Tag Archives: MVP

Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 77 of 82)

lamb adams thunder howard rockets

  • When: Sunday, 05 April 2015 at 12:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Its becoming quite apparent that the race for the 8th seed in the Western Conference (and Eastern Conference, I guess) is likely coming down to the last few days of the season. Both New Orleans and Oklahoma City have 6 games remaining as of the start of Sunday, with the Thunder holding a slim one game lead. Injuries and tough schedules have made it difficult for either team to gain any separation in the standings from the other. Just when the Thunder looked like they were beginning to put it together, down go Serge Ibaka, Nick Collision, and Andre Roberson in succession to various knee and ankle ailments. Just when the Pelicans thought they could gain ground on the Thunder, down goes Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson with ankle and knee injuries. While injuries are a shame, its good to know that both teams are battling through them and remaining relatively competitive. Here’s to both remaining healthy the remainder of this season and into next season.

This is the third and final meeting of the season between these two teams. Houston has won the previous two meetings. The first game was one of the more weirder games you’ll ever see. The Thunder were down both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but completely muddied up the game and held the Rockets to 69 points in the game. Unfortunately, for the Thunder, they only scored 65 in that game. The second game featured all the star players, but lacked any real drama, as Houston opened the game with a 40-18 first quarter, and put that baby to bed early.

The Opponent

howard harden terry rockets

The Houston Rockets come into the game with a 52-24 record, half a game up on the Memphis Grizzlies for not only the Southwest Division title, but also for the 2nd seed in the playoffs. Houston general manager Daryl Morey has transformed the Houston Rockets from a purely offensive team to one that is one of the more balanced outfits in the league. They rank in the top half of most major categories and are carried by their MVP candidate shooting guard James Harden. With starting point guard Patrick Beverly sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn wrist ligament, Harden will be asked to take on more of the ball handling duties for the team. Veteran Jason Terry takes over for Beverly in the starting line-up. On the wing, Trevor Ariza has been a great addition as one of the better 3 and D guys in the league. The returns of both Terrance Jones and Dwight Howard have bolstered the Rockets’ attack, even as they work their ways back from their injuries. Off the bench, the Rockets have one of the most diverse reserve corps in the league. Josh Smith and Joey Dorsey provide help up front, while Pablo Prigioni and Corey Brewer provide wing help.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Houston Rockets

  • PG – Jason Terry
  • SG – James Harden
  • SF – Trevor Ariza
  • PF – Terrance Jones
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Enes Kanter
  • C – Steven Adams

Three Things

1. Dion Waiters – When you talk to Thunder fans about Dion Waiters, you usually hear about 2 things: his streakiness shooting the ball and his on the ball defense. Well, both will be tested against the Rockets. This group of Thunder players is at its best when Waiters is being effectively aggressive. That is, he gets to the basket, but when he gets there, he actually makes the shot or gets fouled. On the flip-side, Waiters will have to stay in front of James Harden for the Thunder to have any chance of containing the Rockets. The Rockets’ attack is almost always initiated by Harden, so staying in front of him is the key to defending the Rockets.

2. Foul Trouble – Steven Adams has struggled in the last few games with staying out of foul trouble. With Dwight Howard and James Harden both on the floor, it will be extremely important for Adams, the only defensive big currently able to play, to stay on the floor. Also, the Thunder wings have to play defense without fouling. Waiters, Westbrook, Anthony Morrow, and DJ Augustin are going to have to do more shuffling and less reaching.

westbrook thunder harden rockets mvp

3. MVP dual – This game matches two of the top three candidates for MVP this season in Westbrook and Harden. While Westbrook has won the last two Western Conference Player of the Month award and is on the Thunder, my vote this season goes to Harden. He has taken a team that many thought would struggle to make it to the playoffs at the beginning of the season and turned them into a powerhouse that is battling for the 2nd seed in the toughest conference in basketball. Westbrook has been great and is extremely valuable to the Thunder, but Harden is just a little bit more valuable to the Rockets.

Happy Easter to all my readers. Thank you for tuning in. 

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10 BOLD Predictions for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014-15 season

russell westbrook thunder intro

1. Kevin Durant will play in only 48 games this year – I’m pegging December 9th as the game Durant returns from his broken foot. If recent history is a consistent teacher, then the Thunder will likely exercise the “Russell Westbrook rehabilitation” plan when Durant returns. He’ll likely be on minutes restriction and will probably sit one of the games of a back to back for the rest of the regular season.

  • Not so bold prediction – Durant will not lead the league in minutes this season.

2. The Thunder will finish as the 5th seed in the Western Conference – With injuries already stacking up, look for the Thunder to have a season similar to what the Memphis Grizzlies had last season. They struggled in the beginning of the season, going 7-6 in their first 13 games. Then Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury, and the Grizzlies went 10-13 in his absence. In total they went 17-19 in their first 36 games. After Gasol came back, the Grizzlies went 33-13 the rest of the way to grab the 8th seed at 50-32.

The Thunder have a little bit more depth (at this point, anyways) than the Grizzlies did last season, especially when you consider the Grizzlies also lost sharpshooter Quincy Pondexter in early December of that year. They should be able to weather the storm a bit better than the Grizzlies.

3. Reggie Jackson will shoot over 40% from 3-point territory this season – In the final two months of the regular season, Reggie Jackson shot 25-61 from deep. That’s good for nearly 41%. In the playoffs, where the defenses stiffen and the pressure mounts, Jackson shot 21-53 from deep, good for 39.6%. I see no reason why that would change heading into this upcoming season.

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City THunder: Game Two

4. Serge Ibaka will not win Defensive Player of the Year – The narrative is there. Last season, in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder were severely exposed in the first 2 games with Ibaka sitting out with a serious calf injury. And if Ibaka were to duplicate his defensive stats from the last 3 seasons, he would win DPOY in a land slide. But I don’t think Ibaka will play enough games to win.

Since the calf injury, he played sparingly for the Spanish National Team this summer due to a hamstring issue. Then he missed 5 preseason games due to a sore ankle. And when he did play this preseason, he got a bit of a scare with a knee contusion.  Much like Westbrook and Durant, I think the last 5 seasons are starting to take their toll on Ibaka. You can only throw a 6’10 muscular frame around  with reckless abandon for so long before you gotta pay the piper. And this is the season where Ibaka will finally pay the piper. Not necessarily with a catastrophic injury, but more with the general nicks and knacks that come with age. I see Ibaka missing 15-18 games this season, which will impact his chances of winning DPOY.

5. Steven Adams will record 18 double-doubles this season – Adams needs two things to be offensively successful this season: To be on the floor and Russell Westbrook. The point guard/center duo developed a bit of chemistry this preseason. Adams averaged 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds this preseason in nearly 26 minutes. If you can increase that to 30 minutes and feature him more offensively, then this could definitely happen, especially with Durant missing so much time. The one thing holding him back will likely be time on the floor. Adams’ propensity for fouling will likely curb some of his minutes in some games.

6. Russell Westbrook will end up Top 5 in points, assists, usage, turnovers, and steals – The Russell Westbrook we saw in last season’s playoffs will be on full display at the beginning of this season. With the Thunder’s emphasis on ball movement, look for Westbrook to be the catalyst for this style of play. Also, with defenses keying in specifically on Westbrook, look for Westbrook to rack up at least 3 triple doubles in the first 20 games of the season. When Durant returns, Westbrook’s scoring will probably dip, but his assists will probably increase.

  • Not so bold prediction – Westbrook will finish 3rd in the MVP race (behind LeBron James and Chris Paul)

7. Mitch McGary will be a 2nd team All-Rookie member – When McGary returns from his injury (probably around Thanksgiving), he should continue to be the all-around post player that we saw in Summer League and in his 1 preseason game. The things McGary does aren’t things that necessarily go away when more skilled players are out there on the floor against him. Instead, with the likes of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Jackson, etc. around him, he should be able to create more from the mid to high post. His defense will be a problem, but,really, which rookie’s defense isn’t a problem? As the team progresses towards a more skilled nucleus, McGary will eventually supplant Nick Collison as the team’s first big off the bench. Maybe not this season, but definitely next season.

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Andre Roberson will make 65 3-pointers this season – Call me an optimist, but necessity is sometimes the catalyst to progress. Perimeter shooting is something Roberson has been working on this entire offseason. He’s already a great perimeter defender, but his offense is what will make him a bonafide NBA player/starter. With Durant being out and defenses keying in on Westbrook’s every move, Roberson will be receiving the Thabo Sefolosha treatment from defenses. Which will lead to him getting open looks from deep several time a game. The shots will eventually start falling and in the process, Roberson will make at least 65 3’s this season.

9. Kendrick Perkins will not be traded this season – Perkins and his $9.4 million dollar expiring contract will look enticing to rebuilding teams wanting to either get rid of salary or looking to get up the salary cap floor. But there are two specific reasons why the Thunder won’t trade Perkins this season (or ever for that matter). No. 1, the Thunder’s big man depth is suspect. When they traded Hasheem Thabeet this offseason, they traded the only other center on the team. Adams is an up-and-comer, but still tends to foul too much for his own good. Collison and Ibaka can play center, but are much more comfortable at the power forward spot. No. 2, Perkins has buyout free agent written all over him if he is traded. While many Thunder fans under appreciate what Perkins brings to the table, other teams, especially contenders (Chicago, Cleveland, LA Clippers) would much appreciate the toughness, intangibles, and information Perkins would provide.

10. The Thunder will beat the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals in 6 games – Nuff said. I believe! Stormy weather (November and December) leads to rainbows and sunshine (May and June).

Dumb and Dumber To – Thunder edition

durant mcgary foot thunder

There are a lot of things not to like about this picture. First of all, the face of the franchise (and the reigning MVP) is injured and will be in this state for at least the month of November. Secondly, our prized rookie, likely a match-up nightmare against many teams, is the mirror image of Durant.

But if you look at that picture with the frame of mind that both will likely make a full recovery and won’t miss more than a quarter of the season, then there is plenty to like about this photo. First off, the kid-like innocence on both of their faces is priceless. Durant’s face says “I like my new toy”, while Mitch McGary’s face says, “I’m ready to get in trouble on this thing.” Secondly, and most concerning, is why would you need handlebar pump brakes on this contraption. Are people actually racing these things at speeds that require pump brakes? Is it motorized? On second thought, let’s get these two off these things and put them in wheelchairs.

Uncharted Waters: The Thunder and the Kevin Durant injury

durant thunder injury

In life, things have a way of working out oppositely to what we expected. The job promotion you thought would make you happy, actually makes you miserable working under the megalomaniac you call your new boss. The breakup with that significant other you thought would sink you into a depression, actually allowed you to find THE ONE. Life has a strange way of finding its own equilibrium. And that’s exactly how I’m approaching this injury to Kevin Durant. There are negatives and positives to any situation, even this one.

Bad News First: The Negatives:

1. Risk of Reinjury – We saw last season how nagging surgical interventions can be. The battle is not won when the surgeon proclaims, “This surgery was a success.” On a side note, I’ve always wondered what that meant. How do you know it was successful if you haven’t even tested the fix yet? I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘the surgery was a success’ is doctor speak for ‘we operated on the correct leg and the patient is still alive’. Russell Westbrook’s initial meniscus surgery was labeled a success. But complications do occur and that’s what the Thunder faced when Westbrook’s knee began to swell during training camp. Scans were run, and it was determined that a loose internal stitch had caused the swelling. Westbrook had a second, probably minor, arthroscopic surgery to fix that issue. The second surgery kept Westbrook out all preseason and two games into the regular season. Westbrook returned on the third game of the season and played like nothing had ever happened to him. That is, until his knee began to swell again around the Christmas game. The team performed another scope of the knee, which kept Westbrook out until after the All-Star break. In all, Westbrook missed 36 games last season.

The area where Durant suffered the break is notorious for being a difficult heal spot. The blood flow to that area of the bone is much less then at the ends of the bone. There have been plenty of players who have suffered this break and have had this surgery and have come back to the game just fine. But there have been others, like Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets and CJ McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers, who have suffered reinjury of the same bone, usually within a year or two of the initial surgery.  I bring up those two names because they span the spectrum of player body types. Lopez is a 7-footer who weighs over 250 pounds and plays in the post. McCollum is a 6’3 combo guard that can take it to the rim and shoot the outside shot. Durant is like the best of both worlds: a 6’11 forward who moves like a guard. Luckily, he doesn’t pack the same mass as Lopez. Will Durant lack of size actually benefit him in his recovery from this injury or will his style of play (guard-like) be a deterrent in his recovery?

brook lopez injury

2. Falling behind in the Western Conference – A lot changed this offseason in the NBA. One thing that remained the same: the Western Conference is still brutal. Most every team in the conference either improved or stayed the course, with the exception, possibly, of Houston and Minnesota. Over the past 5 seasons, the wins average to get into the playoffs in the West has been 47 games. Prior to Durant’s injury, this team was slated to win between 58 and 62 games and be in contention for the number one seed, not only in the Western Conference, but also, throughout the playoffs. That wins estimate will probably need to be curtailed back a bit depending on when Durant gets back, and how he looks when he does get back.

A Westbrook-Ibaka-Jackson core could easily lead the Thunder to 45 wins, which may be good for an 8th seed in the West. And although the Thunder have won road playoff games before, they would much rather play in the friendly confines of the ‘Peake come playoff time. With that said, one of the biggest lessons this team has learned in the past 3 seasons is that home court advantage probably counts more in the early rounds of the playoffs than in the later rounds. Veteran teams like San Antonio and Dallas, who have routinely been to the later rounds of the playoffs, don’t really care where they play. They usually perform the same whether they are at home or on the road. Maybe the Thunder are becoming veteran enough to realize that sacrificing a couple victories in the regular season for rest, may come back to help them in the playoffs, whether its at home or on the road.

3. Derailment of Durant’s repeat MVP campaign – Is it possible that Durant could repeat as MVP this season, even while missing up to a quarter of the season? It’s plausible, but highly unlikely. First of all, the season’s narratives are all working against Durant this season. LeBron James is back in Cleveland in the homecoming of all homecomings. Derrick Rose is back after being sidelined for nearly two years due to various knee ailments. Kobe Bryant is back from injury and looking like the Bryant of old. And Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are ready to take the next step in their development after a tumultuous final year of ownership under Donald Sterling. Narrative and time on the court are both working against Durant. Hopefully, Durant is more worried about the Finals MVP, since he already has a regular season one under his belt.

Good News: The Positives

1. We’ve been here before – We’ve been through this already with Westbrook. When he was scheduled to miss the first month of the season recovering from his second knee surgery in 4 months, many Thunder fans thought the team would struggle mightily out the gates. Instead, Westbrook returned in the third game of the season, and the Thunder played like a fully healthy Thunder team would play. Then, in late December when Westbrook was slated to be out for another two months, everybody fretted about the upcoming schedule. Instead, Durant went supernova on the league (Slim Reaper) and the Thunder made it out of that run relatively unscathed. Will this be the same situation? Probably not.

The Thunder had a good replacement player for Westbrook in Reggie Jackson. While Jackson is no Westbrook, he does a lot of the same things that Westbrook does, which allows the Thunder to play their style of basketball. Unfortunately, there is no one on the roster that can mirror what Durant does for the Thunder. Perry Jones is a candidate, but doesn’t have that extra gear to be a factor on the floor. Anthony Morrow is a possibility, but, while he’s a great shooter, he struggles in creating his own shot.

So how will the Thunder survive? The same way they survived when Westbrook went down. Rely on Westbrook to provide a lot of the offense, and have other players step up their games offensively and defensively. Ibaka, Jackson, and Jeremy Lamb can each do their parts offensively. The team will probably have to start Steven Adams as he is much more offensively adept as compared to Kendrick Perkins. And coach Scott Brooks will probably have to trust his young guys a lot more. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will it be frustrating at times? Yes. Will it be exhilarating at times? Hell yeah.

jackson ibaka jones thunder

2. Young guys get to step up – A lot like last season, the Thunder young core (Adams, Lamb, Jones, and Andre Roberson) has to step up if the team is to stay afloat and succeed. If anything, this season is a big one for Lamb and Jones, as they are eligible for their first extensions after this season. If that isn’t motivation to step up your game, I don’t know what is. It’s put up or shut up time for these two players. The organization seemingly likes these two guys, but with them coming up on extensions in the next two seasons, it’s time to see if they can really be core members of the team or if they are trade bait for future assets.

Last season, when Westbrook went down, Lamb provided some of the fire power off the bench that was missing when Jackson was tasked to start. In the first half of the season, Lamb almost averaged double figures. His scoring average and playing time went down when he started slumping after the All-Star break and after the Thunder acquired veteran forward Caron Butler. Jones was used as a utility man, playing any position not named point guard or center. He showed flashes, but continues to be a mystery because his physical attributes would suggest he would dominate on the court.

The real key will be Adams and Roberson. If they are both tasked with starting, their rapid development will be tantamount to how the Thunder react to their time without Durant. If Adams is able to stay on the floor, that make Perkins and his $9 million dollar expiring contract extremely movable. If Roberson is able to get some semblance of offense, his perimeter defense will take some of the pressure off Westbrook, so he can focus on offense. The young’ins have stepped up before. They’ll be expected to do it again.

3. Kickstart to Westbrook’s MVP campaign – This is probably the most exciting part of Durant sitting out the first month of the season. I mean, the Durant sitting part isn’t exciting. But if you’re going to find a silver lining, it’s the fact that we finally get to see what a Westbrook-led Thunder team can do. And no, I do not subscribe to the train of thought that Westbrook will go all Iverson on us and jack up 25-30 shots per game. Instead, I think Westbrook will beautifully manage games, attacking when needed and distributing whenever available.

westbrook mvp

In last season’s playoffs, Westbrook was probably the 2nd best individual player in the playoffs. In 19 games, Westbrook averaged 26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists, and 2.2 steals, while outplaying the likes of Mike Conley, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker. The MVP talk for Westbrook for the upcoming season hit an uptick during those playoffs. But the reality was that Westbrook would probably never win an MVP with Durant in tow. But now, with Durant out of the picture for a stretch, Westbrook could toss his name into the MVP discussion. Other than LeBron’s homecoming, there’s no better narrative than Westbrook doing for the Thunder this season, what Durant did for them last season. Which is, carry them for long stretches and come up with game winning plays. I’m prepared to see games where Westbrook forces the issues and shoots 3-21 with 5 turnovers and the Thunder get blown out by 25. But I’m also prepared to see games like Game 4 of last season’s Western Conference Finals (40 points/ 10 assists/ 5 rebounds/ 5 steals) or Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals (43 points/5 assists/ 7 rebounds). The Westbrook Experience is just beginning.

Kevin Durant and Under Armour – Power Moves

Kevin Durant shoes nike

The saying goes, “Never judge a man until you’ve walk a mile in his shoes.”. The person who initially said that statement probably never met a superstar athlete with a shoe contract. All NBA fans (or wearers of athletic sneakers, for the matter) have walked around in a “man’s” shoes sometime in their lifetime. Be they Jordans, Kobes, LeBrons, KDs, D.Roses, Melos, etc, etc. Most of these shoes have one of 4 insignia on them: the Jordan Jumpman, the Nike swoosh, the Adidas 3-Lines, or the Reebok vector.

With Kevin Durant rumored to be signing a 10 year/$325 million dollar contact with UnderArmour, a new insignia might be forcing it’s way into our collective basketball minds. Under Armour got its start as a football-centric company, with their moisture-wicking clothing and testerone-induced advertising (“We Must Protect This House!”). Within the last 5 years though, UnderArmour  has been making a big push onto the hardwood. Their first big basketball move was signing recently graduated high school star Brandon Jennings, who eschewed the NCAA in favor of playing professionally overseas. Without the constraints of the NCAA, UnderArmour signed Jennings to a multi-year deal to promote their brand overseas. Although he has forged a good career, Jennings never quite became the star he was touted to be coming out of high school.

In September 2013, UnderArmour snagged their current flag bearer for the company’s basketball division. Steph Curry switched from Nike to UnderArmour, bringing clout to the company’s desire to ascend into the conscious (and bank accounts) of basketball fans everywhere. They had an okay stable of players on their roster, but Curry gave them a recognizable star to hang their hat on. But like the great teams in the league, one superstar is good, but two superstars are better.

steph curry shoes

Durant would push UnderArmour into a different stratosphere. The reigning MVP is fast becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the sport, not only nationally, but worldwide. His dominance in international play and constant presence in the later rounds of the playoffs have thrown Durant into the conversation for best player in the world. For UnderArmour’s name to be associated with Kevin Durant’s shoes would be a coup for the upstart company.

There would also be a hometown connection at play with UnderArmour. Their HQ’s are located in Baltimore, MD, which is relatively close to where Durant grew up. It can be speculated that Durant and UnderArmour CEO Kevin Plank have crossed paths numerous times in the DC/Maryland area. While Nike is the “it” brand in the NBA, Durant has let it be known that he is his own man. And if there is anyone that would be willing to take a chance on a hometown product, it would definitely be Durant.

A small side note on Durant: If he signs this deal, he will be on tap to have earned over $500 million for his career in salary and endorsements.

  • 2007 – Nike – $60 million
  • 2007 – Rookie contract – $16 million
  • 2010 – Contract Extension – $85 million
  • 2014 – Rumored Under Amour deal – $325 million
  • ________________________
  • Total – $486 million
  • Sprint, BBVA, Panini, 2K Sports, Skull Candy, Kind snacks, etc = Has to be over $14 million.

Related note: He’s only 25 years old. He’s halfway to earning a billion dollars with at least 10 years of earning potential left. Unless he “Tiger Woods” his life or is visited by the Injury Reaper, the basketball player from Oklahoma City may be well on his way to being one of only a few billionaire athletes. Kind of kills the whole “you need to be in a big market to increase your earning potential” talk.

Five Thoughts from the Clippers Series

durant griffin thunder clippers

With a 104-98 win in Game 6 of their 2nd round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in four years. Before we look ahead to the San Antonio Spurs, here are 5 thoughts from the electrifying series that was.

1. Point Guard Supremacy

If there was a match-up that was going to determine how this series would play out, it was definitely this one. Chris Paul is widely considered to be the best point guard in the league, while Russell Westbrook is its most polarizing. One is a maestro, leading a meticulous concerto of dunks, alley-oops, and 3-point shots, while the other is the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil incarnate. The match-up basically came down to this: Would Paul be able to control Westbrook’s game. Defending Chris Paul means defending everyone on the floor. Yes, you have to stay in front of him. But it’s when the opponent strays away from one of the other players on the Clippers that Paul does his most damage.

westbrook paul thunder clippers

On the flip side, defending Westbrook is a completely different story. Due to the chaos he causes, a defender never knows how they are going to defend him. The best approach is to lay off of him, but even that has proven to be difficult as Westbrook will look for any opportunity to run in transition and is usually the quickest man on the floor. Add to that the fact that he’s had a couple games of double digit assists while scoring at least 20 points in the playoffs, and you are looking at a monster.

The numbers in the series basically cancel each other out:

  • Westbrook – 27.8 points / 6.0 rebounds / 8.8 assists / 1.8 steals on 49/35/88 shooting splits
  • Paul – 22.5 points / 3.7 rebounds / 12.0 assists / 2.5 steals on 51/46/75 shooting splits

While Paul assisted more and scored more efficiently, Westbrook scored more and grabbed more boards (over 2 offensive boards per game). The difference between the two floor general lied in the chaos they caused. More, specifically, in the free throw attempted. While Paul mainly settled for jump shots, Westbrook consistently challenged the defense by getting into the paint and looking for his own shot. Some may say that’s the staple of a scoring wing, not a prime time point guard. But with the way the rules favor dribble penetration, it may be time to stop looking at point guards as just facilitator and more as attackers. While I think Paul is still the best pure point guard in the game, Westbrook did a lot in this series in changing the way people think of the point guard position.

2. The Emergence of Steven Adams

When the Thunder made Adams the 12th pick in last season’s draft, many people envisioned a season of trips on I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Adams was expected to be a project that would not pay dividends until, at the earliest, next season. But, as they say, that is why they play the game. Adams started the season as the Thunder’s back-up center and never wavered. He even started 20 games when Kendrick Perkins went out with a groin injury in the 2nd half of the season.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, in his infinite quest for veteran intangibles, barely played Adams in the first 5 games of the postseason. After averaging 14.8 minutes per game in the regular season, Adams was only notching 4 minutes a night (and 1 DNP-CD) against, of all teams, the Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol-led Memphis Grizzlies, in those first 5 games. With their backs against the wall and trailing 3-2 in their first round series, Brooks relented against his default settings, and played the rookie significant minutes (22.5/game) in the next two games (both wins).

A look at Adams’ numbers don’t explain his impact. Since Game 5 of the first round, Adams has averaged 21.8 minutes, 5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. But it’s his combination of physicality and athleticism that has the most effect on the game. Usually, teams can do a lot of their damage in the paint when the starting big men are on the bench. In fact, James Harden made a living off of this when he played for the Thunder. Harden would come into the game and immediately begin attacking the other team’s back-up big. With Adams in the game, though, the other team has difficulty in scoring inside.

In the Clippers series, Adams was tasked with guarding all of the LA’s big men (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Glen Davis). Surprisingly, Adams probably struggled the most with Davis. Griffin wanted no part of backing down Adams in the post and settled for mid-range jumpers. And Jordan struggles with anything not resembling a lob pass. It’s almost as if Adams is a combination of Serge Ibaka and Perkins. Someone with the athleticism of Ibaka, but with the brute strength of Perkins. The only thing missing is the experience, which Adams is gathering in heaps this postseason.

3. Resiliency

durant westbrook jackson thunder

They say great teams win the close games. But, damn, does every game have to be an ESPN Instant Classic? After the “cardiology office visit inducing” series that was the Memphis series, my health didn’t need this series, especially games 4-6. But, that the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals speaks to the resiliency of this team.

There’s a comfort level that’s achieved when the core of a team has been together for a number of seasons. That’s what you see with the Thunder in late game situations. Everybody knows their roles and plays them to a T. Now, why they can’t do that in the first 45 minutes of a game? I have no idea. Being that they are still a young team, they probably play the game in a fashion similar to the thought process high school/college students have towards homework. When a student is given an assignment with a due date two weeks from then, 75% of those students will wait until the night before to start working on their assignment. That’s the Thunder in a nut shell right there.

4. Defense definitely wins playoff series (and championships too)

During the regular season, the Clippers averaged a league high 107.9 points per game. They upped the ante during the Golden State series, increasing their average by 3 points to 110.9 points per game. For the Thunder series, the Clippers averaged a paltry 106.3 points per game. Seriously though, that 1.5 point drop (and 4.6 point drop from the Warriors series) may have been the difference between the Thunder winning Games 5 and 6.

The Thunder did a great job defending Griffin and Jordan on the inside in the series. After posting up 12.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game in the Warriors series, the Thunder limited Jordan to 6.7 points and 9.5 rebounds. Griffin’s points and rebounds went up slightly in the Thunder series, but his efficiency went down.

ibaka adams griffin thunder clippers

With the inside locked down, the only other options for the Clippers were Paul’s penetrations and their plethora of 3-point shooters. The Thunder did a great job of going under the screens and negating the driving lanes for Paul. With Paul not getting into the lane as much, the perimeter defenders were able to stay on the shooters for an extra bit longer. The trio of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, and JJ Redick averaged 0.6 less 3-point FGs made in the Thunder series, and Crawford saw his 3-point percentage drop 8.4 percentage points from the Warriors series. All these factors combined made it difficult for the Clippers to do what they did best; which was to score at will.
5. Coming through in the clutch

Many people will look at this postseason run and wonder whether Westbrook had a better postseason than Durant. The numbers suggest this is a very distinct possibility. All things being equal in the Memphis series (when Durant played bad, so did Westbrook, and visa versa), Westbrook has surprisingly been more efficient in the Clippers’ series. But in terms of making the necessary MVP-like plays in the final 3 minutes of games, Durant is still the man. In Games 4-6, in the final 3 minutes of play, Durant scored 16 points on 4-7 shooting (1-1 from long range), 7-8 FT, and only had 1 turnover. Conversly, Westbrook scored 11 points on 2-7 shooting and 7-7 from the line.

The mark of an MVP is not necessarily their stats throughout the game, but how they pull through in the clutch. Durant has proven time and time again that no matter how the first 40 minutes of the game play out, he’s usually there in the final few minutes when the team needs him the most.

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Game 5 preview

Westbrook thunder

There won’t be a riveting MVP speech or a controversial headline this time around. The Oklahoma City Thunder know what’s at stake. Lose tonight, and you go back to the lion’s den facing elimination. We did it in the last series, but why keep testing the law of averages? When a lower seed has a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 (their court), they win 65% of the time.

For the first 39 minutes of Game 4, the Thunder were on cruise control. They led 32-15 after the first quarter, led by 11 heading into halftime, and increased that lead by 1 heading into the 4th quarter.  Three minutes into the 4th quarter, the Thunder were up by 14 points. Then, the Thunder stopped defending the paint. And when they attempted to defend, they ended up fouling. The Clippers had lay-ups or dunks on 11 of their last 12 made FG. In that same time frame, they made 8-9 FTs. The Thunder couldn’t keep up and ended up getting outscored 33-17 in the final 9 minutes of the quarter.

5 Keys for Game 5

1. In-Game Adjustments – During the Clippers’ run in the fourth quarter, Scott Brooks had his vaunted small-ball lineup in the game. The Ibaka-Durant-Butler-Westbrook-Jackson lineup is great in close games or in making up a deficit (as evidenced by Game 3). But if you are up big and the opposing team starts to make a run, shouldn’t you start to sub in your defensive specialists? Brooks didn’t bring in Thabo Sefolosha until 2:57 was left in the quarter and the Clippers had trimmed the Thunder lead down to one. From there on in, it was a game and the Clippers had all the momentum. Brooks needs to be quicker in making these types of decisions.

2. Get Kevin Durant moving – A lot like how Kendrick Perkins likes to move other centers out of their comfort spots, smaller, stronger defenders like to push Durant away from his comfort zones. If the Thunder and their offense can get Durant on the move (catching passes off a curl, using a pick, moving without the ball), it takes away the advantage smaller defenders have on Durant. But if Durant remains stationary, the defense is able to set itself up to defend him.

chris paul serge ibaka thunder clippers butler

3. Defend the Paint – The staple of the Thunder defense was completely obliterated in the 4th quarter of Game 4. The Thunder pride themselves in defending the paint, even to the extent that they dare you to shoot and make deep perimeter shots. As I mentioned in the 2nd paragraph, the Clippers last 11 of 12 made shots were either lay-ups or dunks. The other made shot was a 3-pointer by Jamal Crawford after the defense collapsed on a penetrating Chris Paul. What worried me in Game 5 is the Thunder focusing a lot of their energy on defending the paint and the Clippers going off from deep like they did in Game 1. There needs to be good defensive balance.

4. The Other Scorers – The Thunder have 3 other players, outside of Durant and Westbrook, that can give you at least 10+ points (Ibaka, Butler, and Jackson) each on any given night. When those three give you at least 30 points combined, the Thunder are 5-1 in the playoffs. In the one postseason victory where those three didn’t give you at least 30 points, Sefolosha and Perkins chipped in for an unexpected 22 points combined. In the 5 losses this postseason, the trio averages 23 points per game combined.

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5. Defend Home Court – Win tonight, and you have a little bit more room for error heading back to LA. The Thunder have been quite vulnerable at home the postseason, posting a 3-3 record.

Where the Thunder Stand After 4 Games (Round 2)

griffin clippers

Four games in: a blowout for each team and a close victory for each team. Series tied 2-2. Pretty much what you would expect from the 2 vs. 3 match-up in the Western Conference playoffs. The only caveat is how the Thunder lost Game 4. Up by 16 with a little more than nine minutes left should be a comfortable lead, even in the playoffs. But it’s how the Thunder lost the lead that has Thunder Nation in a bit of a tizzy. After a string of 4.75 out of 6 games where the Thunder looked like world-beaters, the Thunder reverted back to their bad habits in the fourth quarter relinquishing Game 4 to the Clippers.

The offense became extremely vanilla, with most of it consisting of Russell Westbrook dribbling for 10 seconds, while Kevin Durant tried to get position on all 6 feet of Chris Paul (really, Chris Paul…c’mon Kevin). Once Durant got the ball, one of two things happened: either the Clippers sent a hard double team, with a soft third defender, which led to 3 turnovers in the quarter or Durant got the ball in the basket (4/5 FG, 10 points in the 4Q). While Durant’s “success” on offense would lead you to believe the Thunder were either maintaining their lead or building on it, the Thunder’s defense told a different story. With Westbrook and Serge Ibaka hampered by foul trouble in that 4th quarter, the Thuder weren’t able to be as aggressive on defense, which led to undisciplined overplays and unsuccessful reach-arounds as Paul and Darren Collison were able to get into the lane without much resistance.

Another little discussed faux pas was Scott Brooks’ inexcusable over-use of timeouts. At some point, when the other team is making their run, you have to hold onto to at least two timeouts in case the other team actually completes their run. This is the second time in these playoffs where Brooks’ mishandling of timeouts has put undue strain on the Thunder. The first time, in Game 5 of the Memphis series, Brooks was bailed out by the steal and subsequent game-tying dunk by Russell Westbrook with a few seconds left in the game. This time, though, the Thunder lucked into a hurried miss by Blake Griffin, but still could not capitalize on a last second shot by Russell Westbrook. A timeout and the ability to move the ball to halfcourt could have helped the Thunder in trying to tie the game. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s Scott Brooks we’re talking about. Anything less than five seconds left on the clock is usually accompanied by a 29 foot fall-away 3-point attempt by Durant with two defenders in his face.

Durant Barnes clippers thunder

In the end, the Thunder got a split in Los Angeles and wrestled back home court in the series. Mission accomplished? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how you look at it. The narrative in these playoffs tends to change by the game. After the Game 1 blowout by the Clippers, most people were ready to shovel dirt on the Thunder’s grave. Then came two convincing victories after the galvanizing MVP speech by Durant, which led to people wondering whether the Thunder would lose again in these playoffs. Finally, the Game 4 collapse has allowed the pendulum to swing once again, this time back in the Clippers’ direction. Media fandom in the playoffs can be so fickle at times.

Kevin Durant officially named the 2013-14 MVP

durant thunder

Kevin Durant was officially named the MVP of the NBA for the 2013-14 season.  Durant garnered 119 of the 125 possible 1st place votes to win by a landslide. He led the Thunder to the 2nd best record in the league, while also filling in for Russell Westbrook who missed almost half the season recovering from various knee ailments. He averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on 50/39/87 shooting.

Let it sink in Oklahoma. A decade ago, we were a fly-by state with little to no chance of ever landing a pro-sports franchise. Now, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player resides here, in the 405. Enjoy the moment and appreciate the fact that we are watching greatness. Congratulations Kevin Wayne Durant, your 2013-14 KIA NBA MVP.

Durant will be presented with his MVP trophy on Wednesday night, before Game 2 of the Clippers vs. Thunder series.

Five Thoughts from the Memphis Series

durant ibaka westbrook thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 120-109 on Saturday to move onto the 2nd round of the playoffs. But before we move on, here’s 5 thoughts about the series that was.

1. The Overtimes and the plays leading up to them.

Four consecutive overtime games. Let that sink in for a minute. Your adrenaline pumps and heart races for one overtime game. But four…..in a row. The life span of the average Oklahoman (and Memphian, for that matter) probably dropped by about 2.5 years in this series. But the overtimes only tell half of the story in those four games.

The mad dashes that led to the overtimes were even more impressive. Here’s a recap of the major plays that led to the 5th period in those games:

Game 2: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 18 seconds to go.

  • Fall away 3-pointer by Durant in the corner while being fouled by Marc Gasol. Free throw good. Thunder down 1.
  • Free throw by Mike Conley. Grizzlies up 2 with 12 second left.
  • Russell Westbrook 3-point miss rebounded by Kendrick Perkins who goes up for a put-back with no time on the clock. Tied game. And on to overtime.

Game 3: Set-up – Thunder down by 17 with 7:30 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Thunder go on a 17-0 run to tie the game at 81 with 57 seconds left.

  • Tony Allen lay-up to put the Grizzlies up by two with 45 seconds.
  • Tony Allen steal and lay-up puts the Grizzlies up by 4 with 33 seconds left.
  • Russell Westbrook 4-point play ties the game at 85 with 26 seconds left.
  • Each team misses their finals shots. And on to overtime.

Game 4: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 1:20 left, after starting the quarter with a 12 point lead.

  • Reggie Jackson (the only effective Thunder player the entire night) launches (and makes) a step-back three with 59 seconds left. Thunder down by two.
  • After stealing a pass off of Beno Udrih, Durant passes to Jackson who runs off of a pick and roll and scores on a floater with 30 seconds left to tie the game.
  • After a mad scramble on the defensive end in which the Grizzlies had 2 opportunities to tie the game, Jackson ends up with the ball with 4 seconds left, but inexplicably heaves a 60 footer that bounces inbounds as the clock expires. And on to overtime.

Game 5: Set-up – Thunder down by two after the first of Tony Allen’s two free throws goes down with 30 seconds left. (Of note: The Thunder have no timeouts left)

  • Allen misses the 2nd free throw, but Tayshaun Prince gets the offensive rebound. After almost getting the ball stolen, Memphis calls a time out.
  • After the time out, Mike Conley dribbles at the top of the key. With the shot clock running down, Conley makes a move towards the basket, but Westbrook reaches across Conley’s body, knocks the ball loose, and takes it the other way for a game-tying fast break dunk. And on to overtime.

In all honesty, the overtimes proved to be a bit anti-climatic in comparison to those crazy final minutes in the fourth quarters.

2. Interior Defense

When you play the Grizzlies, the one thing that has to be on point is your interior defense. If you don’t have a set of defensive bigs that can combat what Memphis throws at you, then you might as well pack it up. Last season, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bore through the Thunder’s interior defense like a hot knife through butter. It was so much of an embarrassment, that Kendrick Perkins felt the need to apology for his play after the series. But this time around, Perkins, Ibaka, and Steven Adams proved up to the task, essentially neutralizing the Grizzlies’ biggest offensive strength.

perkins jackson ibaka gasol thunder grizzlies

In last season’s playoff series, Gasol and Randolph shot 68/146 (47%). In this playoff series, the interior duo for Memphis shot 89-220 (40%). Everybody talks about the struggles that Westbrook and Durant experienced during the series, but equally as damning for their team, was the struggles that Gasol and Randolph had with scoring. And once Durant and Westbrook got going again in Games 6 and 7, it was too difficult for the the Memphis duo to keep up, especially with Randolph being suspended for the final game.

3. The Role Players

Many people wondered why Caron Butler decided to sign with the Thunder, instead of with the two-time champion Miami Heat. If Butler was title chasing, the easiest route would have been to latch on with Miami and probably be a 9th man for them. But Tuff Juice probably saw an opportunity with the Thunder to not only compete for a championship, but also be a regular part of the rotation.

Many people like to label Butler as a champion since he was a member of the Dallas Mavericks team that won the championship in 2011. What many people fail to mention is that Butler had a knee injury mid-season, and didn’t participate in any games for the Mavericks in the playoffs that season. Yes, he got a ring, but I wonder if he feels like that ring hardly holds any weight. Pride can easily turn happiness into a question mark that stays on the mind.

So, when Butler’s number was called on to start in place of an ineffective Thabo Sefolosha for Game 6, he showed that he was ready for this moment. He only scored 7 points in that game, but the effect of Butler as a perimeter threat, opened up the lanes enough for Westbrook and Durant to get back in their groove.

butler westbrook jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson has the hardest job in the world. He has to be the main facilitator and scorer on a bench unit that is about as hot and cold as it gets. Then he has to be the third option on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. If he does something bad during his time on the floor with the superstar duo, then the spot light shines on him. But if he does something good, then it probably had to do with the fact that Durant and Westbrook took so much of the defense’s attention which allowed Jackson to have an open lane or a wide open shot.

Then Game 4 happened. I’ve never seen a situation where two alpha males completely give the reins to the game over to somebody other than themselves. A lot of times, Durant and Westbrook are like the Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett of the NBA: “We ride together, we die together, bad boys for life”. But in this one instance, whether it was their own insecurities in their play or a new confidence in another player not seen since the Harden days, Durant and Westbrook allowed Jackson to take over the game and in the end, win it for them. In reality, Jackson saved the season with his mini-explosion in Game 4.

4. Durant and Westbrook returning to form

Probably the biggest narrative of this series was the slump that both Durant and Westbrook faced in the Games 2-5. Without an unexpected career game from Jackson, the series would have probably been done in 5 games, much like last season. In those 4 games, the duo shot 73-209 from the field. That is a whooping 35% for two All-NBA players. Many media member started playing the Westbrook vs. Durant angle to the point that Westbrook felt the need to address it in an interview after Game 3.

durant westbrook allen conley thunder grizzlies

Then the Oklahoman decided to print one of the dumbest headlines since the Chicago Tribune declared Thomas E. Dewey the winner of the 1948 Presidential election. Mr. Unreliable. A name that describes many people, namely deadbeat dads, parole violators, and teenagers. Not a name that describes Kevin Durant, the basketball player. If anything, he’s been Mr. Reliable his entire career. The attempted explanation and subsequent apology explained what the headline itself was trying to convey, but the damage had already been done to the newspaper.

Durant took it in stride, but you could tell that the headline perplexed him a bit. Great players always play their best when the cards are stacked against them. Down 3-2 with an elimination game in Memphis, Durant and Westbrook slowed their games down a bit, and started playing their brand of basketball. In Games 6 and 7, the pair averaged 60.5 points, 18.5 rebounds, and 12.5 assists per game on 54/53/88 shooting.

5. The Wake-Up Call

The Thunder needed this kick in the rear end. They slept walked through the final month of the season, and probably had this aura about them that they could turn it on or off at any point in the playoffs. But this season’s playoffs were a bit different. The 7th seeded Grizzlies were probably more of a 3 or 4 seed, were it not for injuries and having to play in the tough Western Conference.

But, the name of the game is surviving and advancing, and the Thunder did just that. If the Thunder are fortunate enough to rack up 12 more victories, they should look back on this series and appreciate the fact that Memphis made them work so hard to get to Round 2.