Tag Archives: West

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 65 of 82)

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz

  • When: Wednesday, 13 March 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

It’s getting to that point in the season where mostly every game carries some sort of importance, either for playoff seeding or draft lottery probabilities. The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming off a road loss to the San Antonio Spurs, where they had the opportunity to overtake the Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Utah Jazz, on the other hand, are on the opposite end of the playoff spectrum. The Jazz held onto the 7th seed in the West as recently as one week ago, but losses in 7 of their last 9 games has the Jazz looking up at the hard charging Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff spot in the West. With that said, there are heavy playoff implications for both teams in this game.

This is the 3rd meeting of the season between these two Northwest division rivals. The Thunder easily won the first game at home, 106-94. In that game, Russell Westbrook nearly notched a quadruple double with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists, and 7 steals. Kevin Durant chipped in with 25 points and Kevin Martin added 19 points off the bench. In the 2nd meeting of the season, the Jazz basically flipped the score while playing in Salt Lake City, 109-94. In that game, the Jazz dominated the paint, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap combining for 41 points and 17 rebounds (9 offensive).

Probable Starters

Utah Jazz

  • PG – Randy Foye
  • SG – Mo Williams
  • SF – DeMarre Carroll
  • PF – Paul Millsap
  • C – Al Jefferson

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

Post Defense – It can’t be said enough against teams that have two functional big men how important it is to control the paint defensively. In the first game between these two teams, Jefferson and Millsap were held to 29 points on 12-29 FG shooting (41.4%). In the second game, a Thunder loss, the Jazz duo combined for 41 points on 19-36 FG shooting (52.8%). It’s up to Perkins, Ibaka, and Nick Collison to contain these two.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz

Defensive Rebounding – Related to the post defense, defensive rebounding is extremely key when dealing with the Jazz. The Jazz grabbed 21 and 16 offensive rebounds, respectively, in the two games against the Thunder. Offensive rebounds lead to extended offensive possessions and more shots for the opposition. The Jazz shot 17 and 19 more shots, respectively, than the Thunder in the two games they played against them.

durant carroll

Durant – The Jazz don’t really have any answers for guarding Durant. DeMarre Carroll will attempt to get physical with Durant, but will eventually succumb to foul trouble and Durant’s speed. And Durant is usually a horrible match-up for Gordon Hayward. I expect Durant to get at least 30 points in this game.

 

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Top NBA Teams and Senior-itis

Ahh, yes. April. That time of year where the memories of Spring Break start to fade, and the doldrums of the final quarter of school starts to set in. This is when high school seniors start to really feel the effects of senior-itis. It’s this same disease that is beginning to affect some of the better teams in the NBA. For those teams that have already sewn up spots to the NBA’s Big Dance, this affliction is making them act like 8 years olds on a road trip. “Are we there yet?”

When it comes to this time of years, teams are in one of 4 modes. They are either completely out of the playoff hunt, fighting (realistically) for a playoff spot, fighting to move up in the playoff standings, or fighting off boredom from having clinched a playoff spot so early in the 2nd half of the season.  Of the 30 teams in the NBA:

  • 11 are completely out of the playoffs: Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans, TTFKATSK (the team formerly known as the Sacramento  Kings), Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, New Jersey, Detroit, Minnesota, and Portland.
  • 7 are realistically fighting for playoff spots: Utah, Phoenix, Milwaukee(all currently out), Philadelphia, New York, Denver,  and Houston (all currently in).
  • 8 are securely in the playoffs and jockeying for positioning: Dallas, Memphis, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, and Indiana.
  • 4 teams are entrenched in the playoffs and fighting for the top two spots in their respective conferences: Chicago and Miami (East) and Oklahoma City and San Antonio (West).

Of the 4 teams at the top,Chicago is trying to battle through injuries and maintain the best record in the league.San Antonio is blitzing anyone in their way and trying to take the top spot in the West. And apparently, OKC and Miami (to the enjoyment of all the fans not in Chicago or San Antonio) are ready to meet in the Finals, and are acting like it’s a forgone conclusion. But, honestly, for these four teams, is there anything to worry about besides injuries at this point in the season?

These four teams are treading water at this point in the season. Chicago is 4-3 since April started. Miami and OKC are both 5-4. And San Antonio, riding the hot hand, is 6-2. Are these records indicative of any shortcomings that decided to pop up in the final month of the season?

In Chicago’s losses this month, it is quite apparent that they need Derrick Rose to be completely healthy for their playoff run. But, perhaps, more importantly, the health of Rip Hamilton is of great importance to the offense. While Rose is the end all, be all of the offense, Hamilton provides a great release valve if the defense collapses too much on Rose. Getting those two healthy at this point of the season is the best thing that could have happened to the team. It’s almost like they got a trade deadline acquisition in Hamilton, who is just now starting to pay dividends on the team. The greatest positive to come out of the injury plagued seasons of Rose and Hamilton, is that the bench players have had to contribute and have done so in above average fashion.

In Miami’s losses this month, a lot of the problems that surfaced last season are starting to resurface this season. It’s the Big 3 and no one else on that team. The Big 3 moniker has taken a bit of a hit this season with injuries to Dwayne Wade, but the production from the role players that was so evident in the beginning of the season, has begun to decline to the detriment of the team. The size issue that was a problem last season is still a problem for the Heat. They got Ronny Turiaf after the trading deadline, and while it is a slight improvement over Joel Anthony, the move didn’t really register too much on the Richter scale. The big man rotation of Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Anthony, and Turiaf does give the Heat a bit more flexibility as compared to the big man rotation last season (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Bosh, Anthony, and an injury-recovering Haslem). The point guard position has been slumping for the last month and a half. Mario Chalmers has only been shooting 30% from 3-point territory since March 1st, after shooting about 48% from there in the first 2 1/2 months of the season. Norris Cole has hit the rookie wall and is not producing like he was in the beginning of the season, even being relegated to the bench in favor of James Jones, who is just now starting to find his shooting stroke. But, in the end, this team still has Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, and when those two are clicking, this team is still very difficult to defeat.

The Spurs have begun to streak after finally getting all their pieces back from injury. Its no coincidence that their 11 game win streak coincided with Manu Ginobili finally getting his rhythm back after being in and out of the lineup with a myriad of injuries for most of the season. The young players (Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green, and James Anderson) all know their roles and play them to a tee. This team is a well-oiled machine that is just now starting to hit its stride. The team still relies heavily on its trio of veterans, but Coach Popovich has made sure to limit their minutes in the regular season. The addition of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw will help during their post-season run. This, in my opinion, is probably the most dangerous team heading in the playoffs.

The Thunder’s last 10 games have exhibited the same errors that have been plaguing them the entire season. They are 6-4 in those games, but those errors become very evident in the losses. Stagnant offense always hinders this team in the beginning of games. The team even has a punt play to start nearly every game: giving the ball to Kendrick Perkins in the low post. It very rarely ends in points for the Thunder. In their 4 losses in this 10 game run, the Thunder score an average of 22.3 points in the first quarter. In the 6 wins, that number jumps up to 27. That’s nearly a 5 point difference, which, in an NBA quarter, is a huge difference. Another stat that hinders the team in their losses is the number of turnovers. In that same 10 game span, they are averaging 16.5 turnovers per game in their losses, and 14 per game in their wins. That difference of 2.5 turnovers can, hypothetically, be equated to an extra 7 points for the other team. Which, again, in the NBA, is a game-changing amount.  Defensively, the team still has trouble with the pick and roll and guard penetration.

The good news for all these teams is that there is nothing new that can be labeled a negative. The deficiencies and errors that they have been exhibiting all season, are the same things that are afflicting them now. Even with all these issues, these teams are still the top 4 teams in the league and the leading contenders to win the championship. Are there darkhorses on the fringes that could slip in? Of course. The Los Angeles Lakers are starting to show some diversity in their offense with Andrew Bynum finally taking charge in the absence of Kobe Bryant. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the deepest teams in the league, with 2 All-star caliber post players (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and an All-star caliber wing (Rudy Gay). And the Boston Celtics will give it all they got for what appears to be their swan song together.

The thing about senior-itis is that, eventually, everyone graduates and moves on to the next level. In that next level is where your skills and abilities come out in full force. Some end up in college, some in a job, and some at home on the couch. In this crazy season, anything can happen. But if the playoffs play out anything like the regular season, then these 4 teams should be the cream that rises to the top.

B-ball Analogy – Russell Westbrook : point guards as Lebron James : small forwards

After watching Russell Westbrook’s recent performances this season, I can’t help but think that Russell Westbrook is the Lebron James of NBA point guards. The things that separate Lebron from everyone else are his skill set, size, strength, and freakish athletic ability. Some of these qualities are taught, while others are innate. These tools have given James the opportunity to earn 2 MVPs and twice lead his team to the NBA Finals. 

First off, comparing Russell to Lebron is not necessarily apples to oranges, but it is not what I’m intending to do here. While a one on one game between the two would be entertaining, I’m sure Lebron’s size and strength advantage would trump Russell’s athleticism and quickness. It is after all, basketball, where the player who is closest to the rim (taller) has the advantage most of the time. But, can the same things that give Lebron advantages, be the things that give Russell that extra edge and hopefully lead him to be one of the greats? 

3 S’s: Size, Strength, and Speed 

Individually, each of these characteristics can lead a player to have an advantage over another player. But if you possess an advantage in all 3 of these categories, the battle is already halfway won. That’s the thing about Lebron James. His size (6’8”) makes him above average for the small forward position. His speed can be matched by only a couple players at his position. But his strength is what completely makes him a match-up nightmare for the opposing player and defense. But when you put all 3 to work against the opponent, this is where Lebron overwhelms the opposition. 

Russell Westbrook is basically upper middle class when it comes to size in the point guard class. In looking at all the starting point guards in the league, the average height is about 6’3”, with Tyreke Evans being the tallest at 6’6” and Jameer Nelson and DJ Augustine/Kemba Walker coming in at about 5’11 ¾”. Russell is about 6’3 ½”. Nothing is going to overly separate him in this category. 

One of Russell’s main advantages is his strength. Only about 3 or 4 other point guards can compete with Westbrook in regards to strength. The factor that makes Russell different is in how his muscles distribute themselves on his body. The best comparison I can make is to Alfonso Soriano, the 2nd baseman who played for the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers this past decade. From 2002 to 2008, Soriano averaged 35.5 homeruns per season, a run unheard of for a 2nd baseman. What’s amazing about this run is in how Soriano’s musculature appears on his body. Soriano is all of 6’1” and 190 lbs. So a hulking Paul Bunyan he is not. Instead, Soriano has a wiry frame that packs muscle in an elongated fashion, instead of stacking muscle on muscle. This type of musculature is good for power and … 

Speed. In that same time frame, Soriano also averaged 29 stolen bases, which is pretty good for any baseball player that doesn’t necessarily specialize in speed, a la a pinch runner or lead off hitter. So, where Tyreke Evans and Deron Williams are bigger and stronger than Russell, his advantage at speed neutralizes that deficiency. Just ask Derek Fisher, one of the stronger, yet slower point guards in the NBA. 

Like James, Russell’s combination of these 3 characteristics (the 3 S’s) make him a load to handle for most point guards on a nightly basis. Knowing that you have these attributes leads to a person having….

 Freakish athletic ability 

The combination of the 3 S’s above, leads to having freakish athletic ability. Anybody who has high qualifications in the 3 S’s, is going to manifest itself in having this kind of athletic ability. The legendary, mythological stories of Lebron James grabbing a not so great lob with his hand nearly at the top of the square on the backboard and being so far above the rim that he couldn’t dunk it, but instead had to let it drop from above the rim are that of internet lore. Of course it happened in practice. Of course there were no cameras around. And of course, some teammates confirmed it. But, based on his athleticism, its something that we can consider possible. With Russell, it’s sort of the same way, but we get to see some of these things live in an NBA game. The dunk over Lamar Odom in their first playoff run against the Lakers in 2010. The lob that Earl Watson threw off the backboard, and Russell grabbed with one hand and dunked while skying over a Warriors player (we see you Marco Bellinelli). The facial he gave the Rockets last season. All tales of a book that is currently being written. 

Defensive ability 

The freakish athleticism also shows up on the defensive end of the floor if a player wants to work hard enough to show it. The same things that overwhelm defenders on the offensive side of the court, are also the things than can overwhelm an opponent on the defensive side of the court. Lebron is an average man defender, but a great help defender, getting into the passing lanes for steals, and coming up with self-esteem rattling blocks from the weak side or from behind. This is the only part of Russell’s game that leaves you longing a little. He was touted as a defensive guard coming out of college, but has only been an average defender in his young NBA career. But ask any of the international guards that he defended during the World Championships whether he can defend, and I’m sure you’ll get a resounding “YES” in whatever language they speak. 

Russell has the ability to be one of the better defenders in the league. The question is, does he want to be? He has shown more signs of being a shutdown defender this year. The aggressiveness that we saw in the World Championships is being shown more this season and that has led to a better defensive game plan from Russell. But that also leads to him gambling more and putting the rest of his team in 5 on 4 situations whenever his gambles don’t work. Through film-study, coaching, and experience, this part of his game can be fixed. The fact that he actually wants to be a better defensive player is the first step in becoming a better defender.    

Skill-set 

This may be the biggest difference between Lebron and Russell. While Lebron was your prototypical prodigy and came into the NBA with a deep skill-set, Russell had to learn a position that was not natural to him. And he had to learn it at the highest level of competition, night in and night out. So while Lebron has just had to refine and improve his skill set, Russell has had to constantly add more and more skills to his repertoire based on the learning curve. Organic growth at this level is very rarely seen from the point guard position. Yeah, you can have players learn a skill here or there, but to have a player go from where Russell was his rookie year to where he is now, is very rarely seen in professional sports. And this is what leads to the biggest difference between Lebron and Russell….. 

Will 

The will to constantly want to learn and get better is something that I think separates these two players. Russell’s meteoric rise is a manifestation of the hours of practice he has put in since his first day of minicamp in 2008. Great players usually take off in their 3rd season. This happened to Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Jordan, etc. It’s the time when the game slows down for the player and their instincts begin to take over. All the stuff that Russell has learned and practiced these past 3 ½ years (refining his jump shot, knowing when to attack and when to pull up, learning how to run a team) are finally coming to fruition. Is he still a work in progress? Of course. What he showed in the first 2 weeks of the season, is where the learning comes into play. But what we’ve seen the last two weeks is the player that is destined for greatness. 

I don’t think Lebron has this will. Yes, he has all the talent in the world. But he basically came to the league a finished product. He just had to constantly get better at what he already knew he could do. He just now added a post-up game to his arsenal, and he’s 8 years into his career. With Russell, we don’t know what the ceiling is. We don’t know how far up he can go. Can he be a 25 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds per game player? Based on his career arc so far, I wouldn’t put it past the realm of possibility. 

Closing ability 

Another thing that separates these two players is their mind-sets at the end of games. While Russell may make mistakes late in games, they are usually an effect of him needing to do something within the scope of the offense. When 3/5th of the offense is stagnant, and the main offensive weapon (Durant) is being heavily guarded, the only option is for Russell to somehow get off a shot. This is what leads to the bad shots and charge calls in close games. But the fact that he is willing to take these shots (and make some of them) shows a willingness to shine in pressure situations that is severely lacking in James’ game. As seen in last season’s Finals, when the pressure got hot, James usually deferred to Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Russell seems to be learning what needs to get done to close games. Whether its hitting a couple 20 footers, getting the ball to the hot hand, grabbing the necessary rebound, driving the lane for a deuce, or, most importantly, hitting free throws consistently, he has been one of the main, if not the main, component in us winning close games. 

For all of his faults, Russell has always been a player that has wanted to improve in order to prove his detractors wrong. It’s what makes that cauldron of heat inside of him boil. It’s the reason he asks “Why not?”, instead of “Why?”.  It is because of this passion, that the Oklahoma City Thunder signed him to a max extension for the full 5 years. With this extension, the Thunder now have 2 of the top 15 players in the league signed for the next 5 seasons. So instead of comparing one player to the next, maybe it would be more apropos to compare the Thunder to what would seemingly be one of their main competitor should they win the West….the Miami Heat. But, hopefully, I’ll save that article for sometime in June.