Tag:2011 Conference Finals
Posted on: May 21, 2011 4:43 pm
 

Haywood blames Peja, coach for Kevin Durant dunk

After getting posterized by Kevin Durant, Brendan Haywood points the finger at Peja Stojakovic. Posted by Ben Golliver.

On Thursday night, Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant threw down one of the best dunks of the NBA playoffs, soaring up and over Dallas Mavericks center Brendan Haywood to forcefully throw down a one-handed flush, while drawing a foul too.

Before he dunked on Haywood, Durant blew by Mavericks forward Peja Stojakovic on the perimeter, going hard to his right and leaving Stojakovic in the dust.

That fact was something that Haywood wasn't entirely happy about. Haywood threw both Stojakovic and his coaching staff under the bus in comments to ESPNDallas.com.
"It was a great play, but I'm not even really worried about that. I'm more worried about how bad our perimeter defense was. I'm like, 'Peja, uh, can you close the gate a little bit maybe?' "

"Man, everybody is going to remember the dunk, but it's more about how we lined up all night and got beat on basically one dribble," Haywood said. "There's no defense for that. If you make a guy take two or three dribbles to get to the hole, then your defensive rotation will be there. If you get beat on one dribble, you're going to get beat and be giving up over 100 every night."
Even though Stojakovic reportedly apologized for his lapse afterwards, Haywood continued.
"I was like, 'A little late for that, Peja. I don't really want to hear your bad. Just move your feet a little bit better next time. Just move your feet,' " Haywood said. "I think that's the problem. There's no way in the world we should have had Peja on Durant. That's wrong. We're going to blame that on a coaching error. If Peja is on Durant, we should automatically as a team yell zone. It should definitely be a zone."
Yikes. 

Haywood has a point here. Obviously. Everyone knows that Stojakovic, never an elite defender, should not be matched up against the league's best and most consistent scorer one-on-one.

But calling out a teammate so blatantly and personally during the conference finals? Usually those kinds of comments only come from superstars, not reserve centers that average less than 19 minutes per game during the regular season and shoot 36% from the free throw line. Questioning your coaching staff's acumen? Arguably an even worse look.

Just take your posterization like a man, big fella. Durant got you. He might get you again. There's no need to get all salty about it. 

Here's a look at Durant's dunk on Haywood again in case you missed it. 


Posted on: May 21, 2011 3:12 pm
 

Westbrook comments again on the 'controversy'

Posted by Royce Young

 

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Following Game 2 where Russell Westbrook sat the entire fourth quarter and watched as four bench players and Kevin Durant won the biggest game of the season, most expected the young, fiery, emotional point guard to respond negatively. Some expected him to skip the media, maybe toss a veiled shot at coach Scott Brooks or just plain say he was upset.

He didn't do any of that. So much so that it knocked the socks off our own Gregg Doyel. Doyel wrote, "I'm just saying ... a lesser man would have handled this differently than Russell Westbrook handled it."

A pretty big compliment for a bold, 22-year-old point guard that most have probably unfairly labeled with having a big ego. Chip on the shoulder? Yes. But ego? Nah. Westbrook said it simply: "We was winning, man." He may have been lying through his teeth, but if we're to take him at his word, he said he was cool. His actions backed it up too as he popped up off the bench during every timeout in the fourth to cheer and high-five his guys.

Westbrook was once again presented the same line of questioning this morning at the Thunder's shootaround and the normally short, to-the-point guard unleashed a pretty impressive quote.

"It's important for the team to play well," he told reporters. "I think the problem is you guys are worried about how I'm playing and what my numbers look like instead of what our team is doing. My main focus is we've got this far because our team is doing well, not if I'm doing good or bad."

I've been around Russell Westbrook a lot this year and I definitely didn't see such a well-worded, smart quote like this coming from him. Normally, he just brushes things off and always makes sure to say the most right thing he can possibly say. Here, he spoke truth. Again, you can think he's just saying the right thing and with the way athletes are, I wouldn't blame you for thinking that. But with the way Westbrook typically speaks to the media, the way he expanded like this tells me it's what he's really thinking.

He's heard all the criticism after every game. He's become the most scrutinized player of the postseason, with every play going under the microscope. He's let every bit of it roll off his back and as he puts it, continued to play his game. The Thunder probably can't rely on the bench to close things again in a big Game 3 at home tonight. They'll need Westbrook and they'll need him to play his game.
Posted on: May 21, 2011 2:49 pm
Edited on: May 21, 2011 2:57 pm
 

Meet LeBron James, Heat Closer

LeBron James has become the closer for the Heat as they look to take a 2-1 series advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday against the Bulls

Posted by Matt Moore




The questions began being asked as soon as the smoke from the Miami Triad's hyper-celebratory introductory event had cleared, literally. When you've got three All-Stars, three of the top ten players in the NBA (as of last season anyway) on the same team, the question's pretty natural. You expect them to be in the playoffs, which means close games, which begs this query:

"Who's going to take the last shot for the Heat?"

It was a storyline that continued throughout the season, particularly when the Heat were clanging last-second shot after last-second shot. Their biggest Achilles' heel throughout the year has been figuring out how to get the guy who needs the ball an opportunity to win games. It wasn't just figuring out which of James or Wade, (and sure, Bosh, why not, even though no one thought of him as closer) should be the one handling the rock, it was about how to set them up, whether to run the pick and roll, where they should attack and when. It was a mess. Consistently, from the beginning though, the Heat had their story to the press: "Whoever has the best opportunity." It wasn't who was open, it was about whoever had the best opportunity. They kept that message up. When LeBron James struggled more than the others in knocking down shots at the buzzer or late in games, the popular opinion rose to the unknown. "It should be Dwyane Wade," they said, "he's been the guy in Miami for years and has a ring! This is Wade's team!" Which is ridiculous, of course. Wade may have that ring, but he and James are on equal footing. Still, with all the bricks LeBron had made in the final seconds throughout the year, they could have built a university to study the question of who else should get the ball besides him.

Then a funny thing happened.

LeBron became "The Closer." 

His last real failure in the clutch was against Philadelphia, having his final shot blocked by Elton Brand that would have helped the Heat sweep the Sixers. Huge failure that it was, it took the Heat a whole other 48 minutes of play time to finish off the Sixers, who were outmatched from the start. But that blocked shot echoed the same storyline. "LeBron isn't clutch." And let's be clear, that wasn't some media-conceived fairytale. James was terrible in the final moments of games decided by five points or less. He shot just 43.6 percent in those situations. To put that in perspective, Mo Willilams, James' running mate in Cleveland had a similar number of attempts and made more.  He was simply not good in the biggest of moments. It seemed like that regular season calamity was going to carry over into the postseason, and if that was the case, how were the Heat going to advance? 

Except then in the Boston series, when the Heat needed James most, he absolutely dominated the closing stretches of games. While Celtics fans trusted in James' failures to repeat themselves against the team many felt made him "quit" the year before, James took over... on both sides of the ball. His defense fueled his offense and his offense fueled his defense. James closed out the Celtics by scoring ten straight points.  The steal and slam off of Paul Pierce was the exclamation point. The drive-by layup was simply the underline or highlight or some other editing mechanism on a statement already etched in black ink. 

But sure, James had one good game. Could he do it again?

Then in Game 2 versus the Bulls, it was once again James stepping up. He vanquished Paul Pierce, the Celtics' closer in Game 5. In Game 2, he guarded the MVP Derrick Rose, who did not score as the Heat put the game away.  And on the other side, James scored nine of the Heat's final 13, including pull-up threes and dagger jumpers. And when James gets that jumper falling, there's simply no way to stop him, the same as it is with Derrick Rose most times. 

ESPN dug through some numbers and found that James has used over 52 percent of the "clutch" possessions for the Heat in the playoffs. His PER in those situations, per 36 minutes is over 40. If you're not familiar with the statistic, the baseline is 15, anything over 20 is great. James' is a 40. He's not just producing efficient shooting, he's doing it all. Dwyane Wade may be able to pull off the same kinds of circus shots, but James' overall production is off the charts, and as unbelievable as it may sound given their positions and reputations, James is a better three-point shooter, especially lately. 

But the best part of this partnership is that Wade won't be demanding the ball. As long as Wade wins, he's happy. And he's seen enough of James to trust him to put the ball in the basket, even from the perimeter. James' three-pointer is often criticized as we demand that he use that insane athleticism and huge frame to drive time after time, but the reality is that James has shot a decent 34 percent in the playoffs. That's not great. What is great? James is shooting 50 percent from the arc in his last three playoff games. As he told the Miami Herald, there's a time when he trusts it, and he's got Wade's support to trust his outside shot. 
 
“Early in the game, we didn’t want to settle for those outside threes,” James said. “It was there late [in Game 2] and [Mike] Bibby set a good screen for me. The shot was there, so I took it.”

James pushed the Heat’s lead to five with a midrange jumper. No apologies this time. James’ late-game offense tipped the series’ momentum in Miami’s favor.

“LeBron was really big down the stretch and hit the shots we needed,” Wade said. “He also guarded [Derrick Rose]. His three was really big. That’s why we put the ball in his hands. He’s going to make the big plays.”
via LeBron James embraces role of closer for Miami Heat - Miami Heat - MiamiHerald.com.

It makes a certain amount of sense that this switch has occurred. The first act of James' career foretold an unstoppable stream of MVPs and championship rings, the next "Greatest Ever" candidate.  Then that script flipped and he wound up as the questioned "quitter" who failed in the clutch, didn't shake the other team's hand after a series loss, failed time and time again and then bailed on his squad for nicer weather and buddy buddy teammates. He was the un-clutch villian everyone loved to root against and rejoiced when he confirmed their belief in his failure. Now he's flipping it again, dominating down the stretch on both sides and playing phenomenal basketball. The series is tied 1-1, and despite a blowout in Game 1, looks every bit the long, grueling series everyone thought it would be. In a series like that you need someone who can take over the game late, to have that guy who you look to. After a season of uncertainty as the Heat tried unsuccessfully to answer that question, it appears they have the solution.

LeBron James is the closer, and if he continues to play at this level late in close games, the Heat are going to be nearly unstoppable.

(Now watch Chicago win a close Game 3. It's been that kind of series, that kind of year.)
Posted on: May 21, 2011 2:01 pm
Edited on: May 21, 2011 8:59 pm
 

The chemical reactions of Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook was benched for the fourth quarter of Game 2. So what? The real story is about who wasn't benched, and what that means for Westbrook and the Thunder going forward. 

Posted by Matt Moore





When Russell Westbrook was benched for the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, we got two very predictable reactions. One side overreacted to the benching, expounding how Westbrook was livid at being taken of the floor, feeding into the idea that Westbrook cares more about himself than about the team. This of course was nonsense, since Westbrook was cheering for teammates during their strong close of the game. The other side overreacted to the overreaction, saying how this was fine and not a story and how Westbrook was hunky dorey with being an All-Star sat for the final frame of a playoff game when he had played exceptionally well for three quarters. This of course was also nonsense, as we know enough of Westbrook's personality and fire to be able to confirm reports that he was upset on the bench. It doesn't take a genius to figure out Russell Westbrook probably had some issues with watching Eric Maynor finish out the Mavericks, particularly during a late possession where he held the ball too long, then lost his dribble and turned it over. This isn't the end of the Thunder's world, even on a day the Rapture is allegedly coming, it's just a chemistry blip but one that we can expect. 

The circumstances surrounding Westbrook's outburst on the bench come to us courtesy of ESPN this morning:

 
In the closing minute of the third quarter of Oklahoma City's 106-100 victory against Dallas, Westbrook made a play call that his teammates failed to run properly. When the play broke down, Westbrook made a one-on-one move that resulted in a turnover.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks promptly took Westbrook, who had four turnovers, out of the game. Brooks slapped the All-Star point guard on his backside as he walked by.

Westbrook turned around and glared at the court. Then, when Brooks walked toward him and made a comment, Westbrook yelled, "I'm trying to run the [expletive] play, man."

Westbrook continued yelling on the bench for roughly a minute -- saying, "Tell them to run the [expletive] play," according to the source -- prompting assistant coach Maurice Cheeks to console him as play continued.
via Source: Russell Westbrook 'benching' stemmed from botched play - ESPN.

"I'm trying to run the [expletive] play, man" should be a T-shirt for Westbrook's fans the world over. Westbrook being benched following this can of course be interpreted multiple ways. On the one hand, keeping your fiery young guard off the floor to make sure he doesn't do anything foolhardy (as he's shown a tendency to do, specifically with driving into situations with a high probability of a charge) is a safe and responsible move, even if it's gutsy in its simplistic "benching a star" manner. But there's something else that feeds into a culture within the Thunder which sets up the very real possibility that Westbrook will not be part of the Thunder's long-term plans. Because there is a very clear double-standard set for Oklahoma City's All-Stars, right or wrong, and it's unlikely that that balance will be able to sustain itself over the long term.

Kevin Durant is a cool customer. Yes, he yells after the occassional vicious dunk, and yes, he's hyper-competitive. But Durant's manner on the court is most often reserved. Durant's humble in interviews, and talks repeatedly about consistency. That's his goal. Not to take over the biggest moments but to be able to do the spectacular things he can over and over again. He's still young, still learning, so that consistency escapes him at time, even as he repeated as scoring champion. Compare this to Westbrook, and you have the case of one man striving to take the world by storm and another letting the world come to him, on his terms but not under force of his might.

It is Durant's path that Scott Brooks trusts more.

Durant would not have been benched for the final frame of a playoff game under any circumstances, barring amputation or the bubonic plague. He would be given the trust and faith of the coaching staff, right up until the final possessions, despite the fact that Durant rarely is able to create adequate separation for himself off or on ball which leads to the reputation Brooks has of drawing up final possessions on an Etch-A-Sketch blindfolded. For all the talk about "Where is Kevin Durant, why are they not getting him the ball?" in the series against Memphis, in truth it was Durant's inability to detach himself from the Grizzlies' defense that led to Russell Westbrook's hero mode being activated.  But the reality is that Durant's the better player. That's what it comes down to. Durant is the better player, despite Westbrook's brilliant speed, versatility, and lethal aggressiveness. Durant is simply able to hit incredible shots and make stellar plays more frequently because he's just slightly better, even if his attitude, savvy, and perceived (not in actuality) determination don't match Westbrook's. That's why people constantly balk at anyone but him getting the ball to close out a ballgame, and that's why Brooks would never bench him in the fourth quarter like he did Westbrook, even if Durant showed outward frustration at teammates. That's the pecking order. 

That's also why eventually, there's going to be trouble in Thunderdise. (See, it's like paradise only with Thunder. Smells like barbecue and big oil money.) From everything we know of Russell Westbrook, his confidence, his ability, his volcano-like demeanor on the floor, does this give you the impression that he's going to be okay with a coach who sets one standard for an All-Star and another for him, also an All-Star? Forget this isolated situation, this was a bold move by Brooks in a key game they won. This is nothing. It's just an example. Just look at how the more criticism Westbrook receives, the more he seems to attack, the more he seems to want to prove to everyone "I didn't become an All-Star by just passing to Kevin Durant." Westbrook knows that on a team without Kevin Durant, he's looked at as an off-brand Derrick Rose, very close in production and style, if not the same brand quality. This isn't to say the two players are equal. It's simply to illustrate that if Westbrook was carrying a team on his back without as much talent as he's currently surrounded by, he'd be getting more respect, more adulation, even if the wins weren't coming through. 

Think about that. It's the rare scenario where Russell Westbrook would be better off personally if he were on a losing team. This isn't what Westbrook wants, obviously. He has a great chemistry with the guys in Oklahoma City, is close with them personally, particularly Durant. This isn't about an outsider getting too big for his britches, this is just about a professional athlete eventually wanting the respect he has rightfully earned. No, he's not Kevin Durant. He's not Derek Fisher or Mario Chalmers or Mike Conley or Eric Maynor, either. He's an All-Star at a young age, and if you're too wrapped up with seeing his ever-eagerness and determination to win cause admittedly painful turnovers as part of the learning process to also see how Westbrook may be the single most lethal point guard attacking the rim in the league, including Derrick Rose (again, better player, comparison is there), how he's worked to add a reliable mid-range game (a large reason why the Thunder won Game 2), you've lost sight of how big a part Westbrook has played in this endlessly youthful Thunder team making the Western Conference Finals, knocking on the gates of NBA heaven.

Considering those circumstances, can you blame Westbrook for being a little upset? But he wasn't. He cheered for his teammates, said all the right things in the media, has ducked the controversy as much as he can. But this won't hold. Westbrook's next contract won't just be about money and stability, it'll be about role, and how he fits in with whatever team he winds up with. The Thunder have been great so far of recognizing the ability in Westbrook and feeding it. But it also appears there's a limit to how high they want Westbrook to reach into the cupboards, that there are certain cookie jars meant only for the franchise player, Durant. Either Westbrook will come to accept his status as second-fiddle, not an equal partner, but a key component in the championship runs of the Thunder, the Thunder will come to the conclusion that Westbrook deserves as equally long a leash as Durant, even if his mistakes are more pronounced, or Westbrook will tire of the Robin mask and decide to assert his control over his own career's destiny.

The story of Game 2 and going forward wasn't about benching Russell Westrook. It was about not benching Kevin Durant. And however this works out in the end, it's part of the story of the ever-evolving, ever-maturing chemistry of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Posted on: May 21, 2011 1:02 am
Edited on: May 21, 2011 1:05 pm
 

Playoff Fix: Thunder own home-court advantage

The Oklahoma City Thunder return home, looking to take a 2-1 series lead on the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. Posted by Ben Golliver.




One Big Thing: Oklahoma City's home-court advantage is mean and vicious. The Thunder are 6-1 at home so far in the playoffs; even more impressive, OKC has lost just two other home games dating back to Feb. 27, and one of those was the season finale when their starters played limited minutes. The Mavericks enter the game having had the best road record in the regular season, including two wins in Oklahoma City (back in November and December), so they won't be trembling. Indeed, center Tyson Chandler guaranteed a series victory. Dallasnews.com with the quote: "We'll prevail through this series. There's no doubt in my mind, at all."

The X-Factor: The Mavericks have yet to truly slow down the Thunder attack, allowing 112 points in Game 1 and 106 in Game 2. After Dallas forced the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers to sputter on offense, Oklahoma City has found multiple ways to score, including stroking the long ball (seven 3-pointers in Game 2) and getting to the free-throw line (26 free throws). As a team, OKC shot 56 percent from the field in Game 2. By comparison, the Lakers never shot better than 47 percent and the Blazers never shot better than 48 percent. The Kansas City Star reported that Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle attributed it to his defense's lack of an edge. "I feel like we have got to play with a greater edge, for sure. I don't think we've lost [that edge], but I think we've got to play with more of an edge."

The Adjustment: Clearly, the big Game 2 adjustment came from Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who elected to ride his bench (plus Kevin Durant) for the fourth quarter, leaving Russell Westbrook to ride the pine. This was about as surprising as an X & O move gets this late in the postseason, not only because an All-Star was left out of the game but because of the wholesale nature of the lineup change. The Thunder, thanks to Durant and James Harden, maintained their lead and held off a furious Mavericks rally, which wound up sidetracking itself with a few careless turnovers. The million-dollar question is how Westbrook will respond in Game 3. He certainly seems self-assured and he said all the right things after Game 2. But all eyes will be on how he carries himself and whether he is able to cut down on the mental mistakes that led to Brooks' decision to turn the late-game ballhandling over to reserve guard Eric Maynor

The Sticking Point: The Mavericks have yet to find an answer for Durant. Sure, they limited his scoring output in Game 2 to 24 points after he exploded for 40 points in Game 1, but Durant was 0 for 5 from the 3-point line and 11 for 18 on everything else. In other words, OKC will continue to encourage him to be aggressive off the dribble and assertive in finding his pull-up attempts in the paint. If he suceeds in doing that, it's unclear whether he can be stopped. The Mavericks -- particularly DeShawn Stevenson -- looked to frustrate Durant by being physical with him on Thursday, but you can bet, back at home, Durant will get more than the three free-throw attempts he managed in Game 2. The Mavericks will need more from either Jason Terry (just eight points in Game 2) or Shawn Marion (only nine points on 13 shots in Game 2) to offset Durant's output.
Posted on: May 20, 2011 1:05 pm
 

Newsflash: Mark Cuban still hates the officials

Mark Cuban decides to be the bigger man and refrains from criticizing the officials after Game 2 loss. Just kidding, that's exactly what he did. 

Posted by Matt Moore




Mark Cuban's been a lot quieter during the playoffs this year. Mostly because his team's been winning a lot.  But lest you think that the timeless tradition of the Mavs' owner complaining about officiating has gone the way of the dinosaur, we bring you an exchange from after Game 2 of Thunder-Mavericks, via ESPN: 

While walking off the court, Cuban loudly asked officiating supervisor Bernie Fryer what he thought of the performance of referees Greg Willard, Bill Spooner and Tom Washington.

A longtime NBA referee who was seated behind press row at the American Airlines Center, Fryer told Cuban that he thought Thursday night's crew had been "great" in the first half.

"Are you kidding me?" Cuban replied. "You're not watching the same game I am."

Cuban complained about moving screens and defensive three-second violations by the Thunder that he felt should have been called, among other things.

"Horrible," Cuban said.
via 2011 NBA playoffs: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban voices displeasure over Game 2 officiating to referee supervisor - ESPN Dallas.

Cuban's got a point here. After all, the officials did let a second-year role player in James Harden drop 24-7-4 on them, and let Eric Maynor set the tempo without pressuring the ball. They also failed to get Dirk Nowitzki the ball for most of the game. Oh, no, wait, that was Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki was officiated differently in Game 2 than in Game 1. That's going to happen. You're not going to get consistent officiating crew to crew. It's not a matter of one team getting more of the calls, it's how they're called. In Game 1, a lot of calls were made from post or face-up, leading to Dirk's billion free throws or Durant's ability to pump-and-catch. In Game 2, most of the calls came off the drive, leading to Durant getting calls every time he took the ball to the floor. With Nowitzki still working out of the post, even when driving from there, he wasn't able to get to the line as often. 

And three-second violations, Mark? You've got a better chance of bringing the rain with a dance than getting that call by complaining about it.

Cuban will get fined, most likely, and all will be right with the world. 
Posted on: May 20, 2011 1:20 am
Edited on: May 20, 2011 1:51 am
 

Scott Brooks makes a daring move with Westbrook

Posted by Royce Young


The Thunder pulled out a gutsy, hard-fought win in Game 2, evening the series 1-1. But, more than likely, there’s going to be more talk about how the Thunder won the game than actually that they won the game.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks is the main reason the word “gutsy” is in that lede. Brooks made what I’m sure was an extremely difficult decision to go with his bench the entire fourth quarter. Russell Westbrook — who was very good the first three quarters — didn’t play a second in the final 12 minutes. It was backup point guard Eric Maynor’s team to run. In fact, only one starter played the bulk of the fourth, and it was Kevin Durant. (Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka played the closing minutes.)

I’ve already heard people saying Westbrook was pouting, furious or a lot of other negative things about his so-called “benching.” I’ve heard people speculating that Brooks wanted to teach him a lesson. That this was a way to humble him for all his previous late-game transgressions.

But the picture at the top says otherwise. That shows Westbrook up and cheering his teammates on during that big fourth quarter. That's not as fun to talk about, though.

But that’s not at all what this was about. This was about the five players on the floor and how well they were playing. This was about going with what was going to win you a game. Russell Westbrook isn’t stupid. (Or at least I don't think he is.) I’m sure he’s going to be a little upset. I’m sure he’s offended he didn’t come in. He's an All-Star and he didn't play a second in the fourth quarter of the biggest game of the season.

But his team won. That's what matters. 

The perception was that Westbrook was taken out because he was struggling. Kevin Durant was asked about that post-game and the Thunder's star didn't see it that way.

“I don’t think he struggled tonight. We went with a different lineup in the fourth. But he didn’t struggle. When he was on the floor he played pretty well I think," Durant said. "Russell understands that. He’s a perfect teammate. He was over there cheering everybody on. As a leader, that’s what you want to see over there on the bench.”

There is going to be a story made about this situation, which is probably unfair. But it fits the evolving Russell Westbrook story. This feeds every narrative we’ve heard about over the past few weeks. I get that. I’m not dumb.

And you know what? If Westbrook actually is so offended that this becomes an issue, then I don’t think he fits the culture of the Thunder organization. The franchise is entirely about team, together and trusting in the next guy. I can’t think that Westbrook isn’t a part of that. Sam Presti is a master evaluator of not just talent, but character. And the one thing that blew Presti away the first time he evaluated Westbrook was his work ethic and charatcer. If Westbrook's truly offended by this development and is going to let it fester into an issue, then maybe he really isn't part of the long-term future.

The Thunder won this game without Westbrook on the floor in the biggest moments. Easy to see that. Westbrook didn’t turn the ball over, didn’t miss a shot, didn’t make a bad decision in the final 12 minutes. That’s true. But to think this is some kind of change the Thunder need to pursue full time or more often is borderline crazy. This team didn’t win 55 games and get to the Western Conference Finals with Russell Westbrook sitting on the bench. Brooks played the hot hand. He went with what was working. And besides, it’s not like Westbrook had nothing to do with OKC's win or something.

Honestly, the bigger story SHOULD be about Brooks making that call — which had to be incredibly hard — and sticking with it. Brooks knows it’s going to be a big story. He knows that there’s going to be damage control. He summed it up simply.

“I didn’t want to mess with the rhythm,” he said. “It had nothing to do with Russell. Eric was playing good basketball for us.” That tells the story, but that’s not the story people want to hear. It’s not the good story. It’s not what’s most interesting.

Again, the real story is how well the Thunder bench performed. James Harden was completely lights out (23 points on 6-9 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists). Eric Mayor, terrific (13 points, zero turnovers). Nick Collison was downright heroic on Dirk. Daequan Cook hit a couple massive 3s. Look at the Thunder bench: +5, +10, +18, +11, +14. The bench went 9-11 in the fourth quarter for 23 of the Thunder’s 29 points. In the second quarter, the bench scored on 10 consecutive possessions. They scored a total 50 points. Now that’s a story.

There’s going to be a bunch of chatter after this one and that’s the trade Scott Brooks made with his decision to stick with his bench. Maybe some of the Thunder's fabled chemistry is upset. It's a possibility. But the move paid off and the Thunder took a crucial Game 2. The question is that while it paid off in the short-term, could it have an effect on the long-term?

Brooks may have to do a bit of grief counseling tomorrow, but the same starting five will be out there for Game 3. Russell Westbrook will get his time. This was about going with the hot hand and your gut. And in this case, it completely worked. You can’t second guess that.

Posted on: May 20, 2011 12:54 am
Edited on: May 20, 2011 1:13 am
 

NBA Playoffs: James Harden, Thunder hero

James Harden was the difference in the Thunder's Game 2 win to tie the Western Conference Finals. 

Posted by Matt Moore





James Harden did not have a great first half of his season. He was passive, and struggled to find an identity in the Thunder's offense. But after nearly being traded at the deadline, Harden went on a tear. Then, in the playoffs, he hit another gear all together. That gear hit the absolute limit on Thursday night as Harden dropped an elite performance in the Thunder's Game 2 win over the Mavericks

Harden scored 23 points on nine field goals, and added 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals with no turnovers in Game 2. Pull-up three-pointer and-one? Yeah, he got that. Driving layup in transition off a rebound coast-to-coast and-one? Indeed. 

James Harden played above his ceiling Wednesday night. But it's only the ceiling for where he's at right now, as a 21-year-old role player on a young roster. It's probably closer to his career ceiling, as a potential No. 2 option on a championship-caliber squad. And it should be noted that, when give time this season, he's produced 20-points-plus games. But with all the rest of the production, you have to be a little concerned this was an outlier, just for where he's at right now.  Harden may crash back to the earth, but if he doesn't, he's in position to be the difference between for the Thunder between a championship and a disappointing finish. If he produces even 75 percent of this production consistently, the Thunder will be nearly unstoppable. You can contain the Thunder when it's just Westbrook and Durant. But if they can counter with this kind of all-around brilliance from Harden, it's too much.

Harden's advantage in this series isn't just tricks and fireworks, though. The loss of Caron Butler for the Mavs rears its ugly head again as Dallas has no player to check Harden. DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, J.J. Barea, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry... no one matches up well on Harden, and he's exploiting it. Overplay him and he draws the foul. Give him space but cover the jumper, and he makes the perfect pass. There's not a combination of players or schemes Rick Carlisle can afford to throw at Harden, not with Kevin Durant and, most often, Russell Westbrook on the floor. 

Harden's in his second year. This development shouldn't be accelerating as quickly as it is. But that's what teams need to make championship runs: for good players to play great. And that's what Harden's done in the face of a matchup advantage. If he keeps producing like this, Harden will get to see if he can duplicate his production in the Finals. 
 
 
 
 
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