Brett Dawson (NewsOK) on Andre Roberson’s admission that he likely won’t be ready until December: “Roberson told KABB that, “Knowing the history of this injury, not many people come back from it the same way,” but noted that “in today’s day and era, in terms of technology, medicine and stuff like that, it’s totally different.” He credited the Thunder’s medical staff with helping him work his way back.” Continue reading Thunder At A Glance – 27 August 2018
As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.
For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.
What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.
When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.
At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).
He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season. When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.
Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.
In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.
The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.
Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.
There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.
As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.
- When: Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
- Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
The Oklahoma City Thunder head into the All-Star break having achieved what likely has been their first, and most significant, goal in this turbulent season. Build some momentum and some chemistry and stay within striking distance of the 8th seed. In their last 5 games, the Thunder are an Anthony Davis 30-feet heave away from likely being 5-0. Phoenix has sputtered a bit in the past month, and the Thunder find themselves only 1 game back of the Suns. All three teams battling for the 8th spot (Phoenix, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City) come into Wednesday’s action with 25 losses each. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are doing what they have done for the past 6 seasons, which is carry the brunt of the Thunder’s offensive load. Reggie Jackson seems to have remembered how to play basketball in the past week and a half. And the Thunder rookie Mitch McGary, having finally gotten over the myriad of injuries that have plagued his inaugural season, has been a breath of fresh air in the past two games, getting a double-double in both games.
This is the third of four meetings between these two bitter rivals. The Grizzlies have won the first two games of the season series. In the first game, the Thunder, who were without Westbrook and Durant, battled valiantly against the Grizzlies, but came up short as Serge’s Ibaka’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer just missed. In the second meeting of the season, Durant attempted to come back from a toe injury, but looked out of sorts the entire game. The Thunder were likely pressing, having just lost to the New York Knicks in their previous game, and came out tight. They eventually lost the game 85-74. These two teams have previously met in the playoffs in 3 of the last 5 seasons, with two of those series going to a decisive 7th game.
The Grizzlies come into the game with a 39-13 record, good for 2nd in the Western Conference. They’ve won 14 of their last 16 games and seem to be over some of the early season injuries that have plagued them (Mike Conley’s ankles and Zach Randolph’s knee). During this stretch, they’ve also had to assimilate a new rotation player in Jeff Green. The Grizzlies sport one of the best defenses in the league, as they allow only 95.6 points per game (No. 1 in that category) and are the 5th best in terms of defensive rating. They do a good job of defending, without fouling, allowing only 20.5 free throw attempts per game, good for 3rd in the league. The Grizzlies are led by Conley, one of the most underrated floor generals in the league, who is averaging 17 points and 5.4 assists per game. On the wings, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green provide a good contrast in style, with Lee being the perimeter threat (45.8% from 3-point territory) and Green being the jack-of-all-trades. Up front, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are arguably the best big man duo in the league. Between them, they average 35.3 points and 20.1 rebounds per game. The Grizzlies feature a veteran bench that won’t lose them any games. Their top reserves are Tony Allen, Kosta Koufos, and Beno Udrih.
Probable Starting Line-Ups
- PG – Mike Conley
- SG – Courtney Lee
- SF – Jeff Green
- PF – Zach Randolph
- C – Marc Gasol
Oklahoma City Thunder
- PG – Russell Westbrook
- SG – Andre Roberson
- SF – Kevin Durant
- PF – Serge Ibaka
- C – Kendrick Perkins
3 Keys to the Game
1. Pace – The Grizzlies love to slow it down and play half court offense. They do a great job of playing inside/out with the two big men and with Conley’s ability to get into the lane. If the game is in the high 80’s to low 90’s, that pace favors the Grizzlies. But if the Thunder can get out in transition and push the pace efficiently on their end, then a higher scoring game will definitely be in the Thunder’s favor. Plus, the Grizzlies are on the second game of a back to back.
2. McGary – This is the first game where McGary’s name will likely appear on someone’s scouting report. He’s the great unknown in regards to playing against the Thunder. If he’s on the floor with Durant and Westbrook, it opens up another fold to the Thunder’s offensive scheme that opponent’s have rarely seen: a big man that can finish off the roll in the pick-n-roll.
3. Playoffs – The 8th seed is in play. The Thunder, Suns, and Pelicans all have 25 losses as of Wednesday, with the Suns having played one more game than the other two teams after tonight. It will be a fight to the end of the season. The Thunder have battled all this way. Let’s head into the All-Star break with some momentum, down only 1/2 game from the 8th spot.
- When: Friday, 07 November 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
- Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
The Oklahoma City Thunder come into Friday night’s match-up against the Memphis Grizzlies at 1-4. A far cry from the number 2 seeded team they were in the playoffs last season. Don’t let the record fool you, though. Yes, injuries have bitten the team hard, but in that stead, a champion’s heart has started to emerge. Even though the team has fluctuated between 7-8 healthy players, the Thunder have been in every game heading into the 4th quarter except one. That is a testament to the players’ wills and to the coaching staff for having the team prepared. With that said, the season stops for no team and continues on.
The Thunder vs. Grizzlies match-up is a rivalry that has been building for the past few seasons. Both teams started their ascension to the top of the Western Conference around the same team, with the Thunder having gone a little bit further in that time span. Last season, the Thunder won the season series 3-1, but nearly got ousted by the Grizzlies in the first round. That playoff match-up was one for the ages with Games 2-5 being decided in overtime. The series featured game-saving 4-point plays, epic 4th quarter comebacks, super-nova’ed bench players, and Perkins hitting a game-tying put back to send one of the games to overtime.
The Grizzlies come into the game with a 5-0 record, boasting the best defense in the league. They allow a league low 86.2 points per game and are 2nd in Defensive Rating. The offense, while not high scoring, is one of the better half-court offenses in the league. Mike Conley continues to play his part as “most underrated point guard in the league.” With per game averages of 15.4 points, 6.6 assists, and 1.4 steals, Conley continues to be one of the most consistent point guards in the league. Up front, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol make up one of the most formidable front court duos in the league. Their size and skill in the post creates problems for most teams. On the wing, Courtney Lee is currently shooting an unsustainable 70% from 3-point territory and Tony Allen is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league (just ask Kevin Durant). The Grizzlies’ bench is veteran-laden, featuring Vince Carter, Quincy Pondexter, Kosta Koufos, and Beno Udrih.
Probable Starting Line-ups
- PG – Mike Conley
- SG – Courtney Lee
- SF – Tony Allen
- PF – Zach Randolph
- C – Marc Gasol
Oklahoma City Thunder
- PG – Reggie Jackson
- SG – Jeremy Lamb
- SF – Lance Thomas
- PF – Serge Ibaka
- C – Steven Adams
3 Keys to the Game
1. Pace – The Grizzlies play at one of the slower paces in the league. They take their time, look for efficient shots, and keep turnovers to a minimum. Although the Thunder don’t have the horses to run like they normally would, a quicker pace may be advantageous to them in this game. If the Thunder play at the Grizzlies’ pace, they may play into the opponent’s hands (paws?).
2. Perimeter shooting big men – The Grizzlies love to pack the paint and dare you to shoot jumpers. Their anchor on the interior is Gasol, the 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But a line-up with any two of Serge Ibaka, Lance Thomas, or Nick Collison, who can do damage from the perimeter, could take Gasol and Randolph out of the comfort zone of the interior and open up driving lanes for Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Sebastian Telfair.
3. Jeremy Lamb – This will likely be Lamb’s first game of the season. It will be interesting to see how Lamb reacts, not only to being one of the primary offensive options on the team, but also to having no restrictions or pressure on him. Even if he shoots awful, there is no one behind him in the depth chart to take his place.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 62-20 (1st in the Southwest Division, 1st in the Western Conference)
Season ended: Hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy after Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat
- Kyle Anderson – Draft (No. 30 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
- Aron Baynes – Unsigned
Season Preview – Everyone keeps waiting for the Spurs to age, but every year, they come back wiser and better. The reigning NBA champs come back with the entire team basically intact. While chemistry won’t be an issue, a couple of the main players are coming back from injury. Manu Ginobili spent most of the offseason nursing a stress fracture in his leg and Patty Mills had rotator cuff surgery that will keep him out half the season. But as is the Spurs, they will turn that into a positive as Mills will be very well rested when the playoffs start next April.
2014-15 will be successful if: The Spurs repeat as champions
Projected 2014-15 Record: 59-23
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Last season: 50-32 (3rd in the Southwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference)
Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder
- Jordan Adams – Draft (No. 22 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
- Vince Carter – Free agent signing
- Jarnell Stokes – Draft (No. 35 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
- Jamaal Franklin – Waived
- Ed Davis – Signed with the Los Angeles Lakers
- Mike Miller – Signed with the Chicago Bulls
- James Johnson – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
Season Preview – The Grizzlies have slowly put together a balanced team that doesn’t entirely depend on the post play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The additions of Jordan Adams and Vince Carter, and the return of Quincy Pondexter from injury should help spread the floor for the big man duo to operate a little easier in the interior. Mike Conley remains one of the more underrated floor generals in the league and Tony Allen is still a premier defensive menace, as we saw in last season’s playoff series against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
2014-15 will be successful if: The Grizzlies make it to the Western Conference Finals
Projected 2014-15 Record: 54-28
3. Dallas Mavericks
Last season: 49-33 (4th in the Southwest Division, 8th in the Western Conference)
Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs
- Al Farouq Aminu – Signed free agent
- Tyson Chandler – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
- Raymond Felton – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
- Richard Jefferson – Signed free agent
- Ivan Johnson – Signed free agent
- Jameer Nelson – Signed free agent
- Chandler Parsons – Signed free agent
- Greg Smith – Obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bulls
- Jose Calderon – Traded to the New York Knicks
- Shane Larkin – Traded to the New York Knicks
- Shawn Marion – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
- Samuel Dalembert – Traded to the New York Knicks
- Vince Carter – Signed with the Memphis Grizzlies
- DeJuan Blair – Sign and traded to the Washington Wizards
Season Preview – Other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Mavericks probably had the most player movement of any team in the leauge. The team that took the eventual champs to 7 games in the first round, got their defensive stopper in the lane (Chandler), and got an up-and-coming star in Chandler Parsons. The Mavs should be a little better balanced defensively, but that all depends on the health of Chandler. If he misses a big chunk of the season (15-20+ games), the Mavericks could be in trouble defensively. The point guard position is also a question mark, as each of the three possibilities (Felton, Nelson, and Devin Harris) have been starters in the past, but also have glaring weaknesses.
2014-15 will be successful if: The Mavs make it to the Western Conference Finals
Projected 2014-15 Record: 53-29
4. Houston Rockets
Last season: 54-28 (2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the Western Conference)
Season ended: Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers
- Jeff Adrien – Free agent signing
- Trevor Ariza – Free agent signing
- Clint Capela – Draft (No. 25 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
- Jason Terry – Obtained in a trade with the Sacramento Kings
- Joey Dorsey – Free agent signing
- Ish Smith – Free agent signing
- Jeremy Lin – Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers
- Omer Asik – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
- Chandler Parsons – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
- Jordan Hamilton – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
Season Preview – After striking gold in the last two offseasons, Rockets GM Daryl Morey hit a rough patch this offseason. He traded away 2 of this team’s top 5 players (Asik and Lin) for basically nothing, and failed to resign Parsons, even though the Rockets held his Bird Rights. The reasons they made these moves was an “all in” attempt at either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. By the time those two players had re-signed with their respective teams, the damage had already been done to the Rockets’ roster. The Rockets salvaged a little life this offseason by signing Trevor Ariza. The Rockets will still win games due to the talent of James Harden and Dwight Howard. But depth will be an issue, and any injury to any of the major players on the Rockets will be a huge blow to the team’s playoff chances.
2014-15 will be successful if: The Rockets make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs
Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35
5. New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 34-48 (5th in the Southwest Division, 12th in the Western Conference)
Season ended: Last day of the regular season
- Omer Asik – Obtained in a trade with the Houston Rockets
- Jimmer Fredette – Free agent signing
- John Salmons – Free agent signing
- Russ Smith – Draft (No. 47 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
- Patric Young – Rookie free agent signing (Undrafted)
- Al-Farouq Aminu – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
- Greg Stiemsma – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
- Jason Smith – Signed with the New York Knicks
- Anthony Morrow – Signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder
- Brian Roberts – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets
Season Preview – After a great showing in the FIBA World Cup, Anthony Davis is ready to finally take his team to another level. The acquisition of Asik will allow Davis to play his natural position of power forward. On the outside, Ryan Anderson returns from neck surgery and should help space the floor for Davis and Jrue Holiday to operate. The depth of this team is worrisome, and if the injury bug hits again, they could once again struggle to stay above water.
2014-15 will be succesful if: The Pelican make the playoffs
Projected 2014-15 Record: 42-40
The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 120-109 on Saturday to move onto the 2nd round of the playoffs. But before we move on, here’s 5 thoughts about the series that was.
1. The Overtimes and the plays leading up to them.
Four consecutive overtime games. Let that sink in for a minute. Your adrenaline pumps and heart races for one overtime game. But four…..in a row. The life span of the average Oklahoman (and Memphian, for that matter) probably dropped by about 2.5 years in this series. But the overtimes only tell half of the story in those four games.
The mad dashes that led to the overtimes were even more impressive. Here’s a recap of the major plays that led to the 5th period in those games:
Game 2: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 18 seconds to go.
- Fall away 3-pointer by Durant in the corner while being fouled by Marc Gasol. Free throw good. Thunder down 1.
- Free throw by Mike Conley. Grizzlies up 2 with 12 second left.
- Russell Westbrook 3-point miss rebounded by Kendrick Perkins who goes up for a put-back with no time on the clock. Tied game. And on to overtime.
Game 3: Set-up – Thunder down by 17 with 7:30 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Thunder go on a 17-0 run to tie the game at 81 with 57 seconds left.
- Tony Allen lay-up to put the Grizzlies up by two with 45 seconds.
- Tony Allen steal and lay-up puts the Grizzlies up by 4 with 33 seconds left.
- Russell Westbrook 4-point play ties the game at 85 with 26 seconds left.
- Each team misses their finals shots. And on to overtime.
Game 4: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 1:20 left, after starting the quarter with a 12 point lead.
- Reggie Jackson (the only effective Thunder player the entire night) launches (and makes) a step-back three with 59 seconds left. Thunder down by two.
- After stealing a pass off of Beno Udrih, Durant passes to Jackson who runs off of a pick and roll and scores on a floater with 30 seconds left to tie the game.
- After a mad scramble on the defensive end in which the Grizzlies had 2 opportunities to tie the game, Jackson ends up with the ball with 4 seconds left, but inexplicably heaves a 60 footer that bounces inbounds as the clock expires. And on to overtime.
Game 5: Set-up – Thunder down by two after the first of Tony Allen’s two free throws goes down with 30 seconds left. (Of note: The Thunder have no timeouts left)
- Allen misses the 2nd free throw, but Tayshaun Prince gets the offensive rebound. After almost getting the ball stolen, Memphis calls a time out.
- After the time out, Mike Conley dribbles at the top of the key. With the shot clock running down, Conley makes a move towards the basket, but Westbrook reaches across Conley’s body, knocks the ball loose, and takes it the other way for a game-tying fast break dunk. And on to overtime.
In all honesty, the overtimes proved to be a bit anti-climatic in comparison to those crazy final minutes in the fourth quarters.
2. Interior Defense
When you play the Grizzlies, the one thing that has to be on point is your interior defense. If you don’t have a set of defensive bigs that can combat what Memphis throws at you, then you might as well pack it up. Last season, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bore through the Thunder’s interior defense like a hot knife through butter. It was so much of an embarrassment, that Kendrick Perkins felt the need to apology for his play after the series. But this time around, Perkins, Ibaka, and Steven Adams proved up to the task, essentially neutralizing the Grizzlies’ biggest offensive strength.
In last season’s playoff series, Gasol and Randolph shot 68/146 (47%). In this playoff series, the interior duo for Memphis shot 89-220 (40%). Everybody talks about the struggles that Westbrook and Durant experienced during the series, but equally as damning for their team, was the struggles that Gasol and Randolph had with scoring. And once Durant and Westbrook got going again in Games 6 and 7, it was too difficult for the the Memphis duo to keep up, especially with Randolph being suspended for the final game.
3. The Role Players
Many people wondered why Caron Butler decided to sign with the Thunder, instead of with the two-time champion Miami Heat. If Butler was title chasing, the easiest route would have been to latch on with Miami and probably be a 9th man for them. But Tuff Juice probably saw an opportunity with the Thunder to not only compete for a championship, but also be a regular part of the rotation.
Many people like to label Butler as a champion since he was a member of the Dallas Mavericks team that won the championship in 2011. What many people fail to mention is that Butler had a knee injury mid-season, and didn’t participate in any games for the Mavericks in the playoffs that season. Yes, he got a ring, but I wonder if he feels like that ring hardly holds any weight. Pride can easily turn happiness into a question mark that stays on the mind.
So, when Butler’s number was called on to start in place of an ineffective Thabo Sefolosha for Game 6, he showed that he was ready for this moment. He only scored 7 points in that game, but the effect of Butler as a perimeter threat, opened up the lanes enough for Westbrook and Durant to get back in their groove.
Reggie Jackson has the hardest job in the world. He has to be the main facilitator and scorer on a bench unit that is about as hot and cold as it gets. Then he has to be the third option on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. If he does something bad during his time on the floor with the superstar duo, then the spot light shines on him. But if he does something good, then it probably had to do with the fact that Durant and Westbrook took so much of the defense’s attention which allowed Jackson to have an open lane or a wide open shot.
Then Game 4 happened. I’ve never seen a situation where two alpha males completely give the reins to the game over to somebody other than themselves. A lot of times, Durant and Westbrook are like the Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett of the NBA: “We ride together, we die together, bad boys for life”. But in this one instance, whether it was their own insecurities in their play or a new confidence in another player not seen since the Harden days, Durant and Westbrook allowed Jackson to take over the game and in the end, win it for them. In reality, Jackson saved the season with his mini-explosion in Game 4.
4. Durant and Westbrook returning to form
Probably the biggest narrative of this series was the slump that both Durant and Westbrook faced in the Games 2-5. Without an unexpected career game from Jackson, the series would have probably been done in 5 games, much like last season. In those 4 games, the duo shot 73-209 from the field. That is a whooping 35% for two All-NBA players. Many media member started playing the Westbrook vs. Durant angle to the point that Westbrook felt the need to address it in an interview after Game 3.
Then the Oklahoman decided to print one of the dumbest headlines since the Chicago Tribune declared Thomas E. Dewey the winner of the 1948 Presidential election. Mr. Unreliable. A name that describes many people, namely deadbeat dads, parole violators, and teenagers. Not a name that describes Kevin Durant, the basketball player. If anything, he’s been Mr. Reliable his entire career. The attempted explanation and subsequent apology explained what the headline itself was trying to convey, but the damage had already been done to the newspaper.
Durant took it in stride, but you could tell that the headline perplexed him a bit. Great players always play their best when the cards are stacked against them. Down 3-2 with an elimination game in Memphis, Durant and Westbrook slowed their games down a bit, and started playing their brand of basketball. In Games 6 and 7, the pair averaged 60.5 points, 18.5 rebounds, and 12.5 assists per game on 54/53/88 shooting.
5. The Wake-Up Call
The Thunder needed this kick in the rear end. They slept walked through the final month of the season, and probably had this aura about them that they could turn it on or off at any point in the playoffs. But this season’s playoffs were a bit different. The 7th seeded Grizzlies were probably more of a 3 or 4 seed, were it not for injuries and having to play in the tough Western Conference.
But, the name of the game is surviving and advancing, and the Thunder did just that. If the Thunder are fortunate enough to rack up 12 more victories, they should look back on this series and appreciate the fact that Memphis made them work so hard to get to Round 2.
Have you ever been away from your significant other for an extended period of time without seeing them (be it a job deployment or a self-imposed hiatus)? And then you see them again and they’ve lost 20 pounds, gotten highlights in their hair, and upped their confidence rating. And you are left wondering, “How do I act around this person?”
Well, that’s kind of how the first 18 minutes went for the Oklahoma City Thunder in this game. The Thunder had battled the Grizzlies the same for the past 6 games (the 2 bigs, Mike Conley, a streaky Courtney Lee, and an ineffective “why the hell is he still starting?” Tayshaun Prince, with Mike Miller, Beno Udrih, and Tony Allen sprinkled in between there). But the Zach Randolph suspension in Game 7 kind of flipped the script for Memphis and they came out with an entirely different line-up that threw the Thunder for a loop. Out was Prince (and, of course, Randolph), and in was Miller and Allen. The Grizzlies started small out of necessity and held their largest lead of 11 points with 40 seconds left in the 1st quarter. They finished the first quarter up by 9 at 36-27. That’ right. 36 points for the Grizzlies in a quarter.
The beginning of the 2nd quarter was more of the same, but Memphis’s depth issues started to become a problem near the middle of the 2nd quarter. After two free throws by Gasol at the 8:40 mark of the 2nd quarter, the Grizzlies missed their next 7 shots and turned the ball over twice. By the time Conley made a shot with 4:43 left, the Thunder had tied up the game at 44.
After that point, the Thunder smelled blood and kept on attacking to take a 3 point lead heading into halftime. In the third quarter, it was more of the same as the Grizzlies didn’t make their FG of the 2nd half until 6:35 remaining in the third quarter. By that point, the Thunder were up 78-65 and had all the momentum moving forward. They never let the lead get under 10 points for the rest of the game and ended up winning 120-109.
A couple thoughts on the game:
- The Grizzlies were forced to play the Thunder’s style and it completely backfired on them from the middle of the 2nd quarter on. The pace was not condusive to the Grizzlies style, but it fit right in the Thunder’s wheel-house.
- The pace also caused the Grizzlies’ turnovers to go up (14), which led to 31 points for the Thunder off of those turnovers.
- If its a Game 7 against the Grizzlies, then Russell Westbrook must be due for a triple double (27/10/16)
- After shooting 12-21 (57%) in the 1st quarter, the Grizzlies went on to shoot 25-62 (40%) for the rest of the game. Gotta love that regression.
- Kevin Durant, since the headline: 69 points and 18 rebounds on 56/45/86 shooting. I’m still not giving you credit The Oklahoman.
- Caron Butler only made one 3, but made 8-9 foul shots to finish with 15 points.
- Reggie Jackson was great in his role – 16 points on 5-6 shooting (2-3 from 3 and 4-4 from the line). Efficiency, for the win!
- It’s onto to Round 2. Oklahoma City, you can all let out a collective sigh of relief.
- When: Saturday, 03 May 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
- Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
Game 7. Those are the only 2 words you need to know about this game. Win or go home for both teams. Thankfully we have home court advantage. Game 6 was more what I expected to see from this team throughout this first round match-up. If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would have played 10% better in Games 2-5, this would’ve been a 5 game series. Instead, they struggled and allowed the Grizzlies to win three of four games that went to overtime.
Then the headline happened.
Durant doesn’t need motivation. There are some players that are self-motivated. Motivated by success. Motivated by legacy. Motivated by the hate to lose. That’s Durant. He’s been that way since day one. But sometimes, stupid headlines can piss you off to the point where it appears like motivation. If having your back against the wall wasn’t motivation enough, then this headline probably served as a accelerant, not only for Durant, but also for the entire team (coaches included).
Game 6 is more the pace that I expected to see from the team. Russell Westbrook playing a smart game, Serge Ibaka controlling the paint, Reggie Jackson giving what was needed when he was in the game, and Durant being his MVP self. More importantly, though, nothing came easy for the Grizzlies. The Thunder completely iced any pick and roll and the Grizzlies were not up to the task from the perimeter.
3 Keys to the Game
1. Adjustments – Oklahoma City made them in Game 6. The Grizzlies are being forced to make them in Game 7. The Zach Randolph suspension not only throws a wrench in the Grizzlies’ plans, but also in the Thunder’s plans. What do the Grizzlies plan to do? Will they start small with James Johnson or Mike Miller or will they remain big with either Kosta Koufos or Ed Davis? If the Grizzlies go small, expect to see Perkins’ minutes go down extensively. If the Grizzlies go big, business as usual.
2. Injured Bears – Randolph and Nick Calathes suspended. Mike Conley has a strained hamstring that he says would have kept him on the sidelines if this was a regular season game. Tony Allen is questionable because of migraines associated with an injured eye suffered in Game 6. To all of this, I say, poppycock. To me, all this information is lip service. Conley and Allen will play and will leave it all on the floor.
3. Pace – The biggest difference in Game 6 from Games 2-5, was pace. The Thunder pushed the ball and had the Grizzlies on skates all night. We’ll probably see a lot more small ball from the Grizzlies in this gam due to the Randolph suspension. But, it won’t be new to the Grizzlies. The dirty secret about the Randolph suspension is that the Grizzlies rarely played with Z-Bo in the 4th quarters of games. Gasol is a better big to have in small ball line-ups and it showed many times late in games in this series.
If you look at the recent history of the game, every great player who has won a championship needed a championship level coach to push him to the promise land. And by great player, I mean the transcendent players of their generation. In recent memory, those players have been Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Each of these players needed to go, not only through adversity, but also through a coaching change before they led a team to the championship. Tim Duncan should also be included in the list, but he has played for the same coach his entire career while racking up 4 titles in the process.
Kevin Durant, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is paving his path towards being a transcendent player. He is on his way to winning his 1st MVP, has won 4 scoring titles before the age of 26, and leads a team that has been a championship contender for the past three season. He has a top 10 player by his side in Russell Westbrook, a versatile big man that can block shots and hit mid range jumpers in Serge Ibaka, and a great 6th man in Reggie Jackson. With all this at Durant’s disposal, why is it that the Thunder are struggling with their first round opponents, the Memphis Grizzlies?
The answers to that question are like pieces of a puzzle. When you analyze everything, you’ll see that many factors are contributing to the Thunder’s struggles in the first round. First off, Memphis is not your run of the mill 7th seed. The Grizzlies struggled out the gate due to Marc Gasol’s knee injury, but finished the season on a 33-13 tear that brought them up to the 7th seed. Without Gasol’s injury, this team probably finishes in the top 5 in the Western Conference. The next factor is that Memphis is built for the playoffs. They are a half-court oriented offense with one of the best defenses the league has to offer. And, their core is playoff-tested and has been together for at least 4 seasons. But these factors are more a microcosm of who the Grizzlies are.
It’s what the Thunder are doing (or not doing) that is affecting them in this series. Oklahoma City is a team that can play a variety of ways, but they’re at their best when they are running in transition and causing havoc in the paint through penetration. But those things tend to get muddled in the playoffs. Teams protect the ball more and defenses make it a point to protect the paint. Less turnovers means less transition opportunities. More defenders in the paint means less avenues to get to the basket. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Grizzlies are great at two things: protecting the ball and defending the paint.
But with players as dynamic as Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Jackson, the Thunder should not be struggling as bad as they are in this series. Part of that could be attributed to bad luck as both Durant and Westbrook seem to be in shooting funks. Part of that could be the Grizzlies’ defense, which packs the paint and dares you to beat them with perimeter shots, of which the Thunder aren’t making. But a lot of the Thunder’s problem has to do with scheming (or lack thereof), and that falls squarely on Scott Brooks.
Unfortunately, this has always been the knock on Brooks. The lack of an offensive system rarely rears it’s head for the Thunder, except when the transition faucet is turned off, the paint is packed, and the shots aren’t falling. It’s understandable that you would have an iso-oriented system when your two best players thrive in isolation situations. But it’s also important to have a system in place when the defense keys in on those two players. And that’s what is severely lacking for the Thunder in this series.
It’s almost asinine that Brooks, with the weapons he has at his disposal and the amount of time he’s had those weapons, would never have created a fail-safe offensive system that would play, not only to the strengths of his stars, but also to the strength of the role players around them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN tweeted during Game 3, “Grizzlies know all of OKC’s plays. When the 1st option is taken away the Thunder often just shut down their offense.” If anything, last season should have been a sign that the team needs an offensive system outside of superstar iso-plays. When Westbrook went down, it should have signaled to Brooks that a change was needed in order to prevent what happened in last season’s playoffs. Instead, with Durant and Westbrook both in tow, it seems as if Brooks has defaulted even deeper into superstar isolation mode.
It’s either that, or those two superstars aren’t trusting their teammates, which leads them to take it upon themselves to try and save the day. Whether Brooks is heeding both players to look for teammates more or not, this still goes back to Brooks. If isolation ball isn’t working, get onto your superstars and tell them to run the offense. Oh yeah, I forgot. There is no offense. Ibaka, one of the best release valves in the league and probably the best target for a pick and roll outside of Durant and Westbrook is getting completely frozen out of the offense in the fourth quarter and overtime. Jackson, who up until Game 4, was struggling mightily, was basically benched for games 2 and 3. Brooks could have and should have incorporated those two into the offense even more, especially in Games 2 and 3. Instead, the Grizzlies defenders keyed in on the superstar duo and made it extremely difficult for them to get into their sets, let alone get off a good shot.
The other transcendent players I talked about in the opening had to endure coaching changes that brought about success. Michael Jordan went from Doug Collins to Phil Jackson. Kobe Bryant went from Kurt Rambis to Phil Jackson for his first three championships and from Rudy Tomjanovich to Phil Jackson for his next two championships. LeBron James went from Mike Brown to Erik Spoelstra for his two championships. The one constant between these two coaches is that they had an offensive system to fall back on. They had great players, but also a system that helped them out offensively if the opponent was exclusively targeting the star player. Jackson had the triangle offense and Spoelstra has a system that spaces the floor for James, Wade, and Bosh to operate.
It’s especially frustrating when you compare Brooks to Spoelstra. Both are young coaches in their first head coaching gigs who were basically gift-wrapped super-teams. Spoelstra found a way to develop a system that played to the strengths of all his players. Meanwhile, Brooks is still relying on the greatness of a couple players to get him out of jams. Westbrook and Durant are good enough to win you enough games to stay employed.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Brooks is a bad coach. He’s done a great job in developing the talent OKC was loaded with over the years. He’s done a great job managing egos and developing the culture the Thunder are now known for. But as an X’s and O’s coach, I think Brooks has hit his ceiling. Just like players eventually reach a point where they no longer improve, I think Brooks has gotten to that point with this team. I’ve always said that Brooks is a great coach to lead us to the mountain and maybe even to get us halfway up the mountain, but it will take another coach to get us over the mountain. If Durant and Westbrook are ever to get over the hump, they may have to do it with another coach at the helm. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve experienced too much of Brooks to think otherwise.
Going in, we knew this would be a tough series. Memphis has their short-comings, but they do two things extremely well that make them a tough out: they play defense and they play as a team. We’ve seen both of these qualities exhibited in the first two games. Even when Memphis got down by 22 at the half in Game 1, they never abandoned their principles and pulled within two points before tiring out at the end. In Game 2, Memphis’ defense made life for the Thunder miserable, but it was Memphis’ offense that came alive. The team that scored 96.1 points per game in the regular season, erupted for 111 points in the second game. Many will look to the Thunder’s offense for adjustments in Game 3, but the key will be the Thunder’s defensive adjustments.
3 Defensive Adjustments
1. Go Over the Screens – Of all the teams to go over on screens in the Western Conference playoffs, this would be the best team to do this against. Mike Conley and Ben Udrih are not willing 3-point shooters and are more comfortable on the move towards the basket. But instead, the Thunder keep going under the screens and allowing the Memphis guards to move towards the basket. This causes the defense to collapse and puts it on skates. If the Thunder perimeter defenders are able to stay in front of the drives, this will go a long way in preventing the slew of points in the paint.
2. Don’t Lose Your Man – The Thunder got caught ball watching a couple times in the game, and it cost them. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince aren’t necessarily great offensive players, but if you give them an open look near the basket, they’ll make it a high percentage of the time.
3. Rebounding – One of the big adjustments the Grizzlies made was getting back on defense after every shot in order to stop transition. If the Grizzlies are going to do that, then the Thunder cannot allow them to get 12 offensive boards, three of which were in the overtime period and led to four extra points.
3 Offensive Adjustments
1. Bench – If the Thunder are to win, they are going to need more than 14 points from their vaunted bench unit (which consequently, was the same amount of points that Beno Udrih scored). Derek Fisher and Caron Butler only combined for one 3-pointer on four attempts and Reggie Jackson looked like a shell of himself. Also, Steven Adams would have probably helped on the big boys from Memphis. Hopefully, the bench comes out more aggressive in Game 3.
2. Spacing – The Grizzlies like to crowd the floor with their big men. The Thunder were caught too many times either having their pick and rolls iced or picking up their dribble and not being able to find their intended target (usually Durant). The key will probably be Ibaka. If Ibaka can hit that mid-range jumper, it may cause the defender to lay off the guard and stay on Ibaka. Once that happens, Durant, Westbrook, or Jackson will have the space necessary to operate in the paint.
3. Kendrick Perkins Pick – You want to get Tony Allen off Kevin Durant? Have him meet Kendrick Perkins. Nothing malicious, but enough to send a message.