Even with less games, one game means much less in a lockout-shortened season.
I spent some time today with Doyle running over last night’s Mavericks-Thunder game, both teams’ chances in the West, and the strenuous (or is it?) relationship between the Thunder’s stars.
TH: Last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to dismantle the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks. The loss, though, is not too surprising, as the Mavs were without Lamar Odom and Brendan Haywood, and Jason Kidd is still out with his calf injury. Dirk Nowitzki had a spectacularly awful game (2-for-15 shooting) and Rick Carlisle was thrown out of the game after punting a ball into a boy’s face. How do you, Doyle, feel as a Mavs fan about this loss?
DR: I don’t think that the term “dismantle” is appropriate in this instance. This was a game that the Thunder should have won since they have been deemed the Golden Child of the Western Conference. You mentioned the absences on the Mavericks’ roster last night so this should have been a cake walk for OKC, but it wasn’t. This was a competitive game with the Mavericks finding ways to either lead or stay in contention until the final minute of the game. If Nowitzki did not shoot so poorly, clearly his knee is still bothering him, and if the Mavs had some shots fall late, the outcome of this game could have been different.
TH: The one worrying thing for the Mavs is this: Nowitzki’s had a few bad games, is this all because of the knee or could there be a mental problem that’s causing his trouble? He’s been complacent often this season, and watching the game against the Spurs (his first game back, I know), Dirk doesn’t seem as fearless as we’ve come to expect.
DR: I’m not as concerned with Nowitzki as I’m sure many are. It would be easy to blame his issues on the lockout but that is a cop-out that is used all too often in this shortened season. We are about a fourth to a third of the way through the season so I expect Dirk to miss more time this year for rest and conditioning. This is true for almost every player who will be injured this season. I also do not think that his recent struggles are mental either. Against the Thunder he stepped into several bold shots in the fourth quarter. Those shots simply did not fall. He’ll be fine as the season progresses and despite being the face of the franchise, the Mavericks have other players who can step up and fill the void when they are called on.
Dallas has the highest scoring bench in the league and also has one of the deepest. The likes of Jason Terry, Odom (when not dealing with a stomach bug), Vince Carter, Delonte West, Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, and Brandan Wright have all shown that they are more than capable of contributing to the team when called upon. Sure, Dirk being in a funk is disappointing but it is not catastrophic for the team.
TH: Agreed, and playoff seeding is going to be strange this season. We’ve already seen how younger teams are capitalizing on bigger minutes for their stars, teams like the 76ers, Clippers, and Thunder. If they manage to keep their high playoff seeds, it will be interesting to see how the older, more experienced teams like the Mavs, Spurs and Lakers re-allocate minutes. Last lockout, an 8th seed made it to the Finals.
But defense wins championships, and that is what ultimately gave the Thunder an edge over the Mavericks. Without Kidd, the Mavs have to rely on a combo of Roddy B. and West, and there are simply too many contending teams with point guards who will take that matchup to task. Western teams like OKC and the Clips would fare differently against Kidd’s perimeter defense and smart hands. Here are a couple questions for you: Do the Thunder deserve their current record? How do you envision the rest of their season?
DR: I’m not certain that having either Beaubois or West on the court is a bad thing against some of the elite point guards in the league. Both are younger and quicker than Kidd is and therefore have to capability of keeping pace, or at least better than Kidd, with the likes of Russell Westbrook and others. Also, both Beaubois and West bring a different set of skills to bear when on the court. West is a tenacious defender who likes to come off the bench and play alongside Terry thereby alleviating West’s need to score as much even though he is an able scorer. He is on the floor to hairy the opposing point. Where Roddy excels is by pressuring his defender on the offensive side of the floor. Much like Westbrook, Beaubois has an innate ability to penetrate the lane, though he does so with less bombast. Kidd is still a handful with his passing, court vision, and IQ but he has lost a step and the Westbrooks of the league will exploit that. Having West and Beaubois helps the Mavericks be a flexible and more difficult team to matchup with.
As for the Thunder, of course they deserve the record they have, they have won 17 games thus far and you cannot take that away from them. Bill Parcells that is famous for saying “you are what your record says you are,” and for the Thunder that means they have the best record in the West. However, that is not to say that the Thunder are perfect. In fact they are far from it. They are an extremely talented team, let me put that out there first, but they are also extremely inexperienced. On the break, OKC is one of the most dangerous teams in the league, perhaps second or third to only the Heat and Clippers, because they are fast and have the ability to finish at the rim. Westbrook is the spearhead and plays like a charging bull, lowering his head and relentlessly moving forward despite obstacles. Add the scoring threats of Kevin Durant and James Harden and you have the third most potent offense in the league. It is that offense, though, that gets the Thunder in trouble.
On the break, everything works well. However, in the halfcourt the Thunder often look lost and their offense stagnates. Frequently, Thunder players stand and watch the ball handler try to create for themselves in an isolation situation. Yes, the Thunder’s big three are great individual scorers but a Joe Johnson-esque ISO bogs down the entire offense and instills a heavy reliance on long jumpers or contested drives. With the skills that these players possess it is shocking that the Thunder are not more creative offensively, Scott Brooks, in my opinion, deserves a lot of blame for this.
When the Thunder offense is mobile in the halfcourt they create boundless mismatches but these go ignored far too regularly. In the game against the Mavericks there was a possession where Harden had the ball and was determined to take the shot, with Shawn Marion guarding him I believe, while on a switch Terry was defending Durant. Harden did not make use of the obvious advantage his team had in that situation and wound up missing the shot he took. Why Brooks is not irate or frustrated that this scenario repeats itself seemingly every game is anyone’s guess. The Thunder have a lot of growing to do if they are actually going to grow into the team everyone thinks they are. Until that happens they should be looked on as a new version of D’Antoni’s Suns. A good team that won’t make the Finals.
TH: I’m not so sure they won’t make the Finals, with the Western Conference being weaker than it has been in years. The Chris Paul trade fiasco essentially knocked the Lakers from contention, alienating Pau Gasol and losing Odom to the Mavs for peanuts. Dallas lost enough players over the summer that this year almost seems like a mini-Mark Cuban rebuilding effort, and San Antonio appears limited in roster movement until Tim Duncan decides to retire. When was the last time any of these teams appeared so fragile? Already headed this way, the lockout and compressed season has hit older teams harder than anyone would have expected.
After last year’s Conference Finals appearance, the Thunder have the experience and resilience to make it, but it hinges upon favorable seeding matchups and Westbrook’s shot selection. Durant has shown more leadership this season, but it might take an MVP trophy for the rest of the team to realize that he’s the clear #1; also, an increased role for James Harden could produce stagnation, as he loves watching the ball leave his hand. You’re absolutely right that the blame falls on Scott Brooks. He needs to explain to his team, in clear terms, that Kevin Durant is the best basketball player on the Thunder.
Durant’s been strikingly supportive of his teammates, and I love it. Superstars in the league now tend to throw their team or their coaching staff under a bus if it suits their personal aspirations, while Durant’s shown a commitment to the city, its team, and management. But maybe they’d be a more cohesive team on the court if he were to drop the humility a tad, and stepped up and took sole ownership of the team.
DR: I’m not certain that Durant becoming more of a focal point for the offense to flow through is necessarily the right course of action. That could elicit a #MeloSystem style of offense. I would like to see Scott Brooks shoot an email to Sebastian Pruiti and request some suggestions for plays in the halfcourt. They could be much more fluid if he did.
You are right though, the West is wide open and the Thunder need to exploit it, but they need to first battle through the surprisingly tough Northwest Division. If the playoffs began today they would have to face the Trail Blazers in the first round. That is far from a desirable match…but nothing in the West will be ideal this year.
Yes, the Thunder are a good team but their mediocre defense and lack of ball movement could be their eventual undoing. Until that time they need to enjoy the ride. Oh, and…something, something, Westbrook and Durant hate each other, something. There, I think I just covered the main issue that we have been dodging.