some drama to a point in the season where drama is sometimes lacking. This season, there are 5 teams Thunder fans needs to be paying attention to than can affect their near future.

1. San Antonio Spurs

  • Why it matters: The No. 1 seed in the Western Conference (and in the league) is at stake.
  • Team’s outlook: Currently 59-16 (1st in West), with 4 road games and 3 home games remaining.

Serge Ibaka

This is very reminiscent to what happened last season. This time though, it seems like the Spurs are far enough ahead to not have to worry about the Thunder chasing down the No. 1 seed from behind. The Spurs are currently on a roll, coming into the Thunder game having won 19 in a row, and hold a 4 game lead over the Thunder. With their penchant to rest starters late in the season, the Thunder still have a slight chance to catch the Spurs. But it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Spurs will head into the playoffs with the No. 1 seed in the West. One thing to remember is that if San Antonio does stumble, the Thunder own the tie-breaker over them.

2. Dallas Mavericks

  • Why it matters: The Thunder own the Mavericks’ first round pick if it is outside the Top 20.
  • Team’s outlook: Currently 44-31, (7th in the West) with 5 road games and 2 home games remaining

The Thunder got this draft pick in the Harden deal from Houston. There are two factions when it comes to this pick. Those that want the pick this season (slotted to be in the 21-23 range) and those that want the pick to go all the way until 2018, when it becomes unprotected. It will all depend on if Dallas make the playoffs or not. If they make the playoffs, they’ll be one of the top 10 teams in the league, thus garnering a pick in the 21-30 range, which transfers over to the Thunder. If they don’t make the playoffs, the Mavericks will pick in the lottery and will keep the pick.

The Mavericks are battling with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns for the last two seeds in the Western Conference playoff race. Of the remaining games between the 3 teams, the Mavericks face the harder road with their opponents having a .525 winning percentage combined. But the road will not be easy for either one of the 3 teams because, NEWSFLASH!, they all play in the Western Conference. That being said, the Mavericks had their opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the other two teams, but flubbed an 8 game home stand to the tune of going 4-4. Luckily, all three teams play each other in the final week of the season.

I’m torn as to what I want to do with this pick. Part of me thinks that Thunder GM Sam Presti, with two draft picks late in the first round, could package those to move up a couple slots and get a shooter like Nik Stauskas of Michigan. But part of me also wants to see what happens if this pick actually reaches 2018 unprotected. Unless Dirk Nowitzki goes on Tim Duncan’s offseason training program, I see his effectiveness, and that of the Mavs, steadily going down in these next couple of seasons. And hopefully, they completely bottom out in the 2017-18 season.

3 and 4. Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat

  • Why it matters: The only teams that matter in the Eastern Conference
  • Teams’ Outlooks – With a virtual tie for the Eastern Conference top spot, these two teams meet one last time on April 11th. Indiana currently leads the season series 2-1.

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With a 2.5 game lead over these two teams in the league standings, the Thunder are in control to maintain home court advantage against any of the East’s top teams if they meet in the NBA Finals. The major issue here is whether the Pacers will give Miami a run for their money and make the Eastern Conference Finals somewhat competitive. While Miami has been surging in the last 10 games, going 7-3, the Pacers have been doing the exact opposite, going 7-10 in their last 17 games.

The jump from being a good team to becoming an elite team is the hardest jump to make in the NBA. Not only do you have to start positioning your role players correctly, but your star players have to start taking that next step. For Indiana, a combination of questionable in-season moves and lack of player progression has slightly slowed that progression from good team to elite team. The mid-season trade that sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen has yet to bear fruit. And the mid-season signing of Andrew Bynum can probably be deemed a failure due to a reoccurrence of knee issues for the center. In addition, Paul George and Roy Hibbert have failed to significantly improve from where they were in the beginning of the season. With this recent slide, rumors of infighting and selfishness have begun to sneak into the vernacular that describes the Pacers. The mental aspect of making the jump from a good team to an elite team is the hardest thing for a young team to grasp, and its currently showing with these Pacers.

The reason this matters to the Thunder is because the Western Conference playoffs are going to be a gauntlet. The first round match-ups will be formidable and the series will only get tougher from there. If Miami is able to skip through the East playoffs easily, and get some rest in the process, that could spell trouble for the team that comes out of the West, regardless of who it is.

5. New York Knicks

  • Why it matters: The Denver Nuggets own the Knicks’ pick for this draft
  • Team’s Outlook – Currently 33-43 (8th in the East), with 3 road and 3 home games remaining.

Looking towards the future at division rivals, the team that has the best chance of getting better quickly is the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets suffered a myriad of injuries this season that prevented them from ever making a run at the playoffs. But with many of those players coming back next season and a potential lottery pick, the Nuggets are in position to get back to their winning ways. If the Knicks make the playoffs, their pick moves down to the No. 15 slot. But if the Knicks miss the playoffs, Denver will be slotted to pick in the 7-9 range, while also having the potential of getting a top 3 pick.

Seeding doesn’t seem to affect the Thunder that much. They know they can beat the Spurs in San Antonio, if necessary. Their main goals to finish this season are to stay ahead of the LA Clippers, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers, and to get/remain healthy. As the season rolls to a close, it’ll be interesting to keep a vested interest in these 5 teams, as their outcomes all have the potential of affecting the Thunder in the near future.

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The Stretch: The Thunder’s next 6 games

When the Oklahoma City Thunder were novices to playoff basketball, home court advantage was a must. In their first playoff series against the Lakers in 2010, the only two games the Thunder won in the series were in Oklahoma City, with a third victory being stolen by a Pau Gasol tip-in as time expired in the 4th quarter. The next season, the Thunder rode home court advantage all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the higher seeded, and eventual champions, the Dallas Mavericks. The next season, the Thunder made a repeat trip to the WCF, where the met the higher seeded San Antonio Spurs. Three years worth of playoff experience helped the Thunder weather a 2-0 deficit in the series, and they eventually went on to win the next 4 games (3 of which were in OKC) to make it to the NBA Finals.

The Thunder are experienced enough to not get phased by road playoff games. But getting the highest seed possible is more of a psychological ploy than anything else. The opportunity to not only get the first two games at home, but also the deciding game, if necessary, gives a team a little more confidence moving forward.

Do the Thunder need to get HCA throughout the playoffs? Probably not. But the Thunder aren’t yet to the point where they are willing to sacrifice late season games in order to rest their weary starters. Resting Russell Westbrook is a given due to the delicate nature of his recovery from 3 knee surgeries in an eight month period. Other than Westbrook though, I think the rest of the players are gunning for as a seeding as possible. In order to achieve that, the next 6 games will be extremely pivotal to positioning the Thunder near the top of not only the Western Conference, but also the entire league.

The Thunder were in a similar position last season, with the same cast of characters playing similar parts this season. The Thunder once again trail the Spurs, this time by 2 games. They, of course, will need some help from other teams. The Spurs play 6 games between now and their April 3rd meeting with the Thunder. The combined winning percentage of those 5 team (they play Denver twice in that span) is .482. When you factor the home/road splits compared to where the games are being played (whether in San Antonio or on the road), that percentage jumps up to .495. That’s not an easy stretch for the Spurs.

In that same stretch, the Thunder only play 4 games: a home/road back to back against Denver (tonight) and Dallas. Then they play Sacramento on Friday and Utah on Sunday. That’s basically 4 home games in that stretch, as Dallas is a 50 minute plane ride from OKC and the stands will be peppered with plenty of Thunder fans. The Denver/Dallas B2B will be difficult as both teams attack the Thunder where they are weakest (perimeter defense) and score a lot of points.

Much like last season, focus will be the key word when it comes to this stretch. The team may be on high alert when it comes to the B2B, but then may let their guard down when it comes to the Sacramento and Utah games. The Thunder have a tendency to play down to their opponents, and Utah and Sacramento can give the Thunder problems, if allowed.

 

One major difference between last season and this season is the injuries. Last season’s team was completely intact when it when on its stretch run. The playoffs, of course, were a different story. This season, though, the Thunder will be missing Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins for all of the stretch and likely will be missing Westbrook for some of the stretch. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Westbrook will miss the Denver game and one of the Sacto/Utah games.

Much like last season, the Thunder will get a 3-day break before the Spurs game. And then, they will hit the road for another game the next night, this time against the Houston Rockets. Luckily for the Thunder, it’ll be easy to get up for both of these games. The question is whether Westbrook will be available for both of these games.

If the Spurs stay true to form, they’ll start to rest their core on differing night beginning in April. If the Thunder are able to take the conference lead and maintain, they should be able to repeat what they did last season. And this time, not only is the number one seed in the conference at stake, but also the number one seed heading into the playoffs.

Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 56 of 82)

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  • When: Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

First game out of the shoot after the All-Star break, and we get a prime time match up against our ultimate rivals, the Miami Heat. The story lines heading into this game are a plenty. The first story line is whether Russell Westbrook will return after missing the last 8 weeks due to arthroscopic knee surgery. As of Thursday morning, he was still a game time decision. If Westbrook does return, how will his presence affect the Thunder’s play after they adjusted so well to life without him. Another story line at play is the MVP debate. Kevin Durant was the favorite for the award heading into the All-Star break, but LeBron James decided to launch a “look at me” media campaign and has, once again, entered the narrative for the MVP award.

The Thunder won the only other meeting of the season between these two teams. After falling behind by 18 six minutes into the first quarter, the Thunder went on to outscore the Heat 108-73 the rest of the way. The game was never in doubt for much of the 4th quarter. It was the Thunder’s first victory in the last 7 tries against the Heat, which included Games 2-5 in the 2012 NBA Finals. But, in the end, that victory was just that: a regular season victory. In the grand scheme of things, when all the numbers are put together, that win in Miami will just be one of the many wins for the Thunder in the regular season. Plus, we all know what happened the last time the Thunder won a game against Miami.

The Opponent

bosh james wade heat

The Heat are currently 38-14, which puts them 2 games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. It was during this time last season that the Heat were in the midst of one of the greatest runs in NBA history, winning 37 of their last 39 games, which included 26 in a row. The Heat seem to be raring to put together a similar run to close out this season. They are 11-3 in their last 14 games, and seem to have found some motivation in the successes (threats?) of the Thunder and the Pacers.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Miami Heat

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

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. A Motivated LeBron James – It seems that the Heat may have been pulling a bit of a rope-a-dope in the first half of the season. They rested Dwayne Wade for some games, their role players looked old, and LeBron wasn’t his usual magnificent self. But it appears that they were biding their time for the 2nd half of the season and for the Second Season. All the MVP talk that filled the air in late January/early February was all directed towards Durant. And I think, for the first time in a while, James felt a little bit threatened/disrespected. The greatest usually use the slights as motivation, so it’ll be interesting to see what James does in the game in Oklahoma City.

2. Third Wheels – The key to this match-up has been the 3rd wheels (Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka). After years of inconsistency on the offensive end, Ibaka seems to finally be comfortable in his role as the 3rd option/release valve for both Durant and Westbrook. His 22 points, 8 rebounds effort was part of the reason the Thunder were able to weather the storm early in the first game and finally take over in the second half.

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3. Russ – Will he be back or not? If he is, how will he assimilate to the team? More importantly, how will the team assimilate to him? It’ll be interesting to see how the team (and the team’s psyche) adjusts if Westbrook is indeed playing.

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

lebron james kevin durant thunder heat

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

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

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

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

The Opponent

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

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

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

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

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

perkins brooks thunder

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

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

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

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

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

durant james thunder heat

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

Mike Miller and the Thunder: Monkey Business

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As newly minted free agent Mike Miller continues to ponder which team he’ll play for in the future, the decision, itself, may not have anything to do with basketball. The rumors are that Miller is looking for guaranteed years, a little bit more money, and playing time for a contender. But the answer to the decision of which team Miller plays for may actually lie in something more universal to all people: the ability to own a pet. More specifically, a pet of one’s choosing.

One of the quirks of Miller is that he used to own a Java Macque, which is a type of monkey. Sonny, as the monkey was called, was basically Miller’s first child. He had his own room, wore diapers, and was involved in child-like shenanigans. In a hilarious story, Miller describes how Sonny escaped the house and created a bit of a ruckus in the neighborhood,

“You would always put him in his room, and then we’d lock the door, and then we’d put the dogs out, and then we’d lock the front door. Well, he found out how to unlock doors, unlocked his door, went downstairs, let the dogs in the house and opened the front door. About an hour later we got a call from our neighbors, saying, ‘Your monkey is riding your dogs around the neighborhood.’…I said, ‘C’mon y’all, y’all got to get in the house.”

Unfortunately, Miller had to give Sonny up to a primate sanctuary when he started having his own children. Animals can be very protective/jealous and can pose a risk to small children. But with Miller’s children getting older, he may be thinking about getting a monkey (or any other exotic pet, for that matter) in the future. That may possibly factor into his decision for his future team.

Charlotte Bobcats v Miami Heat

Every state has different laws when it comes to owning primates. Some states out right ban keeping primates as pets. With that in mind, here’s a look at the primate possession laws of the four states whose teams are bidding for Miller’s services. Continue reading Mike Miller and the Thunder: Monkey Business

Oklahoma City Thunder: Ballin’ on a budget

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Growing up, there were two things I was heavily into other than girls: hip-hop and basketball. I grew up in a time when hip-hop was having an internal war within itself. What started off as a rebellious outlet of expression for the poor and struggling turned into an over-expression of opulence and decadence. Hip-hop went from being mostly underground in the 80’s to completely mainstream in the 90’s. That entrance into mainstream pop culture led to many rappers getting rich quick. But as quickly as the money came, it left, leaving many rappers bankrupt and back to where they started.

During this same time period, many of my friends and I were just starting to work. And work means money management, right? Considering I have no idea where my teenage money went, I would say I did a poor job of managing my money. But it’s funny what sticks with you from your teenage years. One of my real good friends, Ryan Rivera, came up with a phrase that still resonates to this day, not only with myself, but also with my team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The phrase was, “Ballin’ on a budget”.

Basically, it’s finding ways to live good without destroying your bank account or credit score. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work. A person wanting to ball on a budget has to have patience and self control. The urge to “keep up with the Joneses” can completely destroy any plan to stay within a budget. Many people in the world live outside of their means in order to put on the face of success. Nice shiny things equates to success in the minds of many. Ballin’ on a budget also takes a lot of work. You can either go to Dillards and pay $80 for a Gucci shirt, or you can bargain hunt at Ross and pay $14.99 for the same or similar looking shirt. The work comes in looking for the right bargain. You almost have to become a hustler to succeed in this venture. Bargain deals may not be sexy, but they’ll get the job done with less overhead.

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It’s the position where the Thunder find themselves at this juncture. With two trips to the Western Conference Finals, one trip to the NBA Finals, and one number 1 seeding in the Western Conference within the last 3 seasons, this team is definitely ballin’. But they’ve been doing it on a budget to this point. Thunder GM Sam Presti has built a championship contending team through great drafting, salary wheelings and dealings, and difficult decision making.

The current collective bargaining agreement has made things a bit difficult for small market teams that are toeing the line between being tax payers and non-tax payers. What was intended to be a punitive rule to defend against overspending by big market teams, has turned into another instance of “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. The Brooklyn Nets have gone into this offseason acting like a cancer patient that just won the lottery screaming YOLO! at everyone he sees. The Nets are projected to pay upwards of $80 million dollars in luxury tax this season, but they have an owner who seems hellbent on winning a title, no matter the cost. The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat have also been consistent payers of the luxury tax for the past 3 seasons.

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This brings up the difficult question: How are small market teams supposed to compete? In a recent interview with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird made no qualms about the state of his team and how it compares to the Oklahoma City Thunder,

“Our owners went out and have done everything they could this year so we could be up close to the tax. We just can’t fight the tax. It’s always going to be a disadvantage for us. I feel bad for Oklahoma. They had a great team and they had to make a trade (James Harden trade). They were right there. But we’re going to have to do the same in the future. We’re always fighting an uphill battle with revenues. But that’s part of who we are. And we do the best we can with what we have.”

The key to competing in sports as a small market is to remain patient and look for the right deals. The goal of a big market team is to win at any cost. But the goal of a small market team is to remain consistently sustainable. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Pacers, and Thunder thrive on being able to compete year in and year out. I believe that’s part of the reason why the Spurs, who have won 4 championships since 1999, have never been able to repeat. They’ve remained consistently great, but have never been able to consistently spend like the bigger market teams to continuously improve their team on a yearly basis with no regard for payroll. There comes a point every couple of seasons where the Spurs have to retool with younger, less expensive players. Eventually those younger players gain the necessary experience to perform in pressure filled moment, but the team suffers in those “learning seasons”.

a thunder

That’s what I call last season for the Thunder. It was a learning season. After the Harden trade, the team didn’t really hit a consistent rhythm until the end of the season. And with all that, they still ended up with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and were probably a Russell Westbrook knee injury away from making it to a 3rd consecutive Western Conference Final. Next season will probably be another learning season, as the bench lost its leading scorer when Kevin Martin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. With many fans clamoring for the Thunder to make a move to replace the scoring lost by Martin’s departure, the team has remained steadfast in trusting the young players they already have. Reggie Jackson showed last year in the playoffs what he is capable of after replacing Westbrook when he went down with his injury. Jeremy Lamb has performed well in Summer League and is expected to be a key contributor off the bench next season. And centers Steven Adams and Daniel Orton have performed surprisingly well in Summer League as rim protectors and, dare I say, offensive threats.

To many, this may seem like a cheap move by the owners of the team. With how good the team looked at the end of the regular season, it seemed like they were a resigned Martin and another bench scorer away from being an even stronger contender than they were when they made it to the Finals. With Martin’s bird rights in hand and the full MLE at their disposal, many thought the Thunder were finally going to jump into the deep end of the pool and join the other tax-paying teams. Instead, they allowed Martin to go to Minnesota in a sign and trade (that netted the Thunder a $6.6 million dollar traded player exception) and haven’t touched any of their available pre-tax cap space, which comes out to about $1.28 million dollars. That’s at least enough to sign someone to the veteran minimum. While the pool of free agents has gotten significantly smaller since July1st, there are still viable players available for the taking. So the question becomes: What are the Thunder waiting for?

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That is where the virtue of patience comes into play. For one thing, it’s only July. Many fans are panicking because of the moves made by other organizations, especially within the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Clippers resigned Chris Paul, traded for Jared Dudley and JJ Reddick, and hired a much better coach in Doc Rivers. The new “it” team, the Houston Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstake and landed a couple other veteran free agents. But, championships aren’t won in July; they are won in June. A team can stack a roster full of great players in July that may amount to nothing more than a first round exit the next April. Secondly, the organization has never said that they won’t pay the tax. They know that to be competitive, you may have to eventually pay the tax. But if you don’t have to pay the tax yet, why pay it? Along with more punitive luxury tax restrictions, the new CBA also instituted a repeater tax for teams that have paid the luxury tax for 3 consecutive seasons. With the escalating salaries of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, the longer you can hold off on being a tax-payer, the more financially competitive you’ll be. And lastly, you still have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. As long as those three guys are healthy, I think the Thunder have a fighter’s chance in any game.

The Thunder aren’t cheap. They’re just smart about how they manage their money. They already have a large percentage of the cap space allotted to the 3 players they deem the most important to the franchise. The reason the Thunder are perceived as cheap, though, is because they never had to “buy” any of those players in free agency. They drafted and developed them, and luckily, they turned out to be superstars. But sometimes, difficult decisions need to be made in order to maintain the financial flexibility that is tantamount to small market team success. That’s what happened in the Harden trade. The Thunder had 4 great players, but couldn’t pay 4 near max to max contracts. Ibaka helped the team by taking what is perceived to be a less than market value contract. Hoping that Harden would do the same, the Thunder drew a line in the sand, and said “here’s our final offer, take it or leave it”. When Harden rejected the offer, the team made the decision to move Harden to Houston. The situation was never a choice between Ibaka or Harden. But to make the numbers work, the team needed Harden to leave some money on the table, and for a young guy heading into his first foray into free agency, he just couldn’t do that.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

Being a money conscious team is not sexy at all. Following a team that is run on the principles of patience and bargain shopping is not for the faint of heart. You watch other teams stack their teams with what you perceive to be good to great players, while you’re constantly having to hope that your players continue to improve in the offseason and that the veteran minimum center you signed actually can play the game of basketball. It’s a tough life, I know. But I wonder how Miami Marlins’ fans really feel about their two championships. The Marlins organization went all in for two runs at a title, and then completely dismantled the team after each title. While the feeling of winning a championship can never be replaced, I wonder what the feeling of watching your championship team be completely dismantled the following offseason feels like. Luckily, I don’t think I’ll ever have to know what that feels like.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 75 of 82)

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  • When: Thursday, 04 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Finally, after such a long wait, we have the first game of the season. Oklahoma City versus San Antonio. After waitin…huh? What? It’s not the first game of the season? It’s only been 4 days since the last Thunder game? Really? Then I really need some help because I’ve gone through the 12 levels of grief, twice!, since the last time the Thunder played. That’s how long it has been. But, thankfully, for the sake of my health and sanity, the Thunder will lace them up tonight in what will probably be one of the most important games of the season.

The fight for the number one seed in the Western Conference probably hinges on what happens tonight. If the Thunder lose, they will be 2.5 games back with 7 to play. Those aren’t insurmountable odds, but the veteran Spurs will figure out ways to rest their starters and win the necessary games to keep the Thunder at bay. If the Thunder win, though, they’ll only be 0.5 games with an opportunity to take the conference lead the next night in Indianapolis. The Thunder, literally, control their own destiny. Not only do the Thunder split the season series between the two teams if they win, but they also own the tie breaker if both teams finish with the same record (W-L record within the conference).

The game is probably of more importance to the Thunder than it is to the Spurs. Even though Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals last season as a lower seed, the dynamics of the team have completely changed since then. The James Harden trade in the beginning of the season completely overhauled one of the strengths of the Thunder, their bench. Though the Thunder’s bench has become increasingly effective as the season has progressed, the ability to play, not only a Game 7, but also the first two games of the series at home can do wonders for the players that come off the bench.

Probable Starting Line-ups

San Antonio Spurs

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

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Weather the runs – San Antonio is one of those teams where a 10 point lead is not large enough unless there are less than 30 seconds left in the game. In the last meeting between these two teams, the Spurs used a 26-8 run in the 2nd quarter that turned an 11 point deficit into a 7 point halftime lead. The Thunder never recovered after that. The Spurs’ 3-point shooting can become infectious, leading to big runs. Using their time outs wisely (Scott Brooks, I’m looking at you) and finding ways to score during these runs will be key to winning this game.

parker

2. Stop Parker’s dribble penetration – I know, easier said than done. But stopping Parker from attacking the paint is key to containing their 3-point shooting. If Parker gets past the first line of defense, then the entire defense sinks into the lane, opening up space for the shooters. It would probably be a good decision to start Thabo Sefolosha on Parker.

spurs-thunder

3. Bench play – One of the Spurs’ biggest strengths is their bench. While injuries to Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili may make the bench less effective, the players that remain, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Nando de Colo, etc, are crafty, efficient players that find ways to score. Look for Ronnie Brewer to play some 2nd quarter minutes to negate the effect of the Spurs’ bench a bit.

New Orleans Hornets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 57 of 82)

Austin Rivers, Robin Lopez, Kendrick Perkins, Russell Westbrook

  • When: Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Home, sweet home. After suffering their first 3-game losing streak since last season’s Finals, the Thunder were looking to rebound with three straight home games. And rebound they have, winning the first two games of the home stand by an average of 23 points. While Kevin Durant continues to be mired in a slight slump, Russell Westbrook has stepped his game up to the tune of 25.1 points, 6.4 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals per game in the month of February, while shooting 50.6% from the field and 45.8% from the 3-point line. Serge Ibaka has also been much more impactful in his play during the home stand which has provided the Thunder with some semblance of a post presence.

Reggie Jackson, Xavier Henry

The Thunder and New Orleans Hornets have met 3 times this season, with OKC coming out on top in the first two games by an average of 18 points. In the third meeting, the Thunder needed a late second half spark from then seldom used point guard Reggie Jackson to come back and win a close game, 92-88. Since that game, Jackson has solidified himself as the back-up point guard for the team, supplanting Eric Maynor.

The Opponent

hornets

The New Orleans Hornets come into the game 20-38 record, good for 13th in the conference. The Hornets are in the midst of a rebuilding project following the Chris Paul/David West years. Statistically, they rank in the bottom half of the league in nearly every category. Offensively, they only score 94.5 points per game (22nd in the league), and defensively, they allow a respectable 97.3 points per game (13th in the league). They are paced by point guard Greivis Vasquez, who is averaging 13.7 points, 9.4 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game. Shooting guard Eric Gordon, oft injured since being acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers last season, has come back in the past 20 games, and is averaging 16.7 points while working his way back from knee surgery. Although Al-Farouq Aminu is given a bad rap as having a low basketball IQ, he is the glue of the team, providing anything from points to boards to defense. Up front, the team depends on rookie Anthony Davis and center Robin Lopez who supply respectable post defense and rebounding. Off the bench, the Hornets are led by stretch power forward Ryan Anderson, one of the premier 3-point shooters in the league. The rest of the bench is inconsistent with rookies Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts being one of the focuses of the rebuilding project.

Probable Starter

New Orleans Hornets

  • PG – Greivis Vasquez
  • SG – Eric Gordon
  • SF – Al-Farouq Aminu
  • PF – Anthony Davis
  • C – Robin Lopez

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Tempo – With this being the 2nd game of a back to back for the Hornets, the Thunder need to push the pace, and get out in transition whenever possible. It’s very surprising that the Hornets, while being a very young team, do not push the tempo. They are very similar to the Memphis Grizzlies in that respect. Also, the 2nd team for the Thunder will be chopping at the bit with new additions Ronnie Brewer and Derek Fisher ready to play in their first game of the season for the Thunder.

brewer fisher

2. Perimeter defense – With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson on the floor, the Hornets have guys that can catch fire quickly from the perimeter. While Lopez and Davis are of some threat to score down low, the Thunder defense does not need to sink in on most possessions to help out.

martin hornets

3. Kevin Martin – For some reason, Martin loves playing against the Hornets. He averages 21 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game against the Hornets, by far, his best statistical team split of the season.

The Thunder and their D-League usage

Rio Grande Vipers v Tulsa 66ers

The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement brought changes to how teams could use their D-League affiliates. As NBADL president Dan Reed said, “The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA. By encouraging more robust use of our league to accelerate the development of NBA players and prospects, over time we believe this agreement will lead to more NBA teams operating their own NBA D-League affiliate, an increased number of NBA players that develop in our league, and an even better in-arena experience for our fans.” In other words, the NBA felt the restrictions placed on player movement from the D-League to the NBA were hindering the D-League’s ability to reach its full potential as a true developmental/minor league for the NBA. 

In the previous CBA, a team could only assign a player to the D-League up to three times per season. This lack of flexibility made it difficult for teams to assign players because the assigned player still counted on their 15 man roster. Normally, a team would assign a player to the D-League and leave them there for a three to five game stints, if not longer. While this allowed for some consistency with the player, it became an issue for the team if they had to recall said player due to injuries on the NBA roster. It didn’t matter whether it was a 1 game stint or a 10 game stint, it still counted as a D-League assignment. In the new CBA, a team has no limit as to how many times it can assign a player with 3 years or less experience in the league.

 This new rule becomes very advantageous to teams that have their own D-League affiliate. Currently, there are 11 teams in the league that have their own D-League team. The rest of the 19 teams have to divide their assigned players amongst the remaining 5 D-League teams. The teams that have their own D-League affiliates are able to run the same system throughout their NBA and minor league teams. This leads to a level of consistency in all facets of the organization. Even though the players may not be the same on either level, the defensive and offensive systems can be consistent throughout. On these 11 teams, players that are shuffled back and forth between the “farm” team and the NBA team don’t have to learn new terminology or new schematics between the different teams. The schema remains the same and the confidence that usually accompanies consistency starts to show through.

darko

 This has been very evident with the Thunder’s young players. Oklahoma City is in strange position of being a contending team with young players to develop. Most contending teams have veteran-laden rosters and don’t have the time to develop young talent. Though the Thunder’s roster is young throughout, the main core is veteran enough, having gone through 3 successive playoff runs that culminated with a loss in the Finals last season. With great players comes the cost of paying these superstar players. The Thunder currently have $54.2 million allotted to its top 5 players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, and Kendrick Perkins). That number jumps up to $54.3 million with Ibaka’s extension kicking in, but that is without Martin, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Assuming that the Thunder re-sign Martin, the Thunder are looking at $60+ million in salary for 5 players next season. The need for cheap labor (rookies and young players) becomes very necessary as a team tries to balance being a contender with balancing the proverbial NBA checkbook.

kd rw

 When you are battling for playoff positioning throughout the season, there aren’t many opportunities to develop young talent. Every game counts when a team is looking to secure home court advantage. A slip up here or there can be the difference between a team playing a deciding game at home or on the road. Non-playoff teams have all the time and patience in the world to develop young talent at an NBA level. The Thunder experienced a little bit of this last season when they were forced to play then rookie guard Reggie Jackson heavy minutes as the back-up point guard after Eric Maynor went down 9 games into the season with a torn ACL. Jackson struggled throughout the season in this role and was relegated to the end of the bench by the end of February after the Thunder signed Derek Fisher. With Maynor back this season, the Thunder have been able to send Jackson back and forth between the D-League and the Thunder.

 One of the advantages of this system is that it allows young players to build their muscle memory and confidence. Athletes, especially basketball players, live off of muscle memory. Muscle memory is defined as a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. An example of muscle memory would be typing. Once you learn where the letters are on the keyboard, you can begin typing at your heart’s content without looking at the keyboard. Basketball involves a lot of fast-twitch muscularity due to the read and react nature of the sport. You see a defender leaning in one direction and you react by driving in the opposite direction in a split second. This type of muscle memory can only be duplicated in in-game settings. During the season, teams cannot scrimmage during every practice to replicate in-game situations. The only way to develop this type of muscle memory is to actually play in the games. If a team is not willing to let its young players develop on the NBA floor, the next best option is in the D-League.

lamb

 That muscle memory is extremely important when a player a called upon to give you 5-6 good minutes in a game. When Jeremy Lamb was put into a game against the Detroit Pistons at the beginning of the season, he played 3 minutes, committed 1 turnover and 2 fouls. He played and looked like every bit of the rookie that he was. But after a couple of games in the D-League in which he averaged 23 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 3.3 apg, Lamb’s number was called again against the Atlanta Hawks. This time, he performed beautifully in his 5 minutes, scoring 5 points, grabbing 1 rebound, and getting 1 steal, all while effectively guarding Josh Smith, who had 5 inches and 40 pounds on him. I can’t definitively state that there is a direct correlation between Lamb’s time in the D-League and his performance in that one game, but the confidence he played with definitely had something do with his time in Tulsa.

jackson

 Reggie Jackson is another one of those players that has benefitted from his time in Tulsa. After providing a spark off the bench in a game versus the New Orleans Hornets as an energy player, Jackson was sent to the D-League for a 2 game stint in which he averaged 32 ppg, 8 rpg, and 7 apg. Jackson logged significant minutes in the game prior to his 2 game stint and then logged 13 minutes in the prime time game against the Miami Heat on Christmas day. While he didn’t come anywhere close to averaging the number he put up in Tulsa in those two games, the confidence he played with shows a maturation to his game. Even more significant in the Miami game is that he played the back-up point guard role, while Maynor received a DNP-CD.

 The Thunder have also been sending rookie Perry Jones III to the D-League, along with 2nd year wingman DeAndre Liggins and 3rd year center Daniel Orton. While these players have yet to have a breakout moment in the NBA this season, the ability to play in the D-League and then practice with the NBA team will only improve the skill-set and their confidence. Jones III’s development is of utmost importance to the Thunder, as his skill set as a tweener forward will give the Thunder a serious weapon in the front court as they move forward. 

jones iii

 Confidence and playing time are two of the most important things in the development of a young player. While NBA teams may not be able to provide the young players with copious amounts of playing time, they can provide them with an avenue (the D-League) to continue developing and improving, all while playing basketball in real game situations. The Thunder hope that the pipeline from Tulsa to OKC will provide them with cheap, young talent that will allow them to maintain their championship contending core.

….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…….