Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four

NBA Playoffs: Thunder learning lessons. The hard way.


These are hard, painful lessons for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They are the hard, painful lessons virtually every championship team has had to learn. Michael Jordan and his Bulls were knocked out three straight years by the Detroit Pistons, teaching him hard lessons. It’s true of champions since. Even the two-time, soon-to-be-dethroned Lakers had to not just lose but get crushed by the Celtics in a closeout game to understand the final steps they had to take.

Championship teams learn from these lessons and come back better for it. The Thunder started that process last season, lessons learned from the energy the Lakers responded with when challenged last season helped propel the Thunder to the Western Conference finals

This season, the Thunder are taking tougher courses. The new lessons all focus around execution. Particularly execution under pressure. About finishing off games on the biggest stages.

These are painful lessons, especially when they come on the end of a loss where you were up 15 points with less than five minutes to go.

The lessons are that to win close games in the playoffs requires you create space for your stars by having other threats the defense has to respect, having good play designs and then executing those plays. The Thunder had none of those at the end of Game 4.

“We struggled at the end with execution, and we struggled throughout the game with turnovers,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in his postgame interview, broadcast on NBA TV.

Some of the lessons the Thunder are being taught:

• With the game on the line, your best shooters have to get looks or set up other scorers. Meaning if Kevin Durant is going to see a hard double-team — and he will every time — then Thabo Sefolosha is not the guy who should be the outlet for the three. He shot 27.5 percent from three this season and is a career 30 percent shooter from deep. Yet he was the guy taking a key late three because he was open. He was open for a reason. Jordan learned the pass the ball with the game on the line but Steve Kerr was a knock down shooter (career 45 percent from three). It’s not just making the pass, it’s making the pass to the right guy.

Which brings us to another lesson…

• A team needs to have some good end of play sets. A chunk of this falls to Scott Brooks, who at one point late in the game had his team come out of a timeout to run a Westbrook isolation. There was no clever play drawn up to free him.

When things got tight late the Thunder reverted to a Durant/Westbrook pick and roll that was easy to defend, basically forcing an isolation play. Look what happened on that second-to-last play: Dallas did not respect as a threat anybody else on the court so they had three guys up and defending the pick and roll, which was really more of a handoff to Durant then Westbrook slid out of the way. So Durant tried a 30-foot shot that was still blocked by Shawn Marion. The play had no chance of working because there was no execution.

“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Durant said of the play. “I caught the ball I was at the half court line, there where three Mavericks in front of me and three seconds on the clock. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to run into their defense and had another shot.”

The play had no other good passing options, no guys moving off the ball, no getting the ball to Durant in the post or a spot he likes on the floor. It wasn’t even a good clear out play.

The way that went down brings us to another lesson…

• The front office needs to get more shooters and scorers. They rightfully love the way this team has come together in Oklahoma City. This is a good group. But once James Harden went out — once a third serious scoring option left the floor — the Thunder become predictable. They don’t pay the price for that much in the regular season because Durant and Westbrook are such serious talents, but in the playoffs against a good team it doesn’t work.

• The Thunder need to be able to defend better at the end of games. This is pretty self explanitory. It’s not just on offense, the best teams can get stops late, not make key fouls. This, however, is a little harder to pin on the Thunder at the end of Game 4 because Dirk Nowitzki is one of the great scorers the game has and sometimes you can’t stop him. Also, that foul on Nick Collison guarding Durant late could have gone either way (we’ve all seen that both called and ignored at the end of close games, it was borderline).

• Westbrook has to learn to better use his explosiveness to set guys up, Durant has to learn how to better play in traffic and get inside late in games.

The jumpshots Durant was settling for at the end of the game looked like Kobe Bryant’s pull up jumpers late. And that is not a good sign. You want to be more like Kobe circa 2001, the guy who would attack the rim late in games. Durant has to find a way to be a bigger threat in traffic and not just settle for pull-up jumpers.

Westbrook has taken a lot of heat this series, and certainly some of it is deserved. He has to find a way to strike a better balance with his teammates — like he did in Game 7 against Memphis. He is a young point guard — he didn’t play the point until the pros and he is only 22. He is learning, figuring out when he has to attack and when that attack should be to set others up. But under pressure he reverts to wanting to score because that is what he did for so long. He does not think pass first — he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet.

Which is sort of where all the Thunder are — close but not quite there yet. Another small couple of pieces used better, both by the coach in better sets and the stars as release valves. Just better execution under pressure.

The Thunder are learning hard lessons. But they are lessons champions have learned and grow from.

Lopez twins don’t live together because their cats don’t get along

Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez
Leave a comment

The Lopez twins have always been close. They were teammates at Stanford, they’re both heavily into comic books (and even write their own together), and they both have Instagram accounts for their cats (here’s Brook’s cat, Poupin, and Robin’s cat, Prince Edward Zephyr). So naturally, this summer, when Brook re-signed with the Nets and Robin signed with the Knicks, the logical thing to do would be to live together. Apparently that isn’t happening, because their cats don’t get along.

Via Kirsten Fleming of the New York Post:

“Brook’s cat is very two-faced,” Robin tells The Post. “Everybody loves Brook’s cat. To everybody’s face, he’s such a nice cat. And it may sound like I’m joking, but I am dead serious. He acts like a lazy, sweet cat when everybody is looking. But when their heads turn, he’ll try to chase after [my cat] Edward. The second I lay eyes on him, he’ll act like, ‘I’m a cherub. I’m innocent.’ I’m not buying it.”

Brook agrees that it would be a bad idea.

“We thought about it,” Brook tells The Post. “But the cats really wouldn’t get along. They just wouldn’t allow it.”

This is an extremely valid reason, even though it’s a disappointing. The Lopez twins are two of the most entertaining people in the NBA, and them living together would have had off-the-charts reality TV potential.

Byron Scott isn’t thinking about next year’s draft

Byron Scott

A month into the season, the Lakers the only team in the Western Conference that can absolutely be written out of any hopes of playoff contention. They’re in an awkward position with the upcoming draft: they still need talent long-term, and they owe their pick to the Sixers if it’s outside of the top three. Not surprisingly, Byron Scott isn’t thinking about it at all.

Via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

With the Lakers fielding the NBA’s second-worst record, how much effort will the franchise put in retaining its top-3 protected draft pick?

“I don’t think about that whatsoever,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “I probably won’t until April. That’s something I can’t control.”

The Lakers are in a precarious position. They appear likely bad enough to lose a lot of games. But will they lose enough to land in the top three? Otherwise, the Lakers owe Philadelphia their first-round pick as part of the Steve Nash trade.

“It’s impossible to think about the team, try to get our young guys better, the team better and also thinking about a pick,” Scott said. “That’s six months away and you might not even get it.”

Given Scott’s mentality, it’s not at all surprising that he isn’t thinking about the draft. But with his insistence on playing Kobe Bryant and Lou Williams more crunch-time minutes on this dismal Lakers team than D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, it’s pretty laughable that he talks about wanting to develop their young players.

Scott may not be thinking about the draft, but with the position the franchise is in and the likelihood that they lose their pick, he should be.

Report: Jahlil Okafor stopped for driving 108 MPH three weeks ago

Jahlil Okafor, Derrick Favors

Jahlil Okafor‘s first month in the NBA has been eventful for all the wrong reasons. Early Thanksgiving morning, he was caught on video getting into a fight with a heckler in Boston. Then, a report surfaced of another altercation from October, in which Okafor apparently had a gun pulled on him. Now, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Okafor was recently pulled over in Philadelphia for driving 108 miles per hour:

Four sources independently confirmed to The Inquirer the 76ers center was pulled over on the Ben Franklin Bridge around three weeks ago for 108 miles per hour. Anything over 40 m.p.h. is considered reckless driving.

108 miles per hour in a 40-mile zone isn’t a minor speeding infraction—it’s incredibly dangerous. It might be possible to write off any of these incidents by themselves—particularly the one where he had a gun pulled on him, which doesn’t seem to have been his fault at all. But together, the Boston incident and this speeding report aren’t a good look at all for Okafor. He’s had a solid start to the year for the Sixers, but off the court has been another story.

Harrison Barnes could be out “a few weeks” with ankle injury

Harrison Barnes
Leave a comment

The Warriors’ Friday night 135-116 win over the Suns was bittersweet: Harrison Barnes suffered a sprained left ankle in the third quarter and left for the remainder of the game. He missed Saturday night’s blowout win over the Kings as well, which extended the Warriors’ best-ever start to the season to 18-0.

Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton didn’t have an answer for how long Barnes will be out, but he said it could be a few weeks.

Via ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss:

“He’s being evaluated [Saturday]. We haven’t gotten the results back yet,” interim head coach Luke Walton told reporters before Saturday’s game. “It’s all speculation. It could be a few weeks. It could be a week.

“We’re not going to rush him back because we want to be healthy for later in the season and we don’t want lingering injures, so we’ll have him take his time.”

Losing a starter is never good news, but the silver lining for the Warriors is that they have enough depth and enough of a cushion to be able to take their time and not rush Barnes back. Saturday night, Walton opted to keep Andre Iguodala in his usual sixth-man role and instead start the little-used Brandon Rush in Barnes’ place. Rush responded with a 16-point performance, shooting 4-of-5 from the three-point line. If they can keep getting that kind of production out of their reserves, the Warriors will be able to withstand the loss of Barnes just fine.