Every superstar around the league has a bevy of fan support and that support comes from three different kinds of people. First you have your casual fans, the ones that are generally following the team that plays closest to the city they live in. Then you have moderate fans, the ones that go to a handful of games every year and probably owns a jersey representing their favorite player. And then there are the hardcore fans, the ones that watch every game, own season tickets if they close enough to the arena and the ones that use the internet, whether it be forums, blogs or Twitter, to voice their opinions on their team.
While a good number of hardcore fans are unbiased, objective fans that just happen to love their favorite team and players, those fans that fall into the third category are generally the ones that latch onto their favorite superstar, excuse every mistake they make and pass along the blame to someone else on their team. Finding a scapegoat is something that almost all fans of superstars do when their favorite player doesn’t get the job done.
For fans of Kobe Bryant, the scapegoat has been Pau Gasol. The blame on Gasol wasn’t entirely warranted when he got it up until this post-season where his play has actually caused the downfall of Bryant and the Lakers. When LeBron James was a Cav the scapegoat was Danny Fairy for not surrounding James with enough talent to help him reach the NBA Finals. Now that James is in Miami he’ll likely be the scapegoat for Dwyane Wade and Heat fans for failing to deliver on his promise for “not five, not six, not seven” NBA Championships. Dwight Howard has himself a number of scapegoats as pretty much everyone of his perimeter players failed to be even moderately effective in the post-season this year.
Last season Kevin Durant joined those guys listed above as a superstar. I’ll deny his status anything close to that until I see a substantial improvement in his game but the fact is that fans and the media have made him into a superstar by pumping him up all year long. Durant is now seen by most as the NBA’s poster child. Kobe’s always been disliked by most fans because of his sexual assault trail and his overwhelming success. LeBron’s a similar situation after he announced his decision to ditch Cleveland for South Beach.
Durant is currently in the midst of his second career post-season run with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last year the Thunder weren’t expected to make the playoffs but surprised everyone when they secured the eighth seed and challenged the Lakers in the first round. In the end, the Lakers took the series in six games and even though Durant was absolutely horrible in the series, not much blamed was placed on anybody because they weren’t even expected to get there in the first place.
But this season the Thunder had expectations and a lot people thought they’d be able to challenge the Lakers for the crown in the Western Conference monarchy. When you have expectations in the post-season and if you lose even one game, there is going be panic amongst the fanbase. So when the Thunder lost their first game of the playoffs in game four against the Denver Nuggets in the first round, Thunder fans, and the media I might add, started looking for their scapegoat.
The situation couldn’t have been any worse for Thunder starting point guard Russell Westbrook. He had just finished taking 30 shots in that game while Kevin Durant took 18 and some of his misses late in the game directly effected the outcome of the game. It was absolutely ludicrous to do such a thing, at least according to the media and Thunder fans after the game. It was inexcusable for Westbrook to be aggressive offensively with offensive savant Kevin Durant on the floor. In reality some of the decisions Westbrook made were bad but the Thunder’s lack of a complex offense caused their undoing in that game. Westbrook may have taken a few bad shots but he was definitely not the reason the Thunder lost.
Fast forward 13 days and Westbrook is once again receiving the bulk of criticism for a Thunder loss. This time the Thunder lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, putting them behind 2-1 in the series. Westbrook took 22 shots, missing 15 of them, but finished the game with a strong line of 23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and two steals. His seven turnovers were another drawback but it wasn’t all his fault. But again, it was crazy to the media and to fans for Westbrook to shoot 22 shots while Kevin Durant barely touched the ball in the fourth quarter. While that was the popular belief the truth about yesterday’s game is that Durant was shut down and the Thunder spent most of crunchtime playing with a line-up of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. In other words: Westbrook and Durant were on the floor with three offensively challenged players and Tony Allen wasn’t letting Durant touch the ball no matter what the Thunder tried to run to get him open.
Rather than blaming Westbrook for his poor shooting performance what Thunder fans and the media should really be pointing out is that: A) The Thunder don’t have a reliable offensive set that isn’t predictable, B) Thunder coach Scott Brooks made a major gaffe in the final four minutes of the game by inserting Thabo Sefolosha into the game over James Harden and C) Kevin Durant is a one-dimension offensive player at this stage of his career. But since nobody else will analyze these things, I will.
- The Thunder don’t have a reliable offensive set that isn’t predictable
Almost every Thunder offensive possession in crunchtime originates with a 1/3 pick and roll with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. That play worked several times against the Denver Nuggets in the first round but the Thunder did not have a ton of success during the regular season because a lot of teams knew what was coming in the final minutes of the game. The Memphis Grizzlies both know what the Thunder are going to do and they have the perfect individual match-up for Durant defensively. Tony Allen simply refuses to let Durant get the ball once he sets a screen for Westbrook and once that initial screen-action with Durant and Westbrook fails, the rest of the play is broken down and there are really no other options than a Westbrook isolation.The Thunder have run some motion sets well in the past but for whatever reason, the 1/3 pick and roll is constantly overused by OKC in crunchtime.
- Scott Brooks’ line-up gaffe
The ineffectiveness of that set once Durant is taken out of the play after the screen would have changed in this game had James Harden been on the floor (or even Nick Collison, who left the game at the 4:24 mark just like Harden in favor of Kendrick Perkins). With Sefolosha, Ibaka and Perkins on the floor, no matter how many times Westbrook shoots the ball, if Kevin Durant isn’t open, it’s probably a better shot than anything Sefolosha, Ibaka and Perkins could have gotten off. With Harden on the floor Oklahoma City has two players that can create off the dribble making it more likely for them to get a good look if Durant doesn’t get open. And in this series, with Allen on Durant, most of the time the Thunder aren’t going to get the ball to Durant because Allen is an amazing defender, so the need for a third offensive option to be on the floor is even greater. If Brooks chooses to keep Westbrook and Durant on the floor with Sefolosha, Perkins and Ibaka then it’s Brooks that deserves the blame for Westbrook’s shot attempts and turnovers. His go-to offensive set is easily neutralized by the Memphis defense and once it fails a 1-4 offensive set with Westbrook at the top happens to be the most efficient option the Thunder have with three incapable of offensive players on the floor.
- Kevin Durant is a one-dimension offensive player right now
I’ve taken my shots at Durant before but don’t let that make you think this is a biased observation. The fact is that Durant is a high volume jumpshooter that takes 14 of his 20 shots attempts per game from 10 feet and further. Durant struggles to create his own shot. He’s not a good ball-handler, he doesn’t get to the rim at a high rate and even when he does get to the free throw line it’s likely because he was fouled in transition or on his rip move. Durant can’t generate his own looks from the field at this point which is why the Thunder have to run the 1/3 pick and roll to get him the ball. Durant normally gets a shot off as soon as he gets open off the screen and roll and a lot of his other looks come when he’s running off of screens and he rarely takes the ball to the rim off the dribble. Durant is too weak to go into the post and he doesn’t have the handle to beat his defender frequently with dribble moves. Because of that the Thunder have to run plays to get him open and when the defense knows what play is coming, it’s a lot easier for them to stop.
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Durant’s inability to get himself good looks is magnified by Tony Allen’s great defensive pressure, or at least it should be. But instead of attacking Durant, which is justified at this point because of his inability to get off decent shots without having to put pressure on Westbrook to get him the ball, Westbrook is being dragged in the mud for taking a lot of shots and turning the ball over. What people bashing Westbrook fail to understand is that he is being forced to take some tough shots and overdribble the basketball because of Oklahoma City’s mediocre offense and Durant’s one-dimensional offensive game.
But bashing Durant doesn’t play into his superstar ego that the media has created for him. Thanks to the press, Durant is thought of as the best player on this team and the guy that should be taking all of the shots late in games. That sucks for Westbrook, because he’s become the scapegoat for Kevin Durant fans and the media who are desperate to protect Durant’s reputation as a scoring machine that can’t be stopped late in games as long as he touches the ball.
If only Jeff Green were still around, then he could take over for Westbrook as the Thunder’s scapegoat. But since he’s gone and Westbrook has taken a lot of shots in the post-season, Russ is the one that’s keeps getting beat up all over the internet.