Taking Back What Was Theirs
The West has been wild (Yes, I said it. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist), from Golden State landing Andre Iguodola to the Clippers adding shooters Jared Dudley and J.J. Reddick and hiring Doc Rivers to Houston bringing in a circus, though a talented one, in the shape of Dwight Howard. These teams all made huge moves, obviously looking to take that last step and make it to the Finals.
I like to picture Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in their locker room changing into their skinny jeans and multicolored polo shirts and deciding which empty backpack to wear, laughing about these all these moves. Kevin politely whispers under his breath, “That’s cute” while Russell screams, “We don’t give a &%#$.” This isn’t to say these moves are meaningless, I actually think they are all great moves for each team, respectively. I am sure these two Thunder stars respect their competition and would never really act this way towards their competitors. But really, the notion that the West is “wide open” is, uh, how do you say…wrong.
Last time we saw the Thunder they were Westbrook-less and losing to Memphis in the conference semifinals. Their playoff run caused me mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was genuinely sad for Durant as he tried to carry a team with a terribly simple offensive system and Serge Ibaka as its’ 2nd best player through the defensive stronghold of the Grizzlies. On the other, I was joyously hollering from any tower I could find, mostly to myself because I was the only one listening, “Maybe this will make people shut up about Westbrook and realize how fantastically good he is.” Who knows if that series did change anything regarding the perception of Westbrook, but if it didn’t, I am telling you now: Russell Westbrook is just as important to the Thunder as Durant is (maybe even more because of what he brings out of his teammates with his intensity) and he deserves better from NBA fans. He and Durant alone make the Thunder the favorites to come out of the West.
Last season the Thunder were the best offensive team in the league with an offensive rating of 112.4 and were, by most measures, the best team in the Western conference. Obviously, it was far from a sure thing, but all signs pointed to a return trip to the Finals up until the Westbrook injury. That injury and the resulting struggles gave detractors an opportunity to bash the Thunder for trading James Harden and criticize the shortcomings of Serge Ibaka’s game. I’m not going to get into the trade, it was a bad move but they had good reasons to do it and, as last season’s statistics show, they were fine without him.
Durant and Westbrook carried them to the top of the conference with unbelievable individual play on both their parts. However, they haven’t quite perfected the art of the “two-man” game. They are great on the court together but as far as running plays in which they are both focal points they have room for improvement. They implemented some pick and rolls and I’d like to see them use it more as Westbrook becomes more adept creating off of it (i.e. less contested jumpers).
The one problem I have with the Thunder is with the coach more than the players. Scott Brooks either doesn’t want to change it or isn’t capable of it, it being the Thunder’s offense. Their plays become extremely predictable as games go on and this makes it extremely hard on the two stars. Brooks needs to do more to open up the floor and design plays that are more than just “pick and roll then Durant/Westbrook do your thing.” Their offensive shortcomings are most evident against fast defensive teams (see: Miami Heat) and have more to do with too simple of plays than execution. We saw in the series against the Grizzlies how hard it was for Durant late in games when the defense got tighter. Oklahoma City’s offense looked stagnant and too reliant on the singular talent of Durant when the Grizzlies made their adjustments. This same thing, though Westbrook was there, was on display in the 2012 Finals. Once the Heat figured out Oklahoma City’s go-to plays, they were able to drastically slow down the Thunder’s offense. Of course, Durant and Westbrook are sometimes able to just be so good that it doesn’t matter (pretty much all of the 2012-13 season) but there is a serious systemic problem in the playoffs. It is on Scott Brooks to develop a more creative offense that not only allows Durant and Westbrook to thrive in tough situations, but also creates easy opportunities for the role players. Taking the pressure of these two stars is key for when they need a score down the stretch. Making sure the offense isn’t too predictable will allow them to be their spectacular selves down the stretch in games.
All of this is might not actually matter. As I said before, they were the best offensive team in the league last year and when they lost to the Heat in the Finals, Durant and Westbrook were both 23 years old. They have gotten better every season so even with their current system, who is to say they can’t win a championship? Ibaka is a force defensively and the emergence of Reggie Jackson is promising, I don’t really see cause for concern outside of the coaching. But even then, I view Durant and Westbrook the same way I view Lebron James: their teams’ respective team weaknesses don’t REALLY matter because these players just overcome them. The Thunder may have two top-five players next season; I will take them over the rest of the conference any day of the week.