Tag:Russell Westbrook
Posted on: April 20, 2011 1:06 pm
Edited on: April 20, 2011 1:42 pm

Series Reset: Changing course on Durant

Posted by Royce Young

The Narrative: Does anybody really feel like they have a good handle on the direction of Game 2 tonight? I definitely don't. After the drama of Game 1, it's hard to have any idea which way this thing is going to turn.

Of course, there are two major storylines coming in: 1) How do the Nuggets guard Kevin Durant and 2) can they bounce back from a devastating Game 1 loss?

With the first one, Kenyon Martin already talked yesterday about the Nuggets needing to adjust on Durant. I'm expecting to see him being doubled more often. Denver tried that once, back in December, after Durant dropped 21 in a quarter on them. He entered the fourth with 40 points, and I guess you could say the double worked, because he only finished with 44. Except the Thunder won comfortably because Durant did well passing out of that double-team.

For the second, that's up to George Karl. With his laid back demeanor and seemingly carefree attitude, he's a terrific coach for this Nuggets team. I think that'll come in handy tonight when he tries to get his guys to forget about Tip-In Gate.

The Hook: I agree with George Karl. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren't going to average 70 points a game together for this series. They're really good, but not that good.

But here's news to Karl: James Harden isn't going to average just five a game, either.

That was the Thunder sixth man's output from Game 1, where he went 0-4 from 3 and 1-5 from the field. Since the trade that sent Jeff Green to Boston, Harden averaged more than 16 points per game and almost 20 the last couple weeks of the season. He's a legit third scorer for the Thunder and a player Scott Brooks can turn to when in need of extra offense. But shutting down Durant is priority one for Denver. Westbrook is second. And then Harden. The Nuggets caught a break with him being off in Game 1. Don't count on that happening again.

The Adjustment:
I already mentioned it, and while the Nuggets adjustment on Durant is the biggest key, there's another question they need to answer: How do they score in the last five minutes?

Denver really had no idea where to go with the ball in late in Game 1. They tried Danilo Gallinari. Then J.R. Smith. Then Raymond Felton. There was just no good sense of where to put the ball. George Karl didn't sound concerned about it postgame, but I can promise you it's something he's been thinking about the last two days.

The X-Factor:
Where, oh where, was J.R. Smith in Game 1? He's likely the key to the series and he was virtually non-existent. He can make Nuggets fans pull their hair out sometimes, but he didn't do that once. He tried too hard to fit in to the flow of the game, and when Denver needed points late, he didn't seem to be willing to pull the trigger.

Denver has scorers, but the one that can truly isolate and score on his own is Smith. He's capable of lighting up OKC for 15 in a quarter if he gets going. And I can almost promise you, if Smith scores 20 tonight, the Nuggets win.

The Sticking Point: Both teams shot the ball extremely well in Game 1. Durant and Westbrook combined to go 18-25 on jumpshots. Can these teams keep it up? Both teams are gifted offensively and have scorers all over the floor, but maintaining a 50 percent clip, in the playoffs no less, is difficult. Will it continue? I say no. Which means this game will likely be more about defense and rebounding. Who has the edge there? Probably the Thunder.

Posted on: April 19, 2011 10:19 am

Arron Afflalo out for the Nuggets Wednesday

Posted by Royce Young

The Nuggets will still be missing one of their key parts Wednesday night in Game 2 versus the Thunder as guard Arron Afflalo will miss another game because of a pulled hamstring.

"Zero (percent chance)," he told The Denver Post. "It hasn't even been 10 days yet (of rest). I've made a mistake three times (by coming back). It's not even being cautious, it's just not healed. I've tried to come back in the regular season. I'm trying to get past that marker."

Afflalo not only is a good offensive weapon for Denver, but he's another body and long defender to throw at Kevin Durant. Durant of course lit the Nuggets up for 41 in Game 1.

Game 3 is still a question mark and for Afflalo to say zero percent makes me think he's in serious doubt for this series entirely. Hamstring injuries aren't something to mess with and they are extremely easy to set yourself back on. Afflalo, like he said, has already had that happen.

George Karl will likely stick with his starting five of Wilson Chandler at shooting guard, but he hinted a bit at starting both Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson together in the backcourt. Karl likes to play those two down the stretch in games anyway, so maybe with the way things went in Game 1, he'll think about making that change.
Posted on: April 18, 2011 4:22 pm
Edited on: April 18, 2011 4:28 pm

League: Perkins' tip shouldn't have counted

Posted by Royce Young

The league issued a statement telling us something we all already knew: Kendrick Perkins' basket with 1:05 remaining should not have counted. The statement reads:

"Kendrick Perkins was improperly credited with a basket that should have been ruled offensive basket interference with 1:05 remaining in last night’s game.  Although a player is permitted to touch the net while the ball is in the cylinder above the rim, Perkins also touched the ball while it was still in the cylinder which is a violation and constitutes goaltending.”

I love when these type of things happen. Yes, it's better that the league acknowledges the gaffe, but it doesn't mean Denver gets its two points back. The tip came at an extremely critical time in the game with the Nuggets leading by one. The basket put the Thunder on top, eventually helping OKC to go on to win a hard fought Game 1 107-103.

George Karl said of the tip, "It very obviously should not have counted."

Matt Moore gave a terrific explanation of the rule and a breakdown of the play last night after it happened. He wrote, "Half the ball is in the cylinder. So it's in the cylinder. But the NBA rulebook does not  define "in the cylinder." It's a judgment call, likely left open to protect the officials, like a lot of rule interpretations. But without that, you can make the argument it was in, and out, of the cylinder."

It's very easy to point out how it was a blown call, but basket inference calls have always been one of the very most difficult ones to judge for officials. Not only does it happen in a couple tenths of a second, but the refs almost never have a good angle on it. Perkins' tip though did look a bit more awkward than most because his hand got tangled in the net as he went for it.

From my perspective in the arena, I actually thought Russell Westbrook's shot had dropped through. Most of the other writers around me thought the same thing. So you can imagine the position the officials were in during that situation. They got it wrong. They know and the league knows it. We all figured out what happened on the tip after watching the replay three or four times. The officials didn't have that luxury. Maybe that's the real question though: Why didn't the officials have that luxury?
Posted on: April 18, 2011 1:48 am
Edited on: April 18, 2011 2:33 am

Thunder-Nuggets: Interference call costs Nuggets?

No-call on basket interference call may have cost the Nuggets dearly late in a close game vs. the Thunder
Posted by Matt Moore

In the Thunder's epic Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets, there were an incredible amount of seemingly big moments. Every time one team would land a haymaker, the other would respond. Just when Denver thought it had buried the Thunder, Kevin Durant would land another three. Just when OKC thought it had finally cemented the comeback with a six-point lead late, Nene charged back. And then, this play happened to give the the Thunder a one-point lead late. 

It's a close call, but...
Here's the definition from the NBA's rulebook. The one most will look at is Rule 11, Section 1-A, b.:

b. Touch the ball when it is above the basket ring and within the imaginary cylinder

But it's not that simple. Nowhere in Rule 11. is the definition of "in the cylinder" defined. The ball is clearly in the cylinder... partly. Take a look. 

So it seems easy, right? Half the ball is in the cylinder. So it's in the cylinder. But the NBA rulebook does not define "in the cylinder." It's a judgment call, likely left open to protect the officials, like a lot of rule interpretations. But without that, you can make the argument it was in, and out, of the cylinder. 

But what about the net? That's the obvious thing, right? Funny thing. Here's the only place the net is mentioned in the interference/goaltending section outside of coming up from inside it, from the full rulebook:

h. Vibrate the rim, net or backboard so as to cause the ball to make an unnatural bounce, or bend or move the rim to an off-center position when the ball is touching the ring or passing through.

Okay, so grabbing the net obviously will vibrate it. But a. the ball is neither touching the ring nor passing through, and b. he did not cause the ball to make an unnatural bounce nor c. move the rim. Unless you want to get into chaos theory, which is a slippery freaking slope. 

So. The ball was both in and out of the cylinder. And Perkins did touch the net but did not create an unnatural bounce, nor move the rim. But wait, there's more! How about G.? 

g. Touch any live ball from within the playing area that is on its downward flight with an opportunity to touch the basket ring. This is considered to be a "field goal attempt" or trying for a goal.

Okay, so it's a live ball. It's in the playing area. And it's on its downward flight with an opportunity to touch the basket ring (the ball winds up hitting the rim as Perkins guides it down). so it's the equivalent of a defensive player swatting a ball on the way down. Except the ball has already hit rim. So it's not really applicable here. Plus, if this was taken literally, the alley-oop would be illegal off a missed shot. 

So we're back to b. and h.. Is the ball in the cylinder? Is using the net causing an unnatural bounce? 

Then there's this video. It walks you through a similar situation, and the determination is that the call is interference because the base of the ball is on the rim. As the ball's path leads it to bounce off the rim and out,  you could argue that's not the case here. And since Perkins touches it just before it hits rim, it also gets out of that. 

At its heart, this comes down to the cylinder. The most widely accepted terminology is that if any part of the ball is in the cylinder, it's a violation. But since the NBA rulebook doesn't define that, it leads to situations like this. Which is going to make tomorrow tons of fun for Stu Jackson. 

The reason the play was important was because it gave the Thunder a one-point lead. A Westbrook jumper would give the Thunder a three-point lead, and the Nuggets faced a three-point deficit instead of a one-point deficit. 

Now, from there, Raymond Felton blew a possesion in a terrible way, which is on him. The Nuggets missed a ton of free throws, which is on them. The Nuggets had every opportunity to win this game and did fail to close the deal. But it does create a really bizarre situation. 

We'll update you with the league's explanation for how this play was correctly, or should have been called. 

Update from a Twitter follower, from an NBA explanation post:
Once the ball is on or directly above the rim, no player can not touch the ball.

Of course whether the ball is directly above the rim...
Posted on: April 15, 2011 3:02 pm

Thunder-Nuggets Preview: There will be blood

Posted by Royce Young

I. Intro:  No. 5 seed Denver Nuggets (50-32) vs. No. 4 seed Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)

It's already being looked at as the "fun series" to watch. The young, athletic Thunder versus the young, athletic Nuggets. Some seem to be torn on the outcome which says one thing -- it should be a fun series.

Both teams underwent pretty serious transformations near the trade deadline. One was shipping out its star and replacing him with a gaggle of above average players. The other was shipping off one of its young pieces and replacing him with a championship tested big man.

At the time, it looked like the two franchises were headed in opposite directions. It looked like the Thunder were setting up to contend in the now, while the Nuggets were attempting to restructure for the future.

Except Denver kept winner and actually probably became a better team. In the end, we settled in on a unexpected series pitting division rivals against one another. Already the two teams are talking a little smack and already they've tussled. I get the feeling they don't like each other one bit. Did I say it should be fun?

II. What Happened: A look at the season series

Throw out the first two meetings because they don't count at all (Denver and OKC split 1-1 anyway). The teams that faced off in those first two games aren't the ones you see now. A lot changed.

And more than really any other series, we got the best taste of what to expect over the last couple weeks with this one. Not only did the Thunder and Nuggets play each other -- home and home, too -- but the games were important at the time. The Northwest Division title was still on the line.

OKC took the game in Denver 101-94, handing the Nuggets their first loss at home since the Melo trade and snapping a seven-game win streak. Then back in Oklahoma City a week later, the Thunder dropped the Nuggets 104-89 with a relentless defensive effort.

III. The Easy Stuff: Denver has no one to guard Kevin Durant

In the two recent games, Durant averaged 30.0 points per game on 45 percent shooting and really didn't get much of a challenge from Denver defenders. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari shared the assignment, but the Nuggets tried switching on every screen Durant ran off of.

What result was a bunch of mismatches with Durant catching Nene or Kenyon Martin one-on-one. That wouldn't be a problem, except Durant is taller than both and can shoot over anyone on top of driving past them.

OKC is 22-1 this season when Durant shoots better than 50 percent from the floor. Read that last sentence again. Really, without Ron Artest last year holding Durant down against the Lakers, that series might've been very different. The Nuggets have to find a way to check Durant, otherwise they'll have a hard time checking the Thunder.

IV. Secret of the Series: The three P's: Pace, Perk and perimeter defense

The Nuggets play at the second fastest pace in the league (95.6). They want to run. They want to get Ty Lawson, Chandler, Martin and everyone else out in the open floor.

Oklahoma City isn't opposed to running by any means, but the Thunder definitely want to keep the Nuggets off the highway. In the last game in OKC, the game was played at a pace of just 90.0, something that definitely favored the Thunder. In the halfcourt, the Nuggets struggled scoring against OKC's man-to-man defense.

To go with that, inside Kendrick Perkins gives OKC the ability to leave single coverage on Nene. That means the Thunder's perimeter defenders can hang on Denver's list of good shooters. The Nuggets want you collapsing and rotating everywhere so they can find a marksman open on the outside. OKC didn't afford Denver that, holding the Nuggets to just 10-30 from 3 in the last two games.

V. The Dinosaur Narrative : "He who scores most will win"

Why is everyone acting like this will be a high scoring, up and down series? The two games these teams played in the last couple weeks were won by the Thunder by an average score of 102.5 to 91.5. Oklahoma City plays some serious defense now. Since Perkins joined the starting lineup, the Thunder are only second to Chicago in defensive efficiency.

Obviously the Nuggets like to run and the Thunder aren't shy about it, but if these games are 120-117 like everyone is acting, Scott Brooks might throw up. Kendrick Perkins most definitely will. (You know, from the running.)

This series will be more about stops and rebounding than anything else. Denver struggled in the halfcourt against the Thunder the last two games and OKC excelled, especially late. It's not about outscoring or outgunning each other. It's about out-stopping each other.

VI. The Line-Item Veto: Who wins each match-up?

PG: This will be fun. Speed on speed. I'm not sure anyone is faster than Russell Westbrook end-to-end with the ball in his hands. Except Ty Lawson (and maybe Derrick Rose). Westbrook is bigger and stronger though, which gives him the edge. But Lawson is the most important part to the Denver offense. He scored a then career-high 28 points against OKC in Denver two weeks ago.

SG: Assuming Arron Afflalo is healthy, this is a big edge for the Nuggets. Thabo Sefolosha doesn't add much on the offensive side and his defensive skills aren't needed that much on Afflalo. But OKC does use James Harden off the bench much in the same way Dallas uses Jason Terry. Then again, Denver has J.R. Smith who is maybe this series' overall X-Factor...

SF: I already went over it, but Denver just doesn't have a good defender for Durant. Both Gallinari and Chandler will have their chances, as well as Afflalo, but we're talking about maybe the most gifted offensive player in the game.

PF: Really this is a push because both Kenyon Martin and Serge Ibaka, while good players, aren't going to do a ton more than block, rebound and score occasionally on put-backs.

C: Other than the point guard matchup, all eyes will be here. Perkins and Nene already tussled once and there's no doubt that they'll likely go at each other again. Perkins did a really good job on Nene in the first meeting holding him to just 3-10 shooting, but Nene came back with a solid 6-9 effort in the last meeting.

Bench: Both teams have very strong benches. As mentioned, Harden is more of a bench starter for OKC. Eric Maynor is a terrific backup point guard. Daequan Cook a nice specialist. Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed good veteran big men. Denver has excellent weapons too with Raymond Felton, Chander, Smith and Chris Andersen. The benches will be big and both are very good.

Coaches: George Karl and Scott Brooks know each other well. Brooks was an assistant under Karl for three years. Karl is the more experienced one and has been both the favorite and the underdog before. This is Brooks first rodeo as a playoff favorite. But this series is more about the players than the coaches, so I don't really think this matchup matters a whole lot.

VII. Conclusion

This will be a terrific series, no matter the number of games it takes. Some are feeling the Nuggets in an upset as that's what a lot of the numbers suggest. But I don't see it. I think everyone agrees that the Nuggets may have actually become a better team trading Melo, but against the Thunder, it hurt them. Kevin Durant gets an easier job, the Nuggets don't have a good halfcourt option late in games and OKC actually matches up really well with Denver now.

The Nuggets are dangerous, especially when a couple guys get hot. But that's what it'll take. They'll have to have big games from J.R. Smith (good luck relying on him), Gallinari, Lawson and Chandler to move on past OKC. The Thunder know what they're getting from Durant and Westbrook. They know they can play defense. I like this Nuggets team a lot. Just not against Oklahoma City. Prediction: Thunder in five.

Posted on: April 8, 2011 5:02 pm
Edited on: April 8, 2011 5:04 pm

Denver may not want OKC; does OKC want Denver?

Posted by Royce Young

The expectation a few days ago for Friday night in Oklahoma City was high drama when the Thunder took on the Nuggets. Denver was closing in on the Thunder's division lead and pushing to nab that coveted four-seed from the Thunder.

But the Thunder eliminated a hefty amount of the anxiety Tuesday by taking down the Nuggets 101-94 in Denver, which opened the door for Oklahoma City to clinch the Northwest Division and four-seed the next night against the Clippers.

Maybe because of that loss and the fact Denver handled the Mavericks Wednesday night, George Karl was prompted to say he actually preferred seeing the Mavs in the opening round of the playoffs if he had his way.

And Karl's Nuggets could help that along Friday night actually. OKC is just one game behind Dallas (and holds the tiebreaker as a division winner). Any Thunder win from here on out gets them closer to the three-seed and a destination with either Portland or New Orleans in the opening round, instead of Denver.

Question is, is that really what the Thunder want?

Most have been saying they shouldn’t want the three-seed. Common sense says playing the Lakers in the Western Finals is better than playing them in the second round. 

Here’s the thing about playing the Lakers: If you want to get to the NBA Finals, you’ve got to beat them at some point. What’s it really matter if it’s in the second or third round? All it means if you can get past them in the semis is that the road gets easier to the Finals. And besides that, since when are the Spurs pushovers? They’re pretty good, remember? Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com actually sees the Spurs as OKC’s kryptonite team . So let’s not get carried away thinking that San Antonio is the easiest team ever. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Gregg Popovich, four titles, best record in the West this year -- yeah, the Spurs are pretty good.

That's getting ahead of ourselves though. What about in the first round? Does OKC want the heated Nuggets or most likely, the Blazers?

After the way things looked against Denver Tuesday, the Nuggets actually appear to maybe be a more favorable matchup for OKC. Here are some reasons: 1) They don’t have anyone ideal to guard Kevin Durant. 2) Nene is a major part of their offense and Kendrick Perkins can handle him one-on-one. 3) The Thunder should be able to dominate the boards. 4) Ty Lawson will have a tough time checking Russell Westbrook an entire series.

Now of course a dominant effort by the Nuggets tonight could change that perspective a bit.

Portland on the other hand, seems to have the pieces to match the Thunder a bit better. Gerald Wallace is a pretty good defender to check Durant. OKC doesn’t have an answer for LaMarcus Aldridge. Brandon Roy is kind of a mystery — what if he revs it up for a seven-game series? Beating Portland at the Rose Garden is tough. To beat the Blazers, the Thunder would likely have to out-execute them late in games.

All of that together and it just feels like Portland is the tougher team for OKC.

That said though, I think I’m asking myself the wrong question here, because it’s not about who you play. It’s more about the idea of trying to position yourself in the playoffs. I understand one side of it. If the goal is to go deep into the postseason, you want to set yourself up in the best way possible to do that, right? Of course. But not at the cost of losing games.

Besides, what are you going to do? Have the team intentionally lose a game or two? How do you tell a group of guys to go out there and not try so hard tonight? How do you expect guys who have worked their butts off since August to win every time their shoes hit the hardwood to go ahead and drop one? Yeah, not realistic. You can sit players like Durant and Westbrook but you don't want to sacafice rhythm for a seed.

Between the Blazers and Nuggets in the first round really neither is an ideal matchup and neither is a nightmare for the Thunder. Neither is a team that’s going to just cause OKC a million headaches. Both will be tough to beat and I definitely see each going six, maybe seven games. But it’s not like the Thunder’s got a big problem with one. Plus, I like the idea of pushing hard at the end of the season and bettering your circumstance. Momentum is good. Confidence is wonderful. Look at what a little Big East tournament run did for Connecticut.

In the end, it shouldn't matter anyway. If team wants to go to bigger things as Durant said, you’ve just got to beat the teams in front of you. Whoever is put on the bracket next to your name, you play them and beat them. You can’t ask for a cakewalk to the Western Finals. You can’t expect someone to make this easier for you. If you have a chance to win, you win. If you have a chance to improve your seed, you do it. Who cares who you play and when you play them? You have to beat people to get to the goal anyway, so might as well get it over with.

Then again, if the Hornets want to go ahead and stay in sixth, I'm Scott Brooks and the Thunder would be more than thrilled to move up.

Posted on: April 2, 2011 3:20 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:19 pm

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder are poised to make a playoff run, at least until they run into the Los Angeles Lakers. Posted by Ben Golliver.

If you’re overlooking the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s playoff picture, you're making a mistake.

No less a kingmaker than Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant recently said that the Thunder, along with the Chicago Bulls, were the team playing the best basketball in the league other than the defending champs. "Right now Chicago is obviously playing at an extremely high level," Bryant said. "For some reason, the Thunder go below the radar in the public opinion, but they’re not under the radar in our mind’s eye by any stretch of the imagination."

Nobody truly worries the Lakers, but there are plenty of good reasons the Thunder are on L.A.’s radar, and you can bet the Western Conference’s other top seeds are just as concerned with what’s developed in Oklahoma. The Thunder have gone from upstart to contender in the last 12 months, a tag they’ll wear as long as their two All-Stars, forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook, remain healthy.

It all starts for OKC on the offensive end, where the Thunder are a top five team from an efficency standpoint. At 27.8 points per game, Durant sits atop of the league’s scoring table for the second straight season, but it’s his ability to score night in and night out – detailed here -- that sets him apart from the rest of the league. Durant’s consistency, which is leads and bounds better than any of the league's other top scorers, stems from his versatility, his range and his ability to get to the free throw line. He, not LeBron James or Derrick Rose, is the league's most potent offensive weapon. 

It’s not just Durant that powers Oklahoma City’s offensive engine. Westbrook has made the giant leap from above average to uber-elite, a player whose efficiency stats rival Chris Paul's and Rose's and put him among the league’s best floor generals. That this improvement – which should land him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award – hasn’t come at the expense of Durant’s game makes the 2011 Thunder so much more dangerous than the 2010 version. Indeed, while Westbrook has increased his scoring from 16.1 points to 22 points per game, he's also bumped his assist numbers up slightly, to 8.3 per game. Few teams in recent NBA history, let alone this season, have a combination that has proven it can score as efficiently and consistently as Durant and Westbrook. That they both present one-on-one match-up problems for everyone – Westbrook because of his quickness, strength and rebounding ability; Durant because of his length, ball-handling and range – makes them that much more deadly.

To underscore this point, consider that there are just three teams with a pair of stars in the top 10 of player efficiency. The Miami Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Los Angeles Lakers with Bryant and Paul Gasol, and the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook. That's as elite as it gets.

Around those two cornerstone pieces, Thunder GM Sam Presti has assembled the rest of the roster, as one opposing scout recently put it, “the right way.” Building through the draft and making careful, timely trades, Presti has assembled an eight man rotation that rivals everyone but the Lakers in terms of talent and cohesion. Center Kendrick Perkins, acquired from the Boston Celtics in a trade deadline move, brings it all together, filling space in the paint, providing defensive toughness, rebounding and experience. Next to Perkins the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, who is now free to roam and patrol the lane on defense and has ramped up his scoring and rebounding production in a greater role this year. Glue guy Nick Collison rounds out the frontcourt, shooter James Harden (who has really come on since the Perkins trade) provides the bench scoring, Thabo Sefalosha fills the perimeter defensive stopper role and backup point guard Eric Maynor is capable of spelling Westbrook.

Taken together, the group has no obvious holes or weaknesses: there’s size, strength, length, versatility, low-post defense, perimeter defense, leadership, experience, top-end scoring ability, and play-making. Best of all, there are overlapping attributes without redundancy. Each of the players is needed, at least for this season, and none is extraneous.  It’s no accident that this group is headed for the most wins the Thunder/Sonics franchise has seen in 14 years.

The strong regular season performance has the Thunder in line for a Northwest Division crown and the West's No. 4 seed. That will almost certainly mean a first round match-up with the new-look Denver Nuggets, another dangerous, well-balanced team that has made a strong post-deadline push after dealing franchise forward Carmelo Anthony. Team defense has been Oklahoma City’s bugaboo this year, as they are merely average from an efficiency standpoint. That will pose a problem in a series with the Nuggets, who currently possess the league’s best offense and who get scoring contributions from up and down their roster.

Road To The Finals

In the playoffs, star power has a way of winning out, and the Thunder will enter a playoff series, for the first time, with the biggest stars, guys who know how to get to the free throw line and dictate the course of a game. Thanks to Perkins’ addition, they’ve now got sufficient bodies to bang with the Nuggets bigs, they have more than enough athleticism to match-up with new Nuggets Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and they have Harden to help keep the bench scoring from being totally one-sided. The only person who could stop Durant in this series would be himself, either by getting frustrated and forcing the issue or by settling for three-pointers in lieu of better, more aggressive looks.

Should the Thunder advance past the Nuggets, as I expect they will, the current race for the No. 1 spot between the faltering San Antonio Spurs and the surging Los Angeles Lakers makes all the difference in the world. The Thunder are a nightmare match-up for San Antonio, as they possess the game-changing athleticism to play above and past San Antonio’s role players while also being able to keep pace offensively with the Spurs' halfcourt machine. Other than the requisites -- home court advantage, big-game experience and Tim Duncan down low -- the Spurs don’t have any obvious match-up advantages. Westbrook is Tony Parker’s equal, the Thunder have multiple guys to throw at Manu Ginobili and they possess the best shot-maker in the series in Durant.

The Spurs are limping into the playoffs, dealing with a rash of injuries. A young, hungry, focused Thunder team is not a squad you want to try to get healthy against. Oklahoma City wouldn’t be favored in a series against the Spurs but it would be really close, and the Spurs would be sweating bullets.

Catching the Lakers in the second round, however, would be trouble for OKC. The Lakers not only have the experience factor and head-to-head result from last year’s playoffs in their favor, their frontline is significantly better than the Thunder’s and they’ve got the one Western Conference player who is as dynamic offensively as Durant, in Bryant. They would have homecourt advantage, a more experienced coach, multiple looks to throw at Westbrook, a Durant-stopper in Ron Artest, an offensive system that is as good as any in the league and more efficient than Oklahoma City’s, and a deeper, bigger, more physical roster. The Lakers have taken notice of the Thunder, as Bryant said, but there’s no fear factor there. All the key match-ups are either even or in L.A.’s favor.

It’s abundantly clear that the Thunder are the West’s ascendant team in the face of aging giants like the Lakers, Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. They’re poised to win a series, and maybe two if San Antonio maintains the top seed.

But, eventually, the Lakers loom. The Thunder aren’t ready for all that, at least not this year. Soon it will be a different story.

Posted on: March 31, 2011 5:48 pm
Edited on: April 1, 2011 1:05 am

2011 NBA Most Improved Player: Russell Westbrook

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook should win the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. Posted by Ben Golliver.


The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is as flawed and subjective as the rest of the league’s year-end awards, perhaps more so because it’s so widely open to interpretation. Is this given to the role player who breaks out once he's given starter’s minutes? The starter who makes the leap to stardom? The guy who puts up the biggest raw number increases? The player who takes a significant step forward in his efficiencies? All are possibilities, as a change of scenery, new offensive system or coach, an expanded role and raw skill development all can fall under the subjective umbrella of “Improvement.”

But all improvement in the NBA should not be created equal. The easiest trap to fall into with this award is to confuse opportunity with improvement. Last year’s MIP, Aaron Brooks, is the perfect example: He significantly ramped up his numbers given tons more minutes, but then came flying straight back to earth this season once the minutes evaporated.  Certainly Brooks got better last year. But what impact did it really have? The Rockets didn’t make the playoffs and they didn’t even bother to seriously consider offering him a contract extension before trading him after he turned into a Grade-A head case this season. We’re supposed to get excited and dedicate an entire award to that?

If we must have an award to recognize improvement, it should go to the player whose development has positively impacted his team’s identity and league-wide standing.  A player whose progress represents sustainable development that will prevent him from being a flash in the pan. A player who is likely to figure into the league’s future, not a role player whose impact will fluctuate if he changes teams or coaches.

NBA.com did an excellent job breaking down which players took the biggest statistical jumps this season, whether by points scored or overall efficiency. The lists are dominated by players on lottery teams: Dorell Wright, Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan, D.J. Augustin, Kevin Love and Daniel Gibson. With the possible exception of Love, it’s difficult to be certain that any of these candidates will be able to sustain their growth over the long haul. All were asked to play heavy minutes and take on a heavy scoring burden on incomplete teams. While all have shown personal growth, their steps forward owe too much to opportunity and, in Love's case, pace.

Two names on those lists, however, do stick out: Portland guard Wesley Matthews and Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook. Matthews, like many of the others, has taken on a new role that requires additional scoring from him, as he was signed by the Portland Trail Blazers and asked to start at shooting guard due to injuries to Brandon Roy, upping his scoring average from 9.4 to 15.9 and improving his rebounding, assist and steal numbers as well. Matthews flourished in that role, helping power the Blazers to the post-season, but he didn’t do it alone. Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge also broke out in Roy’s absence, upping his scoring from 17.9 to a career-high 21.9 and grabbing 8.6 rebounds per game, also a career-high, while playing nearly forty minutes a night.

Aldridge’s improvement was the bigger deal for Portland. His emergence as a number one scoring option engineered the Blazers offense and made life easier on Matthews and Portland’s other wings. His statistical run in advance of the All-Star break won’t soon be forgotten – as he set new career-highs multiple times – and became what LeBron James called the “biggest All-Star snub of all time.” Unfortunately, Aldridge’s development was not enough to take Portland to new heights. After winning 54 games two seasons ago and slipping to 50 wins last year, the Blazers are headed for the mid-40s in wins this season. Aldridge prevented the bottom from falling out but, through no real fault of his own, his play didn’t prove to be transformative on a league-wise scale this season.

Westbrook, however, hits all of the established criteria that Matthews and Aldridge did, and more.

NBA Awards

Oklahoma City’s third-year point guard raised his scoring more than all seven players in the NBA, from 16.9 to 22.7 points, a remarkable uptick. Unlike many players in that situation, including Matthews, Westbrook did it by becoming a significantly more efficient shooter. Westbrook has improved his at-rim shooting percentage by nearly eight percentage points and he’s improved his three-point effective field goal percentage by an astonishing 15.6%. He’s also getting to the line more than seven times a game, a game-changing increase over last year. Taken together, Westbrook has improved his shooting, his shot selection and his ability to get free points. What more do you want from a guy who, his critics said, couldn't be trusted to hit a shot early in his career? 

He’s also doing all of that while also improving his assist totals and serving as the number two offensive option on his team – behind the NBA’s leading scorer, Kevin Durant, of course. His increase in personal production hasn't come at the expense of others, a critical factor when evaluating a point guard's impact on winning.

To truly appreciate the impact of Westbrook’s overall efficiency improvement, check his PER rankings. As a rookie, Westbrook was the 21st rated point guard in the league, below average. Last season, Westbrook was 11th, slightly above average for a starter. This season? Westbrook is the No. 2 rated point guard – trailing only Chris Paul – and the No. 9 player in the entire league. Overall, he jumped from No. 57 to No. 9. This is simply ridiculous. None of this year’s other top 10 players – LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Gasol – was rated lower than no. 22 last season. Westbrook cracked the insanely selective elite of the elite when it comes to efficiency, and he managed to do it in one offseason.

This giant leap forward not only made him an All-Star for the first time this year, it has defined Oklahoma City’s season and future.  His emergence as a superstar will push OKC from 50 wins last year to the mid-50s and a Northwest Division title this year, and it gave GM Sam Presti the confidence to take the plunge on a franchise-altering trade for center Kendrick Perkins at the deadline, as he could be confident that he had two franchise building blocks that seamlessly fit together from which to build around. Westbrook’s improvement makes the Thunder the most feared team in the West this season -- outside of the Lakers, of course – and it makes them, on paper, a sure-fire Western Conference contender for the next 5-10 years.

Taken together, Russell Westbrook has improved his skills, bumped his numbers, carried his team to new heights and he’s done it in a way that seems sustainable for years to come. That’s everything – and more – that I ask of my NBA MIP. Give the man his trophy.




The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com