Tag: Oklahoma City Dallas

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: Fittingly Mavericks’ execution sends them to finals

Mavericks' players celebrate against the Thunder during Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Final basketball playoff in Dallas

It was fitting. Maybe it was the only way it could be, with Dallas coming from behind again. Game 5 was a microcosm of the four before it in the Western Conference finals.

Oklahoma City came out and played with energy and passion. Their amazing athleticism caused problems for Dallas, but the Mavericks countered with savvy, good execution of sets and seemingly a different guy every night (Wednesday it was Shawn Marion’s turn). Dirk Nowitzki seemingly never missed (26 points on 15 shots), but still it was Oklahoma City with a healthy lead in the fourth.

Then, when the pressure really stepped up in the end, Dallas executed their plays while Oklahoma City made the mistakes of youth (like seven fourth-quarter turnovers). The result was a 100-96 win for the Mavericks that gives them a 4-1 series win and sends them to the franchise’s second NBA finals (the last was a loss to the Heat five years ago).

After a devastating loss in Game 4, many may have expected the Thunder to roll over and get this over with (like the Lakers did last series in the closeout game). But if you thought that, you don’t know this Thunder team.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, they all are old-school basketball warriors. They respect themselves and the game too much to fold like that.

And coach Scott Brooks had one wrinkle left — he went small. For long stretches the Thunder went with some smaller groupings, such as a lineup of Eric Maynor with Westbrook as the guards, Harden and Durant as the forwards and Nick Collison as center. That lineup played the entire fourth quarter.

“I knew that to win this game we had to keep moving (the Mavericks’) feet, and we put as much quickness on the floor as we could,” Brooks said afterward.

Westbrook seemed to thrive in it and he finished with 31 points and eight rebounds, some of them key ones at the end. It seemed to throw Dallas off-balance on defense, and the Thunder were getting some of the transition points they needed.

It all was a key reason the Thunder had an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter.

But going small had a couple of drawbacks, and the Mavericks eventually adjusted and made them pay for it. Like they had been doing all series.

One drawback is that Durant is not a particularly good pick-and-roll defender and he kept getting drawn into that play. It was just part of the reason J.J. Barea had 14 points and five assists on another huge night.

The other thing is going small makes it hard to rebound. Especially because Dallas coach Rick Carlisle refused to play along with Oklahoma City — he kept in a big lineup.

Dallas took the lead when Westbrook lost the ball going for a defensive rebound, it came out and Dallas ended up with the offensive board, four guys touched it in quick succession then Nowitzki drained a 3-pointer.

Then, with the Thunder down two and less than 24 seconds on the clock, Oklahoma City needed one more stop and a basket to send it to overtime. The Thunder forced Nowitzki to miss, but Marion was able to out-jump every Thunder player on the floor and tip it out to Jason Kidd, who passed to Nowitzki and then it was all over but for the fouls and the free throws.

That was just part of a monster game for Marion, who had 26 points on 17 shots, plus eight rebounds.

In the end, Dallas executed while the Thunder made crucial mistakes down the stretch. The Thunder had just six turnovers in the first three quarters but seven in the fourth quarter alone. Like all series, the Thunder looked like a team where all its key players are younger than 22 when it got late in games.

“Their time will come, but it’s not now,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said in his postgame interview broadcast on NBA TV.

It’s not, right now is the Mavericks time.

The Mavericks have the best player in the playoffs. They have a deep team where somebody different is stepping up every game. They have good defense. They have fantastic end-of-game execution.

They will have a chance to prove just how good they are one more time against the Miami Heat in the finals.

NBA Playoffs: Thunder have fight in them, is that enough?

Mavericks' Nowitzki celebrates near Thunder's Westbrook during NBA Western Conference Final playoff in Oklahoma City

Do not question the toughness of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Don’t question their heart.

No doubt the collapse at the end of Game 4 Monday was ugly, but it was not about toughness. You don’t reach the Western Conference Finals with all your key players 22 or younger without being tough. Without heart.

You can reach that stage without learning how to execute under real pressure. You can reach that stage without having the right balance of scorers and defenders around your young stars.

So as we head into what could be a decisive Game 5 Wednesday night, with Dallas up 3-1 over Oklahoma City and looking to close out the series, you should expect the Thunder to come out and play with real passion. To show some toughness. If Dallas thinks it can coast to a win, they will find themselves in trouble.

But that’s not Dallas’ style. They are the better team and they are executing what they want to do at the highest of levels. They have the best player in the playoffs in Dirk Nowitzki. This should be their game.

Dallas certainly will want to jump on the Thunder early and kill their spirit. The Thunder were understandably crushed after giving up a 15-point lead in the final five minutes of Game 4 Monday, the Mavs want to get into their heads. If Dallas does get up early this could be a runaway. But look for the Thunder to make the Mavericks work for it.

The Thunder’s problem is execution — Dallas is doing it better than anyone right now while the Thunder get sloppy under pressure. Kevin Durant has to find a way to get enough space from Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion to get the ball where he wants it. Early in Game 4 he was getting the ball in the post and doing damage, but when the game was on the line he was pushed out by half court. Russell Westbrook has to create better for others and create at all under pressure. James Harden has to stay in the game, they need him as a third scoring option.

Dallas? Look for a lot of Dirk hitting shots nobody can defend. Look for Jason Terry to have a big game. Look for their role players to step up, feeling comfortable at home. Basically, Dallas is going to do what they have done all playoffs — Dirk is going to get his and somebody else is going to step up. They are going to defend and make it hard. They will play like veterans.

Expect the Thunder to put up a fight, but the Thunder are still learning hard lessons. Still growing. Still evolving. Dallas has done all that work already. Dallas will almost certainly win and close this series out. But don’t think the Thunder are not tough.

Video: Watch Nowitzki shred the Thunder

Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki celebrates defeating the Los Angeles Lakers during Game 2
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It was an epic performance.

The Thunder defended him well, but Dirk Nowitzki — the single best player in these playoffs — saved some of his best for the Mavericks fourth-quarter comeback Monday to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.

Dirk was a machine, and because of it he and the Mavericks are going to get another shot at a ring. Watch and be amazed.

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.