Oklahoma City Thunder forward Durant reacts during NBA Global Game against Fenerbahce Ulker in Istanbul

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

14 Comments

Last season: The Thunder finished the regular season with a record of 60-22, which was good for the number one playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Thanks to the unfortunate knee injury that occurred in Game 2 of the team’s first round playoff series against the Rockets, however, OKC quite literally limped to the finish line, and was overmatched by a Memphis Grizzlies team in the second round that took care of them easily in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: The play that was most impactful was, of course, Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs. But let’s keep it positive here, and with too many ridiculous Kevin Durant highlights to choose from, let’s go with this explosive dunk from Westbrook on the break that he threw down over Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

Key player changes: OKC didn’t make any additions that would lead you to believe the roster this year is better than it was a season ago, and lost it’s only reliable scorer from the bench unit in free agency.

  • IN: Rookies Steven Adams (drafted with the 10th overall pick) and Andre Roberson (drafted with the 26th overall pick by Minnesota, then dealt to OKC on draft night) are the only new faces with guaranteed contracts in place for the coming season.
  • OUT: Kevin Martin was allowed to leave in free agency, and although he got more from the Timberwolves than he would have been worth to the Thunder (especially when retaining him would’ve meant entering luxury tax territory), his loss will be noticed, especially in the early part of the season. Ronnie Brewer was a midseason acquisition, but he didn’t have much impact and ended up signing with the Rockets this summer.

Keys to the Thunder’s season:

1) The health of Russell Westbrook: We know Westbrook is going to miss at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season following an additional knee surgery that took place just recently. What we don’t know is how long it’ll be before he returns to form as one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the game today.

The timeline of Westbrook’s ascent back to the player he once was is going to make all the difference in how the Thunder’s regular season plays out. The team is obviously looking at playing deep into the postseason, after finishing with 60 wins last year and making it to the Finals in the season before that. But in the midst of a crowded Western Conference stacked with at least six powerful teams, finishing lower in the standings will make the desired playoff results that much more difficult to achieve.

2) The development of the bench: OKC traded away James Harden before the beginning of last season, and while history is not going to look kindly on the deal from the Thunder’s perspective, at least they got a semi-serviceable scorer in Kevin Martin in return who could fill that role off the bench. With Martin now gone in free agency (and with no one added to replace him), the Thunder are going to need to get production from the reserve unit somewhere if they’re going to be able to compete with the league’s elite teams.

The hope is that Reggie Jackson, who saw heavy minutes during the playoffs and performed better than expected, can continue to develop into a reliable contributor that he’s already shown signs of proving to be. But it would be nice if Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins or one of the freshly-drafted rookies could contribute as well, and there’s just no guarantee that they’ll come along as quickly as the Thunder need them to in order to remove some of the burden from the starters’ shoulders.

3) Kevin Durant, MVP? This could be the year that Kevin Durant unseats LeBron James as league MVP, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost on the list could be voter fatigue — we all know that James is considered to be the game’s best player, but if the Heat coast a little during the regular season and Durant is forced to put up ridiculous numbers to keep his team in the hunt while Westbrook is out, it would be easy to see him quickly becoming the favorite to take home the award if those making the call are looking to give it to someone besides James.

Durant is capable of dominating offensively, and will be expected to do so with his All-Star teammate sidelined. He could take on an even bigger role as the season progresses depending on Westbrook’s recovery and whether or not he gets much help from his teammates. If he puts up MVP-caliber numbers, there’s no reason the Thunder can’t be right where they need to be by the time the season concludes, despite all of the apparent challenges.

Why you should watch the Thunder: Durant and Westbrook are arguably two of the league’s top-five players. Beyond that, the intrigue with this Thunder team runs deep. Can Durant carry them to a high place in the regular season standings, or will the team collapse under heavy expectations, and due to Westbrook’s injury and the lack of a capable bench? There’s drama here, and that’s exciting.

Prediction: 53-29, good for a top-five finish in the West. Durant will need to come through with that MVP season for the Thunder to be in the championship conversation, especially in a deeper-than-usual Western Conference. While he’s certainly capable of that, the questions surrounding Westbrook and the reserve unit are too plentiful for the team to warrant anything more than a forecast of a similar outcome as it experienced a season ago — a second round playoff loss.

Warriors would show historic perseverance with Game 7 win over Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Warriors went an NBA-record 73-9.

And the Thunder massively outplayed them in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals.

No, Golden State wasn’t at full strength. But Oklahoma City reached a level the Warriors hadn’t all season. Even if Golden State had hit peak performance, I’m not sure that would’ve been enough. The Thunder were that good.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were their superstar selves. Steven Adams defended inside and out. Serge Ibaka hit timely shots and moved well defensively. Andre Roberson made open 3-pointers and cut. Dion Waiters read the floor to make the right shot or pass. And everyone rotated correctly throughout entire defensive possessions.

Oklahoma City was awesome, handing the Warriors 28- and 24-point losses.

But Golden State rallied to force a Game 7 tonight. If the Warriors win, they’ll become just the eighth team in NBA history to lose multiple games by more than 20 in a series and still win it. The seven to do it:

  • Houston Rockets lost to Los Angeles Clippers by 25 and 33 in 2015 second round
  • Atlanta Hawks lost to Miami Heat by 29 and 26 in 2009 first round
  • Houston Rockets lost to Phoenix Suns by 22 and 24 in 1995 second round
  • Philadelphia 76ers lost to Boston Celtics by 40 and 29 in 1982 Eastern Conference finals
  • Denver Nuggets lost to Milwaukee Bucks by 31 and 28 in 1978 Western Conference semifinals
  • Los Angeles Lakers lost to Milwaukee Bucks by 21 and 26 in 1972 Western Conference finals
  • Minneapolis Lakers lost to St. Louis Hawks by 34 and 30 in 1959 Western Division finals

The Warriors never stopped believing in themselves, even when getting routed. That mentality has them one game from a comeback for the ages.

Masai Ujiri: Raptors No. 1 goal is to re-sign DeMar DeRozan

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 12:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors runs up the court during the first half of an NBA game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre on April 12, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Leave a comment

DeMar DeRozan sounds like he wants to re-sign with the Raptors.

But does Toronto want to give max money to someone who 39% from the field and 15% on 3-pointers in the playoffs?

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

This is probably the right course. I don’t know whom the Raptors could get if they lets DeRozan walk, but if he signs elsewhere, they would have just about $19 million in cap space – less than a max salary. I doubt they could land a better replacement.

I’m not sold on DeRozan as a playoff player, though he legitimately took the next step this regular season. But I’d rather keep him, hope he learns to handle the challenges of the postseason and possibly use him in a trade down the road. It’ll cost a max salary if DeRozan isn’t willing to take a discount, but that beats the alternative of losing him for nothing but cap space.

Report: Tyronn Lue urged Cavaliers GM not to fire David Blatt

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17: Cleveland Cavaliers Associate Head Coach Tyronn Lue (L) talks with Head Coach David Blatt (R) against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half of their game on December 17, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Thunder 104-100. 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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
David Maxwell/Getty Images
2 Comments

At 30-11, the Cavaliers had the best record ever while firing a coach during a season. Cleveland was the first team in a decade to fire a coach that took it to the NBA Finals the year prior.

Maybe firing David Blatt was the right move, but on the surface, it seemed outrageous.

Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

In speaking with numerous sources close to “The Call,” cleveland.com learned the details. There were no initial pleasantries. Griffin got right to the point — David Blatt was being relieved of his duties.

Lue’s response was candid and immediate.

“This is f—– up, Griff.”

That didn’t prevent Griffin from calmly asking Lue if he could take over. Hired as the associate head coach a year and a half earlier, becoming the head of a franchise was Lue’s eventual goal. But this didn’t seem right.

Lue pleaded with Griffin, arguing for several minutes that firing Blatt was an excessive move for a team carrying a conference-best 30-11 record. Griffin listened to Lue’s pleas. When they ended, he told Lue the decision has already been carried out.

Griffin circled back to his original question.

“What’s done is done. I’m asking you if you can lead this team?” It had taken a few minutes, but Griffin got the response he sought.

“Yeah, I can f—ing lead this team.”

Griffin then congratulated him.

I’m not sure I buy all this. It’d look bad if Lue undermined Blatt in any way.

But the Cavs asked for this situation when they hired the runner-up in their head-coaching search to assist the winner. Lue didn’t have to do anything for that call to happen. The situation opened the door for it.

And it worked out. Lue has done a masterful job guiding the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals. We’ll never know how Blatt would’ve done if he remained on the job, but Lue has set an excellent bar. I’m not yet sold Lue is a great head coach, but for this team – and the difficult task of communicating with LeBron James and elevating Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who’d be featured stars on many teams – Lue has been aces.

Seven questions that will shape Game 7 between Thunder, Warriors

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder defends against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter of game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Getty Images
3 Comments

There are no more secrets. There are no major adjustments — at this point both teams know what they want to do and what the other team will try to do, it’s a simple matter of execution. Except it’s not going to be that simple. Here are seven questions that will shape the outcome of Game 7.

1) Are the Thunder moving the ball or relying on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook too much in isolation? Don’t take my word for it that the past couple of games the Thunder have fallen back into bad habits, listen to coach Billy Donovan from after Game 6: “That hasn’t been us the last month and a half. Thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch.” The Warriors are a good a defensive team — with good man defenders like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — and if you’re predictable you’re defendable. The Thunder have become predictable and isolation heavy, especially when games get tight. That works during the regular season — they have Westbrook and Durant after all — but they need to do better in Game 7. The Thunder must move the ball, the best barometer of that is whether Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson are getting touches and points. If so, the Thunder are much harder to guard and much more likely to win.

2) Are the Warriors’ threes falling?
Look at the Warriors’ shot chart from Game 6.

Warriors Game 6 shotchart

Golden State shot just 48.1 percent at the rim and were 2-of-16 from three feet to the arc. The Thunder blocked 10 shots and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds — on a lot of levels did a lot of what they needed to do to win. The Warriors three-point shooting — particularly Klay Thompson and his record 11 threes — wiped that out. If Golden State is hitting from deep, they are next to impossible to beat. The Thunder need to chase Warriors’ shooters off the arc, then say a little prayer the Warriors don’t just keep hitting from deep anyway.

3) Which small ball lineup wins the battle? For most of this series, the Thunder had out Warriored the Warriors — Oklahoma City’s small lineups (where Durant plays the four) had outplayed Golden State’s small lineups. It seemed foolish to call the Warriors small ball lineups the “death” lineup, except that it was getting them killed. Golden State needs Andrew Bogut this series. That said, in Game 6 the death lineup — Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Green — was +12 in 11 minutes. It worked again. Both teams are going to go small for stretches, whichever team has more success doing so will have a huge leg up in this game.

4) Which team controls the glass? Oklahoma City is the naturally better rebounding team, arguably the best rebounding team in the NBA, with a big front line of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Enes Kanter (plus Westbrook is a great rebounder for his position, as is Roberson). However, in the Warriors three wins they are +4 total on the glass — they have either hung with or bested the Thunder on the boards. Golden State needs to have that rebounding focus again (while still finding a way to get out in transition) and limit the Thunder’s second chance points — if OKC can dominate the glass they will be flying to Cleveland for Game 1 Thursday.

5) What random role player steps up with a huge game? It’s a Game 7 tradition: Some player nobody expects ends up immune to the pressure and has a big game. Stars can get tight standing in this bright a spotlight, and role players can win the game for their team. Will it be Iguodala making it happen on both ends for the Warriors? Will it be Waiters knocking down threes? Will Shaun Livingston have the game of his life? Maybe it’s Kanter’s night. Somebody is going to step up.

6) Is Stephen Curry the MVP version of himself? Is Kevin Durant? In Game 6, Curry was just okay in the first half, and the Thunder were up by double digits and seemed in control of the game for much of the first 24 minutes. In the third quarter Curry scored 11 straight Warriors points in one stretch, then in the fourth he had a couple of key threes and had the ball in his hands making plays when the Warriors pulled ahead and won. That Curry needs to show up again, and not just for part of the game. Credit the Thunder defense for making Curry struggle — their smooth switching on defense with long and athletic players — has given him fits. But no defense can contain Curry when he’s on (and healthy, which I’m still not convinced he’s 100 percent).

Kevin Durant was 10-of-31 shooting in Game 6 — he was off, and like any shooter that did not stop him from firing away. That’s the mentality he needs to have, that also cannot happen in Game 7. The Thunder need the MVP Durant (and the good Westbrook) to fuel their offense — he has to be scoring, he has to be passing when the double comes, he has to play great defense. He has to be an MVP.

7) Can Oklahoma City get over the disappointment of not closing out the series at home? Game 6 was a punch to the gut of the Thunder. That was their chance to close out the Warriors at home, Oklahoma City controlled the game early but never could put Golden State away, then got beat in the fourth when Klay Thompson got hot and the Thunder became predictable. Durant said Sunday that if they enter the building Monday acting like it’s a funeral, they will lose. He’s right. But can they forget about Game 6 and get back to the things that got them a 3-1 series lead, or is their head still going to be in Sunday night, especially the first time something goes wrong?