Michael Shapiro (Michael Shapiro) on Paul George showing his worth on the Thunder: “Playing next to Westbrook has shined a light on George’s game without the ball in his hands. Much of the praise he’s received in his Oklahoma City tenure springs from outside the box score. George is an elite cutter and a dangerous lob threat. He’s a quality spot-up shooter from beyond the arc. Defensively, George had a case to be on the All-Defensive team last year, finishing second in the league in steals. Yet for all of his peripheral strengths, George’s sheer scoring ability has been overlooked.” Continue reading Thunder At A Glance – 06 December 2018
Welcome to the holiday season (or is it szn, now?).
Royce Young (ESPN) on the Thunder’s convincing victory over the Milwaukee Bucks: “Playing on the road against the Bucks was a good test to gauge where the Thunder stood and whether the positive momentum of the past few games would continue to build. And the Thunder set the tone early, as Westbrook sparked their best half of the season, a dominant first 24 minutes that put the Bucks on their heels. “That first half, that’s how I would love to see us play,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I feel like when we play like that the floor’s so spaced it takes advantage of all those guys.”
Royce Young on the Thunder not picking up Josh Huestis’ 4th year option: “The Thunder elected to not exercise the $2.2 million team option for a few reasons, a primary one being the lack of evidence on Huestis and his fit with the roster. Before this season, he’d appeared in only seven total games in two years. Future roster and luxury tax implications also factored in, with the Thunder’s planning for the hopeful re-signing of both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Committing to pay Huestis $2.2 million next season could translate to as much as $7 million with relation to the tax.” Continue reading NTTB Rumblings – 01 Nov 2017
- When: Sunday, 07 April 2013 at 12:00 PM CST
- Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
Part of the mission has been accomplished. As I mentioned in this previous article, the goal of the Thunder in the last 5 games was to catch up to the Spurs and at least tie them for the Western Conference lead. Now that that has been achieved, the Thunder hold their Western Conference destiny in their hands. All the Thunder have to do now is keep stride with the Spurs, and head into the playoffs with the number 1 seed.
The first step to that begins against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. With the San Antonio Spurs’ win against the Atlanta Hawks yesterday, they sit a half game ahead of the idle Thunder. It’s your move, Oklahoma City. The Thunder are currently playing their best basketball of season since the 23-4 stretch that began in late November. They’ve beat the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers in convincing fashion with close-out 4th quarter performances from their superstar duo.
The New York Knicks come into the game playing their best basketball of the season, having won 11 in a row. The streak, which is the best current streak in the league, can be attributed to 2 things: Carmelo Anthony (32.4 ppg) and JR Smith (23.9 ppg on 49.2% shooting) efficiently attacking teams offensively, and Tyson Chandler and, new addition, Kenyon Martin providing the muscle on the interior. Their margin of victory during the streak has been 13 points.
It’s a funny thing that happens when you write about important stretches in a season. I had the last 5 games tabbed as the most important stretch of the season for the Thunder. But after taking care of business, this game now becomes the most important game of the season. It’s important, not only because we accomplished the goal of catching up to the Spurs, but, because, now, New York is the hottest team in the league. And they are winning by using the same formula that has hurt the Thunder in the past: dribble penetration, 3-point shooting, and 1-2 offensive stars that perform within a system. New York has surprisingly become a lot like Miami during this streak, and it will be a good litmus test for the Thunder moving forward.
Probable Starting Line-ups
New York Knicks
- PG – Pablo Prigioni
- SG – Raymond Felton
- SF – Iman Shumpert
- PF – Carmelo Anthony
- C – Tyson Chandler
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 – With the absence of Amare Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby, the Knicks are hurting inside offensively. Anthony and Smith have actually pushed their games inwards during this streak, but are still very perimeter oriented. Felton is a lot like Andre Miller in that he does his damage by penetrating inside and uses his strength to power shots in. Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, and Prigioni are all ready to shoot 3-pointers at the hint of daylight. As is usually customary with Thunder coach Scott Brooks, when the Thunder get a player that was recently with another team, Brooks usually plays said player extended minutes when it’s against his old team. So, with that said, Ronnie Brewer, you’re up.
Match-up Land Mines – With the injuries to the Knicks’ front line, they have been forced to play small ball from the outset of games. With that said, do the Thunder really want Serge Ibaka guarding Carmelo Anthony at the start of the game? Or do they want Kevin Martin guarding JR Smith when the bench checks into the game? Or Derek Fisher guarding Raymond Felton? Knowing that Brooks has a very consistent substitution pattern, it will be very interesting to see how the Thunder adjust on defense. As I said before, this is a very good prelude to what Miami and Denver will do to us if we meet them in a future series.
Buckets – The elephant in the room. The scoring title may be up for grabs in this game. Kevin Durant leads Anthony by a tenth of a point (28.4 to 28.3, respectively). With Durant already saying that Anthony can have the scoring title, will team success have any bearing on whether any of these two players eases off the gas when it comes to scoring. Like Durant said, “I really wanted my first one (scoring title). Don’t get me wrong – – I never want to take stuff like that for granted. But if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to force it too much and think about it too much and try to get it.” The only thing for Durant, and Anthony as well, is that their games are about scoring. With as much as Durant has a tendency to stat-watch, will he try to get that extra point to one-up Anthony? Regardless, this game certainly reminds of the scoring title race in 1994, where David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal went back and forth on the scoring title till the last game of the season, where Robinson scored 71 points to finally take the scoring title. We can only hope that one of these two players puts up 50 in the game.
I’ve never been the parent of a maturing teenager. My oldest is less than 10 years of age, so I have a few more years before I have to deal with hormones and rebellion. But as a newcomer to the 30 year old club, I still feel like I’m young enough to remember my teenage years, and remember the triumphs and pitfalls that my parents felt as I was coming up. I would figure that as a parent of a burgeoning adult, you would learn to take the good with the bad, and you would hope that for every bad decision, there would be a solution and a lesson learned. At the end of the journey, the ultimate goal would be to see a mature adult that is able to handle real life situations and is able to enjoy life to the fullest.
While extremely different, parenthood and fandom can also be very similar. Its takes time, money, and patience for the nourishment and development of both children and sports teams. While children usually mature in a linear chronological order, sports teams are constantly shifted and changed in an attempt to continually improve. Where the childhood of a kid may take between 18-21 years, the life of the core of a team usually never lasts more than 5 seasons. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, whose core has been together for a decade plus, is the exception, not the rule.
Being a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the things that have required the most patience has been the development of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is the rare case of a player that came into the league initially with no expectations, blossomed into a bonified superstar with high expectations, and has taken the brunt of criticism because he has fallen just shy of those high expectations.
Westbrook’s skill set has never been a problem. If anything, his development over the last four seasons has taken most of the league by surprise. When he came out of UCLA, he was viewed as a defensive specialist, probably comparable to fellow UCLA alum Arron Afflalo. His ceiling was definitely nowhere close to being a top 5 scorer in the league. But a lot like Michael Jordan in 1984, when the shackles of the college game were taken off, the other-worldly athleticism took over. And in the right system, those gifts manifested themselves into what you see in Westbrook today.
But just like the trials and tribulations a parent faces when they are raising a teenager, Russell Westbrook’s ascension into a Top 10 player has not been without pitfalls. The path to get to where Westbrook is today has made a bit more difficult by the fact that he plays one of the most important and difficult positions in the game: point guard. As the team’s main distributor, any weakness on the offensive end is immensely exposed because of the position’s high usage rate. Throughout his career, Westbrook’s propensity for turnovers has always been a crux to an otherwise spectacular arsenal. It’s usually what supporters and detractors, alike, point to when looking for flaws in Westbrook’s game.
As the team’s main distributor, a point guard’s main purpose is to manage the game and direct the team’s offense. The thinking is that this is made a lot easier if there are plenty of weapons out there on the floor. But what happens if you have the No. 1 offensive weapon in the game on the floor with you? Most point guards would relish that and pad their stats. As great a player as Magic Johnson was, he was made even better by playing with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, and Byron Scott. Same applies to John Stockton and Karl Malone. But what if you, yourself, are a Top 5 offensive weapon in the game also? The art of knowing when to pass and when to score is something that most point guards don’t have to think about. Westbrook had to learn the trickiest part of the trade, while learning how to play the position.
The thing that makes raising teenagers most difficult isn’t the mistakes or the bad decisions. Those are expected. You don’t learn to drive without hitting a couple curbs. It’s the rebellion and attitude associated with the mistakes. The, “I can do this by myself, leave me the hell alone” attitude. It’s a right of passage that most people go through; their need to experience life on their own, rules be damned. But when your attitude is on display for millions to see and for thousands to tweet about, it can make the progress of your development that much more difficult. When the national media senses any angle to make a story, they flock to it like sharks to blood.
And that’s what happened in last season’s playoffs. You had the league’s leading scorer who is by all accounts, a media/NBA darling, and the non-conformist point guard who could care less about the media, on the same team. Success breeds attention, good and bad. Instead of focusing on one of the youngest teams in the league being in the conference finals, the media decided to focus on the fact that the point guard was taking shots late in close games, instead of passing it to the best scorer in the league. The players involved didn’t care. The coaches involved didn’t care. But the media ate it up and perception became most people’s reality.
One of the triumphs of parenting is watching that child grow up to become a fully functional, independent adult. One of the triumphs of being a fan, is watching that young player finally take those steps to become that great veteran that teams need to win championships. Someone that, when the road gets tough, they create diamonds instead of wilting under the pressure. During the 4-game sweep of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2012 playoffs, Russell Westbrook finally became what we, as fans, were waiting for. He scored when he needed to (which was a lot in the first 2 games), managed the game, and protected the ball. He played lock down defense on Jason Terry and was a ball hawking free safety when ever it was needed.
But the biggest sign of his maturity (and that of the team, for that matter) was what happened in game 4 of the series. With the Thunder down by 13 entering the 4th quarter, the Thunder needed a spark on both ends of the floor. What had been a shooting clinic by the Mavericks guards in the 3rd quarter (5-7 FG overall (4-5 3ptFG)), turned into a dry well in the 4th quarter when Westbrook took his turn locking down the perimeter. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Delonte West combined to go 1-6 FG in the 4th quarter. Also, Coach Scott Brooks, with the confidence that this would not affect Westbrook at all, decided to stick with the hot hand, and let James Harden run the point with Westbrook playing off the ball. What resulted was Harden getting 15 points and 3 assists in the 4th quarter, and propelling the Thunder to the victory.
Sometimes, the most difficult kids to raise are the non-conformist. The ones that don’t allow peer pressure to dictate their paths in life. The ones that march to their own drum. The ones that stay introverted. It’s difficult to know what someone thinks or what makes them tick, if they never let it be known. That’s Russell. The media is still baffled by this guy and that makes them uncomfortable. But, what we are seeing on the court is a sight to behold. We are seeing the non-conformist point guard turning into the best point guard in the game, right before our eyes. And that, as a fan and supporter of the Thunder, makes me extremely proud.
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?