Tag Archives: Miami Heat

Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat preview (Game 41 of 82)

durant wade thunder heat

  • When: Tuesday, 20 January 2015 at 6:30 PM CST
  • Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

There was a time when this match-up was THE MATCH-UP. There was a point in time where this game would’ve gotten TNT Thursday night love or first available Sunday after football on ABC billing. Such is the power of LeBron James. With James taking his talents to Northeast Ohio, this game has been mitigated to NBATV exclusivity on the same day the President will be giving his State of the Union address. In other words, don’t expect a 4.9 viewership rating for this game.

The Thunder finally have a bit of a rhythm going to their game. They’ve won 2 of 3 since their five day break and have scored 127 points (non-overtime) in consecutive games. They beat the best team in the league and then molly-whooped a lottery team on their own floor. Though the sample size is small, the team seems to found a comfort zone with Dion Waiters that is paying instant dividends. The Waiters-Reggie Jackson combo is keeping the pressure on teams, even when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are off the floor. Another plus during the Thunder’s recent play has been Serge Ibaka’s play. He’s doing a much better job of mixing his inside and outside presence whenever the team needs it. In the Warriors game, Ibaka shredded Golden State in the 4th quarter, scoring 10 consecutive points on 4 shots (2 lay-ups, 1 dunk, and a 3-pointer), which were all assisted by Westbrook. Then, against Orlando, with the lane opening up like the Red Sea for the Thunder’s playmakers, Ibaka stepped to the outside and thrashed the Magic with four 3-pointers.

This is the first of 2 meetings this season between these two teams. These teams split their meetings last season, with each team winning on the other’s home floor.

The Opponent

MIAMI HEAT V ATLANTA HAWKS

The Miami Heat currently stand at 18-22, good for 7th in the Eastern Conference. They are bottom third in most statistical categories. They are the slowest team in the league (30th in pace), which helps their scoring defense out, allowing only 97.2 points per game. Unfortunately, they only score about 93.5 points per game. The departure of LeBron James has changed the way Miami plays, and they are still adjusting to life without him. Mario Chalmers still leads the current Miami attack, but is likely not getting yelled at as much. Dwayne Wade is leading the team in scoring, at 22.1 points per game, and in assists, at 5.6 per game. When Wade has been out, rookie Shabazz Napier has stepped in. Luol Deng is still one of the premier 3 and D guys in the NBA and has been a good fit for the Heat. Up front, Chris Bosh is still one of the better inside/outside big men in the league, averaging 21.6 points on 40.5% shooting from 3-point territory. Up front, Most Improved Player candidate Hassan Whiteside has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the NBA. Whiteside’s journey has seen him go from Sacramento to Lebanon to China to the D-League, and then to Miami where he seems to have finally gotten his professional footing. Off the bench, Miami has a couple veteran players (Udonis Haslem, Danny Granger, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole), but lacks a consistent scorer.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

  • PG – Mario Chalmers
  • SG – Dwayne Wade*
  • SF – Luol Deng*
  • PF – Chris Bosh
  • C – Hassan Whiteside

* – Dwayne Wade is questionable due to a hamstring issue and Luol Deng is questionable due to illness.

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace – The Heat play at the slowest pace in the league. The Thunder, when healthy, like to move the ball up the court as quickly as possible. It would behoove the Thunder to play their brand of basketball.

westbrook chalmers thunder heat

2. Bench – The Heat have one of the weaker benches in the league. With Wade and Deng a possibility to miss the game due to various ailments, the Thunder reserves can be the key to an easy Thunder victory.

3. Half-way Point – This is the 41st game of the season a.k.a the half-way point. It will be up to the Thunder to see if they finally end up above .500 for the first time this season, or if they, once again, dip a game under .500.

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2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Divison

Southeast Division Preview

1. Washington Wizards

beal wall gortat wizards

Last season: 44-38 (2nd in the Southeast Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Indiana Pacers

Key Additions:

  • DeJuan Blair – Sign and trade from the Dallas Mavericks
  • Kris Humphries – Sign and trade from the Boston Celtics
  • Paul Pierce – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Trevor Ariza – Signed with the Houston Rockets
  • Trevor Booker – Signed with the Utah Jazz

Season Preview – The young players for the Wizards finally started coming into their own last season. John Wall became an All-Star for the first time, and Bradley Beal showed signs of being one of the best 2-guards in the league. In addition, the acquisitions of Nene and Marcin Gortat have given this team an inside/outside balance that is one of the better ones in the league. The loss of Trevor Ariza may show itself more on the defensive end, but Pierce should be an adequate stop-gap as the Wizards wait on the development of Otto Porter. The only trip up I see with this team is perimeter depth. If Wall or Beal go down for any extended amount of time, this team could be in trouble.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Wizards make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 49-33

2. Charlotte Hornets

walker jefferson hornets bobcats

Last season: 43-39 (3rd in the Southeast Division, 7th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 4 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Miami Heat.

Key Additions:

  • P.J. Hairston – Draft (No. 26 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Brian Roberts – Free agent signing
  • Lance Stephenson – Free agent signing
  • Noah Vonleh – Draft (No. 9 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Marvin Williams – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Luke Ridnour – Signed with the Orlando Magic
  • Josh McRoberts – Signed with the Miami Heat
  • Anthony Tolliver – Signed with the Phoenix Suns
  • Brendan Haywood – Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Chris Douglas-Roberts – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers

Season Preview – The Hornets (formerly the Bobcats) come into this season with as high of expectations as they’ve ever had in their 10 year reincarnation. Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho have slowly put together a balanced team that is built on defense. The key now will be developing the young talent they’ve obtained over the past 2 seasons, while also learning how to consistently win. Al Jefferson provides the Hornets with a go-to scorer, while Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be nightmares on the defensive end for opposing wings. If the Hornets can find consistent scoring from the perimeter, they may be a surprise team in the East.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Hornets make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

3. Miami Heat

wade bosh heat

Last season: 54-28 (1st in the Southeast Division, 2nd in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 loss in the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Luol Deng – Free agent signing
  • Danny Granger – Free agent signing
  • Josh McRoberts – Free agent signing
  • Shabazz Napier – Draft (No. 24 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • LeBron James – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • James Jones – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Ray Allen – Unsigned
  • Shane Battier – Retired
  • Rashard Lewis – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Toney Douglas – Signed overseas
  • Michael Beasley – unsigned

Season preview – It was a good run, boys. The four year “Big 3” experiment yielded four consecutive trips to the Finals and two championships. “Not 1, not 2…” wait, yeah, only 2. LeBron James returning back to Cleveland has brought the Heat back down a notch or two on the NBA spectrum. While Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are still in tow, the engine that made the team run is no longer there. The team that we’ve seen for the past four years will be completely different. No longer will the threat of a driving James cause defenses to collapse into the paint, leaving a plethora of wide open shooters. Instead, Miami will likely run its offense inside/out through Bosh. Gone are the shooters that provided that floor spacing for James and Wade to operate. And the lingering concern over Wade’s health still remains. The Heat will still win games, but there will be a significant drop-off from the previous four seasons.

2014-15 will successful if: The Heat make it to the Eastern Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 44-38

4. Atlanta Hawks

horford millsap korver hawks

Last season: 38-44 (4th in the Southeast Division, 8th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Indiana Pacers

Key Additions:

  • Kent Bazemore – Free agent signing
  • Adreian Payne – Draft (No. 15 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Thabo Sefolosha – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Lou Williams – Traded to the Toronto Raptors
  • Elton Brand – Unsigned
  • Gustavo Ayon – Signed overseas
  • Lucas Nogueira – Traded to the Toronto Raptors

Season preview – If there is a team in the league that wants the season to start already, it is the Atlanta Hawks. The offseason can be a cruel time for a team that is embroiled in controversy. The Bruce Levenson/Danny Ferry race fiasco is a situation that probably won’t be completely resolved until next season. On the court, Atlanta is one of those teams that’s always good enough to win more games than it should, but loses out on getting a good draft pick because of that. Al Horford returns after missing most of last season with a torn right pectoral muscle. Their front line of Horford, Pero Antic, and Paul Millsap will be one of the more dynamic front courts in the league. The addition of Sefolosha will help shore up the perimeter defensively, but will provide little from an offensive standpoint.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Hawks make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 40-42

5. Orlando Magic

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Orlando Magic

Last season: 23-59 (5th in the Southeast Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Evan Fournier – Obtained in a trade with the Denver Nuggets
  • Channing Frye – Free agent signing
  • Aaron Gordon – Draft (No. 4 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Ben Gordon – Free agent signing
  • Willie Green – Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Elfrid Payton – Draft (No. 10 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Luke Ridnour – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Jameer Nelson – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Arron Afflalo – Traded to the Denver Nuggets

Season preview – The Magic are at the point in their rebuild where they need to decide on what to do with some of their young guys. Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris will be coming up on restricted free agency next offseason, with Andrew Nicholson, Maurice Harkless, and Fournier coming up with offseason after that. The Magic will probably be a big player at the trade deadline as they need to start moving some of their young pieces for either a big name player or assets. On the court, the Magic will continue to be an uptempo transition team, especially with Payton manning the point. Victor Oladipo will need to show improvement on his jump-shot, but Ben Gordon and Frye will provide some of the spacing Oladipo needs to operate. I see the Magic slightly improving, but still struggling to consistently win.

2014-15 will be successful if: The young guys continue to develop and the Magic end up with a Top 7 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 26-56

Enjoy the Moment: Durant and the MVP

durant thunder

Since the NBA’s first season in 1955-56, there have been 58 MVP’s. Those MVP’s have been won by 29 different players in 19 different cities (four of which currently don’t have NBA franchises). Of the 30 teams in the current NBA, 15 of those cities have never experienced an MVP season by one of their players. So when the inevitable happens and Kevin Durant is named the 2013-14 NBA MVP, Oklahoma City will join an exclusive fraternity of cities that have experienced a magical individual season by one of their players.

Oklahoma City has been lucky enough, in its short time as an NBA franchise, to experience a Coach of  the Year (Brooks, 2010), a Sixth Man of the Year (Harden, 2012), and a Rookie of the Year (Paul, 2006 with the New Orleans/OKC Hornets). The ultimate goal as a sports franchise is to win a championship. But what are teams but a collection of individuals. And if your team, if your city, houses the best individual player in that sport, that is like winning a championship in and of itself.

When an MVP season plays out, you see it coming. Of the 450-500 players that cycle through the league in a given season, only about 2-3 players are deserving of even being considered for the top individual prize in the NBA. And if you, as a fan of that team, are lucky enough to enjoy that experience, then you need to savor it. Because for as much as we like to think that MVP’s and championships will beget more MVP’s and championship, the future is never a definite when it comes to sports. The Russell Westbrook injury last season taught us that. A twist of the knee here, a tweak of the back there, an argument with the front office, and that player could be gone in an instant. Prime example is the last man to win an MVP not named LeBron James. Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose won the MVP in his third season in the league. He looked well on his way to contending for (and possibly winning) multiple MVP’s. But you know the rest of the story. Injuries and re-injuries have completely derailed his career to the point where we wonder whether he’ll ever get back to the MVP form he had pre-injury.

It’s not everyday you get to witness greatness. There are plenty of good players in the league. In any given game, you may see a 20-point scorer, a double digit rounder, or a defensive maven. Most nights the names change. But for MVP candidates, that dominance is seen on a night in/night out basis, over the course of an entire season. That degree of excellence goes from late October usually into late May/early June. That consistency is probably the biggest factor in determining who is MVP-worthy and who isn’t. It’s easy to get up for a game against Miami on a prime time Thursday TNT telecast. It’s that much harder to get up for a Tuesday night game in January against the Milwaukee Bucks. But those select few do it every night.

durant lebron james thunder heat

Eat it up Oklahoma City. Our story is a weird one in which we were basically gift wrapped a once in a generation player. Most cities, when they first get a team, have to toil around in the dredges of the league before they finally find those couple of players that actually make them competitive. But OKC was like “insta-rice”. We got the team, popped in the microwave for one minute (season) and, Voila!, playoff contender. It happened so quickly, that media decided to call it the OKC model of team rebuilding. This model, though, only works if you get a player like Durant in your clutches. It will be very interesting to see where teams like Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and New Orleans stand in about 3 years when their rebuilds should start bearing fruit.

I always wonder how the OKC fan base will be react when this current run ends. Whether its in two years (a.k.a Durant’s free agency) or in 15 years, Thunder fans have been spoiled beyond belief. But this is the NBA, and success is very cyclical, especially for small market teams. Most Oklahoma fans suffer from what is locally called, the “Sooner mentality”. In three words, the Sooner mentality means “Championship, or bust!”. And we are starting to see that with Thunder fans. Lose a game in a series, and there is a section of fans that is clamoring for Scott Brooks’ head on a platter, and another section clamoring for Thunder GM Sam Presti to sign every available free agent, luxury tax and careful budgeting be damned. Those are the fans I wish I could grab by the shoulders, shake them a bit, look into their eyes, and say, “Stop worrying and enjoy this moment! It may repeat itself next season, but it also may be a once in a lifetime event”.

As we enjoy this moment, look back on the season that made Durant an MVP. Don’t focus on the numbers though. Even though the numbers improved, they don’t tell the entire story. Focus on the maturation of the man. Many players hit their head on ceilings they create because they get satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. Like the theme in the poem Ozymandias, they stand there relishing their accomplishments without realizing their satisfaction will eventually be their downfall. Durant could have been one of those players, and he still would have been considered great. But, instead, he took the hard lessons from the previous season and focused on how he could get better. It is a rare trait in a player to never find satisfaction in their successes. Instead of basking in the glow of their brilliance, they instead survey the field and know that others will be coming after what they have. LeBron James made that transition three seasons ago. Kobe Bryant before him. And Michael Jordan before him. This is the road the Durant is on, and luckily, for us, like Route 66 and I-44, that road runs straight through Oklahoma City. Congratulations Kevin. We are all proud of you.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 74 of 82)

westbrook ginobili thunder spurs

  • When: Thursday, 03 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Here’s a list of things that have happened since the Thunder last took the court:

  • The baseball season started and most teams have played at least 3 games.
  • Chile has been hit by two earthquakes that have measured over 7.5 on the Richter scale.
  • There was another shooting on Fort Hood.
  • HIMYM ended.
  • The Malaysian flight still hasn’t been found.
  • And the Spurs still haven’t lost a game in over a month.

As the Thunder head into the stretch run of the season, I think they sit pretty comfortably where they currently are. Would they like the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference? Of course. But the Thunder/Spurs dynamic is weird because the Spurs give everyone else fits (yes, even Miami), but we’re just about the team that gives the Spurs fits. It’s almost like we unlocked a cheat code when we beat them four straight games in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Since that series, the Thunder have won 5 of 7 in the last two seasons, to include going 3 of 3 this season.

The Opponent

perkins diaw leonard green duncan thunder spurs

The Spurs currently find themselves at 59-16, atop the entire league in terms of record. They haven’t lost a game since February 21st (19 straight) and have been beating opponents by an average of 16.8 ppg during the streak. The streak has coincided with the Spurs getting healthier as the season has progressed. After losing Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter for parts of the season, the Spurs have regrouped and this streak has been the result. The constants this season, as has been the case every season for the past decade have been Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and head coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs system is predicated on the defense collapsing on penetrators (Parker or Ginobili) or post players (Duncan) and kicking the ball out to a bevy of shooters who all shoot over 37.5% from 3-point territory. The bench is one of the stronger ones in the league with vets like Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Ginobili, and Patty Mills all contributing starter minutes.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

San Antonio Spurs

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

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Preparedness – There’s a reason the Starting Line-ups section of this preview comes with the word Probable in front of it. When it comes to the regular season, you never know what Gregg Popovich is going to do. Mentally, you have to be prepared for anything. Many teams make the mistake of easing off the gas pedal when they see that Pop is resting a couple starters. The Spurs’ bench players are great in spurts and can make a team pay if they don’t bring their A game.

2. Perimeter defense – The Spurs have 7 players that average at least 18.5 minutes per game and shoot at least 34.3% from the 3-point line. As a team, they shoot nearly 40% (39.9) from the arc. To say the 3-point shot is a big part of San Antonio’s offense, would be a gross understatement. It will be interesting to see who starts out on Parker defensively. It’s usually Thabo Sefolosha, but with him out, will Westbrook remain disciplined and stay in front of Parker the entire game?

jackson ginobili thunder spurs

 

3. Reggie Jackson – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will give you what they usually give you. But the Spurs killer of late has been Jackson. If he can take charge of the game when the bench is in the game, he could be the difference in the game.

Scoreboard Watching (2014 edition)

durant westbrook thunder

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

1. San Antonio Spurs

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

Serge Ibaka

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

2. Dallas Mavericks

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

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

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

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

3 and 4. Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat

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

heat pacers

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

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

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

5. New York Knicks

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

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

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

The Thunder and their Recent Struggles

westbrook thunder

Everybody take a deep breath. Count to 10. Back up off the ledge, and calm down. 

Good. Now let’s begin.

Heading into the All-Star break, the Oklahoma City Thunder were probably the hottest team in the league. They had won 15 of their previous 17 games, and had the look of being the best team in the league. Kevin Durant was Reaping, Serge Ibaka was becoming the best roller in the pick and roll NBA, Derek Fisher was hitting every game-changing 3 that he shot, and everybody else was handling their roles to a T.  The weren’t just surviving while awaiting the return of Russell Westbrook; they were thriving.

Sometimes, though, the worst thing for a team on a roll is a break. It happens all the time when teams head into halftime. Earlier this season, the Houston Rockets scored 73 on the Thunder in the first half of a game, but could only muster 19 total points after halftime. It happens in the playoffs, where a team may have a break of 4 or more days due to dispatching their opponent in quick fashion, and having to wait for their opponent to finish their series. And it may happen during the All-Star break, as it did with the Thunder, where a team goes in hot, but comes out of the break a little out of sync.

Here are a couple other factors that may explain the Thunder’s slow start to the unofficial second half of the season.

Period of Adjustment

In my experience working with the military, I’ve seen many cases where one spouse deploys while the other spouse stays at home to care for the house and the kids. During this period, the spouse that stays at home usually tightens the ship and sticks to a strict routine. This routine helps maintain order during a chaotic time (deployments). Eventually, the deployed service member comes home and all is great with the world, right? Wrong. There’s usually a period of adjustment where the deployed spouse has to get used to the routine the home-bound spouse has established, and the home-bound spouse has to get used to having another variable in her established routine. Talk to anyone who has gone through, and they’ll more than likely tell you that it was not an easy transition.

In the Thunder’s past 71 games (to include last season’s playoffs and this season’s preseason), Westbrook has only been in the lineup for 26 of those games. Despite early struggles, the Thunder have learned how to play without Westbrook. Since the game after the Christmas, the Thunder have posted a .750 winning percentage, all without Westbrook. To think that there would not be an adjustment period would have been short sighted.

kevin durant thunder

The Thunder have to be more careful with Westbrook this time around. The last time Westbrook came back, he was full tilt from the get go. That may or may not have contributed to the setback that necessitated a third surgery on Westbrook’s knee. At the same time, Westbrook has to adjust to playing in shorter spurts. Westbrook is the type of player that continuously grinds until he wears the opposing team out. That takes time. Without that time on the floor, Westbrook’s effect is muted a bit.

Fatigue

The starters and veteran bench players are playing nearly the same amount of minutes they usually play. In fact, Durant is actually playing the least amount of minutes per game since the team arrived in Oklahoma City. The fatigue issue  is more geared towards the younger players in the rotation, namely Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.

Minutes played

Player Season Regular Season D-League Postseason Total
Reggie Jackson 2012-13 991 114 368 1473
2013-14 1634  0  N/A  1634
Jeremy Lamb 2012-13 147 691 0 838
2013-14 1259  0  N/A  1259

Those are significant jumps in minutes per game. Lamb and Jackson may not yet be used to the grind that is an 82 game season, and the Thunder may be seeing the effects fatigue has on their play.

Rhythm

As mentioned before, the worst thing for a team on a roll is a break. From the Christmas game to the All-Star break, the Thunder played either every other day or back to back. They only had one 2-day break in that time frame. While that leads to fatigue, it also leads to a rhythm. When you play nearly everyday, you tend to become much more in sync with your teammates. That “in sync-ness” then turns into chemistry. And if you have a talented roster, that chemistry can start to produce wins in bunches.

sefolosha ibaka jackson thunder

That’s what the Thunder had in January and early February. Durant was Reaping, Ibaka was the mid-range king, and all the role players were performing their roles. Then came the week long All-Star break. While that week long break may have rested a nagging injury here or there, the rhythm and chemistry that was gained before the break was at risk to be lost. Add to that Westbrook returning from injury and several more 2 day breaks in between games, and you get what you see now: a team in a bit of a funk.

National TV likes to see great teams matched up against great teams.

New Flash! The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers are pretty good team. It’s not like the Thunder were playing the Sisters of the Poor the first two games back from the All-Star break. These are 2 of the best teams in the league and we caught them when we were in a bit of a transition phase. I’m not usually one for excuses, but these are the realities of the current situation.

The Thunder will make it out of this funk. But the season doesn’t stop. On the first game back from the break, with Westbrook finally back from injury, the Thunder lost center Kendrick Perkins for up to 6 weeks due to a strained groin that had to be surgically repaired. He should be back by the start of the playoffs. But the season marches on. In the grand scheme of things, these last two games were just 2 of 82. Look for the Thunder to readjust and get better in time for the playoffs.

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

westbrook james jones heat thunder

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

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

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

The Opponent

bosh james wade heat

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

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Miami Heat

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

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

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

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

bosh ibaka thunder heat

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

The Thunder and the Trading Deadline (2014 Edition)

thabo sefolosha thunder

Heading into the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in the unfamiliar position of being a title contender, while also having a war chest worth of assets that would make any team in rebuild mode jealous. Most championship contending teams have an experienced core that was obtained by trading away assets. But the James Harden trade from the beginning of last season gave the Thunder some cap flexibility and assets to play with heading into this season. They have a veteran on an extremely cap friendly expiring contract (Thabo Sefolosha), young players with potential on rookie scale contracts (Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Perry Jones), an extra draft pick (Dallas’ protected 1st rounder), and two sizable Traded Player Exceptions.

They have everything necessary to make a monster trade. But two important questions come to mind when a team nears the trade deadline. The first question is “What does the team need?”. Every team has weaknesses that can be addressed via a trade. The important thing when it comes to addressing weaknesses is what does the team have to offer and what is the team willing to give up. Those two things may seem to be the same, but are entirely different. For example, the Heat can address any of their weaknesses by trading Chris Bosh. But in reality, the Heat will, instead, choose to make a smaller deal or stand pat.  Which leads to the second question, “Does the team need to make a trade?”.

When a team has the best record heading into the All Star break, while also missing their 2nd best player for much of the first half of the season, the above question becomes a valid one. Much of the Thunder’s success can be attributed to the chemistry the team has cultivated over the years. Making a trade now, especially one where a rotational player is traded, could have it’s consequences.

Two things have to be weighed when contemplating a trade: how the trade affects you currently and how the trade can affect you in the future. The reality with the Thunder is that they will be toeing the tax line for the foreseeable future. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka on max (or near max) deals, finding bargains will be the rule of the land. Anything that includes extra salary and extra years will probably be nixed.

durant ibaka westbrook thunder

Another thing to factor is the fact that the Thunder have assets that are not currently on the roster, but could come into play as early as next season. Tibor Pleiss, the Thunder’s 2nd round Eurostash from 2010, could possibly join the team next season. Another possible roster spot could go to Grant Jerrett next season. The stretch 4 out of Arizona was acquired by the Thunder in the 2nd round of last year’s draft. His rights are still owned by the Thunder as he develops in Tulsa under the guise of the Thunder D-League team.

Also, the team will have to decide if obtaining a player will have any impact on future roster moves, such as extending Jackson and/or Sefolosha. Only the front office knows what they plan to do with those two players, but their futures will probably have a bearing on what the Thunder do this season at the trade deadline.

In the end, the first question asked comes into play. What, exactly, do the Thunder need? They head into the All-Star break with the best record in the league. They are top 5 in offense (ppg), offensive rating, defensive rating, and rebounds. They are top 10 in points allowed and 2nd in margin of victory. And they have done this with their All-Star point guard  missing more games than he’s played. So, what exactly, does this team need? It’s like asking the guy who has everything what he wants for Christmas.

jones jackson lamb ibaka durant westbrook thunder

I can only see two areas of need for this team: 3-point shooting and point guard depth. If there is a player that could supply both while not minding being the 11th or 12th man on this team, then I’m all for it. Only problem is there aren’t many players like that. Point guards with the ability to shoot usually find their ways into line-ups.

So where does that leave us? I think the Thunder will stand pat as far as their current roster is concerned. Realistically, their most available assets are two empty roster spots, a $2.3 million trade exception, Hasheem Thabeet ($1.2 million this season), two future 2nd rounders from the Ryan Gomes trade, and possibly their own first rounder for this upcoming draft (slotted to be in the 28-30 range). I think the Thunder will attempt to get a shooter with their trade exception, possibly CJ Miles of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Anthony Morrow of the New Orleans Pelicans. Then I think they’ll sign Royal Ivey for the rest of the season once his season is done in China.

sam presti thunder

The Thunder don’t have to do much tinkering. Their biggest acquisition may be the return of Russell Westbrook from injury. They have enough roster flexibility to adapt to any style thrown at them. And they have enough experience to get through any rough patch. As long as health does not become a factor, they should finish the regular season out in the same fashion they went into the All Star break. But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I imagine Sam Presti reading this article, letting out a diabolical laugh, and calling up Adam Silver to put his stamp of approval on a 12 team, 38 player trade involving 25 draft picks, 13 Euro-stashes, and $21 million dollars worth of cash considerations right at the trade deadline.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Brooklyn Nets preview (Game 48 of 82)

Brooklyn Nets vs Oklahoma City Thunder

  • When: Friday, 31 January 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

After finally beating the Miami Heat for the first time in 7 games (to include the playoffs), the Oklahoma City Thunder are on the 2nd leg of their 3-city revenge tour. Okay, it isn’t that serious, but it sure makes the 3 game road trip sound even awesomer. What is completely awesome, though, is the play of one, Kevin Wayne Durant. Twelve straight games of 30 points or more, which is the third longest streak in the last 30 years. I have a feeling that OKC fans will begin to hate Brooklyn after this season. With all the talk about them targeting Durant (like 28 other teams won’t try either), the countdown has already started for Durant’s “Decision”.

This is the 2nd meeting of the year between these two teams. The Nets won the first game on a Joe Johnson jumper at the buzzer to cap a furious comeback. The Thunder led by 11 after three quarters, but let the veteran Nets hang around long enough to get off one last shot. In that game, Durant led the Thunder with (ONLY!) 24 points, while Deron Williams and Paul Pierce combined for 47 points for the Nets.

The Opponent

Alan Anderson, Deron Williams, Reggie Evans

The Thunder game seemed to galvanize the Nets’ season. They have gone 9-2 since that game, after starting the season 10-21. At risk of being labeled one of the biggest busts in sports history due to their high pay-roll and star player acquisitions, the Nets have seemingly saved their season and find themselves in position to make the playoffs in the East (which honestly, isn’t saying much). In their defense, the Nets have suffered some injuries; most notably, the season ending broken foot to Brook Lopez and the lingering ankle issues affecting Deron Williams. In the absence of Williams, the Nets have been helped by the transplanted Celtics trio of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry. While at times it seems like the trio has aged 5 years in one offseason, there are also times where their greatness shows. The resurgence of Shaun Livingston has also helped to ease the absence of Williams. The bench is veteran laden with dependable role players like Terry, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, and Andrei Kirilenko. Also of note, Williams will be coming off the bench in this game.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Brooklyn Nets

  • PG – Shaun Livingston
  • SG – Joe Johnson
  • SF – Alan Anderson
  • PF – Paul Pierce
  • C – Kevin Garnett

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Match-Up Problems – With Pierce being the de-facto power forward, how does that affect how the Thunder defends the starting line-up for the Nets. Ibaka would be better served to guard someone like Evans or Blatche, but those guys are coming off the bench. It’ll be interesting to see how Ibaka defends Pierce.

2. Transition – Other than Mason Plumlee, nothing about the Nets screams young. They are an older veteran bunch. If the Thunder are able to force turnovers or long misses, they should be able to jump start a lot of their offense via transition.

durant thunder dunk

3. The Streak – It has officially become “a thing”. From here on out, every team will try to stop Durant’s scoring streak. Luckily, Durant is not the type of player to focus solely on the streak. He’ll make the right basketball play (which is usually him scoring) and won’t go all lone wolf on the team. 

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

lebron james kevin durant thunder heat

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

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

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

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

The Opponent

miami heat harlem shake

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

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

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

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

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

perkins brooks thunder

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

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

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

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

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

durant james thunder heat

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