The Oklahoma City Thunder have been…well, thundering through the NBA’s Western Conference as we reach this weekend’s All-Star break in New Orleans. The Thunder are sitting on a 43-12 record, good for a four-game lead for the top seed in the West, and narrowly ahead of the Indiana Pacers for the NBA’s best overall record. What’s more, Kevin Durant is emerging as the odds-on favorite to be the MVP.
Durant is averaging 32 points/8 rebounds/6 assists per game, and he does it with efficiency. The 6’11” small forward shoots 51 percent from the floor and in spite of shooting several three-point attempts a game, still hits 41 percent behind the arc. The knee injury to All-Star caliber guard Russell Westbrook has seemingly inspired Durant to take his already outstanding game to a new level.
The play of Durant has always been excellent though. What separates this year’s Oklahoma City team from recent seasons (years we might add that were pretty damn good, reaching the NBA Finals in 2012 and winning 60 regular season games in 2013 before Westbrook got hurt in the playoffs) is that the Thunder of 2014 are really locking down defensively and hitting the boards.
Oklahoma City’s defense ranks 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency—a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo, thus not penalizing a team like the Thunder who play at a pace faster than the norm. That isn’t all that surprising given this team’s athletic ability in the backcourt, and the presence of a defensive stopper at guard in Thabo Sefolosha. What is surprising is that OkC is the best rebounding team in the NBA, better even than Indiana.
That brings us to Serge Ibaka, the power forward averaging 15 points/8 rebounds per game. Ibaka has been inconsistent in the past, and I would argue that it’s his steady performance that is the real difference for Oklahoma City this year. Please note I’m not saying he’s the best player—that’s obviously Durant. But again, Durant has always been great. When Ibaka chips in points and hits the boards, he gives the Thunder a championship dimension.
Oklahoma City plays a guard-oriented lineup, so center Kendrick Perkins only plays about 20 minutes a game. This makes the Thunder’s rebounding dominance even more surprising and it should get even better when Westbrook comes back. The aggressive guard who plays basketball with the same wild fervor that Robert Griffin IIIplays football, averages six boards a game from the point guard spot.
In the meantime, the OkC backcourt is being upheld by Reggie Jackson (14 points/4 rebounds/4 assists), Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb. Westbrook’s return will add to the offensive punch—he averages 21 ppg—as Sefolosha is primarily a defender and Lamb is better suited to being a role player.
Westbrook is going to be back soon, perhaps even in time for next Thursday’s game with the Miami Heat. The big question is going to be what effect this will have on the team. Westbrook has an alpha personality and likes to take over. Durant is more laid back—or at least was, until the injury forced the star to not only score, but lead.
Does the return of Westbrook upend the new chemistry? It’s possible, and something to watch out for. What we do know is that Oklahoma City can’t win the NBA championship without him. In last year’s playoffs, Durant put up big numbers, but at the end of games, defenses simply took him out, without Westbrook to distract some attention. It’s the challenge of head coach Scott Drew’s career to make Westbrook’s return work, and if it does, the ultimate payoff is right there to be collected.
Being a star in the NBA playoffs right now looks about as safe as being a mafia don at the end of The Godfather. Russell Westbrook is the latest elite player to get hit…er, hurt, as a knee injury that originally was supposed to only make him questionable for Game 3, ended up resulting in surgery that will knock him out for the rest of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City’s chances of advancing without Westbrook is the main topic as we overview all eight first-round playoff series, and other pertinent topics will focus on…
New York is locked in, while Indiana looks shaky—no small issue, given the two teams are the chalk to meet in the second round.
Chicago’s team defense is trumping Brooklyn’s star power
After being first failed by a lack of rebounding effort, Denver was done in by a bad coaching move in Game 3.
Lets’ begin with the Thunder. I’ve been in Oklahoma City’s corner all year. They were my preseason pick to win the championship. I stuck with that when the playoffs began. Even though I had my doubts given what Miami has shown all year long, I believed at minimum the Thunder were head and shoulders above the rest of the West and would match up with the Heat far better than most observers believed.
That’s out the window right now. There’s no way on earth Oklahoma City can beat Miami without Westbrook and the biggest consequence of this injury is that, when it comes to the championship, the only issue left is whether Miami can make it through without a significant injury (and given the way this season and these playoffs have gone down we shouldn’t rule it out).
But can OkC still sneak into the Finals through the back door? I think they’ve got a shot. This is still a team that will have the best player on the floor every game it plays in the Western Conference and in basketball that’s no small consideration. The guards they have on hand—Kevin Martin, Thab Sefolosha and now Reggie Jackson, who steps in for Westbrook—aren’t a bunch of stiffs who can’t play.
What the Thunder need is more their oft-inconsistent frontcourt players—Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to step up. They need Ibaka to shoulder more of a scoring load—something he did last night in a 104-101 win over Houston that gave Oklahoma City a 3-0 series lead. The stars on both teams delivered—Kevin Durant had 41 and James Harden had 30—but it was Ibaka’s 17 points/11 rebounds that separated the two teams and why OkC held off a furious Houston rally after being down twenty in the first half.
Oklahoma City was going to need more from Ibaka, and more consistency in rebounding from Perkins (something that was still lacking last night) if they played Miami with Westbrook. Now the two interior players just have to do it a couple rounds earlier.
I’m not sure if I’d still pick the Thunder to win the West at this point, and since I’m not sure, I’ll stay with the original pick. But I do want to say this up front—if Kevin Durant puts this team on his back and leads them to the Finals in the conference that is by far the superior one, I don’t want to hear any media idiots sniping how he can’t win the big one when they get wiped out by Miami. Simply making the Finals is now a hard road ahead for OkC.
Around the rest of the playoffs….
NEW YORK & INDIANA
The bottom half of the Eastern Conference bracket has New York and Indiana pitted as the favorites move on to the second round. The Knicks look playoff-ready. For the third straight game they played tremendous defense on Boston and beat the Celtics 90-76 in Game 3. New York took the partisan Boston crowd out early, in spite of the emotion running through the Garden on the first home game since the Marathon bombing and in spite of numerous attempts by the fans to get into the game.
What’s scary is that Boston has made this the kind of series they should have been able to win. It’s low-scoring, it’s plodding and it’s defensive-oriented. But the Knicks are the ones thriving. They also got their three-point game into gear on Friday’s win, hitting 11 treys, and Raymond Felton had a solid game at the point with 15 points/10 assists.
Indiana was supposed to be the team that would look good defensively, and be able to go into a road environment and get it done. But the Pacers’ lackluster defense in a pair of home wins has been panned here in previous NBA commentary and last night in Atlanta, the team just flat-out laid an egg. Indiana shot 27 percent and turned it over 22 times. The Hawks finally got a big-time game from one of their stars, As Al Horford went off for 26 points/16 rebounds in a 90-69 game that was a rout by the second quarter.
I want to see the Pacers get back to the team they were in the regular season—hard-nosed on defense and hitting the glass before I feel to confident in my pick of them to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
TRIPLE-OVERTIME IN CHICAGO
The Chicago-Brooklyn series is one of two to have four games in already, and yesterday’s Game 4 was one for the ages. Brooklyn had the game in hand in the fourth quarter, ready to tie up the series and go back home. Instead the Bulls went on a 16-2 run to close the game and forced overtime. In each of the first two extra periods it was Chicago who looked like they were about to win, but Joe Johnson hit some clutch shots to keep the Nets breathing. Finally, in the third overtime. Chicago finally pulled away and won 142-134.
Nate Robinson’s electric showing off the bench—he had 34 points, 23 in the fourth quarter and ESPN studio host Michael Wilbon (a Chicago native) gushed that the performance was Jordan-esque—is the big story and correctly so. But I want to step back from the thrills of yesterday and look at the deeper issues that have transpired over the last three games, including Chicago’s Game 3 win on Thursday night.
The Bulls have gotten back to their identity as a tough defensive team. The Thursday win was right out of their playbook—it was ugly all the way, both teams shot less than 40 percent from the floor and the Bulls won 79-76.
Brooklyn’s Big Three—Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez—is doing fine in most games, in a few instances they’ve been spectacular. Williams certainly was yesterday with 32 points, Lopez had 26 points/11 rebounds and I mentioned Johnson’s clutch play. In Game 3, the trio combined for 55 points and was reasonably efficient in getting them.
The problem is that Brooklyn is just not getting enough help. There was zero support for the Big Three in Game 3, and only Reggie Evans made any kind of impact in Saturday’s thriller—although 11 rebounds when stretched out into 15 additional minutes is probably a pretty minimal impact. This points to the offseason problem that Brooklyn will face, which is to improve the quality of their depth and the ability of their defense to lock down in key situations. Chicago can do that right now and Brooklyn can’t. Even in the NBA, apparently stars don’t trump all else.
When will Brooklyn’s offseason begin? Don’t write them off in this series. They still have two of the last three on their home floor, I expected it to go seven from the outset, and all they need to do is get one win on the road—something they’ve been agonizingly close to doing twice now. While I felt like their road win would need to come in the middle games, I’ll stay with my pick and say the Nets turn it around and pull it out.
Whoever pulls it out has Miami waiting for them. Well, not officially, but the Heat churned out another win over Milwaukee on Thursday night. The 104-91 final in Game 3 followed the same pattern—the Bucks hung with the Heat for a half and then pulled away to a double-digit win.
DISAPPOINTMENT LOOMING FOR DENVER?
The Nuggets fell behind Golden State two games to one when they dropped a 110-108 thriller on Friday night. I came down on Denver hard for being outrebounded in Game 2 on their home floor, in spite of Golden State being without power forward David Lee. The Nuggets again were beaten to the glass, this time by a 42-34 margin, but I’m going to let the players off the hook and point the finger at a coach I like a lot in George Karl.
Karl played much of the game with a four-guard attack, not using his center tandem of Javale McGee and Kosta Koufus. While neither one is going to conjure up images of Bill Russell anytime soon, both can be good rebounders and more important, their presence is the way to exploit Denver’s biggest personnel advantage. When Karl opted for the perimeter-heavy lineup, he essential negated his edge and turned the game into one that Golden State could win.
And win it they did. Steph Curry was electric for the third straight game, going for 29 points and dishing 11 assists. While his backcourt mate Klay Thompson was little quiet after two good games in Denver, Jarrett Jack stepped up with 23. Curry & Jack combined to shoot 18-for-31 from the floor as the Warriors look ready to dispel the myth that says you can’t shoot a high percentage from the perimeter for an extended number of games in a row.
Denver’s Ty Lawson was great—he scored 35 points and handed out 10 assists, but his team has their back up against it for Game 4 tonight. If this is going to be a battle of the guards the rest of this series, I’ll put my chips on Curry each time. If the Nuggets can get some action going down low, the advantage can shift back their direction.
THE REST OF THE WEST
*San Antonio will get the winner of the Denver-Golden State series, at least after the Spurs finish the formality of dispensing with the Lakers. Los Angeles played without Steve Nash on Friday night. But their improbable backcourt of Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris actually looked pretty good, with each scoring 20-plus. Dwight Howard had 25 points/11 rebounds and Pau Gasol at least rebounded.
What nobody on the Lakers has done all year is play defense. They let San Antonio shoot 61 percent from the floor. I say “let”, because I don’t think a team is hot when they make a bunch of layups, which is what the Spurs did most of the night in a 120-89 blowout that had the boobirds at Staples out in force.
*I’m very disappointed with the Los Angeles Clippers. Not only did the Clips fail to pick up a win in Memphis, losing both Thursday and Saturday, as the series fell to a 2-2 tie, but Los Angeles was only marginally competitive in the two road games. The Clips won a Game 7 in Memphis last year and now they can’t tighten up enough to get one road win? The opportunity ahead of them is huge, with wounded Oklahoma City awaiting the winner of this series.
Memphis, of course, does get some credit for the turn of events. Their 94-82 win in Game 3 and 104-83 victory in Game 4 were keyed by this team getting back to some old-fashioned tough rebounding. The Grizzlies enjoyed huge advantages on the boards in both games, ending with a combined 90-61 composite total on the glass.
Zach Randolph, after two lousy games out west, combined for 51 points.20 rebounds in the home games and Marc Gasol had a big 24/13 game on Saturday. Blake Griffin can be faulted for a no-show in Game 3 when he only had two rebounds. But both he and Chris Paul played well on Saturday. Depth is normally the Clippers’ big strength on everyone else in the league but it completely failed them in Game 4 as Paul and Griffin got no support. Now a series that was there for Los Angeles to get control of, is anyone’s to take.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS
Golden State and San Antonio continue to reward their fans at the betting window, having covered all three point spreads, with New York right behind at 2-0-1. Memphis is also making friends among gamblers. After a pointspread cover in Game 2, the Grizzlies’ two easy wins as a narrow home favorite make them 3-1 in Las Vegas.
I imagine a lot of sportsbooks are rooting hard for a Milwaukee cover today. The Bucks are getting 9 ½ in what’s almost certain to be the series finale against Miami. The dog also covered in Game 2 and I’m guessing a lot of fans are betting on Miami. Therefore a 2-2 split would give the house the edge thanks to the additional 10 percent paid on all losing bets. But in that same regard it’s imperative that Milwaukee not get carried away and actually win outright, thereby setting up “deciding” fifth game.
Over Sunday and Monday every series will get through four games, and Chicago-Brooklyn will play their Game 5. Here’s the schedule…
New York-Boston (1 PM ET, ABC)
Miami-Milwaukee (3:30 PM ET, ABC)
San Antonio-LA Lakers (7 PM ET, TNT)
Denver-Golden State (9:30 PM ET, TNT)
Chicago-Brooklyn (7 PM ET, TNT)
Indiana-Atlanta (7:30 PM ET, NBA-TV)
Oklahoma City-Houston (9:30 PM ET, TNT)
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will resume on Tuesday morning. By then it’s possible that Miami, San Antonio, New York and Oklahoma City could have completed series sweeps and Chicago could close it out in five. I expect the Heat, Spurs and Knicks to close things out, am less sure about the Thunder and would be surprised if the Bulls clinch on the road.