Tag Archives: Tim Duncan

The Three That Will Never Be: The Legacies of Scott Brooks, Kendrick Perkins, and Derek Fisher

ibaka perkins durant fisher thunder

As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.

For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.

What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.

When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Head coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder talks with Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Thunder won 118-112. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).

He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season.  When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.

Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.

In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.

The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.

Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.

There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.

As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 78 of 82)

westbrook adams thunder parker spurs

  • When: Tuesday, 07 April 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

It’s never a do or die game until you are certainly facing elimination with a loss. But this game certainly has the feeling of being a ‘win or go home’ type scenario. After holding a 2.5 game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans just over two weeks ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder have gone on to lose 5 of their last 6 games. Luckily for the Thunder, the Pelicans had their own bad stretch heading into these last two weeks and still find themselves a half game out with a murderer’s row of opponents coming up (Golden State – chasing history, Houston and Memphis – chasing the 2 seed, Phoenix – likely hellbent on being a playoff spoiler). After tonight’s game, three of the Thunder’s last four opponents are all under .500.  A win tonight, and the Thunder will likely find themselves 1.5 games up on the Pelicans with four to play.

This is the third and final meeting of the season between these two rivals. The previous two games were played in San Antonio, with the Thunder taking the Christmas match-up, and the Spurs throttling the Thunder nearly two weeks ago. These teams are used to battling it out for Western Conference supremacy, but now find themselves near the bottom of the playoff rankings this season. Nevertheless, this game is fraught with narratives and will have an impact on the playoff picture moving forward.

The Opponent

NBA: Finals-San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat

The San Antonio Spurs are currently 51-26, sitting in the 6th spot in the Western Conference. They sit just 2 games back of the Houston Rockets who currently have the No. 2 seed in the West. I’ve learned that there are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and game of ‘possum the Spurs play every regular season where it seems like they may finally be running out of steam, only to have them Lazarus their season after the All Star break. On February 25th, after a loss to the Portland Trailblazers, the Spurs found themselves at 34-23. Since then, the Spurs have gone 17-3 and the machine appears to be well-oiled once again. The Spurs attack is fueled by the rejuvenated Tony Parker, who appears to be back to his normal self after struggling with injuries and inconsistencies in the first half of the season. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are back to being one of the most dangerous sets of wings in the league. Up front, Tim Duncan is still a double/double threat and does of great job of positioning himself in the correct spot most times down the floor. Tiago Splitter will sit this game out with an injured calf, so look for Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner to get the nod at “center”. Off the bench, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Aron Baynes, and Cory Joseph are all seasoned vets who have played in big moments in the past few seasons.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Kawhi Leonard
  • PF – Matt Bonner
  • C – Tim Duncan

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

Andre Roberson went through parts of practice on Monday, and may be available for this game. 

Three Things

1. Small Ball – With Splitter out, the Spurs will definitely be featuring either Bonner or Diaw as a stretch 4, to negate the Thunder’s size inside. The good thing is the Thunder can counter with a very efficient small ball line-up of their own, with Morrow and Singler playing the forward spots.

morrow westbrook thunder

2. Steven Adams – Adams has got to stay away from getting into the foul trouble. With the Thunder lack of big man depth, Adams has to find a way to stop picking up ticky-tack fouls. I understand when he’s trying to stop someone from getting a basket on their way to the rim. But Adams has to get at least 2-3 loose ball fouls a game on rebound attempts. Cut those in half, and the foul trouble goes away.

3. Late game execution – The Thunder’s last four losses have been by a grand total of 15 points, combined. That’s an average margin of defeat of 3.75 points per game. You make an extra 3-pointer and an extra free throw, and that’s a victory in some of those games. These games are coming down to the decisions in the final few minutes of the game. Without Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison in the closing line-up, the Thunder are having to depend on players that may not be used to the pressures associated with playoff-intensity type basketball. With the onus squarely on the chiseled shoulders of Westbrook, the inexperience of the other players in these situations is started to manifest itself in the form of close losses. Moral victories are still losses in the standings.

Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs preview (Game 72 of 82)

westbrook adams ibaka roberson thunder parker splitter spurs

  • When: Wednesday, 25 March 2015 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX

This has usually been the case in the past four seasons. As the Oklahoma City Thunder approach the end of the season, they usually look up in the standings and see the San Antonio Spurs. And, usually, the NBA is gracious enough to schedule about two OKC vs San Antonio games in the last three weeks of the season. The big difference this season as compared to previous seasons is that the Thunder are the 8th seed and are looking up at the Spurs, who are currently the 6th seed, but only by virtue of percentage points over the Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs have one of the tougher finishing schedules in the league and stand 3.5 games ahead of the Thunder. The 7th and 8th seed in the West may be in contention by these two familiar rivals that are used to battling atop the Western Conference standings.

This is the 2nd of 3 meetings this season between these two teams. The Thunder beat the Spurs in their only previous meeting on Christmas day, 114-106. In that game, the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 9 points in the 4th quarter, as Russell Westbrook led the team with 34 points and 11 assists.

The Opponent

leonard duncan green spurs

The San Antonio Spurs come into the game with a 44-26 record, good for 6th in the Western Conference. As is usually the case every season, the Spurs seem to be getting healthy at the right time. Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Boris Diaw have all had their injury issues throughout this season. But they are all relatively healthy and rearing up for their yearly playoff run. The Spurs are pretty consistent in their stats, ranking 11th in team scoring (102.4 ppg), 5th in assists (24.2 per game), and 9th in opponent scoring per game (97.9 ppg). The offense is, of course, led by Tony Parker, who has looked a lot more like himself in the past month after struggling with injuries previous to that. On the wing, Danny Green is tied for 7th in the league with 2.4 makes per game on almost 41% shooting from deep. And Kawhi Leonard, a lot like Parker, has started to round into form after struggling with injuries for much of the first half of the season. Up front, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter continue to be one of the more consistent big men tandems in the league. Off the bench, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, and Manu Ginobili continue to give the Spurs one of the better benches in the league.

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 – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Enes Kanter
  • C – Steven Adams

Three Things

1. Line-up shuffling – With the Thunder’s new Bruise Bros big man tandem, Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich may look to exploit the lack of mobility of the big men on the perimeter by inserting Diaw or Matt Bonner into the starting line-up. If Popovich sticks with his regular line-up, this may likely be an advantage for the Thunder.

westbrook thunder parker duncan spurs

2. Contain penetration – The biggest facilitator of the Spurs’ offense is the penetrating ability of Tony Parker (insert joke here), Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. The havoc those three create from getting into the paint leads to the Spurs’ 3-point shooters getting clean looks and to their big men getting open looks as the defending big men have to slide over to stop the dribble penetration. It will be incredibly important for the Thunder defenders to stay in front of these three players throughout the game.

3. 6th or 7th seed up for grabs – The Thunder’s goals this entire season have been to get healthy and make it to the playoffs. While they are still working on the getting healthy part, they hold the playoff positioning part in their hands. Yes, they will need some help, but the 6th seed is a possibility, which is saying something considering how this season started.

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

Southwest Divison

1. San Antonio Spurs

spurs championship 2014

Last season: 62-20 (1st in the Southwest Division, 1st in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy after Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • Kyle Anderson – Draft (No. 30 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Aron Baynes – Unsigned

Season Preview – Everyone keeps waiting for the Spurs to age, but every year, they come back wiser and better. The reigning NBA champs come back with the entire team basically intact. While chemistry won’t be an issue, a couple of the main players are coming back from injury. Manu Ginobili spent most of the offseason nursing a stress fracture in his leg and Patty Mills had rotator cuff surgery that will keep him out half the season. But as is the Spurs, they will turn that into a positive as Mills will be very well rested when the playoffs start next April.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Spurs repeat as champions

Projected 2014-15 Record: 59-23

2. Memphis Grizzlies

prince gasol allen conley randolph grizzlies

Last season: 50-32 (3rd in the Southwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder

Key Additions:

  • Jordan Adams – Draft (No. 22 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Vince Carter – Free agent signing
  • Jarnell Stokes – Draft (No. 35 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Jamaal Franklin – Waived
  • Ed Davis – Signed with the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Mike Miller – Signed with the Chicago Bulls
  • James Johnson – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – The Grizzlies have slowly put together a balanced team that doesn’t entirely depend on the post play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The additions of Jordan Adams and Vince Carter, and the return of Quincy Pondexter from injury should help spread the floor for the big man duo to operate a little easier in the interior. Mike Conley remains one of the more underrated floor generals in the league and Tony Allen is still a premier defensive menace, as we saw in last season’s playoff series against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Grizzlies make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 54-28

3. Dallas Mavericks

nowitzki ellis mavericks

Last season: 49-33 (4th in the Southwest Division, 8th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Al Farouq Aminu – Signed free agent
  • Tyson Chandler – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Raymond Felton – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Richard Jefferson – Signed free agent
  • Ivan Johnson – Signed free agent
  • Jameer Nelson – Signed free agent
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed free agent
  • Greg Smith – Obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bulls

Key Departures:

  • Jose Calderon – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shane Larkin – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shawn Marion – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Samuel Dalembert – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Vince Carter – Signed with the Memphis Grizzlies
  • DeJuan Blair – Sign and traded to the Washington Wizards

Season Preview – Other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Mavericks probably had the most player movement of any team in the leauge. The team that took the eventual champs to 7 games in the first round, got their defensive stopper in the lane (Chandler), and got an up-and-coming star in Chandler Parsons. The Mavs should be a little better balanced defensively, but that all depends on the health of Chandler. If he misses a big chunk of the season (15-20+ games), the Mavericks could be in trouble defensively. The point guard position is also a question mark, as each of the three possibilities (Felton, Nelson, and Devin Harris) have been starters in the past, but also have glaring weaknesses.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Mavs make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 53-29

4. Houston Rockets

harden howard rockets

Last season: 54-28 (2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers

Key Additions:

  • Jeff Adrien – Free agent signing
  • Trevor Ariza – Free agent signing
  • Clint Capela – Draft (No. 25 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jason Terry – Obtained in a trade with the Sacramento Kings
  • Joey Dorsey – Free agent signing
  • Ish Smith – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Jeremy Lin – Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Omer Asik – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Jordan Hamilton – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – After striking gold in the last two offseasons, Rockets GM Daryl Morey hit a rough patch this offseason. He traded away 2 of this team’s top 5 players (Asik and Lin) for basically nothing, and failed to resign Parsons, even though the Rockets held his Bird Rights. The reasons they made these moves was an “all in” attempt at either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. By the time those two players had re-signed with their respective teams, the damage had already been done to the Rockets’ roster. The Rockets salvaged a little life this offseason by signing Trevor Ariza. The Rockets will still win games due to the talent of James Harden and Dwight Howard. But depth will be an issue, and any injury to any of the major players on the Rockets will be a huge blow to the team’s playoff chances.

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

5. New Orleans Pelicans

Jrue Holiday, Tony Wroten, Anthony Davis

Last season: 34-48 (5th in the Southwest Division, 12th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Omer Asik – Obtained in a trade with the Houston Rockets
  • Jimmer Fredette – Free agent signing
  • John Salmons – Free agent signing
  • Russ Smith – Draft (No. 47 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Patric Young – Rookie free agent signing (Undrafted)

Key Departures:

  • Al-Farouq Aminu – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Greg Stiemsma – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
  • Jason Smith – Signed with the New York Knicks
  • Anthony Morrow – Signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Brian Roberts – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – After a great showing in the FIBA World Cup, Anthony Davis is ready to finally take his team to another level. The acquisition of Asik will allow Davis to play his natural position of power forward. On the outside, Ryan Anderson returns from neck surgery and should help space the floor for Davis and Jrue Holiday to operate. The depth of this team is worrisome, and if the injury bug hits again, they could once again struggle to stay above water.

2014-15 will be succesful if: The Pelican make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 42-40

Five Thoughts from the Western Conference Finals

durant perkins duncan thunder spurs

With their loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder’s season was brought to an end. A little disappointing, but with everything the team faced this season, it could be viewed as a positive step moving forward. Before we head into the off-season, here are 5 thoughts about the series that was.

1. Serge Ibaka’s importance was on full display in this series

The first two games of the series tell the importance of Serge Ibaka. The Spurs dominated inside (averaged 60 points in the paint per game in those first two games) and punished the Thunder from outside when they collapsed (9 threes in both games). Granted, the Thunder’s perimeter defense was so bad, even a healthy Ibaka wouldn’t have helped in those two games. The Thunder were constantly switching on pick and rolls and were exploited when the switch presented a bad match-up. Add to that the fact that Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins don’t have the lateral quickness to keep up with PnR switches on quick guards, and you have a recipe for disaster. Even when the Thunder guards went under the screen, the defense, wary of its lack of a shot blocker, collapsed into the paint and left the Spurs’ shooters open from the outside.

But surprisingly, the offense suffered even more from Ibaka’s absence. Without the release valve that is Ibaka, the Thunder play-makers (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Reggie Jackson) were forced into either pick and rolling with Perkins, Collison, or the inexperienced Steven Adams, or playing isolation ball. Both of these options played into the Spurs’ strength as an experienced, coordinated defensive unit. The Spurs love to take away your first option and make your 2nd and 3rd options beat you. That’s why Ibaka is so important to the Thunder’s attack. A wing/big PnR involving Ibaka usually succeeds because the big defender will usually hedge towards the perimeter player. When that happens, Ibaka usually pops opens up for his deadly mid-range jumper. With Ibaka out of the picture, the Spurs big was able to hedge over onto the wing player as the big presented no threat of either rolling or popping out for a jumper. The Thunder trio shot only 43% (42-98) from the field in those first two games.

ibaka duncan spurs thunder

The Thunder’s success with Ibaka also lends credence to the decision to keep Ibaka and trade Harden. Now, the decision was a lot more complex than just Ibaka vs. Harden. The team tried to keep both. But with two max players already on the roster, the team couldn’t afford to pay a third max contract, Ibaka’s near max contract, and Perkins’ bloated contract. It would have been cap suicide and, eventually, one (or two) of those 5, would have been forced to leave via trade. Also, the team couldn’t afford to pay that much money for someone who only plays one side of the floor. So the decision, while difficult, seems to have been the correct one. Ibaka’s value to this team as a two way player would have probably outweighed Harden’s value as a secondary/tertiary scorer.

2. Experienced team ball trumps isolation ball most of the time.

It worked one time, in 2012. But for the most part, an experienced group that runs an offensive system usually beats the team whose offensive system depends on the greatness of a small amount of its parts. I’ve gone over it, ad nauseam, about how the lack of an offensive system dooms the Thunder when A) the defense is good enough to key in on the main components of the Thunder’s offense and B) when the Thunder’s supporting cast doesn’t provide enough.

Royce Young, of ESPN and DailyThunder.com, discussed how, in the 6-game series, the Spurs averaged 334.8 passes per game, while the Thunder only averaged 252.3. Does this tell the whole story? Of course not. But the more passes you throw, the more the defense moves around. That is the staple of the Spurs offense. It’s designed to have the defenders follow the ball, until someone without the ball gets open or until the defense is spaced out enough to allow penetration. The Thunder, on the other hand, relied on the ability of Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson to create things in isolation situations. When they received little to no help from the supporting cast, which happened a lot in this series, those three players were left to work things out on their own.

3. Russell Westbrook is not scared of the moment.

Not only in this series, but throughout the playoffs, Westbrook proved that he was not scared of the moment. He showed up, time and time again, for the Thunder when they needed him the most. Be it a late game steal or some “ice-water in the veins” free throws, Westbrook showed that the closing act for the Thunder was not just a one man show.

I always worried about Westbrook’s clutchness prior to this season. Be it the lack of opportunities or just the wild, unpredictable nature of his play, I never thought that Westbrook had the discipline to be clutch. And while a lot of his clutchness was within the realm of chaos, when Westbrook did it, there was a sense of calmness about it.

4. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are still pretty damn good.

I don’t know what wizard or voodoo witch doctor these two have visited throughout the years, but their play is still as good now as it was 10 years ago. They may not be able to sustain their style of play in the world of “4 games in 5 nights,” but if they are given days of rest, they can perform like it is 2004. Some of the credit definitely goes to the players and their disciplined off-season training regiments. Duncan has picked up boxing in the off-season and has slimmed down as he has aged to take the wear off his knees and ankles. And Manu, I have no idea what Manu does, but the weight he continues to lose on his head, apparently has a positive effect on his play.

duncan ginobili spurs

A lot of the credit, though, goes to their coach, Gregg Popovich, and how he manages their minutes. Pop does a great job of resting his players (young and old, mind you) throughout the season. He could care less about how the NBA views his player rest habits and more about the bottom line, which is to be rested when it comes time for the postseason. Also, Popovich is not into miraculous comebacks. If his team is losing by a sizeable amount, Popovich will not hesitate to pull his starters for an entire quarter to rest them for the next game.

All of these factors made it appear like Duncan and Ginobili were a lot more rested throughout the course of the game than the young Thunder. It was no more apparent than in Game 6, when Duncan and Ginobili carried the Spurs throughout the 2nd half and into overtime, while Tony Parker was held out with a bum ankle.

5. Its hard getting back to the promised land.

It almost feels like the Thunder are the Israelites wondering around in the wilderness for 40 years in the book of Numbers. We’ve reached the promised land before, but didn’t do what we needed to do to stay there. Instead, we’ve spent that last 2 seasons trying our hardest to get back. Obstacles have gotten in our way, namely injuries and lack of depth/experience.  I have no doubt that we will one day get back to the promised land, but the journey, can feel extremely long and tortuous. In the end, hopefully, it’ll all be worth it.

2014 Western Conference Finals after 4 games: Swinging Pendulums and Rear-view Mirrors

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three

One of my favorite Jay-Z songs from early in his career was “A Week Ago”. The basic premise of the song deals with the chronology of living a drug dealer’s life and how things can change in the span of a week. One minutes things are going good; the next, you’re left wondering how things could have gotten so screwed up when it was all good just a week ago.

Rewind back to May 22nd.  The San Antonio Spurs were coming off another blowout victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, held a 2-0 lead in the series, and were looking completely unstoppable. The Thunder were thought to be the worst match-up possible for the Spurs. A team that had beaten the Spurs 10 out of the last 12 times they had played, to include the 2012 Western Conference Finals. But the Thunder were without their best defensive player and without one of the main components of their offense in Serge Ibaka. A lot like the Russell Westbrook injury from last season, the Thunder were not very familiar with life without their athletic power forward. In the past 4 seasons, Ibaka has only missed 3 games total, none in the playoffs. As is  the case with most other changes, there was an adjustment period to get used to. And it showed in the first two games of the series.

The Thunder were unathletic and slow. They couldn’t defend the paint, and when they overcompensated, they were punished from the 3-point line. The Spurs averaged a blistering 60 points in the paint in those first 2 games and made 9 threes in each of those games. The Thunder offense was unimaginative and stagnant. Without the release valve that is Ibaka, the offense was left in the hands of Kevin Durant and Westbrook (and Reggie Jackson, but his production can be inconsistent at times). While great, those 3 players aren’t enough, especially for a great defensive unit that is keying in on them. And so, the media was already writing out the Thunder’s obituary on the 2013-14 NBA season: A great season that was marred by injuries at the wrong times.

parker perkins ibaka thunder spurs wcf

But then came word that Ibaka’s calf was responding to treatment a lot better than expected. The swelling had subsided to the point where the team changed his status from OUT to DTD (day to day). His only obstacle would be his ability to play through the pain. If you know Ibaka’s story, you know that physical pain is the least of his worries. The question was never whether Ibaka would play. With little to no risk of compounding the injury, the only worry was in reinjury. And with an entire offseason ahead, Ibaka could easily rehab a strained calf muscle during the summer. The question was how effective would he be. Would he be the dominant defensive player that we’ve all come to know in the past 4 seasons or would he be a shell of himself?

That question was answered emphatically in the first three minutes of Game 3, in which Ibaka had 6 points on 3-3 shooting, 1 rebound, and 1 block. Even though he limped noticeably at times during the game, an Ibaka at 80% is a whole lot better than no Ibaka at all. The Thunder took control of the game in the 2nd quarter and kept the Spurs at bay the rest of the game. The end result was a 106-97 victory for the Thunder and a proverbial pendulum that had possibly reached it’s maximum height.

After that Game 3 victory, the same media members who were writing the Thunder off just days before, started to feign the other way. Could the Thunder repeat what they had accomplished in the 2012 Western Conference Finals? If you remember, the Spurs also held the home court advantage in that series and went up 2-0. Of course, those first two game were a lot more competitive than the first two games this year. But the results were still the same: San Antonio leads 2-0. The series switched over to OKC and the Thunder won their two at home. Tie series. The Thunder then won a close one in Game 5 in San Antonio and closed the series out in 6. Gentleman’s sweep. Could it happen again?

Spurs Thunder Basketball

If anything, Game 4 was the biggest game of the series for the Spurs. Win that one and you not only kill any of the momentum built by the Thunder from Game 3, but you also kill any of the ghosts from the 2012 series. Lose Game 4, and the Spurs all the sudden turn into the speeding driver looking in his rear view mirror after he passes a police officer. The Spurs looked like they were all business, opening up Game 4 on an 8-0 run. From there, the Thunder went on to outscore the Spurs 58-35 in the first two quarters and the rest of the game was but a mere formality.

Pendulum completely in full swing the opposite direction and the Spurs nervously looking in the rear view mirror. It was all just a week ago. But that has been the theme these entire playoffs. Every game has been a narrative in and of itself. And Game 5 will be no different. Can the Spurs recover mentally from the PTSD-like nightmare that may be haunting them? What is Reggie Jackson’s condition and will he be effective? So many questions that will be answered on Thursday. Pendulums could swing again and rear view mirrors may become obsolete after tonight.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs Western Conference Finals preview

durant jackson ginobili parker thunder spurs

A running theme for me these playoffs has been fate. It was fate for us to face the Grizzlies in the first round to exorcise the demons from last season. It was fate for us to face the Clippers in the second round, as they have players that are interwoven into Oklahoma’s history. And again, I believe it is fate for the Thunder to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs are the model by which the Thunder are built. A sort of big brother, if you will. Many of the main components on the Thunder come from the Spurs organization, from the owner to the GM. Over the past three seasons, the Thunder and Spurs have been the best two teams in the conference and this is something of a rubber match.

Unfortunately, Serge Ibaka won’t be participating in this series. A Grade 2 calf strain will cause the power forward to miss the rest of this postseason. While both teams won’t be at full strength, this has never stopped this series from being competitive and fun.

Regular Season Series

Even since the Thunder did a gentlemen’s sweep of the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder have dominated the Spurs in the regular season. They’ve won 6 of their last 8 meetings, including all four this season.

duncan perkins spurs thunder

 

In the first meeting of the season, the Thunder ended an 11 game winning streak by the Spurs, upending them 94-88, behind a big third quarter (25-15). In that game, Ibaka (sad face) dominated inside with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks. In the second game, the Thunder used a big game from Russell Westbrook (31 points and 8 assists) and a big 2nd quarter (40-29) to defeat the Spurs 113-100. In the 3rd meeting of the season, the Thunder won 111-105 behind monster games from Kevin Durant (33 pts, 7 rebs, 5 asts) and Reggie Jackson (27 pts and 8 asts). The 4th meeting of the year, also known as the annual “if we win this game we might catch the Spurs in the standings” game, saw good performances by the Thunder’s top 4 players, leading to a 106-94 victory.

Series Schedule

  • Game 1 – Monday, 19 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)
  • Game 2 – Wednesday, 21 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)
  • Game 3 – Sunday, 25 May 2014 at 7:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 4 – Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 5 – Thursday, 29 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)*
  • Game 6 – Saturday, 31 May 2014 at 7:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 7 – Monday, 02 June 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)*

* If Necessary

Probable Starting Line-Up

San Antonio Spurs

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

 

  • Bench Depth – Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Perry Jones
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

 

  • Bench Depth – Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher

3 Keys to the Series

1. 75/30 – With Ibaka out, the scoring onus continues to fall on Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson. Ibaka is probably the most consistent scorer in the leauge, always scoring between 13-17 points. To make up for that, the big 3 for the Thunder will probably have to average about 75 points per game, while the other players will have to somehow come up with 30 points. Can it be done? Of course. But the margin of error will go down with the loss of Ibaka.

2. Perimeter Defense – The Spurs have 6 players that are shooting at least 38% from 3-point land in the playoffs, with noted Thunder-killer Ginobili pitching in 31% from deep. The Thunder have had measured success in the defending the 3-point line because they have been able to keep Parker in front of them and out of the lane. Unfortunately, when Parker does get into the lane now, Ibaka will not be there to erase any of the Thunder’s perimeter mistakes.

reggie jackson duncan spurs thunder

 

3. Bench – If ever there was a series for Butler, Fisher, and Jackson to consistently hit shots, this would be it. The Spurs bench is leading the remaining playoff teams in scoring at 41.3 points per game. The Thunder bench averages just under 29 points per game in the playoffs. While the Thunder is top heavy, with 2 of the top 5 scorers in the playoffs, they will still need their bench to spell them during games.

X-factors

For the Spurs – Rebounding – With Ibaka out, the Spurs, not known for their rebounding, will have more opportunity to grab offensive rebounds and get more scoring opportunities. On the other end, the Spurs have the opportunity to limit the Thunder to just one shot.

Another X-factor for the Spurs is the health of Parker’s hamstring. He was taken out of Game 5 of the Portland series and has not practiced with the team. Maybe something to watch as he tries to defend Westbrook throughout the series.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs -Game Two

For the Thunder – Transition opportunities – The Thunder do a good job of forcing the Spurs into turnovers. That may be a bit muted now with Ibaka out in the series. Without the shot blocker in the paint, the Thunder have less leeway to gamble on steal opportunities.

Prediction

Spurs in 6

I love my team, but the loss of Ibaka may be too difficult to get over in this series. Ibaka puts a lot of pressure on opposing offenses that live on dribble penetration. The Spurs’ guards would have second thoughts of taking the ball inside with Ibaka patrolling the paint. Now, the defense will have to help out more and that may open up the 3-point shooting for the Spurs. Can the Thunder win it? Of course. But they have to play close to perfect basketball on the defensive end for the full 48 minutes. Unfortunately, that has never been their greatest strength.

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.

Thunder Halftime Report: 2013-14 Edition

durant fisher thunder

Forty one down, forty one more to go. The first half of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder has played out like a full season. From injuries, to returns, to reinjuries, to MVP pushes, it has been a roll coaster of emotion that has run the gamut. Through it all, the Thunder have found a way to win 31 games and remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.

Here are 10 thoughts from the first half of the season:

10. The Western Conference is head and shoulders above the Eastern Conference in terms of competitiveness.

The Western Conference features 10 teams at .500 or above, while the Eastern Conference, until recently, only had 3 teams with that same win percentage range. Within the past week, three teams have joined the fray in the Eastern Conference with records of 20-20. The fact still remains, though: there’s an ocean sized gulf in the competitive balance between the two conferences. While Indiana and Miami are the crème de la crème of the EC, the West has at least 6 suitors for the top spot.

I have no doubt the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers will be a great 7-game affair. But the amount of work that both of those teams have to put in to get to that point will pale in comparison to the battles that will be waged in every single round of the Western Conference playoffs. While that makes for a battle tested representative from the West, it also makes for a tired or injured representative that has survived a war of attrition. Something to watch for as we move on.

9. Scott Brooks needs to be considered for Coach of the Year.

Coach of the Year is usually given to the coach whose team unexpectedly excels despite what the prognosticators predicted in the preseason. If that is the case, then this award will come down to a battle between Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns or Terry Stotts of the Portland Trailblazers. When Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have only combined for 3 COY awards between them, you know this is a fresh-face award. And that does not bode well for Brooks’ candidacy.

brooks jackson thunder

But consider this, the Thunder are tied for the 3rd best record in the league, while missing a top-10 player for about half the season so far. When Russell Westbrook was in the line-up, the Thunder had the best record in the league during that stretch. And the Thunder have had to incorporate new young players into the rotation that did not garner heavy minutes last season. The balance and willingness to adapt that Brooks has shown throughout the season makes this his best coaching job to date, and one that I think garners consideration for COY.

8. Serge Ibaka has been the glue that has held this team together.

Through all the changes that have occurred this season, the only constant has been Serge Ibaka. From Westbrook to Reggie Jackson to the young bench’s emergence to Kevin Durant’s dominance, the one factor that usually determines a Thunder victory is how well Ibaka plays. In games in which he has a double double, the Thunder are 14-3. In games where Ibaka scores 16 or more, the Thunder are 16-2.  It’s as simple as this: if Ibaka plays well, the Thunder usually win. And he’s been playing a lot more consistently this season. He’s gotten smarter defensively and is concentrating more on positioning than on chasing every shots that comes into the lane. His play has been solid enough this season to garner a real look at him making the All-Star game.

7. Kendrick Perkins currently has more value to this team than Thabo Sefolosha.

For all the chastising that Kendrick Perkins receives from fans and media members alike, he still has value on this team. Is he probably the worst offensive center in the league (starting or not)? Yes. What takes longer to get off the ground: Kendrick Perkins or an 18 wheeler using a manual jack? Probably Perk. But the experience Perkins has as a post defender is invaluable when the opponent has a player like Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, or LaMarcus Aldridge. His knowledge of defensive principles in the post also helps the Thunder out. And, well, he’s a hell of a screen setter. Is he worth $8.7 million (and over $9 million next season)? Of course not, but from team hierarchy perspective, Perkins is the guard dog that patrols the Thunder’s house, on and off the court.

sefolosha perkins thunder

Thabo Sefolosha is the team’s main perimeter defender and the anointed “corner 3” guy. Over the past two seasons, that role has worked out great for Sefolosha. He shot over 40% from 3-point territory and was, without question, the best perimeter defender on the team. This season though, his 3-point shooting percentage is down to 31% and his role as a one-on-one defender has started to decline. Also, the drafting of Andre Roberson and the emergence of Jeremy Lamb have given the Thunder options if Sefolosha leaves via free agency this offseason.

6. The team made the right choice in sticking with Jeremy Lamb. 

Heading into the last offseason, the Thunder’s biggest trade asset was guard Jeremy Lamb. Along with the No. 12 pick, the Thunder could have packaged their young asset to move up in the draft. Instead they kept their pick and chose to stay with Lamb. It has proven to be a wise choice. Lamb has provided valuable perimeter shooting to a team severely lacking it, and has been a great glue guy, providing whatever needs to be provided to win.

5. Steven Adams was made to play for this team.

When the Thunder drafted Adams, I envisioned a year full of trips down I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa for the big man. Instead, Adams is probably in the second tier of rookies vying for Rookie of the Year. He brute physicality and footwork have helped him adjust to the pro game a lot quicker than most expected. He has shown flashes of an offensive game (hook shots, a developing mid-range jumper) and leads the league in PEFG (players ejected from game).

steven adams thunder vince carter

He is developing in this teams’ version of Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman. A guy that who raises the ire of other players, but who also remains as cool as the other side of the pillow. He starting to develop a reputation around the league as a dirty player, but, really, he just plays strong. And this generation of player does not like getting physical.

4. When completely healthy, the Thunder are the deepest team in the league. 

The Thunder are constructed to have a little bit of everything. If you need big men, the Thunder can trot out 4 or 5 that get regular minutes. If you need veteran savvy, the Thunder can give you Nick Collison or Derek Fisher regularly. If you need scoring off the bench, I present to you Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. If you need a jack of all trades, here’s Perry Jones. And that’s without even getting into Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook. The Thunder are loaded when the entire team is available. When the starters sit, the bench has the ability to either chip away at deficits or blow the game wide open. If you want small ball, the team can put out 2 or 3 different combinations that are all very effective.

The point of the James Harden trade was to not only have financial flexibility, but also roster flexibility. Instead of having just one combo guard off the bench, you now have a combo guard, a shooting guard, and a developing big man. More parts for less money is always a win in any business.

3. Point guard is the hardest position to learn in basketball.

Combo guards sometimes have the most difficult job in basketball. A pure point guard has to worry about distributing first, then scoring. But a combo guard has to read the situation and determine whether he should pass or shoot. Sounds like the same situation, but there are two totally different mentalities involved. We saw that with Russell Westbrook, who had all the tools to be a combo guard, but had to neuter that a bit to learn how to be a starting point guard in this league.

jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson is learning how to make that transition. Even though he’s in his 3rd season, this is basically his 2nd season of playing. He was thrown into the fire his rookie season with Eric Maynor’s injury, but got sent back to the bench once the team signed Derek Fisher. In his 2nd season, he shuffled between the end of the bench and Tulsa for the first half of the season before finally being given the reins to the bench in the second half of last season. With the Westbrook injury, Jackson has had to commandeer the first team and has done a commendable job. Is he making mistakes? Yes. But he’s also showing signs of “getting it” and will be a valuable asset for the team moving forward.

2. Russell Westbrook’s health is the single most important factor in the Thunder contending for a championship.

That statement is self-explanatory. I don’t care what Russell Westbrook has to do to stay healthy for the remainder of the season. If he has to take every 3rd game off, let’s do it. If he has to be on the “Tim Duncan/Dwayne Wade” rest regiment, I’m down.  Whatever it takes to get this man healthy and ready for the playoffs. Because if he misses any time in the playoffs, the chances of the Thunder advancing drops dramatically.

Russell Westbrook

The team is able to tread water during the regular season because there a ton of factors that don’t exist in the playoffs. The scouting reports are shorter for regular season games. The travel is more daunting during the regular season, which leads to fatigue. But during the playoffs, when a team has days to scout their opponent and there are no back to backs, this is where the team will need Westbrook. Get well Russ!

1. If it wasn’t for the championship resumè, Durant would be considered the best player in the game. 

It’s funny how the narrative in a 41-game stretch can completely change. When the season started, everyone was wondering whether Paul George would overtake Durant for the No.2 spot in the imaginary player ranking that many media members have. Then, when Lebron James came out the gates shooting over 60% from the field, the MVP award was basically handed to him by most media members. But Durant just kept plugging along, doing what he does. Efficient, ruthless, and calculated.

Then when Westbrook went down again after Christmas, many thought the momentum that the Thunder had built up to that point would come crashing down. Rewind back to last season when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. Durant knew he needed to step up, and he did. But, I don’t think he trusted his teammates enough to allow them to do the heavy-lifting. Instead of focusing only on scoring, Durant instead became the de facto point guard, the best rebounder, and the best perimeter defender. In the end, that began to affect his stamina, and he found himself completely winded by the middle of the 4th quarter.

This season, though, Durant has trusted his teammates more and the results have spoken for themselves. Ibaka has started to become an extremely reliable mid-range release valve, and a great partner in the pick and roll. The team is rebounding and defending as a whole better. The bench offers more roster flexibility. And the offense, while still stagnant at times, has enough wrinkles to quickly get out of funks.

durant thunder batum trailblazers

But in the end, it’s all about Durant. And his play in January (37 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.9 apg on 52/39/88 splits) has been one for the ages. While MVP’s are not won in January, Durant is just now learning how to dominate, while not interfering in the game plan. He is doing this all within the flow of the game. It’s scary for the league when Durant is probably a season or two away from reaching his prime.

There’s forty more games to go. The Thunder defeated the Portland Trailblazers in raucous fashion to begin their next 41. The season is still a long ways from being over and many things can happen during that time. But, I, for one, am extremely impressed by what I’m witnessing from this team and what the future holds. Here’s to health and 16 more victories after the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs preview (Game 26 of 82)

durant duncan leonard neal spurs thunder

  • When: Saturday, 21 December 2013 at 7:30 PM CST
  • Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX

On any given night in the NBA, the most important focus is on the game itself. There’s rarely any future implications on games, especially in December. Then there are those teams that know, barring injury, that they are good enough to be at or near the top of their conference when the season ends. Those handful of teams know that not only do they have to build a resume of winning basketball, but they also have to beat the teams they are battling for seeding. This is where the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs find themselves.

To most, this is just a game in December. But to these two team, they know this game may have further reaching implications for late May and into June. The Thunder won the first meeting between these two team 94-88. This will be the 2nd of 4 meetings between the two teams. In the first meeting, the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 10 in the 3rd quarter to turn a halftime deficit into a lead heading into the 4th quarter, and never looked back. Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson led the way, with 24 and 23 points, respectively, while the Spurs had more of a balanced attack with 8 players scoring at least 6 points.

The Opponent

duncan bonner ginobili green spurs

The Spurs come into the game 1/2 a game behind the Thunder with a 21-5 record. As is usually the case with this team, they are at or near the top of the league in points per game, assists per game, and opponent’s points per game. They run one of the better systems in the league and have the right players for that system. The offense is led by PG Tony Parker, who is day to day with a shin injury. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are dangerous at the wings, as Green is a 3-point specialist and Leonard is great at slashing to the basket. Up front, Tim Duncan may be showing signs of aging, but still requires attention from opponents. The bench is one of the more veteran-laden in the league led by Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Bellineli, and Patty Mills.

Probable Starting Line-ups

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Marco Belinelli
  • PF – Tim Duncan
  • C – Tiago Splitter

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace – In the last 2 seasons, the Thunder have shown the ability to “out-athleticize” the Spurs. With Westbrook and Jackson pushing the tempo throughout the game, the Spurs have no answers for the speed that the Thunder play with.

jackson adams ginobili thunder spurs

2. Kevin Durant – With Kawhi Leonard out due to a dental procedure, the task of guarding Durant will fall on Belinelli and Ginobili. Durant’s eyes and smile just got bigger.

3. Remember May and June – With one already in the bag, securing another victory over a top Western Conference contender will do wonders for the team moving forward. If the Thunder are able to win the season series versus the top teams in the West, that will only help them in hopefully securing home court advantage throughout the playoffs.