Tag Archives: Metta World Peace

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

thunder western conference champs

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

nba lockout

When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

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Enjoying the Storm: Westbrook and Reality

westbrook injury

There’s a saying for any situation in life. Believe me, I know. My mother has spouted off at least 85% of those sayings to me, all in Spanish. When the news came down that Russell Westbrook would be having surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear, I went through the 5 stages of grief pretty quickly:

  • Denial – I thought it was a joke. I mean, the man played on the injury the entire 2nd half of game 2 and racked up 29 points. One time I ripped a hang nail from my finger and was out of commission for 3 days. You’re telling me this man tore a shock absorber in his knee and was able to play 24 more minutes of playoff basketball successfully? There’s no way he would be needing surgery.
  • Anger – Damn you Patrick Beverly. Yes, the “play on the ball before a timeout” play is one that a lot of players, Westbrook included, make to the tune of a 0.00000001% success rate. But injuries very rarely happen on those plays, especially surgery-requiring injuries. The fact that he completely launched his  body into a defenseless Westbrook was reckless and inexcusable. So, again, damn you Patrick Beverly.
  • Bargaining – After realizing that this upcoming surgery was not a joke, I started bargaining on Westbrook’s knee. I figured since he played on the injury, it must not be that bad. So, if it wasn’t that serious, maybe he’ll have surgery and come back in 12 days, like Crazy Uncle Ron Ron (Metta World Peace). I figured, at worst, he’d be out for 2-4 weeks. My logic was that if we could somehow push our 2nd round opponent to more than Game 5 or actually make it to the Western Conference Finals, then maybe there was a chance that Westbrook may come back to play for the Thunder this postseason. As you can tell, there was a lot of maybe’s in my bargaining session.
  • Depression – When the news came out after the surgery that Westbrook would be out for the entire playoffs, this was when “basketball fan” depression set in. The Thunder had battled all season long, not only to garner the Number 1 seed in the West, but also to exorcise the demons that remained from the James Harden trade. And now, against Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, to have it all disintegrate on a reckless, stupid play, was completely and utterly disheartening.
  • Acceptance – Almost immediately after hearing that Westbrook would be out for the remainder of the playoffs, and after the depression wore off, I accepted that Russell Westbrook would not be walking through those doors in a jersey this season. It was after I accepted this fact that my mindset on this team changed. It was no longer championship or bust. Now it was about getting better and hardening our will for future success. Would I love to see a historic championship run this season? Of course, but the basketball analyst/realist in me knows, that without Westbrook, the mountains that are the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat just got a lot higher to overcome.

thunder starters

Once I had gone through my stages of grief, I started thinking about some of those sayings and how they apply to this current team. The first one that comes to mind is, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I’ve always wondered how this team would react to a serious injury to either Kevin Durant or Westbrook. The Thunder have been beyond blessed when it has come to the health of their players, especially the starters. Since March 14th 2011, to include the regular season, the postseason, and the first 2 games of this postseason, the starters for the Thunder have played in 96.8% of those games together. That’s unheard of in the NBA. And none of the injuries have ever been serious. Now, the team is having to regroup on the fly due to an injury to their Iron Man.

reggie jax

From a player development standpoint, though, this is not a bad thing. What better way to cut your teeth than in the NBA playoffs? Reggie Jackson has steadily progressed in the last two seasons from a wide eyed rookie using his off arm to protect his dribble in traffic to leader of the bench unit on a championship caliber team. The time he is getting as a starter will have the same effect on his confidence as when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all played in the Olympics. The “knowing that you belong” aspect of professional sports is often overlooked, but is very important in a young player’s maturation process.

Moving Jackson over to starting point guard also opens up a spot in the rotation for another bench player. Playing against a team that relies heavily on small ball lineups, pick-n-rolls, and 3-point shooting, DeAndre Liggins has done his job extremely well in his allotted minutes. Used mainly as a perimeter defender, Liggins has averaged 10 minutes per game and is a +11 combined in the two games since Westbrook’s injury. He’s disrupted the Rockets’ rhythm on PnR’s, has jumped out on the shooters, and has been surprisingly good on the defensive boards. This real time experience in the playoffs can do wonders for a player’s confidence moving forward. As the team (hopefully) moves ahead in these playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether any of the other young, seldom used bench players (Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Daniel Orton) will contribute any meaningful minutes. The “next man up” motto holds very true for the Thunder in these playoffs.

DeAndre Liggins, Omer Asik

As the Thunder continue battling in the playoffs, another saying comes to mind: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Just because one of your best players goes down, doesn’t mean that you stop playing. Look at the Golden State Warriors. David Lee goes down with a torn hip flexor in game 1 of their series against the Denver Nuggets and the team (especially Steph Curry and Jarrett Jack) responds to give them a commanding 3-1 series lead. Kevin Durant knows what’s ahead of him. He knows that from now on he will be Option A, B, and sometimes C for the Thunder. He knows that defenses will key on him with not only their best perimeter defender, but also with a 2nd and, possibly, 3rd defender. He knows this, and he’s ready. Players like Durant train for this moment their entire lives.  There was a time, six years ago, when Durant couldn’t even bench press 185 pounds. Now, he’s ready to carry, not just a team, but an entire city on his back.

durant

The last quote that comes to mind when I think of this Westbrook situation is, “after the storm, comes the calm.” The storm was the Westbrook injury and the chaos that ensued. But from this experience, I believe the team will be stronger, smarter, and hungrier. Players know that championship windows can close as quickly as they open. A snap of a ligament here, a tweak of a back there, or the stupidity of an over-zealous bench player, and your franchise could be set back a decade. The Thunder now know this. They won’t forget the fragility of championship opportunities. Though the expectations have been lessened, the excitement has not. It’s a new world out there just waiting to be explored.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview (Game 60 of 82)

la-sp-ln-lakers-vs-thunder-live-coverage-20130-002

  • When: Tuesday, 05 March 2013 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City OK

When the Oklahoma City Thunder handily defeated the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2nd time in the season on January 11th, I jokingly tweeted that I would only wear my “Beat LA” Thunder shirt for Clippers games from here on out. On their third meeting of the season, though, the Lakers grinded out a hard fought victory at the Staples Center and started their climb towards mediocre respectability. Since that win on January 27th, the Lakers are 11-5 and within 2 games of the 8th spot in the Western Conference playoff race. So with that, I’m currently wearing my “Beat LA “shirt. Congratulations Laker-Nation, you’ve earned by closet’s respect again.

beat la

All joking aside though, this is a big game for both parties involved. With the injury to San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker, the Thunder see this game as an opportunity to make ground on the Spurs in their quest for home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs and into the Finals. Also, this is an opportunity to keep these pesky Lakers at bay, because, truthfully, an 8-seeded Lakers team is a whole helluva lot scarier than an 8-seeded Houston Rockets or Utah Jazz team.  The Lakers, of course, see this game as a must win in their quest to salvage the season and make the playoffs.

2012 NBA - Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers (92-77) - April 16, 2012

The big question concerning the Thunder is the availability of Serge Ibaka. Because of his karate chop of Blake Griffin’s baby factory, there may be a possible suspension upcoming. As of early Tuesday afternoon, though, there has been no word from the NBA offices. If Ibaka is not available for the game, look for Perry Jones III to start in his place. Scott Brooks is not very keen on deviating from his substitution patterns and the Lakers are pretty thin at power forward, with Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill being injured. With Jones III in the starting lineup, Brooks can continue with his substitution pattern of Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet off the bench, with Kevin Durant possibly playing some power forward in the 2nd half. With all that said, though, I think Ibaka skirts by with a hefty fine and no suspension.

Probable Starters

Los Angeles Lakers

  • PG – Steve Nash
  • SG – Kobe Bryant
  • SF – Metta World Peace
  • PF – Earl Clark
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

temper

1. Composure – With the near fracas that formed in the Staples Center, and the recent comments by Kobe Bryant that he would’ve “smacked him (Ibaka) in the mouth,” look for there to be an almost playoff-like, charged atmosphere in the arena tonight. If anyone has followed Kobe Bryant’s career though, you’ll know that he uses psychology more than any other player. That statement was a psychological bait he threw out into the water. It’s up to the Thunder players to keep their composure and not take the bait.

2. KD and Russ – It will be interesting to see how the Lakers start out the game defensively. With Westbrook coming into the game playing the best basketball of his career, do the Lakers start out with Kobe on Westbrook, or do they leave Nash on him? This decision may dictate how KD plays. If Kobe start off on Westbrook, then it’s up to Durant to take over. But if Nash starts off on Westbrook, Durant should take more of the facilitator role and let Westbrook handle the weaker, slower Nash.

Kendrick+Perkins+Dwight+Howard+Oklahoma+City+N4ymZssWmZ_l

3. Perkins – Dwight Howard seems to be coming around from his earlier injuries. He seems to finally be getting into shape and he hasn’t complained about his shoulder. With that said, this is the main reason we have Kendrick Perkins on our team. Contain Howard and that forces Kobe to go into hero-mode, which works in the Thunder’s favor when you have a defender like Thabo Sefolosha.

Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012-13 Midseason Review

This was supposed to be the year where the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden was supposed to put it all together and finally reach the mountain top. These four young men who had just competed (and medaled) in the Olympics were supposed to pick up where they had left off and continue on their improvement track. From 1st round losers to Western Conference Finals losers to NBA Finals losers, the eventual next step would have been NBA Finals winners. Everyone went into training camp with that mind set.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

And then, 5 days before the season started, in the middle of a stirring football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, came the shocking news that one of the quartet had been traded. James Harden, whose contract extension talks had stalled with the team, was traded, along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and 3 draft picks. It took several days before the jaws of Oklahomans throughout the state were picked up off the ground.

Once the shock wore off, and the trade was analyzed, it was one of those instances where it was a good trade for both teams. The Thunder got a comparable player in Martin, a good young guard in Lamb, assets in the form of draft picks, and salary cap flexibility. Championship contending teams usually never have assets and salary cap flexibility, but this trade gave that back to the Thunder before they had an opportunity to lose it. Houston, in return, got a franchise player in Harden. After clearing cap space and failing to land Dwight Howard in the offseason, the Rockets were chomping at the bit for a franchise-type guy. So far, it’s been a win-win for both teams.

kmart lamb

Whether we were ready for the season or not, it still had to be played. The schedule doesn’t care whether the Thunder made a big roster move five days before the start of the season. The schedule doesn’t care that the Thunder never got the opportunity to play any pre-season games with any of its new players. All the schedule decrees is that said team be at the location of the game with at least 8 dressed players. So with that, the Thunder embarked on the first half of the season.

November 1st, 2012 – November 4th, 2012 : The sky is falling!!!! Grab the women and children, and head to higher ground!!!!! (1-2)

After the core rattling trade five days prior, the Thunder had to open their season on the road against their Western Conference Finals opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. The game was back and forth most of the night with neither team controlling the game. In the final minute with the Spurs down by three, Tony Parker hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to tie the game. On the Thunder’s next possession, with the opportunity to take the lead, Russell Westbrook turned the ball over to give the Spurs one final shot. Tony Parker calmly sank a 21-footer at the buzzer to give the Spurs the victory.

parker

Of course, panic set in after that. Would the Thunder ever win another game again? Is this the beginning of the Curse of the Beard? Would we have won that game had James Harden not been traded? The second game was against the Portland Trailblazers in Oklahoma City. The Thunder easily dispatched of the Trailblazers in expected fashion. But that did little to quell the panic of the fan base, especially when Harden was in Houston averaging 35.3 points per game after the first three games of the season.

harden

The Thunder entered the third game of the season with high hopes. But after 21 turnovers and an inability to make shots in the second half, the Thunder lost to the Atlanta Hawks to bring their record to 1-2. Needless to say, some in the fan base were ready to jump off of the Devon Energy Tower.

Novemeber 6th, 2012 – November 23rd, 2012: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. (8-2)

This home heavy stretch against lesser opponents is just what the doctor ordered, not only for the team, but also for the fan base. After the Atlanta loss, the Thunder reeled off five straight win against 3 likely lottery teams (Cleveland, Detroit (x2), and Toronto), and one injury ravaged team (Chicago). It’s almost like the team had a mini training camp with these 5 games serving as preseason games. The players got a sense of what their roles were, and the coaching staff got a sense of how the rotation would work.

team

Then we played the Memphis Grizzlies, and got man-handled. The big boys (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) did work inside and Rudy Gay went all KD on the Thunder, hitting seemingly every big shot in the 4th quarter. The fear that engulfed the fan base at the beginning of the season changed from, “When will we win a game?” to “Will we be able to hang with the top teams in the West?”

Those fears were eased a little when the Thunder won their next 3 games, the final two being against Western Conference playoff hopefuls Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Against the Warriors, Kevin Durant notched his first career triple double with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Thunder went on the road and lost against the Boston Celtics after that in a close game. Overall, the feeling at this point in the season is that the Thunder were starting to get it together, but still had some kinks to work out.

November 24th, 2012 – December 19th, 2012: We’re going streaking!!!!! (12-0)

This is where the team seemed to put it all together. During this stretch of games, the Thunder beat their opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. The team averaged 108.6 points per game. That is an astonishing run. The winning percentage of the teams that the Thunder beat during this streak was .477, not necessarily power house numbers, but not necessarily the Sisters of the Poor, either.

There were some very important things that happened during the streak:

1)      We completely emasculated a team. In the second game of the streak, the Thunder beat the Charlotte Bobcats 114-69. The Bobcats were riding high coming into the game at 7-5, the same amount of victories as the previous season. The young Bobcats were looking to show what they could do against one of the big boys in the league. And the Thunder just beat them with their own stick. To a team that was still feeling itself out, this victory is just what they needed to prove to themselves that they could still run somebody out of the gym if necessary. The beating was so bad for the Bobcats that they did not win another game for the next month (17 games total after that).

2)      In the next game, the Thunder exorcised any demons from the trade and beat James Harden and the Houston Rockets handily, 120-98. While the game started off as a walk down memory lane, it quickly turned into an “us versus them” mentality when Harden had a spat that momentarily had Hasheem Thabeet ejected from the game. After that, Harden became another opponent that received boos. And the cherry on the top was that Harden completely struggled against the Thunder shooting 3-16 for 17 points, well below his average.

harden thabeet

3)      We dominated the Los Angeles Lakers at home 114-108. I know these aren’t the Lakers from a couple years ago. But this was the superteam that was constructed in the offseason to battle the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. When Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were added to the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, it sent shockwaves through the league that this would be the new team to beat. Though chemistry issues have kept the Lakers from achieving this, it was still good to beat them and let them know that we still run the West.

4)      We beat the Spurs handily at home 107-93. With the Lakers struggling, this team is probably our biggest rival. With the Western Conference Finals last season, and the close game the Spurs won to start the season, this was a pivotal matchup for the Thunder, not only record-wise, but mentally also.

December 20th, 2012 – January 7th, 2013 – Holiday sputter (5-4)

It’s a funny thing about perspective. If I were to tell you that we’ve won 17 of our last 21 games, you’d probably think that’s a pretty good run. But, if I told you that we’ve lost 4 of our last 9 games, you’d probably think that we are struggling a bit. This is where the Thunder found themselves at this point in the season. After winning 12 in a row, they lost on the road to an upstart Minnesota team that was just beginning to put it all together, before injuries once again derailed their season. Then, the Thunder lost on Christmas day to the Miami Heat. The one monkey that still hangs on the team’s back is the ability to consistently beat Miami.

russ miami

After the Miami loss, the Thunder went on to win 5 of their next 7. One of the losses was against the Davids of the NBA, or as I like to call them, the Washington Wizards. This Wizards team, with the worst record in the NBA, always seems to play its best against the Goliath’s of the league. They’ve already beaten the Heat once this season, and they beat the Thunder last season also. It’s just something about that slingshot.

January 9th, 2013 – January 20th, 2013 – Wonder Twins activate! (6-1)

This is what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done in the past 7 games:

  • KD – 35.9 points / 6.1 rebounds / 4.1 assists /1.7 steals / 1.3 blocks per game
  • RW – 29.0 points /6.7 rebounds /7.1 assists /1.0 steal per game

What these two guys have been doing the past two weeks has been nothing short of dominant. Durant had a career high 52 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks during this stretch. And Westbrook has notched 4 straight games of 30 points or more. It’s become a tradition that when the Thunder trade away a major player, someone steps up in his place. When Jeff Green was traded two seasons ago, Serge Ibaka and James Harden stepped up their games and the Thunder continued improving. This time around, when Harden was traded, Ibaka has elevated his game to another level, and the two superstars have gotten even better.

durant-westbrook

The Thunder ended the first half of the season with a 32-9 record, good for best in the league. They are the last team with single digit losses and have the best scoring differential in the league, at +9.0. Looking forward, the second half of the season will be a little bit tougher, though. The Thunder will have 3 more road games and the teams they’ll be facing have a combined .511 winning percentage. In the end, I see the Thunder ending up with the number 1 seed, not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA with a 63-19 record.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers Preview (Game 36 of 82)

russ 4

  • When: Friday, 11 January 2013 at 9:30 CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

So the Los Angeles Lakers stand at 15-20, losers of five in a row, and in 11th place in the Western Conference. Even at their lowest, a game against the Lakers still includes bright lights and heightened exposure. Lakers fans and the NBA, as a whole, seems to have gone all “Chicken Little” with the Lakers’ current state, and yet, there remains an aura of hope that they will begin to click and reel off wins. So far, though, the Mike D’Antoni era Lakers have performed well below expectations.

 The Oklahoma City Thunder come into the game with a 27-8 record, having defeated the injury-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves, 106-84, in their last game. Since losing to the Lakers in the 2010 playoffs, the Thunder are 8-4 against them to include a 4-1 series drubbing in the second round of last season’s postseason. The Thunder defeated the Lakers in their first meeting of this season 114-108. Russell Westbrook set the tone in that game, going for 27 of his 33 points in the 1st half. Durant punctuated the 2nd half of that game with 18 of his 36 points. Kobe Bryant scored 35 points for the Lakers, who were without Pau Gasol.

 The Opponent

lakers2012-2013

 The Lakers are currently a team in disarray due to various reasons. First off, injuries have depleted the front line, with Dwight Howard (shoulder/back), Jordan Hill (hip), and Pau Gasol (concussion/knees) missing time recently. Secondly, the coaching change from Mike Brown to D’Antoni changed the entire system that was being run by the Lakers in the first month of the season. Thirdly, the chemistry is still under construction with the influx of new players, new coaches, and new systems. Fourth, the defense has been terrible, allowing 101.7 points per game, good for 26th in the NBA.

 The back court is an array of All-Stars, former MVP’s, and future Hall of Famers. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may be just a tad bit slower, but are still great at what they do. Kobe is leading the league in scoring at 30.1 ppg and Nash is still dishing out almost 9 assists per game. While still a physical defender, Metta World Peace’s dwindling athleticism has begun to affect what he is primarily on the court for. With Howard out, look for either Gasol or Robert Sacre to man the middle. The bench has been another issue for the Lakers, as the player they have do not match the system they want to run.

 Probable Starters

 Los Angeles Lakers

  •  PG – Steve Nash
  • PG – Darius Morris
  • SG – Kobe Bryant
  • SF – Metta World Peace
  • C – Pau Gasol

 Oklahoma City Thunder

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

 3 Keys To Victory

Ibaka-Perkins

  1. Weather the Storm – I have a feeling the Lakers are going to come out guns-a-blazing to start off the game. Kobe let World Peace do much of the scoring early in their previous game and that partially led to them being down 9 by halftime. Kobe will come out gunning, Nash will come out assisting, and you know some bench/unknown player (Earl Clark, Jodie Meeks) will erupt from 3 point land against us. If they get past the initial onslaught and stay defensively disciplined, the Thunder should be okay.
  2. Control the glass – With Howard definitely out and Gasol and Hill questionable, there should be no reason why the Thunder don’t win the battle of the boards by at least 8. One of the worst things to give an injured, struggling team is extra possessions.
  3. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – I don’t know what it is about these two when they play against the Lakers, but they seem to relish destroying this team. This game has Westbrook written all over it. I would think that the Lakers would start the game off with Kobe on Westbrook, but if they dare put Nash on him, watch out. Nash has lost a step or two this season, and Westbrook is one of the fastest athletes in the league.

Round 2: Lakers vs. Thunder

Redemption road. First it was the defending champions Dallas Mavericks. Now it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams that have knocked the Oklahoma City Thunder from the playoffs the last two postseasons. The two teams that have gone on to win the championship after they dispatched the Thunder. Oklahoma City did what they had to do in the first round, sweeping the Mavericks in a hard fought first round battle. Now, after a week of rest, they await the Lakers who defeated the Denver Nuggets in a surprising 7 game first round series.

If you want to know what this series will be like, go to your local city gym and observe the basketball court for about 3 hours. You’ll usually find at least one game pitting teenagers (ages 16-22) versus middle aged men (ages 35+). You’ll see the teenagers try to use their athleticism, but the middle aged guys will usually counter with smart basketball and mid-range jumpers. The game usually ends up being close and competitive. The Lakers, of course, are the middle aged guys and the Thunder are the teenagers.

The Thunder won the season series 2-1 in what has turned out to be one of the most contested matchups during the regular season. In the first matchup, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder turned a tight game in the first half into a blowout in the second half, taking the game 100-85. Kevin Durant had one of his better all-around games scoring 33 points on 12/22 shooting, grabbing 4 boards, and dishing out 6 assists. In the second meeting, in Los Angeles, the Lakers held a big lead in the first quarter, but got outscored 84-63 the rest of the way, losing 102-93. Russell Westbrook led the way this time around with 36 points and 5 assists. The 3rd game, also in Los Angeles, was known more for a body part than for a game. Aside from the whole ‘Metta World Peace’s elbow to the side of James Harden’s head’ incident, this was actually a really close game and the Lakers needed overtime to defeat the Thunder 114-106. The real story in this game was the Thunder’s inability to get going offensively in the second half once Harden was sidelined with the concussion.

The Opponent

The Los Angeles Lakers come into the game having won a hard fought 7 game series against the up-start Denver Nuggets. Six of the seven games were played without Metta World Peace, who was serving his 7 game suspension following the elbowing incident against the Thunder. Everyone knows the engine that still pushes the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, who averaged 29 points per game in their 1st round series. Most importantly though, Bryant called out his teammates for their lackadaisical effort following their performance in Game 6. The two teammates he was probably referring to the most after Game 6 were Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who both were very inconsistent in the Denver series, interspersing great games with horrible games. Ramon Sessions had an average series in his first tryst into the playoffs, perhaps showing the signs of someone who hasn’t consistently started in the league. The bench, which  has been shortened to three players, is probably the weakest one left in the playoffs. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill all have the ability to provide good minutes, but due to the short bench, can be overused and therefore rendered less effective.

Keys to the series:

1)      How healthy is Kendrick Perkins? The Thunder have said all the right things regarding Perkins’ condition. But sometimes, with a muscle like those around the hips, its takes longer for them to heal completely. It’s one of those muscles that you don’t think about at all unless it gets hurt. With the amount of lateral movement involved in basketball, one can only hope that the hip strain is completely healed and doesn’t rear its ugly head anymore in the playoffs. Look for plenty of pick and rolls involving Andrew Bynum early in Game 1.

2)      Who guards Russell Westbrook? The Lakers got their Kevin Durant defender back in Metta World Peace. But their biggest issue has always been defending Russell Westbrook. Put a slower guard on Westbrook, and he blows right by them and does his damage in the paint. Put a smaller guard on him, and he’ll post them up. Look for Ramon Sessions to start the game guarding Westbrook. But as was seen in the Denver series, quick guards can get by Sessions pretty consistently. Look for the Lakers to regularly deploy hedge defenders towards Westbrook, especially the player guarding Sefolosha. Or look for Bryant to take on the task of guarding Westbrook himself.

3)      Remember that Metta World Peace is the Lakers’ 4th best player, at best. A lot will be made about World Peace’s first game in OKC since “The Elbow”. But the focus of the game needn’t not be on the man formally known as Ron Artest. World Peace will be on his “best” behavior and will not do anything to jeopardize the Lakers’ chances. Will he push, grab, annoy, and attempt to intimidate? Does the sun rise in the East? Of course he will do all that. But the Thunder need not involve themselves in revenge plots and try to take cheap shots at World Peace. What MWP is doing in the media is classic instigation techniques. Hopefully the Thunder players don’t take the bait.

4)      How will the extended rest affect the Thunder? In the 9 days since the Thunder last played, France elected a new president, another underwear bombing plot was foiled, Portugal got rid of four holidays due to cost cutting measures, new data leads scientists to believe that the Maya really didn’t think the world would end in 2012, and President Barack Obama supported gay marriage. That’s a very long time to not be playing any type of competitive basketball. You can practice all you want, but you’ll never be able to replicate the intensity of a real game against a real opponent. The Thunder had a 3 day rest between the first and second round last year, and looked completely flat in the first game of their second round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. A rest this long is completely new territory for the young Thunder and may be a factor early in the series.

5)      Which Lakers team shows up? The Lakers will be all-in in this series. It’s Kobe’s nature to be completely tuned-in to every game he plays, whether it’s a pre-season game against the Washington Wizards or a Finals game against the Boston Celtics. It’s Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol that can sometimes suffer from bouts of Adult OnSet Attention Deficit Disorder (AOADD). Against the Nuggets, both these players shut it down in Games 5 and 6, thinking that the will of the Nuggets would wilt and they would have an easy road to the second round. But in this series, both these players know what’s at stake and will be fully focused. Metta World Peace won’t be the MWP of earlier this season. He’ll be playing like Ron Artest from Queensbridge. And that could be a game-changer. The wild card for the Lakers may be Ramon Sessions. If for any reason he shrinks in the pressure of the playoffs, the Lakers may be in trouble.

Conclusion:

This series will be a hard fought battle in which home court advantage will win out. Thunder in 7.

The Ghost of Ron Artest

By now, most people have seen and/or heard about the “elbow heard ‘round the world.” A lot of the focus has been placed on the two people involved in the incident, and rightfully so. While that type of violence may be seen in some of the more violent sports such as MMA, hockey, or football, it is rarely, if ever, seen on the basketball court. A game full of finesse and grace has little room for that kind of brutality and unhinged force. The actions by Metta World Peace not only had an immediate impact on James Harden’s sidebeard, but also may have had a reverberating effect 2000 miles away.

Even 7½ years later, the wounds from The Brawl are still very fresh. When I was down in Indianapolis a month ago, I attended a Pacers game and was completely surprised by the lack of fan support. This is a team that is young and near the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference. If there’s a team in the league that is replicating the Oklahoma City Thunder model, it has to be the Pacers. A positive team culture and a young budding core surrounded by good, upstanding veterans.

Even with the attributes of a team on the rise, I still could not find a Pacers shirt at the downtown mall. I asked some locals why they thought support for the Indiana Pacers was waning, while the support for the 2-14 football team was at an all-time high. The most resounding answer was that, to this day, they were still turned off by the Brawl. The next most popular answer was that the team wasn’t even that good. When I told them the team was in 3rd position in the Eastern Conference and a darkhorse contender, the usual response was, “Really? I didn’t even know.”

In a moment of panic, the body sets off its “all hands on deck” response called the fight or flight instinct. In that moment, the body either gears all of its energy towards escapism or violence. In that instant, a couple Pacers players chose fight over flight. It’s amazing how a moment of instinctual insanity completely shattered the view a city had of its basketball team. Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were always known as questionable characters. Loyal to a fault, but ticking time-bombs, nonetheless. Players who escaped their rough upbringings, but whose rough upbringings never escaped them.

The team, itself, was on its way to a probable championship run. It featured Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley in their young primes, Reggie Miller as the veteran seeking his first championship, and a cast of good supporting players. What was a 7-2 start to begin the 2004-05 season, ended in a 44-38 struggle to remain in the playoff picture. While many Pacers fans were initially supportive of their players for sticking up for themselves, many changed their tunes as soon as the suspensions were levied. Many fans wondered whether the selfish actions of Artest and Jackson had cost the team a title.

After The Brawl, things soured between Artest and the Pacers, and he was eventually traded the next season. Adding fuel to the fire, Stephen Jackson was involved in a shooting at an Indianapolis night club that further strained the relationship between the Pacers and their fans. The Pacers had no choice but to go the route of the Portland Trailblazers during their Jailblazers clean-up, and blow the team up. When that happens, though, you can bet on at least 2-3 season of rebuilding, if not more. Horrible teams tend to have a negative impact on fan support, further straining the relationship between the Pacers and the people of Indianapolis.

The Pacers finally made it back to the postseason last year, but with a sub-.500 record. While they were good enough to make the playoffs, they really weren’t THAT good. But this season, with the acquisitions of David West, George Hill, and Leandro Barbosa, and the continued development of Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and Paul George, the Pacers have solidified themselves as the 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference. And attendance and fan support seems to be coming along for the Pacers.

But with all these good vibes, a sad reminder happened on Sunday. A reminder of how one person’s actions can still hold so much weight on the psyche of a fan base. While this probably doesn’t affect most of the fan base, it’s that important final 10-15% that the team needs to be profitable. Those are usually the fair weather fans or the returning disenfranchised fans. With Artest’s actions though, those fans will probably think it is business as usual around the league, and will choose to stay home. Which is a shame, because the Pacers are team on the rise that needs a fan base that is also on the rise.

Now It Feels Real

01 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Bonus – How did Hasheem Thabeet perform?

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

Signed,

A fan (not that you care that much)