Tag Archives: Heat

Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview (Game 53 of 82)

okc miami

  • When: Thursday, 14 February 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

This game brings to it a sense of deja vu. The last time the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Miami Heat, the Thunder were coming off a loss. The Thunder ended up losing that game to the Heat on Christmas day for their only consecutive game losing streak of the season. This time the Thunder are coming off a loss to the Utah Jazz, and would love nothing more than to get a victory against last season’s Finals opponent before heading into the All-Star break. Remember, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has to swallow the bitter pill of playing with Lebron James in the Olympics after their NBA Finals loss. The last thing they want is to lose to Lebron and the Heat again, when they’ll probably have to link up for NBA-related activities during the All-Star break.

In their last meeting, the Thunder and Heat played in a game that met expectation. While the Heat held the lead for most of the 4th quarter, the game was tight with Durant and Westbrook both having chances to tie the game in the closing seconds. The main characters performed well, with Durant and Westbrook leading the Thunder with 33 and 21 points, respectively, and James and Dwayne Wade leading the Heat with 29 and 21 points, respectively. The main difference were the role players, where Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka each had 15 points for the Thunder, while Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers had 21 and 20, respectively, for the Heat.

The Opponent

miami heat starting 5

The Miami Heat come into the game with a 35-14 record, good for 1st in the Eastern Conference. They are currently riding a 6-game winning streak. Their offense is top-5 in the league (103.1 ppg, 5th in the league) and their scoring defense is in the top half of the league (96.7 ppg allowed, 12th in the league). The Heat are led by all-world forward Lebron James, who is having one of the best seasons the league has ever seen. He is leading the Heat in 4 statistical categories (scoring, rebounds, assists, and steals), while leading the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (PER). The backcourt consists of Mario Chalmers and All-Star Dwayne Wade, who is also having a great season, averaging 21 points, nearly 5 rebound, and nearly 5 assists per game.  The front court consists of rugged PF Udonis Haslem and All-Star Chris Bosh. The bench is full of 3-point shooters (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Mike Miller) and the recently signed Chris Andersen.

Probable Starters

Miami Heat

  • PG – Mario Chalmers
  • SG – Dwayne Wade
  • SF – Lebron James
  • PF – Udonis Haslem
  • 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

  • Perimeter Defense – Its the rock and the hard place that defenses face when they play the Miami Heat. Do you allow James and Wade to penetrate into the lane, but stay home on the shooters? Or do you collapse the defense to protect the paint, while exposing yourself on the perimeter? The Thunder always seem to get burned a one of the Heat’s role players (Battier in the Finals, Miller in Game 5, Chalmers in the Christmas game) on the perimeter. rebound
  • Rebounding – The Heat are last in the league in rebounding at 38.7 rebounds per game, which is completely unheard of for a championship contender. The Thunder bigs need to control the paint and not allow the Heat to get extra opportunities on offense. Kevin Durant needs to slide down and help out on the glass, especially when he is playing the 4, which I feel will be often in this game. brooks2
  • Scott Brooks and match-ups – This is probably one of the biggest subplots in the game. The Heat don’t play a tradition center (big, always in the paint, post presence). This negates the effectiveness of Kendrick Perkins, but Brooks always seems to have Perkins out on the floor when the Heat are playing small (usually in the 4th quarter). Will Brooks switch it up this time, or will he stay with the same defensive line-up when the Heat go small? Also, who guards Lebron James? Do you put KD on Lebron and risk Durant being in foul trouble? Or do you go with Sefolosha or Liggins? Whatever the decision is, it will probably a case of picking your poison.
Advertisements

A BIG Thank You

Throughout my lifetime as an NBA fan, I’ve never anticipated an NBA season more than I did this one. I, honestly, don’t know the reason why, though. Maybe it was the fact that the team I am civically connected to was a title contender. Maybe it was an appreciation of an NBA season almost lost. Maybe it was the fact that I was more intimately involved in the game this season than any other season. Or it maybe it was a combination of all of those things. Whatever the reason, the anticipation of the season was well conceived as it turned out to be the greatest season I have ever witnessed personally. 

Now, when I say personally, I specifically mean me. You may have a differing opinion on the greatness of this season, especially if you are a fan of the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, or San Antonio Spurs. Conversely, the fans of the Miami Heat probably loved this season, also. To each their own, I guess. But the one theme that made this season stick out more than any other was FAMILY. Not just my immediate family, but also the families I became a part of throughout the season. 

It’s a funny thing about families. Sometimes we are born into them, sometimes we marry into them, and sometimes we are accepted into them. But families are the people that make things that much more enjoyable. I could have enjoyed this NBA season just fine all by myself. The addition of family, though, made it exponentially better. So as a reminder of this great season, I would like to give thanks to all the people that made this season so enjoyable for me. 

First off, to my wife and kids. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy this season and not judging the craziness of my fandom. Thank for understanding that, even though I work two jobs, I do need something to de-stress myself. Some guys throw themselves into booze; some into cars. My vice is basketball, specifically Thunder basketball. Thanks to Wifey for picking my brain about basketball to either show that she “really” is interested or to gather knowledge, even if she isn’t that big of a sports fan. Regardless, I love her for it. Thank you to my oldest for being my protégé; for learning the names and numbers of the players, and wondering why one of the white guys (Cole Aldrich) doesn’t play that much. To my middle child, for being honest and showing me that not everyone has to like sports. Thank you for showing me that Despicable Me is sometimes better than a game. And to my little one. Thank you for belting out, “Let’s Thunder Up,” every time I said, “Its game time/ Its game time.” It’s been awesome for you guys to be a part of this season. 

Thank you to my parents and sister. To my mom, the lady that introduced me to being a fan of the game. To the woman that would talk about the game with me when we would take our 3-mile treks during my childhood. There’s nothing better than watching a game with the original fan, especially when she pays for the food at the arena (a HUGE plus). There’s nothing more that I would’ve wanted than for you to be there when we won the Western Conference Championship. Maybe next year, you’ll be in town, and the tickets won’t be so difficult to obtain. Thanks to my sister, aka Westbrook’s stalker, aka Meme Queen for becoming a super fan this season. Way to Thunder Up! And to my father, thank you for not being a sports fan, but rocking the free playoff t-shirts when it comes to mowing the lawn and washing the car. You Thunder Up in your own manner, old man. 

Thanks to my partner in crime; my brother that I split my season tickets with. That 90 mile trek to the game would not be as fun without you. Every victory is that much more awesome and every loss is that much more manageable. We are the super fans in Section 315 and will continue to lead the charge. Let’s take this thing all the way to the ‘ship.  And, maybe one day, we’ll call into the post game radio show and finally get the answer as to why Etan Thomas still hasn’t gotten any playing time (inside joke). 

Now that’s blood family. But in the progression of life, we also became parts of other families, where blood is not involved. This season, I decided to toss my hat in the blogosphere of basketball. Now mind you, I’ve never been a serious writer for anything. I hated English class and despised writing essays. But I started noticing that I loved writing about basketball on my favorite OKC basketball site, http://www.thunderfans.com . I started building up my writing confidence with posts about the Hornets, Sonics, and Thunder, and eventually asked to become the front page blog writer for the site. The owner of the site gave me the opportunity and I’ve been bitten by the blog bug ever since. So, for that, I need to say thank you to my favorite forum site for the establishment of my blogging roots. 

The next step in this story was starting my own blog. This was a process in, and, of itself. I’m pretty computer saavy, but not very internet saavy. So I started my blog site, http://www.nowthatsthunderbasketball.wordpress.com , and it sat dormant for about a month. After figuring out how to log on and how to use the Word Press format, I finally started blogging. My initial thought was that I would put some of my articles on the blog site and then let some of the people on the forum site know about it. And that’s how it started. But then I located the “link to Twitter” option, and I found a better avenue to get my work out to a more diverse crowd. 

From there, I became a Twitter junkie. I’ve never been a huge fan of Facebook, but the format of Twitter really appealed to me. I started following every basketball head I could think of and started to link my blog to them. Some responded back, but most didn’t. But the purpose of Twitter started to run its course. I was beginning to get feedback from people outside of the Oklahoma City market. And that’s where I met some of the people that would become my basketball media family. 

First, I met Audley Stephenson of http://thebreakdownshow.com who was planning to start up a blogging network that featured bloggers for all 30 teams. He pitched me the idea about becoming the blogger for the Thunder for http://www.hoopstalknation.com , and I jumped at the opportunity. I don’t even think 30 seconds went by before I responded back to his direct message with a resounding YES! Honestly, I don’t know if my articles have increased any of their page views or whether any one reads my work. But what I do know is that Audley and Dave Mendonca showed enough faith in this blogging neophyte to hand me the keys to my own team and let me operate and learn on my own. For that, I will always be thankful for them. 

Thank you to my brothers and sisters on the Hoops Talk Nation blogging network. I don’t know any of you personally, but it’s been a blast talking to you guys throughout the season about the one thing that binds us all….our love for basketball. The passion for each of our respective teams is only trumped by our passions for the sport. Let’s keep this thing moving forward and achieve greater things next season. 

While it’s exciting to be involved in an international blogging network, (remember, Toronto is in the Canada, so technically, we are international) it’s always nice to be involved with a group that’s closer to home. So for that, I have to thank Josh Hastings and Mike Erwin from http://www.visitorssection.com . These two gentlemen have given me the opportunity to expand myself as a podcaster, asking me to be their Thunder correspondent while the team went on their playoff run. Again, I don’t know if my inclusion in the podcast helps them out, but I do know the opportunity and experience I have gained have been priceless. 

The final thank you goes to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a sports world where cynicism and skepticism are the words of the day, it is heart-warming to see a team that actually embraces the nuances of the community they play in, and ties their themes to the core values of the populance. Whether it’s genuine or not, shouldn’t even matter, as the leaders of the team have tapped into the soul of the city and made a product that understands “us”. Themes like “Team Is One”, “One Thunder”, and “Team is 18,203” remind us, the fans, that we are just as important to the equation as the players. And the players, surprisingly, seemed to have become awestruck and humbled by the outpouring of support from the fans. 

It’s a delicate balance that can go awry in a very short span of time. An injury here or a difficult contract negotiation there, and the empire that was being built can crumble in an instant. The goodwill can quickly change to apathy and disgust. But I will always look back at this season with a huge smile on my face. And that huge smile is largely due to all the relationships I have built or been a part of over the course of the season. Thank you!

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?

The Key: Game Planning against James Harden

The competition for the Thunder’s third banana is in full swing between James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Harden provides on the offensive end what Ibaka provides on the defensive end. What I have begun to notice, though, is that teams, especially playoff teams, are starting to aggressively scout James Harden and his tendencies. Serge Ibaka is still a wild card, in that his untapped potential lends an air mystery surrounding how to guard him. The way Ibaka played at the beginning of the season is completely different from the way he is playing now. Eventually, Serge’s evolution as a player will plateau and teams will have a checklist on how to guard Ibaka. But for right now, the man receiving the opposing team’s attention on the defensive end is the Bearded One.

When teams play the Oklahoma City Thunder, they have an idea of how to counter Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They either have a physical defender for Durant or they hope that he has an off-night in the FG department. Regarding Westbrook, they either play him with a bigger player (a la Lebron James or Kobe Bryant), force him into the heart of the defense, or hope he has one of those high turnover, low FG percentage nights. Either way, it’s a classic case of pick your poison. But with so much of the offense coming from those two players alone, many teams are content with letting them get their numbers, and instead focusing their defensive attention on the rest of the players, especially James Harden.

Great games by Durant and Westbrook usually net around 55 – 65 points. If you maintain Harden and shut down his attack with the 2nd unit, you can probably beat the Thunder with 95 points. Using that wisdom, teams are starting to focus a lot of their defensive attention on Harden. When the second unit is in, the Thunder usually runs the same 3 or 4 sets. But their favorite, by far, is the Nick Collison/James Harden pick and roll on the 3-point wing. One of 4 things happens on this play:

  1. Nick completely screens the defenders and Harden backs up for an uncontested 3-pointer.
  2. Nick screens the defender just enough for Harden to split the double team and use his patented Euro-step to get into the lane.
  3. The two defenders pays so much attention to Harden that it leaves Collison either open for a midrange jumper or a roll to the basket
  4. The defenders switch creating a mismatch that either Harden or Collison can exploit.

This James Harden mix shows all the ways that the Harden/Collison pick and roll works:

 

With about a season and half worth of film on Harden and Collison, good teams are starting to do a couple things to stymie this effective offensive attack. First off, they are putting their hands up in the passing lanes. While Harden is an effective passer, he has a tendency to be predictable and, in essence, choreograph his no-look passes. The second thing that defenses are doing is closing up the lane between the two defenders in the pick and roll. This negates the ability for Harden to split the double team and get into the lane. This was very evident in the Heat game, when the 8 – 0 Heat run in the 4th quarter was spearheaded by two consecutive turnovers by Harden in this pick and roll scenario. Great defensive teams will choose Collison to beat them offensively, instead of Harden.

Harden has been the key to OKC’s offensive efficiency. Durant and Westbrook are going to get theirs. When you have the 2nd and 5th leading scorers in the league, they will find ways to put the ball through the basket. When Harden is allowed to be effective, he adds an entirely different dimension to the Thunder offense that makes the defense feel like the attack is coming in continuous waves. When he protects the ball and manages the second team, the team usually wins. In their 12 losses, Harden is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game. In the wins in which he has played, he’s averaging just under 2 turnovers per game (1.9).

The predictability of Harden’s offense has allowed teams to start making defensive game plans against Harden. While the increase in turnovers over the past 10 games (3.4, as compared to 2.0 in the first 39 games) can be attributed to an increase in usage and minutes, there’s no denying that an efficient Harden is the key to the Thunder advancement this season and beyond.

B-ball Analogy – Russell Westbrook : point guards as Lebron James : small forwards

After watching Russell Westbrook’s recent performances this season, I can’t help but think that Russell Westbrook is the Lebron James of NBA point guards. The things that separate Lebron from everyone else are his skill set, size, strength, and freakish athletic ability. Some of these qualities are taught, while others are innate. These tools have given James the opportunity to earn 2 MVPs and twice lead his team to the NBA Finals. 

First off, comparing Russell to Lebron is not necessarily apples to oranges, but it is not what I’m intending to do here. While a one on one game between the two would be entertaining, I’m sure Lebron’s size and strength advantage would trump Russell’s athleticism and quickness. It is after all, basketball, where the player who is closest to the rim (taller) has the advantage most of the time. But, can the same things that give Lebron advantages, be the things that give Russell that extra edge and hopefully lead him to be one of the greats? 

3 S’s: Size, Strength, and Speed 

Individually, each of these characteristics can lead a player to have an advantage over another player. But if you possess an advantage in all 3 of these categories, the battle is already halfway won. That’s the thing about Lebron James. His size (6’8”) makes him above average for the small forward position. His speed can be matched by only a couple players at his position. But his strength is what completely makes him a match-up nightmare for the opposing player and defense. But when you put all 3 to work against the opponent, this is where Lebron overwhelms the opposition. 

Russell Westbrook is basically upper middle class when it comes to size in the point guard class. In looking at all the starting point guards in the league, the average height is about 6’3”, with Tyreke Evans being the tallest at 6’6” and Jameer Nelson and DJ Augustine/Kemba Walker coming in at about 5’11 ¾”. Russell is about 6’3 ½”. Nothing is going to overly separate him in this category. 

One of Russell’s main advantages is his strength. Only about 3 or 4 other point guards can compete with Westbrook in regards to strength. The factor that makes Russell different is in how his muscles distribute themselves on his body. The best comparison I can make is to Alfonso Soriano, the 2nd baseman who played for the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers this past decade. From 2002 to 2008, Soriano averaged 35.5 homeruns per season, a run unheard of for a 2nd baseman. What’s amazing about this run is in how Soriano’s musculature appears on his body. Soriano is all of 6’1” and 190 lbs. So a hulking Paul Bunyan he is not. Instead, Soriano has a wiry frame that packs muscle in an elongated fashion, instead of stacking muscle on muscle. This type of musculature is good for power and … 

Speed. In that same time frame, Soriano also averaged 29 stolen bases, which is pretty good for any baseball player that doesn’t necessarily specialize in speed, a la a pinch runner or lead off hitter. So, where Tyreke Evans and Deron Williams are bigger and stronger than Russell, his advantage at speed neutralizes that deficiency. Just ask Derek Fisher, one of the stronger, yet slower point guards in the NBA. 

Like James, Russell’s combination of these 3 characteristics (the 3 S’s) make him a load to handle for most point guards on a nightly basis. Knowing that you have these attributes leads to a person having….

 Freakish athletic ability 

The combination of the 3 S’s above, leads to having freakish athletic ability. Anybody who has high qualifications in the 3 S’s, is going to manifest itself in having this kind of athletic ability. The legendary, mythological stories of Lebron James grabbing a not so great lob with his hand nearly at the top of the square on the backboard and being so far above the rim that he couldn’t dunk it, but instead had to let it drop from above the rim are that of internet lore. Of course it happened in practice. Of course there were no cameras around. And of course, some teammates confirmed it. But, based on his athleticism, its something that we can consider possible. With Russell, it’s sort of the same way, but we get to see some of these things live in an NBA game. The dunk over Lamar Odom in their first playoff run against the Lakers in 2010. The lob that Earl Watson threw off the backboard, and Russell grabbed with one hand and dunked while skying over a Warriors player (we see you Marco Bellinelli). The facial he gave the Rockets last season. All tales of a book that is currently being written. 

Defensive ability 

The freakish athleticism also shows up on the defensive end of the floor if a player wants to work hard enough to show it. The same things that overwhelm defenders on the offensive side of the court, are also the things than can overwhelm an opponent on the defensive side of the court. Lebron is an average man defender, but a great help defender, getting into the passing lanes for steals, and coming up with self-esteem rattling blocks from the weak side or from behind. This is the only part of Russell’s game that leaves you longing a little. He was touted as a defensive guard coming out of college, but has only been an average defender in his young NBA career. But ask any of the international guards that he defended during the World Championships whether he can defend, and I’m sure you’ll get a resounding “YES” in whatever language they speak. 

Russell has the ability to be one of the better defenders in the league. The question is, does he want to be? He has shown more signs of being a shutdown defender this year. The aggressiveness that we saw in the World Championships is being shown more this season and that has led to a better defensive game plan from Russell. But that also leads to him gambling more and putting the rest of his team in 5 on 4 situations whenever his gambles don’t work. Through film-study, coaching, and experience, this part of his game can be fixed. The fact that he actually wants to be a better defensive player is the first step in becoming a better defender.    

Skill-set 

This may be the biggest difference between Lebron and Russell. While Lebron was your prototypical prodigy and came into the NBA with a deep skill-set, Russell had to learn a position that was not natural to him. And he had to learn it at the highest level of competition, night in and night out. So while Lebron has just had to refine and improve his skill set, Russell has had to constantly add more and more skills to his repertoire based on the learning curve. Organic growth at this level is very rarely seen from the point guard position. Yeah, you can have players learn a skill here or there, but to have a player go from where Russell was his rookie year to where he is now, is very rarely seen in professional sports. And this is what leads to the biggest difference between Lebron and Russell….. 

Will 

The will to constantly want to learn and get better is something that I think separates these two players. Russell’s meteoric rise is a manifestation of the hours of practice he has put in since his first day of minicamp in 2008. Great players usually take off in their 3rd season. This happened to Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Jordan, etc. It’s the time when the game slows down for the player and their instincts begin to take over. All the stuff that Russell has learned and practiced these past 3 ½ years (refining his jump shot, knowing when to attack and when to pull up, learning how to run a team) are finally coming to fruition. Is he still a work in progress? Of course. What he showed in the first 2 weeks of the season, is where the learning comes into play. But what we’ve seen the last two weeks is the player that is destined for greatness. 

I don’t think Lebron has this will. Yes, he has all the talent in the world. But he basically came to the league a finished product. He just had to constantly get better at what he already knew he could do. He just now added a post-up game to his arsenal, and he’s 8 years into his career. With Russell, we don’t know what the ceiling is. We don’t know how far up he can go. Can he be a 25 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds per game player? Based on his career arc so far, I wouldn’t put it past the realm of possibility. 

Closing ability 

Another thing that separates these two players is their mind-sets at the end of games. While Russell may make mistakes late in games, they are usually an effect of him needing to do something within the scope of the offense. When 3/5th of the offense is stagnant, and the main offensive weapon (Durant) is being heavily guarded, the only option is for Russell to somehow get off a shot. This is what leads to the bad shots and charge calls in close games. But the fact that he is willing to take these shots (and make some of them) shows a willingness to shine in pressure situations that is severely lacking in James’ game. As seen in last season’s Finals, when the pressure got hot, James usually deferred to Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Russell seems to be learning what needs to get done to close games. Whether its hitting a couple 20 footers, getting the ball to the hot hand, grabbing the necessary rebound, driving the lane for a deuce, or, most importantly, hitting free throws consistently, he has been one of the main, if not the main, component in us winning close games. 

For all of his faults, Russell has always been a player that has wanted to improve in order to prove his detractors wrong. It’s what makes that cauldron of heat inside of him boil. It’s the reason he asks “Why not?”, instead of “Why?”.  It is because of this passion, that the Oklahoma City Thunder signed him to a max extension for the full 5 years. With this extension, the Thunder now have 2 of the top 15 players in the league signed for the next 5 seasons. So instead of comparing one player to the next, maybe it would be more apropos to compare the Thunder to what would seemingly be one of their main competitor should they win the West….the Miami Heat. But, hopefully, I’ll save that article for sometime in June.