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Oklahoma City Thunder

A Paradigm Shifted

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Rarely are sports more confounding than when Steph Curry plays. Golden State’s wunderkind has a way of turning masterful displays of athletic grace into something as bewildering as calculus or neural science. That’s what his performances are, after all: Riveting studies in the mathematic and cerebral requisites for such ambitious and cutting-edge athletic pursuits, but he does train a lot on a trampoline.

On Saturday, we witnessed the peak of Curry’s personal discovery, the ultimate realization of the power of an earnest mind and enthusiastic soul. His performance against the Thunder, rescuing his team from what seemed a sure defeat at the hands of an eager opponent in one of the few arenas that can turn the “Oracle Effect” against the Warriors, was as demonstrative and elegant as artistic expression gets in the sporting realm.

This game was nearly an odd dramatic turn for the defending champs, what with the third best player on a 52-5 team going on a profanity-laced tirade that required a police inquisition during halftime. On top of that, Curry had has own personal drama to overcome after he exited the game with an injury to his once-troublesome left ankle during the third quarter. Curry returned in the third quarter and proceeded to hit 7 3-pointers during the final three periods of the game. The Warriors were down 11 with five minutes left in the fourth before Curry rattled off two 3s to help the Warriors force overtime, where he added three more 3s, including the breathtaking winner with 0.6 seconds left in the game.

Curry’s final shot might be the most memorable highlight in what has been a season full of peaks for the reigning MVP. On the fateful possession, Curry leisurely trotted up the floor, perfectly aligning his shot and and the clock in his head. When the ball left his hands, the whole arena knew that they weren’t witnessing some desperation heave; this was the shot Curry wanted to take. He sought out a 38-footer and drained it. This was no fluke. This was the latest in a series of expansions of his range, of his potential, of his control of the sport.

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Still On Top

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The Clippers nearly did the impossible. They nearly became the first team in what seems like forever to spot Golden State a 17-point, come back and live to talk about it. Nearly.

Instead, despite getting a 10-point lead of its own with five minutes to play, the Clippers fell short of the Warriors once again. It was the same old story for Golden State: Remove all of the constraints of traditional basketball – ie. a big man – and play free flowing basketball with offensive threats all over the flow. The Clippers are supposed to have one of the most capable frontlines in the league when it comes to countering Golden State’s futuristic lineup, but they were shut down on Wednesday night.

Draymond Green flew around the floor and made plays, and his teammates followed suit. Even when Andre Iguodala wound up switched on Blake Griffin, who is on a tear to start the season, Griffin couldn’t muster much when trying to back him down. As we saw when the chips were down last postseason, Golden State’s trump card changed the game, with its stops fueling its offense, and particularly Curry, who fired in threes from across the bay like it was nothing.

This game had a weird flow to it. Curry was taken out of the game after just three minutes due to foul trouble and didn’t return until the start of the second quarter. In the second half, the same thing happened to Paul, who picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes left in the third and sat almost an entire quarter until he returned. Even still, both teams managed to play tremendous offensive games, especially given the defensive prowess of its opposition.

Griffin was spectacular for most of the game, but his inability to muster a good look when the Warriors had smaller defenders on him down the stretch was worrisome. In a postseason matchup between these two teams, that would be a frequent occurrence, and if Green is going to switch onto Paul, then Griffin has to make Golden State pay. Curry (31 points, 5 boards, 7 threes) and Paul (24 points, 9 assists, 3 steals) were both fantastic, as always seems to be the case in one of the league’s most exhilarating point guard matchups. The same cannot be said for whatever Jamal Crawford was doing last night.

Despite the loss, I think this might be an early-season confidence boost for the Clippers. They got down big in the league’s toughest road environment, fought back with their reserves and got themselves in a position to win. Execute better, and smarter, when the Warriors hand you a size advantage and get out to Curry quicker on his pull-ups and perhaps this result is different. No other team has challenged the Warriors to this point and despite the somewhat deflating loss, I thought this was a good showing for Los Angeles overall.

SASWAS

In the blink of an eye, the Spurs were down 19-2. Then they went on a 21-3 run and took a 23-22 lead at the end of the first quarter. While it was a particularly impressive comeback in the moment, in hindsight it was illustrative of a larger issue that has troubled the Spurs through five games: The starting unit is far from a finished product.

The Spurs starting lineup, while elite defensively (96.1 defensive rating), is only scoring 91.2 points per 100 possessions in their 78 minutes together this season. But once Pop makes his first waves of substitutions – usually Manu Ginobili for Danny Green, Patty Mills for Tony Parker and Boris Diaw for Tim Duncan – the Spurs look like one of the best teams in basketball. The group of Mills, Manu, Kawhi, Diaw and Aldridge is scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 88 points per 100 possessions on the other end.

Aldridge and Diaw have been the Spurs’ best big man pairing both statistically and aesthetically. Aldridge has shown better prowess as a rim protector than I thought he would, so when Diaw checks in for Duncan and provides his unique blend of passing, cutting and spacing, the Spurs get back to the beautiful game that they showcased in the 2014 Finals. With Duncan and Aldridge, things are more cramped, possessions develop slower and Aldridge really isn’t getting that many touches, which is surprising only because the slower pace seems to be a way to introduce Aldridge’s post-game into the Spurs’ vernacular.

San Antonio looked good for most of this game after the first quarter, but once the starters returned in the final five minutes, the offense went in the tank and its turnovers fueled the Wizards’ transition attack. The Wizards, who were playing small with Jared Dudley at the four, were always going to trouble San Antonio’s twin towers lineup in transition, and the Spurs’ turnovers only made matters worse. Tony Parker nearly saved San Antonio with his game-tying three in the final seconds, but Bradley Beal returned the favor after the Spurs messed up a switch on a high screen designed to free Beal. Beal shook a hurried Aldridge, who was rushing to cover for Leonard, and buried the winner.

In May, I wrote about John Wall’s path to stardom, and he was unbelievable in this game. Shooting 6-of-16 isn’t great, but he orchestrated everything for Washington in this game, dishing out 13 assists with only one turnover while gobbling up four steal that got the Wizards on the break. His ability to read a defense continues to impress, and he caused several breakdowns by the Spurs in this game.

Meanwhile, I may end up writing a similar piece about the growth of Bradley Beal. Beal looks like a legitimate offensive superstar right now, and he’s a good defender as well. Beal scored 25 points on 50% shooting, grabbed give boards, dished out four assists and collected three steals against the Spurs, and he’s averaging 25 points with 48/46/75 shooting splits to start the season. It looks like Washington’s two budding stars are finally coming into their own. And if this team lands a certain local kid in the summer, the East might have a new king.

HOUORL

The Magic are the most entertaining, if not best, 1-4 team I can remember seeing in recent years. Their four losses have been by a combined 14 points (or six points less than the standard Rockets loss this season), two of which came in over time, and they’ve played the Wizards, Thunder, Bulls, Pelicans and Rockets. 1-4 against five playoff teams may be a solid indication that the Magic still have a ways to go before they are legitimate playoff team, but they’ve been right there in every game and Scott Skiles has done a nice job revamping this team on the fly.

Perhaps the Magic would have prevailed in this one had Nikola Vucevic not gone out with an injury in the second quarter. But Aaron Gordon came off the bench and gave the Magic 32 really good minutes. He scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds and playing really good one-on-one defense when matched up with James Harden on a couple of occasions. Evan Fournier was also quite good for the Magic, posting a 29-6-4 line while spending most of the game attacking Harden on the offensive end.

Harden had another awful shooting game – you know you’re shooting poorly when a 2-of-11 performance from three actually improves your 3-point percentage for the season – but in typical Harden fashion, he got to the line 17 times and helped seal the victory in the closing moments. Interestingly, Gordon’s emergence led to just 21 minutes for Tobias Harris, who played well for the most part. He had 16 points and five boards but didn’t see any time in the crucial moments of the game, save for the final possession. Harris seems like the kind of guy who you want to play as much as possible against the smallball Rockets, but I guess it will take some time for Harris to earn Skiles’ trust after their falling out in Milwaukee when they were both Bucks.

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The Thunder had this game in the bag. They lead by six with two minutes to go, but the Raptors were the most aggressive team down the stretch. They scored eight points from the free throw line and their two crunchtime field goal came inside the paint while Westbrook and Durant couldn’t manage to put home any of their close-range attempts.

This game must have taken place in a parallel universe, because the Thunder, who own time shares at the free throw line, had only 14 free throw attempts while DeMar DeRozan had 15 by himself. As a team, the Raptors had 39 free throw attempts, which helped make up for the fact that Oklahoma city shot 48% from the field in this game. DeRozan put his head down and went at Andre Roberson and Serge Ibaka all game long, and I thought Jonas Valanciunas, off to a fine start this season, got the better of Steven Adams and Ibaka as well.

Russell Westbrook came out of the gates on fire – as a passer. He dished out 16 assists on the night, but he was off from the field, and Kevin Durant’s 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting wasn’t enough for the Thunder to overcome their excessive fouling and 19 turnovers. Oklahoma City is last in the league in turnovers per game at 20.2, more than two more than Philadelphia, who take as good of care of the ball as I do of my pencils. It’s early, but Billy Donovan still has some work to do with his team’s discipline on both ends.

Notebook from OKC’s Opening Night victory over the Spurs

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For more of my coverage of this game, visit the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. For my Spurs’ season preview, click here.

DION WAITERS STEALS THE SHOW

Dion Waiters is far from the first player who comes to mind when you think about Oklahoma City’s end-of-game options.

But Waiters stepped up in the final minutes against the Thunder’s 112-106 opening night victory against San Antonio, knocking down two jumpshots over Spurs’ guard Tony Parker to give OKC the lead.

With Kevin Durant struggling in his matchup with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, and with San Antonio putting defensive ace Danny Green on Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City went to Waiters, who had a size mismatch on Parker.

“A lot of point guards like to guard our (shooting guard),” Westbrook said. “I think it’s my job to be able to find the mismatch. Dion did a good job of knocking down some big shots.”

Waiters’ first shot was a pull-up jumper late in the clock with 2:11 to play, which tied the game at 103. On the next possession, the Thunder ran a mid-post isolation for Waiters, who faced up Parker and drilled a stepback jumper to put OKC ahead by two.

“(I) got a chance to do what I do,” Waiters said. “We went to the mismatch and I made big shots.”

JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN

Hip-hop is the music genre of choice in most NBA lockerrooms.

However, anyone who hasn’t been in the San Antonio Spurs’ lockerroom might assume coach Gregg Popovich has Bethoven’s 5th Symphony playing on an endless loop instead of Rich Homie Quan’s latest single.

In reality, the Spurs are rarely jamming out to anything before games, but that didn’t stop Spurs’ guard Manu Ginobili from learning his name was a lyric in Drake’s hit new song “Jumpman.”

“It’s kind of hard not to be find out about those things nowadays,” Ginobili said.

Ironically, Oklahoma City’s entrance music on Wednesday night was “Jumpman.”

“I hit that Ginobili with my left hand up like woo,” Drake says in the first verse of the song, which is a collaboration with fellow rapper Future.

Although Ginobili, who hails from Argentina and likely has a musical taste more in line with his coach, didn’t seem overly impressed by the mention, one of his younger teammates, guard Ray McCallum, celebrated the achievement for him.

“It’s funny that you say that,” McCallum said, “because he hasn’t mentioned one word about it.

“The rest of us know about it. If that was me, I would embrace it, but that kind of stuff is not really important to him. You wouldn’t know he was on one of the hotest verses out there unless you brought it up to him.”

POP-ISMS

On Friday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was named the coach of Team USA for 2017-2020. When asked if Thunder star Kevin Durant is a player he’d like to coach with the national team, Popovich responded in a way only he can.

“I don’t know if he is good enough,” Popovich said.

When asked if he was pleased with the way LaMarcus Aldridge has fit in with the Spurs offense, Pop offered up another sarcastic reply.

“Sure, I am,” Popovich said. “And if I wasn’t I wouldn’t say that. I would just lie to you. So, silly question.”

After the game, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it was special to go up against Popovich in his NBA debut, detailing how Popovich had welcomed him to be around the Spurs last year so he could pick the collective brain of San Antonio’s coaching staff.

This was surprising to hear, for three hours earlier, Popovich had a one-word response when asked if he had ever spoken to Donovan about anything basketball related or otherwise.

“No,” Popovich said.

Love Lost

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat

The prominent theory when it comes to building a contender in a small market is that the team needs to bottom out and nab a superstar in the lottery in order to start down the path towards success. Coastal cities will inevitably attract star power as well as aging veterans looking to string out their careers with the added bonus of enjoyable scenery, so the best shot for the little guy is to build from within.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in this respect. They landed the number one overall pick back in 1997 and, despite some flirting with the Magic in 2000, Tim Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 years. Even as Duncan had his team at the top of the standings each year, the Spurs were able to mine talent from unfamiliar territories to surround him with and they had the best coach in basketball to put everything together.

But as much as we want to admire San Antonio for being able to escape the confines of its market, doing so creates an impossibly high standard for every other small market franchise in the league. Over the last decade or so, the only other franchise that has been able to replicate San Antonio’s success was Oklahoma City, and not surprisingly they did so by hiring a young executive that grew up in the Spurs organization.

Another common thread between Oklahoma City and San Antonio that makes them more outliers than the standard is that the superstars that they built around were incredibly humble and devoted individuals; a different breed in today’s hyper, egotistical world of professional sports. Duncan almost went to Disneyworld back in 2000, but since then he’s never wavered in his loyalty to San Antonio, even taking massive paycuts in order to give his general manager financial flexibility. Durant is yet to enter his prime, but everything he’s said seems to indicate that he loves the quaint mid-western town that he’s in.

Those kinds of superstars are rare, and what’s even rarer is that the same front office that lucks into the top pick necessary to draft a Duncan or Durant is also capable of building a title contender around them. More often than not, the draw of being able to play with a star isn’t enough to offset the financial or lifestyle sacrifices that such a move would necessitate.

Thus, there is increased pressure on the executives to build through the draft. Oklahoma City was far better off than the Spurs since they landed the 4th overall pick in 2008 and the 3rd overall pick in 2009, which allowed them to take Russell Westbrook and James Harden, whereas the Spurs have yet to have a lottery pick of their own since they got Duncan. But because the Spurs are able to extract efficient production from just about anybody and because they’ve had so much success with foreign prospects, they also represent an uncommon string of effective personnel decisions that few teams can ever replicate.

This reliance on outstanding draft success as a substitute for big free agent signings has led to a severe decrease in championship windows for small market teams that draft players that would normally be considered capable of leading a team on multiple deep playoff runs.

LeBron James was able to get the Cavs to the Finals just once during his seven years there and he’s one of the 10 best players of all-time. But Cleveland never could put a roster together that complemented him as well as Miami’s roster, even without Dwyane Wade, does. Ditto for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who carried the Magic to a Finals appearance before a series of dumbfounding decisions by Otis Smith had Dwight fleeing for Los Angeles and, eventually, Houston.

The latest causality is Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear to be on the verge of having to trade their star power forward for the second time in seven years. Kevin Love’s “people” have reportedly told the team that he will walk away from the franchise next off-season when he’s able to opt out of his current contract, which means the T’Wolves would be smart to start listening to trade offers so they can get something in return rather than seeing Love walk away for nothing.

It’s saddening, to say the least, that more small market teams that land superstars in the lottery wind up losing them rather than holding onto them for the majority of their career. It’s not about money; Bird Rights have been implemented for the specific purpose of giving small market teams the advantage when re-signing players by giving them an extra year to offer. And in the social media age, it’s not about endorsements or building a brand; LeBron was Nike’s co-star alongside Kobe from the day he entered the league, Howard was Adidas’ biggest endorser in Orlando and Love is already on your TV selling you Taco Bell.

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Rubio’s selfless, endearing style may not be enough to keep Love in Minnesota.

More often than not, these divorces are related to poor supporting casts, and big cities act as a safehaven since, even if the front office is incompetent, the city and the opportunity to play with stars can sell itself to other big-time players. In the case of Minnesota, they have multiple opportunities to surround love with a strong supporting cast. After he got the best of Memphis with a draft night trade that landed Minny Love’s draft rights in exchange for O.J. Mayo back in 2008, David Kahn swung and missed in the draft three years in a row, including his infamous mishandling of his four first round picks in 2009.

Kahn’s decision to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back with the 5th and 6th overall picks in 2009 will haunt the franchise forever. Rubio is a good player but his brilliant aesthetics and overall effectiveness are neutered by his never-ending search for a jumpshot, and Flynn was a total flop that didn’t last three full seasons in the league. To make matters worse, with the pick right after Flynn, the Golden State Warriors landed themselves a franchise changing talent in Stephen Curry, leading to a tremendous what-if regarding the potential trio of Rubio, Curry and Love.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Armed with the 4th overall pick in 2010 and the 2nd overall pick in 2011, Kahn drafted two players that are no longer on the roster, one of which played for the league minimum this season: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams. Minnesota’s streak of misses continued even after Kahn was gone, as Flip Saunders’ first move as team president was drafting Trey Burke and trading him for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While Dieng had a strong run to close the season, Muhammad, the higher selection of the two, seems to be a long way from lottery-like production.

Even with a strong coach like Rick Adelman, the Timberwolves struggled to survive in the rugged Western Conference. Granted, they dealt with some severely unfair injury issues over the past two seasons, but given the state of their roster relative to the rest of the conference, it’s safe to assume that a playoff berth would have been the extent of their accomplishments. And as much as you want a player like Love to stay in Minnesota and keep the franchise relevant as he enters into his prime as one of the brightest stars in the league, can you really blame him for pursuing a shot at success?

It will be interesting to see if the league deems this a problem big enough to address when the new CBA is up for negotiations, if they decide it is a problem at all. At the end of the day, the result of these superstar fallouts it getting ultra-talented players to places that maximize their earning potential. And even as the Timberwolves would be set back for five or six years as they try to hit the lottery again in the draft, a team like Milwaukee will experience a brief upswing up until Andrew Wiggins decides to bolt for the beaches. It’s a cyclical process.

But perhaps the league is right not to address the increased number of fleeting small market stars since the underlying and most prominent issue is inept front offices and coaching staffs. Had Kahn drafted like Sam Presti and had Danny Ferry and Mike Brown crafted a culture like the one they experienced during their time in San Antonio, perhaps Love and LeBron are still pumping money into those small market economies.

Then again, maybe the Spurs and Thunder have just gotten our hopes up. Their success inspires other small market franchises to follow their blueprint, but in reality, they are deviations from the norm whose commendable coups still pale in comparison to those of the Lakers and Celtics and whose admirable triumphs are far less likely to sustain past a generation than a franchise whose arena is within a few miles of beaches or Broadway.

It’s Going Down!

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

GrizzlieThunderG1

You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

X’s And Bro’s: Episode 2

in NBA/Podcasts by
bosh

Brett Koremenos joins me to recap Sunday’s national TV games between the Heat and Pacers and Thunder and Celtics, as well as a quick preview for tonight’s Thunder-Spurs game.

NBA Thursday Liveblog: 3/7/13

in NBA by
clipsnugs

Join myself and Demarcus Robinson as we liveblog two key NBA matchups this evening between the Knicks and Thunder and Nuggets and Clippers.

Mark Travis - 1:16 AM ET

Thanks everybody for joining Demarcus and I again for this liveblog! We hoped you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Mark Travis - 1:07 AM ET

This one looks over. The Nuggets have completely owned this season half and have held the Clippers to 12 points in the fourth quarter so far. Los Angeles continues to struggle in getting good looks out of their offense and has to rely on a 3-2 zone defense to gets stops. Things are not looking up for VDN and company.

Mark Travis - 12:56 AM ET

The Clippers had it down to single digits momentarily, but they are back down 12 with half of the fourth quarter in the rearview mirror. I am not sure their offense can muster enough good looks in the final six minutes against such a frantic defensive team.

Mark Travis - 12:31 AM ET

The Nuggets have taken their offense to another level with an influx of threes and transition buckets while the Clippers are falling back into their stagnant ISO heavy attack that has started to develop over the past month or so. Good defensive teams have forced them into some really inefficient looks and that is what the Nuggets have done to build this double digit lead.

Mark Travis - 12:00 AM ET

We had a really slow first half, with each team getting 45 possessions each, putting them on pace for a 90 possession game, which is equal to the Nets league low average of 90 possessions per game. LA’s zone effectively slowed the game down and created some running opportunities for their offense to score easy buckets. I’ve been impressed by Matt Barnes and Wilson Chandler and how they have worked around the floor so far and I am hoping that Chris Paul (2 points, 1-of-4 shooting, though he has 7 assists) and Lawson (2 points on 1-of-6 shooting, though he has 6 assists) step up their games in the second half.

Mark Travis - 11:36 PM ET

Neither team is getting to the FT line very much so far in the game.

I think the Clips’ zone has really cut down on Denver’s penetration so far and most of their baskets near the rim have come on cuts and not drives. I think that has a lot to do with the low free throw total as well as Los Angeles getting a few of their paint buckets on wide open transition opportunities.

Mark Travis - 11:26 PM ET

The Clippers have done a good job of disrupting any kind of an offensive flow for the Nuggets and have played a solid game in transition. Barnes already has 11 points simply by finding holes in the defenses and cutting into them.

Mark Travis - 11:15 PM ET

The Clippers went to a zone against the Thunder when they were down big in the fourth quarter as a last resort. They display it as a strategic scheme here tonight in the first quarter against the Nuggets’ It’s a 3-2 zone with a lot of long arms and smart defenders. Will really hurt the Nuggets and their inability to hit outside shots consistently.

Mark Travis - 10:56 PM ET

I told Brett Koremenos on our podcast earlier today that I think the Nuggets have surpassed the Clippers as the third best team in the Western Conference lately. I am excited for this matchup.

Mark Travis - 10:52 PM ET

Smith misses a turnaround fadeaway from the post and the Thunder win 95-94. Gutty effort from the Knicks with Carmelo out. J.R. was huge but Amare couldn’t pick up that secondary load to get the Knicks over the hump.

Mark Travis - 10:50 PM ET

Durant misses a mid-range jumper and the Knicks are alive again. 7.9 seconds left, Thunder up 95-94. New York went to J.R. Smith and got a great look at a three on their last possession, but now a two wins it. Do you go pick-and-roll again or ask J.R. to win it on a hero shot like he has twice before this season?

Mark Travis - 10:46 PM ET

Westbrook missed a pull-up jumper badly and the Knicks are within one with 38.6 left in the game. I wonder who gets the ball in their hands here. I would be OK with Felton or Smith initiating the action, although part of me feels that Smith will end up taking a bad shot rather than running through a pick-and-roll set whereas Felton will attack to the get the best possible look. We’ll see.

Mark Travis - 10:40 PM ET

Unexpectedly, Chandler didn’t sub back in, but the Knicks do go to a Felton/Amare pick-and-roll, which nets a pair of free throws for Stoudemire.

Mark Travis - 10:37 PM ET

Durant is headed to the line with his Thunder down one with two minutes to go. I’d like to see the Knicks get some high pick-and-roll going here with Felton and Chandler with Amare and Smith waiting on the weakside for some secondary action. I think they need to get OKC’s defense shifting from side to side here because so far in the second half their offense has allowed the Thunder to really dig in without rotating much. Stopping Durant on the other end with Jason Kidd on him? That I am not so sure about.

Mark Travis - 10:28 PM ET

The Thunder hold an 87-85 lead over the Knicks with 6:26 to play. The Knicks have had trouble scoring this quarter since J.R. Smith has cooled off a bit. They are trying to get Amare going and have given a couple of mid-post touches on their last two plays. We will see if Amare can carry them down the stretch, because it appears as if J.R. will have his shots limited a bit with the length of Kevin Durant on him.

Mark Travis - 10:10 PM ET

J.R. Smith is scorching hot. He’s got 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting with five three-pointers, the latest of which was a 28-footer over two defenders. The Knicks were once 1-of-14 from the field in that third quarter, but Smith’s re-insertion into the game sparked the Knicks; they won the quarter 25-16 and lead the Thunder 81-75 as we enter the fourth quarter.

Mark Travis - 10:04 PM ET

I thought Kenyon Martin would play a role in this game, but playing the small forward spot alongside Chandler and Amare when Durant isn’t even in the game? Yeah, this is interesting.

Mark Travis - 10:02 PM ET

The Knicks just went on a spirited run that has galvanized this Garden crowd. There was a monster dunk by Amare and a few more typical J.R. Smith shots as well as some solid defense from New York, who now lead the Thunder by four.

Mark Travis - 9:58 PM ET

pr Here is a simple side screen and roll that the Knicks just ran with the unit that started the second half for them. They have the floor spaced in the corners with Amare being a threat from 20 feet on the baseline and James White being a threat from the right corner. That means the help to contain Felton’s dribble penetration will come from Iman Shumpert. Westbrook is able to slide over to the free throw line comfortably because he doesn’t respect Shumpert’s shot and the Thunder are fine with him recovering a bit late rather than asking their four man to come up from Amare. The result of the possession is a wide open three – but it is a wide open three for a player that is shooting 32% from three on his career and Shumpert is 0-for-3 tonight.

Shumpert has been better this year overall (37%) but he needs to be a consistent knockdown three-point shooter if he’s going to play big minutes for the Knicks, because he has not shown to be much of an off-the-dribble creator so far in his career.

Mark Travis - 9:41 PM ET

Just like he did against Cleveland, Mike Woodson has started the second half with Amare at power forward, this time replacing Kurt Thomas. Let’s see if the Knicks get him involved at the elbows and on the move as he has been having trouble attacking Ibaka straight up.

Mark Travis - 9:26 PM ET

J.R. Smith has been lights out this half, following a trend that has been developing this season (he has done a really good job replacing Carmelo’s scoring when has been out). Smith has 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting and really carried the Knicks in that second quarter. He played so well offensively that the Knicks were able to keep Kenyon in the game for his defense and rest Amare (only 11 minutes in the first half). A fresh Stoudemire in the fourth quarter will be huge. The Thunder have played a decent game but New York has not backed down an inch despite missing their best player.

Mark Travis - 9:17 PM ET

I’m not sure why it took so long for Martin to get a job. I thought he was solid defensively last season; he played 939 minutes for the Clippers last and made their defense about five points better per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. He wasn’t good on offense for the Clippers but that is because their half-court offense had horrid spacing. With these Knicks I think he can find space to cut to the rim and things of that nature even though he is only on the floor for his defense.

Mark Travis - 9:08 PM ET

With Amare on the bench, the Knicks have relied heavily on J.R. Smith to score consistently for them, and he’s done a pretty good job. The Knicks are back within four of the Thunder with five left in the second quarter and Amare should be back in soon. It was funny to watch New York operate offensively on the last offensive possession with the Kidd-Smith-Novak-Martin-Chandler line-up on the floor; it was so clear that J.R. was the only guy that could hurt OKC and it took the Knicks 23 seconds to get a good look off (and the basket didn’t count because of an offensive interference call). With Felton back in, the Knicks have a secondary creator and could make a run hear to close out the half.

Mark Travis - 9:00 PM ET

The Knicks have been adamant about getting Amare the ball, which is how it should be without Carmelo. He hasn’t been tremendously effective, but he’s getting shots down low and drawing contact. I think he may be able to get Ibaka into foul trouble at some point. Meanwhile, Kenyon Martin has done a pretty good job on Durant defensively. That may be the greatest random prediction I’ve ever made.

Mark Travis - 8:50 PM ET

I did not think that the Knicks would heed my advice so early on in the game but we did see Kenyon Martin on Durant there for a couple of possessions. We’ll have to see how long New York sticks with that strategy. That wasn’t such an awful quarter for the Knicks until they started giving away points at the line in the final couple of minutes. Being down nine isn’t horrible, though, and they may get a break with Westbrook being the lockerroom with an ankle injury.

Mark Travis - 8:38 PM ET

Does Reggie Miller follow you on Twitter, Demarcus?

Mark Travis - 8:22 PM ET

Token starters James White and Kurt Thomas have knocked down the first pair of buckets for the Knicks. Their seems to be an underdog energy in the building for NYK.

Mark Travis - 8:12 PM ET

Hello all!

As Demarcus noted, this will be Amare Stoudemire’s night. I had a huge feature on him the other day and he has played extremely well of late. He’s coming off the bench again because Mike Woodson wants to perserve his first half rotation, but rest assured he will finish the game, and the Knicks will go to high pick-and-roll with Amare or Chandler late in the game to find offense. I want to see how effective that will be without Melo against an athletic defensive team. It killed Cleveland, but the Thunder are a different story.

OKC should win this game handily if they execute well. New York’s defense has really slipped of late and their best Kevin Durant stopper is now Durant’s teammate (Ronnie Brewer). I imagine Iman Shumpert will guard Russell Westbrook, which means guys like James White and J.R. Smith will be guarding Durant. If those two guys are getting torched, which is highly likely, I’d like to see the Knicks try to put Smith on Westbrook and Shumpert on Durant, or put Kenyon Martin in the game to have a shot at KD. At the end of the day, there will be no solution for guarding Durant unless he is missing shots, so the Thunder should take this one.

Mark Travis - 8:05 PM ET

Lil Penny!

X’s And Bro’s: Episode 1

in NBA/Podcasts by
cp3

Brett Koremenos, a writer at Grantland and Hoopspeak, joined me to talk about NBA basketball today in the inaugural edition of the X’s and O’s podcast that we’ll be aiming to produce every Monday.

Some of the topics we discussed were:

– The Lakers and what they have done differently as they’ve made their way back to .500.

– Why the Utah Jazz have been struggling of late and whether or not they are the team most likely to fall out of the playoff picture.

– The Clippers and whether or not they are an elite team.

– Miami’s hot steak and which team in the East will pose the biggest threat to them in the post-season and much more.

 

A Chat With Phillip Barnett

in NBA/Podcasts by
lakers

Phillip Barnett, the NFL editor at SportsCity and a writer for ForumBlue&Gold, joined me to talk about the NBA season. Here is a list of things Phillip and I discussed:

– The Lakers’ whirlwind of a season, their playoff hopes and the relationship between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.

– The Houston Rockets’ emergence this season, the play of James Harden and what will take to get them to the next level.

– The Oklahoma City Thunder and whether or not Harden’s absence will have a major impact on their post-season.

– The San Antonio Spurs and whether or not this is the season that they get back to the Finals since becoming Tony Parker’s team.

– Which Western Conference teams he wants to make the playoffs, the Miami Heat as title favorites, the multiple historical arguments associated with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and more!

Next Step For OKC: Abolishing Incorrect And Unnecessary Position Tags

in Archives by
russ

The idea of positions in basketball has been called into question a few times this year. The subject has been deemed “positionality” and most people are starting to believe that the traditional PG/SG/SF/PF/C lineups are becoming outdated due to the advancement of NBA athletes and the way coaches use those athletes.

One of the biggest storylines of the 2011 NBA playoffs is the play of Russell Westbrook. Because Westbrook is the Thunder’s “point guard,” having him take more shots than Kevin Durant in some of the Western Conference Finals games bothered a lot of people who thought Durant should be taking 25+ shots a game. Even though it was Durant’s fault for not getting enough attempts because he was not working hard enough off the ball, all of the blame fell on Westbrook for being a “point guard” who supposedly wasn’t doing his job well enough to get Durant those shots.

It is no secret that Westbrook is not a “true” point guard in the sense that he doesn’t think or play the game like Chris Paul. One could argue Westbrook is a shooting guard trapped in a tall point guard’s body. Westbrook played two guard at UCLA and the truth is that if he was just two inches taller, he’d be Dwyane Wade-lite, devoid of any criticism when it comes to distributing the ball. Instead, he is OKC’s point guard, and because his running mate is NBA Golden Boy Kevin Durant, everyone who watches the Thunder searches for a scapegoat to blame Durant’s shortcomings on.

Although Westbrook certainly wasn’t perfect in the Western Conference Finals, we saw the solution to the Thunder’s problems in Game 5 and it had nothing to do with Westbrook looking to pass more. With his back to the wall in a do-or-die, Thunder coach Scott Brooks played James Harden extended minutes with his starting unit. A lineup of Eric Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant and Nick Collison was used often and though the lack of size with that lineup did cost the Thunder big time in the fourth quarter because the Mavericks were able to outwork them on the glass for key offensive rebounds, we saw how well that lineup worked offensively because Westbrook wasn’t forced to handle the ball.

Within a few minutes it was painfully obvious that Harden was the Thunder’s best option at “point guard” but since I am advocating the removal of that term from our collective basketball vocabulary, instead I’ll say that it was painfully obvious that Harden was the Thunder’s best creator with a knack for finding the open man or a cutter. Harden was a creator in college as well and even though he didn’t have the tag of point guard attached to him at Arizona State or as an NBA draftee there’s no doubt that having Harden run the offense is Oklahoma City’s best option not only because Harden is their best passer but also because of what it allows Westbrook to do off the ball.

Because I prefer giving players descriptive tags rather than position tags (like creator/distributor for Harden), the most obvious tag for Westbrook is “attacker/slasher.” I used Wade as a comparison for Westbrook earlier and though there are some differences between the two, there are certainly a lot of similarities as well. Westbrook is either an extremely savvy player when it comes to attacking the basket in an attempt to draw fouls or a youngster with fresh legs and no regard for his own health when he goes to the rim. Westbrook is made up of some combination of those two things and that’s what makes him so dangerous off the ball.

When Westbrook was playing off the ball he was able to make viscous cuts toward the basket and Harden was on-point with several passes when Westbrook was in motion. Westbrook has a tendency to lose the ball on the dribble when he attacks the cup simply because he can be too aggressive sometimes but catching the ball on the cut allowed for Westbrook to go up immediately without having to put the ball on the floor. With Westbrook cutting to the basket, Durant and Maynor spotting up and Collison providing some interior spacing and offensive rebounding, the Thunder offense looked as good as it had all season with Harden running things.

Looking forward, it is hard to envision a scenario in which Brooks continues to have Harden coming off the bench. The defense/offense substitution has worked for some teams before, but they can’t have their best creator on the bench to start games, particularly in the playoffs. Getting into big holes was a problem for the Thunder at the start of games this season and a lot of blame goes on Brooks for refusing to alter his starting lineup. Westbrook and Durant is a deadly combo, but when there is no one on the floor beside them that can create shots or post-up, it’s hard for the team to score at an efficient rate – especially when the other three players on the floor are Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

Not only is Harden just a creator for others but, as he showed against the Mavericks, he is also capable of getting to the rim and finishing over bigs. Harden scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting in Game 5 in addition to his six assists and five rebounds. Harden has had himself the occasional one-of-10 shooting night in his first two seasons but becoming a consistent player is part of the rookie learning curve and the poise he showed against the Mavs leads me to believe he is more than ready for a starting job. Harden can distribute, get to the rim (and the line) and rebound. Sefolosha is a superior defender, but it is clear at this point that Sefolosha’s defensive skills don’t make up for what he lacks on the other end.

Embracing the idea that positions in basketball are no more is something the media has done over the past year or so. In order for Brooks to keep his job and in order for the Thunder to take the next step towards a title, they will also have to embrace the idea that there is no such thing as a point guard in the league anymore. Just because Westbrook is 6-3 and James Harden is 6-5 doesn’t mean Westbrook has to be the point guard and Harden is the shooting guard. It’s not a slight to Westbrook to say that Harden is the better creator – some players are born with passing instincts like Harden while others are born with a relentless desire to attack the rim like Westbrook.

If the Thunder want to make it further than the Western Conference Finals next season, they don’t need to make any major roster changes by trading one of their core players, Scott Brooks simply has to reassess the way he uses his players. If Brooks can adapt to a world without positions and put a lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins on the floor to start games and a lineup of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant and one big man (unless they’re playing the Lakers) on the floor during crunchtime, I think the Thunder will be set next season.

But if Brooks doesn’t make that adjustment and continues to rely on Westbrook to create for others, it may cost the Thunder another season of basketball and Brooks his head coaching job.

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