NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: So freaking close.

The Thunder beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals in Oklahoma City by 11 points. A double-digit victory over he mighty triumverate. It was their fifth win in a row and they looked, as teams do when the win by double-digits, like the superior team in every way. Russell Westbrook couldn’t be stopped. Kevin Durant couldn’t be stopped. The Heat couldn’t keep up with their athleticism and offensive firepower.

They never won again that season.

The next three game were decided by 16 points total. The Heat won four straight, sending the Thunder home after another step forward but once again without the prize.

It was a season that showed considerable growth for the three stars, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Durant became an even more efficient scorer and a better defender, Westbrook increased his production and cut down on his mistakes, Harden grew into a playmaker. The team overall, though, was much te same as it was the year before. Great offensively, pretty good defensively, dominant most of the time and exciting to watch. Defense was the only question, and in the end, it was the only one that mattered, as the grind-it-out style of the Heat wore them down and eventually bested them.

The Thunder had to have walked away from 2012 neither convinced that they could or could not win the title.

Key Departures: Nazr Mohammed played 11 minutes per game last season. He’s gone, so there’s that. That’s pretty much it. And, you know, there’s no real concerns on the horizon. Oh, wait, James Harden.

Key Additions: Perry Jones III plummeted down the draft board, all the way to the Thunder. With no concerns about how he would affect team chemistry or the expecations that would be heaped on him, the Thunder leapt at him and snatched him up. Jones gives them a versatile stretch four who can likely play 3 in some big lineups and has the potential to be an absolute steal if thigs work out right.

They brought in Hasheem Thabeet to replace Mohammed, which is fine. He has to come in, not be horrible, contest or block shots, and rebound. He will do just enough of this to not stand out while clearly still being the weakest link on the team.

How about Daniel Orton? Can I interest you in Andy Rautins? Care for some DeAndre Liggins? No? No? Anybody?

Three One keys to the Thunder season:

1) KEEP CALM AND THUNDER UP: The Thunder don’t need to adapt or change or alter. They don’t need to play differently or mix it up or make things more complex. They just need to do what they did last year.

They just need to show up, run, score, and rock. They are very fittingly the AC/DC of the NBA.

They just need to play better and hope the Heat aren’t as good as they were last year. Bear in mind that in all these other previews I can give you in-depth reasons and tactical adjustments, lineup or chemistry tweaks, philosophical or pragmatic deviations necessary for improvement. I have none for the Thunder. They just need to play a little better. That’s all I’ve got.

What Thunder fans should fear: Chemistry is the thing. This team has accomplished remarkable things at a young age, all built on the strength of their bond with one another. Young players who came up together in a small market with few distrctions who liked each and liked playing with and for one another.

But business has come. Westbrook got his extension, but there are people, even those in Oklahoma City who think that eventually, he’s going to want the opportunity to show what he can be as the main act. James Harden’s contract is on the clock. If it gets done, the Thunder have to plan for their future. If it doesn’t, they have to figure out what to do with him.

This team has exemplified fun and youth for three years, and it’s been an incredible ride. But it’s extremely rare for a team like this to stay together as they get older and the money gets bigger. It’s like the circle of life, only with publicists.

How it likely works out: It’s going to come down to the Lakers or them for the West. There is zero doubt in anyone’s rational, objective mind about this. It’s just a matter of whether Perkins can contain Dwight enough, if Durant can lift his game to another level, if Westbrook can out-produce Nash since neither can defend the other.

There is no way to tell who’s going to come out of it. It’s going to be extremely fun, and there will be many who will want to just skip right to it.

Prediction: 63-19. They have no injury concerns. They have the league’s second best player and best offensive weapons. They have twolegitimate MVP candidates. Their shot-blocking defensive star has reliable mid-range jumper. They have depth, youth, experience, energy, athleticism, skill, and are very, very hungry. The Lakers may have arrived once more. The Thunder are already here.

Report: NBA referees will live-tweet Warriors, Sixers games next week

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The one rule of Twitter is something that NBA officials are apparently willing to sidestep. That rule?

Never tweet.

According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, NBA referees will tweet from their official Twitter account during NBA games this season and hold back-and-forth conversations with fans about calls during games.

It seems like something that would immediately go wrong, but officials have done this before. They held Twitter conversations during last season’s Finals and they apparently feel as though they went well enough to do this sort of thing again.

Via ESPN:

This season, the NBA league office has agreed to work in collaboration with the referee union on this project. As part of the deal, the tweeting referees will have access to the league’s replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey, just like the officials who are on duty that evening, so they can have all the angles available to answer questions.

The union and the NBA plan a series of these games over the next few months, including some playoff games.

You will be able to tweet at @OfficialNBARefs or use #RefWatchParty during Monday’s game between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, or Wednesday’s matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be interesting to monitor this thing and see where it goes. Even the most inane opinions can be shot down by the twittersphere so watching actual NBA referees try to defend themselves against the hordes could get wild.

Raptors’ Pascal Siakam beats Suns with incredible drive at the buzzer

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Pascal Siakam has been an important part of the Toronto Raptors organization for a couple of seasons now. Siakam has been a target in requested trades with the Raptors, but general manager Masai Ujiri wants to hang on to the burgeoning Cameroonian forward.

That’s probably wise.

As time wound down in Thursday night’s game between the Raptors and Phoenix Suns, Siakam found himself with the ball at the top of the arc and the game on the line. Siakam had Mikal Bridges isolated up top, and wound up going to his left to score the game-winning shot as time expired.

Via Twitter:

Siakam finished the game with just 10 points but grabbed 12 rebounds, five assists, and two blocks.

Raptors are now just a half-game back of the Milwaukee Bucks with a record of 34-13.

Raptors promo Kawhi Leonard for ASG with faux-vintage action figure commercial

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The Toronto Raptors have been pushing Kawhi Leonard for the All-Star Game since 2018. The angle the team has decided to take is with Leonard being a “man of action” as opposed to a man of words.

Teams come up with some pretty good ideas about how to promote their star players for the All-Star Game. The Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum did the Vote for Pedro dance from “Napoleon Dynamite” to ask people to vote for buddy Damian Lillard.

The Raptors took a shot at a viral video of their own this week by releasing a fake 1990s-style action figure commercial for Leonard.

The result was pretty good:

At least with a Kawhi Leonard action figure you wouldn’t need to have a speaker and a button that plays catch phrases on it.

Reports: Mavericks, Dennis Smith Jr. could look to reconcile differences

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Things might not be over between Dennis Smith Jr. and the Dallas Mavericks.

The sophomore guard and the Mavericks have apparently been on the outs with each other as the season approaches the midway point. It was rumored that Smith was on the trading block, and that several teams were interested in his services.

But reports on Thursday surfaced saying Dallas and Smith could be heading for a reconciliation, and that conversations between the two sides have been positive as of late.

Via Twitter and ESPN:

The Mavs have shopped Smith, 21, throughout the season but haven’t received any offers that have tempted them to pull the trigger on trading a player whom the Dallas front office still believes has potential to develop into a star, sources said.

“Plan A is still to fix this,” a team source told ESPN.

Smith has not been that good this season, but his advanced numbers suggest that he is on a slow rise upward. It perhaps isn’t the jump Mavericks fans were looking for in the second season for a Top 10 pick, but if they can salvage their relationship it’s probably best for both sides at this juncture.