Tag: Mavericks Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks - Game Five

Thunder need to be patient, let Westbrook grow into PG they need


People’s impatience is amazing.

The Oklahoma City Thunder just went to the Western Conference Finals with a team that had none of its core players over age 22. They are athletic, they played with passion, and while they struggled under the weight of the moment and Mavericks, that is how teams learn to win. Does anybody remember the three straight years the Detroit Pistons whipped Michael Jordan’s Bulls? Young teams can grow from these experiences.

But people are amazing — across the Web and even on ESPN there were people suggesting it was time to consider moving Russell Westbrook for a “real” point guard. Because freakish athletes who are Second Team All NBA grow on trees, I guess. Because trading part of a team’s emotional core is a good idea (right Celtics?).

Russell Westbrook is a 22-year-old who didn’t play point guard until his last year at UCLA, a guy who gave you 21.9 points per game and had a better than 2/1 assist to turnover ration during the season, a guy with room to grow, and you’re going to send him out because his flaws were exposed in the NBA’s final four?

That kind of knee jerk reaction is how you end up with an Isiah Thomas Knicks roster.

Relax. Westbrook is smart, passionate and wants to win. He learned hard lessons these playoffs, but he learned. And it games like Game 7 against Memphis he showed what his future looks like (putting up a triple double).

You just have to let him get there.

Do you want to judge Westbrook after two trips to the playoffs? In Kobe Bryant’s second trip to the playoffs he shot 40.8 percent overall, 21.4 percent from three and had a PER of 12.8 (Westbrook’s was 19.6). Michael Jordan was knocked out in the first round his first two playoff trips.

Different situations and eras, to be sure. But you don’t judge just how good someone can be yet.

Shawn Marion, who has been around a while, understands that while Westbrook made some poor decisions he was forced into other ones, as he told CBSSports Eye On Basketball.

“He didn’t have any choice but to shoot some of those shots, because we were denying everybody else the ball,” he said. “When you deny everybody else from catching the ball, he ain’t got no choice but to go one-on-one.

“Don’t talk bad about that man, because he’s competing out there and he’s playing hard on both ends of the floor. When you deny people from catching the ball, he’s got no choice but to shoot it. Don’t kill him. I don’t like that. He is out there playing hard and competing.”

Look at the Thunder’s off-the-ball movement this series. Everyone — Kevin Durant included — needs to work on getting open, working off screens. A lot of execution issues. Westbrook deserves some heat for his play, he can get some heat for not reacting well after the loss. He and the team need to mature.

But he’s 22. Give him a chance. He’s already shown great improvement every year, why assume that has stopped?

Look what one smart NBA executive told Sekou Smith at NBA.com.

“These people talking about trading this kid and him not being a winner are out of their minds,” an Eastern Conference executive told me before Game 5 of the conference finals. “You don’t ignore the strides he’s made and the things he’s done at this stage of his career and assume he won’t improve and work to make his game better. They should know better, writing off a young guy like this so soon. It’s the hardest position in the league to play, the hardest to learn and the most difficult to manage and maintain. These same people who talk about getting rid of him must have forgotten about guys like Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups, who faced similar criticisms early in their careers and you see how that worked out. But you can’t compare and contrast him with Jason Kidd, who is one of the best to ever play the position. That’s just not fair the kid.”

NBA Playoffs: Thunder learning lessons. The hard way.

Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four

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.

NBA Playoffs: Mavericks defense looks good thanks to Thunder offense

Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three

“Tonight we played championship-level defense for the first time in the series,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the game in an interview broadcast on NBA TV.

Maybe. But the Oklahoma City Thunder really helped them out with that — it’s a lot easier to cover a guy who is standing still. And the Thunder did a lot of standing around. On several trips down in a row in the second quarter Peja Stojakovic was on Kevin Durant, but the Thunder never exploited it as Durant stood still and called for the ball.

Russell Westbrook has and continues to take a lot of heat for the Thunder offense. Certainly he has had issues with 15 turnovers this series himself, a few of which led to some ugly frustration in Game 2. Then in Game 3, he scored 30 but was dominating the offense, shooting a lot and seemed to spend a lot of time just pounding the ball, dribbling at the top of the key.

But while Westbrook was dribbling, what movement do you see off the ball, what actions are being set up? Very little. Durant doesn’t work well off picks, doesn’t fight to get open. The Thunder’s offense has been stagnant, forcing Westbrook (or James Harden) to create everything off the dribble, maybe off a screen late in the clock.

Dallas has taken advantage of this, pressuring Westbrook and Harden when they have to create. They have Tyson Chandler in the paint, waiting to block shots. They are overplaying off-the-ball screens and the Thunder are not countering by big men slipping the screens or guys sliding out to the arc.

It all came together in Game 3 and the end result was Oklahoma City shooting 36.5 percent from the field and 1-of-17 from beyond the arc. The result was the Thunder scoring a rather anemic 96.7 points per 100 possessions. That is the reason the Mavericks are up 2-1 after a Game 3 win 93-87.

Dallas is a good defensive team, seventh in the NBA during the regular season giving up just 102.3 points per 100 possessions. But the Thunder put up 130.1 and 113.6 points per 100 possessions per game the first two. Oklahoma City attacked, hit their shots and got to the rim. But it was still a lot of success out of isolation and picks, not ball movement.

What happened Saturday was not all on Oklahoma City — Shawn Marion did a good job on Kevin Durant, who had 24 points but needed 23 shots to get that and only got to the line three times.Chandler has done a great job protecting the paint, taking away the easy buckets.

“We did not do a good job offensively, but I thought they did a great job, really took us out of our sets, they were trapping on the basketball,” Scott Brooks said after the game in an interview broadcast on NBA TV. “Just got us playing on our heels.”

Dallas did play its best defense of the series, but the Thunder fall out of their sets far too easily. The result is isolation basketball that is easier to defend. Isolation basketball that will not win them this series.

NBA Playoffs Thunder vs. Mavericks Game 3: Anyone’s Series

Mavericks forward Nowitzki shoots a fade-away jump shot in the second half against Oklahoma during Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Final basketball playoff in Dallas

What has made the Western Conference Finals so compelling, especially when compared to years past is the simple fact: we don’t know who’s going to win. In years prior, we flirted with the idea that San Antonio, Denver, or, sure, maybe Phoenix could knock off L.A. but in our heart of hearts we knew it was only a matter of time before the crushing weight of championship experience and unfathomable talent advantage overwhelmed the other team. It was a constant fight to see how far one team could push L.A., how lazy L.A. would be, thinking maybe the favorite could screw around long enough to allow the series to get away from them. But in reality, we were talking ourselves into those ideas, while knowing full well it was only a matter of time before the Lakers did what they do. Win.

But this series, with the Lakers at home wondering how it wall went wrong? This series is great sport, because the markets may not be as glorious and shiny, filled with as many bandwagon fans waving purple pom-poms, but it’s more competitive because we have no idea who’s going to win. And after two games, we still have no idea.

Yes, Oklahoma City took a game in Dallas, stealing homecourt from the Mavericks. But to do so, they needed their bench to produce half a hunny, and for James Harden to spontaneously transform himself into a slighter Scottie Pippen in his second year. Did we mention Jason Terry had to go frozen in the fourth quarter,where he usually dominates? Everything had to go right for Oklahoma City, and even then it was close down the stretch. So you could easily say the Mavericks let one get away and they’re still in the driver’s seat even with the loss at home…

Until you realize how much Dallas needed in Game 1. Oh, just the greatest shooting efficiency performance in NBA history. That’s all. Oh, and Russell Westbrook had to have a terrible game at the rim where he’s strongest, and even then it was a scrapper. Even Rick Carlisle admits the Mavericks needed a number of things to go their way just to stay 1-1. Oklahoma City has no reason to believe they’re not the ones in full control of this series.

Neither team knows entering Game 3 who’s the better squad. Dirk Nowitzki could pummel the Thunder with another all-world performance and no one would bat an eye. Russell Westbrook could respond to adversity by taking over and there would be no reason to be surprised. This series could go long or short, nothing would shock us, because we’re not aware of what we’re seeing. We’ll have to establish the narrative afterwards, which is the worst way to formulate such, but also the most fun. Because for the moment, we’re just seeing two phenomenal teams pummel each other offensively while the exact same happens in the East with defense.

Game 3 is always pivotal. But in a series where both teams are trying to make sense of who they are at this point and how far they can go, it’ll say more than usual. The Thunder crowd will be louder than ever, while Dallas will come out fully aware that a loss pushes them to the edge of the cliff. The Mavericks could heat back up from the perimeter, the Thunder could finally play some consistent defense. James Harden could play like an All-Star again or crash back to Earth. We’re just along for the ride, as two truly great teams battle it out to determine who’s driving this crazy ship.

In short, Game 3’s going to be fun. Don’t try and expect things. Just come along for the ride.

Video: Kevin Durant’s monster, win-sparking slam

Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks - Game Two

The best line I read about this dunk (and I couldn’t find the tweet later to credit the person) was that Kevin Durant used Brendan Haywood as his own personal Kia.

The Thunder were struggling and this dunk sparked them and was the first step to them evening this series. One dunk does not a win make, but this was a turning point fo Oklahoma City.

Be sure to notice just how bad a job Peja Stojakovic does on defense to start this play. And then marvel at the best dunk of the playoffs.