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Tag:2011 WC Playoffs
Posted on: May 16, 2011 7:41 pm
 

What's At Stake: Dirk Nowitzki

What's at stake for Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki in the Western Conference finals? Posted by Ben Golliver.



There's plenty at stake over the next month for Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, but not much of it it comes in the Western Conference finals. This series is big, but it's mostly a stepping stone.

Nowitzki's list of accomplishments is a mile long and growing, his place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer is secure. 10 All-Star teams. 11 All-NBA selections. An MVP award. He might still be overlooked and underrated by the general public after all that, but nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to his peers. "Unguardable." "Toughest cover in the league." "The best shooting big man ever." Those are just a few of the tags hung on Nowitzki by the players and coaches tasked with stopping him.

Obviously, the major tag that has eluded Nowitzki is "NBA Champion." 

To reach the NBA Finals for the second time in his career, Nowitzki will need to get through the Oklahoma City Thunder, a tough but certainly not insurmountable task. The Mavericks are more experienced, more tested, more rested and owners of home court advantage. Las Vegas and a vast majority of NBA experts agree: Dirk's Dallas squad is the clear favorite. In this light, Nowitzki has more to lose in the Western Conference finals than he has to gain.

Much like LeBron James, Nowitzki seems on the cusp of reorienting his reputation. Derided as a soft big man on a team that excelled in the regular season and flaked out in the playoffs, Dallas' storm through the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers has begun to rewrite that narrative. Against L.A., he was unquestionably the best player on the court. In averaging 25.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in four straight wins, Nowitzki was better even than Kobe Bryant, the league's premier name for the last decade. His turnaround jumpers and to-the-basket leaners were equally indefensible, and his work on the defensive boards contributed to L.A.'s offensive struggles and overall frustration. His play-making and understanding of the team offense were divine. What Nowitzki lacks in traditional highlight reel fodder he makes up for in intelligent basketball plays.

If the Thunder pull the upset, though, Nowitzki returns to being merely excellent rather than transcendent. He goes back to being "one of the best of his time" rather than "one of the best of all time." The questions about his defense and toughness eventually creep back up. He'd be right back where he started this season, more or less. A consistently amazing force that never got over the top. Time doesn't treat players stuck in that situation nearly as well as it treats champions, and surely Nowitzki is aware of that.

Sadly, putting down the Thunder won't score Nowitzki a lot of new points either. Oklahoma City's big men -- Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison etc. -- are historically anonymous and not all that well equipped to defend him. This won't be a series featuring reputation enhancing one-on-one, back-and-forth action. There's nothing he can do against Oklahoma City that he hasn't already done for a decade. This is a man that has averaged more than 25 points per game over 11 playoff runs. If there's a way to score on you, a way to beat you, Nowitzki has done it. He just hasn't done it four times in seven games on the biggest stage.

And that's what is at stake for Nowitzki against Oklahoma City: one gigantic opportunity. A second crack at an NBA title. Considering the circumstances surrounding his first title shot, that second chance would be career redefining. In 2006, Nowitzki and the Mavericks climbed out to a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat, only to collapse in four straight games amid controversial calls and a parade of Dwyane Wade free throws. Winning a title this season wouldn't erase those memories but it would certainly recast Nowitzki as a world champion before all else.

Given that Dallas has the oldest team in the NBA, a similar opportunity in the future is no guarantee. At age 32, with the aging cast surrounding him, what's at stake for Nowitzki over the next month is his legacy. In that, the Western Conference finals is just the prelude.
Posted on: May 16, 2011 6:50 pm
 

What's at Stake: Russell Westbrook

Posted by Royce Young



A 22-year-old third-year point guard playing in his second postseason ever -- there should be a little leeway for him, right?

Wrong. Very wrong.

In Russell Westbrook's world, the microscope zeroed in on him so hard that during the Thunder's seven-game series win over the Grizzlies, almost every shot he took -- even the good ones -- we critiqued and criticized.

It's true. His usage is up, he's taking more shots than usual, his assists are down and in critical moments, he tended to call his own number over his superstar teammate, Kevin Durant.

But as Westbrook proved with his downright spectacular triple-double in Game 7 versus Memphis, he's completely capable of still being the All-Star point man he was this season. Don't forget: Westbrook had a season almost entirely comparable to MVP Derrick Rose's. It's just when the postseason lights came on, everyone expected him to change or something. Everyone expected him to forget that he's the Thunder's second best scorer and one of the 10 best in the league. Everyone wanted him to be something he's not.

Westbrook though, never wavered. He stood firm, kept playing his game and as he said after Game 7, wasn't about to care what "you guys" had to say. ("You guys" being the media, of course.) It's funny because most looked at Westbrook's Game 7 and used it to slap a backhand compliment on him. See, play like that!

But really, I'm not sure Westbrook played all that much different. I've always maintained that when you're open, Russell Westbrook will find you. And that was what the Thunder's young point guard was working with in Game 7 -- open teammates. Scott Brooks made a slight adjustment to get more weakside action going with some good pick-and-roll stuff with Durant. It opened up more movement, more screening and more good looks. Westbrook took 14 shots and and made just four, but was universally praised for his game.

Here's the thing though: The Thunder needs that Westbrook for sure against Dallas, but they also need the one that's a threat to score 20 points. Oklahoma City's not advancing without Westbrook scoring the ball some. The Thunder didn't win 55 games and get this far with Westbrook doing his best Rajon Rondo impression. He's a score-first point man and that's the guy the Thunder ride, and die, with.

Westbrook took most of the criticism in stride, never lashing out. His teammates defended him, his coach backed him up, but Westbrook did what he always does -- played his game. Both on floor and off. Against the Mavericks, I have no doubt that there will be more ups and downs. Westbrook absolutely will not play a perfect series against the Mavericks. If he does, pencil the Thunder into The Finals.

There will be good nights and some nights that provoke discussion. It's the Russell Westbrook Way. But if he plays well at least four times -- whether it be scoring the ball or dropping triple-doubles -- the Thunder can, and likely will, advance past Dallas. A lot with the Thunder starts with Westbrook, and very well could end there too.
Posted on: May 16, 2011 4:47 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2011 4:58 pm
 

What's At Stake: Kevin Durant

What's at stake for Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant in the Western Conference finals? Posted by Ben Golliver.



In his fourth year, Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder keep on skipping along at a steady 45 degree angle towards greatness.

Year 1: Rookie of the Year. Year 2: Blossoming star. Year 3: All-Star and scoring champ. Year 4: All-Star, scoring champ, playoff scoring leader. 

Year 1: An ugly final year in Seattle. Year 2: A fresh start in Oklahoma City. Year 3: Playoffs. Year 4: Northwest Division title and Western Conference finals.

For the rest of the league's lottery teams and those trapped in an arguably worse fate -- stuck being average -- the rocketship rags to riches rise of Durant and the Thunder is enough to inspire envy, rage and a whole host of other negative emotions. For everyone else, it's just been jaw-dropping. So good, so fast. So much playoff success seemingly overnight. One can only imagine how much attention Durant's meteoric rise would receive had it not been for Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who has accomplishing virtually the same thing but happens to play in a much larger market.

But that's exactly why K.D. has the best of both worlds here. More than anyone else left in the playoffs, Durant gets to enjoy the fruits of his labors without all of the annoying questions and expectations that generally go hand-in-hand with being a superstar in the postseason. Rose, by virtue of being named MVP, playing with a more experienced core and facing off against the Evil Empire that the Miami Heat represent, carries a much heavier expectations burden. He's, essentially, savior rather than upstart. As for the Heat? They must win or their reputation is ruined (at least for the next 12 months). And the Dallas Mavericks must win or they might not get another shot due to age. 

Certainly, the Thunder's deep playoff run didn't come out of nowhere, but only a microscopic percentage of the basketball viewing public will be disappointed or feel let down if Durant isn't able to carry Oklahoma City past the Mavericks and into the NBA Finals. Yes, there would have been some second-guessers if the Thunder had been knocked out by a No. 8 seed. But that didn't happen. Sunday's Game 7 assured the Thunder that there season was a wild success and Durant's closeout performances in both rounds prove he can deliver when it matters most. This year is set.

The future is set up nicely too, further removing any urgency from the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder's championship window is as wide open as Kendrick Perkins when he turns to face the basket at the top of the key. Oklahoma City can and should be making deep playoff runs -- at minimum -- for the next five years, the duration of Durant's contract extension.

With the Thunder, unlike so many other teams, that statement comes with no caveat about the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Perkins and Nick Collison are all locked in for the foreseeable future, and plenty of other contributors are still on rookie deals too. TOklahoma City is positioned as well as a team can be heading into labor uncertainty: They have a dynamic, do-everything point guard, they have the premier scorer in the game and they have depth in the middle. All the tough questions have been answered. The rest is just roster tweaking, and GM Sam Presti has proven he's up to that task.

For Durant and company, the Western Conference finals against the Mavericks represent simply the first of many showdowns and shootouts. Worst case scenario: They get picked apart by a more experienced team that just picked apart the defending champs. But, in the process, they'll gain valuable big-moment playoff reps. Best case scenario: Their athleticism and fearlessness is too much for the Mavericks to handle, and the dream season continues for another round, reaching impossible heights.

Either way, Durant wins. Here, clearly, he has nothing to lose.
Posted on: May 16, 2011 3:32 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2011 3:33 pm
 

Expert Picks: Western Conference Finals

Our CBSSports.com expert picks leaderboard and predictions for the Western Conference finals. Posted by EOB staff.

Here are the current standings after the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs.

Expert Scores
Expert Right Wrong Bonus Total
Royce Young 8 4 4 20
Ken Berger 9 3 1 19
Jamey Eisenberg 9 3 1 19
Matt Moore 8 4 3 19
Ben Golliver 8 4 1 17
Sergio Gonzalez 7 5 2 16

Here are our picks for the Western Conference finals. 
west-finals
Posted on: May 16, 2011 3:13 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2011 3:38 pm
 

Thunder-Mavericks Preview: Juggernauts collide

The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks face off in the Western Conference finals. Posted by Ben Golliver.

I. Intro:  No. 4 seed Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) vs. No. 3 seed Dallas Mavericks (57-25)

The top two seeds in the Western Conference -- the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers -- were dismissed from the playoffs early this year, setting up an entertaining I-35 duel between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks. The two teams present obvious contrasts in age. In a Hoopism.com analysis run back in January, Dallas was the league's oldest team if you weighted by minutes while Oklahoma City was the league's youngest. 

In this case, age ain't nothing but a number. Both the Mavericks and the Thunder enter the Western Conference finals playing exceptional basketball. Dallas has faced stiffer tests, dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in six games and then sweeping the defending champs, the Lakers, in the second round. The Thunder finds itself here after dispatching the Denver Nuggets in five games and then surviving the playoffs' only seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Dallas will have nine days of rest in advance of Tuesday night's Game 1; Oklahoma City will have just Monday to get itself together. 

II. What Happened:  A look at the season series

The Mavericks won the season series, 2-1, with the road team winning every game. It's worth noting that All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki did not play in Oklahoma City's win. 

Even more importantly, the most recent game in the series took place on Jan. 6, more than four months ago. The key trade deadline move that landed center Kendrick Perkins in Oklahoma City hadn't yet been completed. Peja Stojakovic, a key playoff performer off of Dallas' bench, also hadn't yet been acquired. 

Every team takes on a new identity in the playoffs, and both of these teams have taken on better identities. From an efficiency standpoint, Dallas was ranked No. 8 on offense and No. 7 on defense in the regular season. In the postseason, those numbers have improved to No. 1 on offense and No. 6 on defense. Oklahoma City, similarly, was ranked No. 4 on offense and No. 13 on defense during the regular season. Those numbers have improved to No. 2 on offense and No. 3 on defense.

III. Secret of the Series: Composure

After such a back-and-forth, emotionally-challenging series against the Grizzlies, the Thunder not only need to pull things together, they need to take it to a new level. The first order is improved consistency on offense, which is funny considering that they have the second best offensive efficiency in the playoffs. The issue is that the production has come in fits and spurts, unstoppable one possession, lost the next. Long stretches without generating quality scoring opportunities against the Mavericks doomed both the Blazers and the Lakers and they will be critical for the Thunder as well.

Dallas, meanwhile, will head into a hostile environment in Games 3, 4 and 6. They've experienced that in Portland but the Blazers do not have players adept at getting to the free throw line like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. How Dallas reacts and responds to the officiating, especially on the road, will be crucial.    

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

PG: Russell Westbrook is the most polarizing player in this year's postseason, his scoring explosions and unmatched athleticism are winning him many supporters, while his play-calling and turnovers have brought out the detractors. To be sure, Dallas has not faced a point guard like him yet in these playoffs. Portland's Andre Miller is a traditional, on-the-ground play-maker. Ditto for Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. Westbrook's physical tools will surely cause problems for Dallas' backcourt, but we shouldn't overlook how well Jason Kidd has played recently. He's captained Dallas' ship well, setting up the constant five-man attack and stepping in to knock down shots when needed. Westbrook wins the postseason numbers game by a country mile -- putting up 23.9 points and 7.0 assists to Kidd's 10.1 points and 7.2 assists -- but this match-up is much closer than that given the nature of Dallas' team-based attack. Advantage: Thunder. 

SG: This is a (relatively) weak starting position for both teams. The Mavericks have thrown out DeShawn Stevenson and saved Jason Terry for the bench while the Thunder use Thabo Sefalosha early and then often turn to James Harden. Terry demonstrated that he still has plenty of jet fuel left when he hit nine three-pointers in one game to eliminate the Lakers. Harden has stepped up in somewhat surprising fashion, averaging 12.4 points and serving as a primary distributor at times, but Terry is clearly the best player in this group. His shot has been on -- to the tune of 52.$% shooting in the playoffs -- and his chemistry with Nowitzki is unmatched. Advantage: Mavericks.

SF: Oklahoma City's clearest match-up advantage comes in the form of the NBA's 22-year-old scoring leader Kevin Durant, who has simply been unstoppable at times during the postseason run. While Dallas doesn't have a great individual match-up to slow him down -- Shawn Marion is too short and none of their post players are athletic or versatile enough to step out -- the Mavericks succeeded in containing all sorts of potent offensive threats, including Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. None of those has Durant's range but Dallas will rely on its principles -- Tyson Chandler holding down the paint, a touch of zone, hard closeouts on shooters, a good understanding of who to leave open -- to try to limit Durant's game-changing impact. While Marion is no Durant, he's no slouch. He's solidly put up 9.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, proving to be a capable scoring option when teams overload on Nowitzki or Terry. Advantage: Thunder.

PF: Dirk Nowitzki is playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the world right now, putting up 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds so far in the playoffs. With his teammates shooting so well, he hasn't had to do it alone and, to his credit, he's recognized that brilliantly. Unlike so many other superstars, Nowitzki rarely finds himself grinding the overall offensive flow to a halt. His points come in rhythm and, late in the game, often at the free throw line, so his efficiency always remains high. The Thunder will likely throw everyone -- Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, etc. -- they've got at him, just like the Blazers and Lakers did, and it won't much matter. Nowitzki is getting his. Ibaka, a tremendous shot-blocker, will likely have some of his value mitigated in this series due to the perimeter nature of Dallas' attack. Advantage: Mavericks.  

C: During the regular season match-ups, Mavericks center averaged 15.3 rebounds per game against the Thunder. Of course, that was before Kendrick Perkins arrived to supplement Oklahoma City's frontline. Chandler is the unsung hero of this Dallas run, making Nowitzki's life easier, cleaning the glass like crazy and finishing at the rim when necessary. He hasn't been bothered by the girth of Andrew Bynum nor the length of Marcus Camby. Perkins' rebounding and toughness were crucial in neutralizing Memphis' inside advantages but he will have his hands full with Chandler. The great equalizer could be foul trouble, as Chandler will need to avoid cheap ones, especially against Westbrook's relentless attacks. Advantage: Mavericks.

Bench: Between the shooting of Terry and Stojakovic and the incisive drives of J.J. Barea, Dallas' bench has been essentially unstoppable so far in the playoffs. There's not a great defender among them but it hasn't mattered, as they've regularly caught fire and outscored their counterparts, often by a factor of 2-1. Oklahoma City brings Harden and Collison to the table, but this could easily be the series in which Daequon Cook and Eric Maynor are exposed as being in over their heads. Advantage: Mavericks.  

Coach: Rick Carlisle has been sensational, carrying his team through a demoralizing collapse against the Blazers in Game 4 and pushing all the right buttons to frustrate the Lakers. Scott Brooks, meanwhile, has been the focus of a lot of ire for his lack of late-game creativity on offense. Far too often, Westbrook and Durant (especially Westbrook) would be operating one-on-one with no real direction. That works against the likes of the Grizzlies, but not against a two-way machine like the Mavericks. Carlisle had loads more experience and the full faith of his veteran team. The Thunder, as good as they are, often look like they're still working out the kinks on the fly. Advantage Mavericks.

V. Conclusion

So far during these playoffs, no one has better or more consistently than the Mavericks. Dallas has home court advantage, a ton of time to rest heading into Game 1 and the best performer in this year's postseason in Nowitzki. They have the best bench, a more-than-capable center and are playing with the urgency that comes with this possibly being the group's last stand. The Thunder bring two of the most dynamic young players to the game, a solid rotation and. more than anything, a degree of athleticism that Dallas hasn't yet seen. Dallas has answered tough tests already and they should be up to this challenge. Mavericks in six.
Posted on: May 15, 2011 7:41 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2011 6:01 am
 

Series Grades: Thunder down Grizzlies in 7

Grading an epic series between the Thunder and Grizzlies.

Posted by Matt Moore



Here are grades for the grueling seven-game series between the Thunder and Grizzlies that brought us the hero James Harden, a grueling triple-overtime, and the continuing legends of Zach Randolph and Kevin Durant.


Oklahoma City Thunder


Kevin Durant: An up-and-down series for the scoring champ. When he was good, he was superb. When he was bad, his team was sunk. Durant had a few bad games in this series and that went a long way in driving the series to seven games despite the Thunder matchup advantages. He was superb in Game 7 though, as expected, working off-ball to get his game back on track after a rough start. Durant's ability to draw fouls went a long way in this series, as the Grizzlies could seemingly do nothing defensively without collecting fouls. Throw in his leadership and you have a good series, obviously, with the win, but also one that brought questions about his ability to create space and get the ball. If Russell Westbrook caught flak for being too aggressive, Durant quietly started establishing questions about not being enough so. But again, a win is a win and Durant was a huge part of it.


Grade: B+


Russell Westbrook:  Our own Royce Young will be happy to tell you about how Westbrook wasn't any different in this series than he ever has been, and that too much of the blame was put on Westbrook for his play. But the issue with Westbrook isn't that he's not getting the ball to Durant. That's on Durant. The problem is that too often Westbrook goes to his own playbook, his own aggressivness. He forces drives that end in charges, he elects for the jumper with slashers going to the rim, he lacks the patience to reset the offense. But all of those negative things don't change the fact that the biggest reason the Thunder won this series was Russell Westbrook and his undaunted assault on the rim. Westbrook knew the Grizzlies had no option to contain him on the perimeter, and attacked relentelessly. If that was sometimes to a fault, it shouldn't outweigh how good he was in finishing and piling up easy points at the rim. Westbrook closed with a triple-double on a bad shooting night, but amassing tons of rebounds on both sides of the floor and getting teammates involved. Did Westbrook cost the Thunder two games? Probably. But they wouldn't have won the four they did without him.

Grade: A-


James Harden: James Harden had the series of his life. He's been en fuego since the trade deadline, and stepped it up in this series. If the Thunder couldn't have won without Westbrook, Harden was a close second. Knocking down 3s, driving, collecting fouls, stealing the ball, and being a distributor, which is huge, especialy when Westbrook is in hero mode. The Grizzlies had no cover for Harden. When he started to insert himself in the series, that was when it changed. 

Grade: A+


Nick Collison: They kept talking about how he's Mr. Intangibles, but Collison's production was pretty tangible. Rebounds, blocks, and missed field goals for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Collison did the job Ibaka could not, taking the Grizzlies' dominance inside away. Again, as the series progressed, he took over. The Grizzlies' biggest advantage was inside, and Collison negated it. Huge minutes from the former Jayhawk. If he can keep that up against Dirk... yeah, just kidding. But seriously, good series. 


Grade: A


Scott Brooks: Failed to get final possessions set up well. Failed to get Westbrook in line. Failed to create an offense with cohesion outside of "run fast at the rim and either score or get fouled." Failed to give Harden significant minutes over Thabo until the end. Got the win. Scott Brooks is an incredible developmental coach and defensive mind. But this series may have begun the question about whether he can be the guy, should the Thunder not win the title. But hey, win and no one will care.

Grade: C


Thunder Crowd: Phenomenal, as always. Many people questioned whether OKC's crowd would be any good when they moved from the vaunted Seattle fanbase. Instead, the Thunder crowd are showing the greatness of small market crowds who are rabid, early, and loud, every game, every minute. Standing ovation for their standing ovation.

Grade: A+


Memphis Grizzlies


Zach Randolph: Randolph had two huge games, Game 1 and Game 6, where he won the game nearly by himself. He was a monster in those games. In the others? He struggled. His inability to adjust to the officiating or create space, or find Marc Gasol when the double came hurt the Grizzlies. Randolph was the focal point of the defense and still produced, but you still walk away feeling like if he could have been a little more efficient, it would have been enough for Memphis to advance in the West. Shouldn't take away what has been an incredible postseason from him. 

Grade: B-


Mike Conley: Conley is in a rough spot with Memphis. He's relied upon to hit shots from the perimeter when no one else can, but not take too many shots. He needs to distribute, but if others aren't hitting, he has to score. He gets killed for being a defensive liability but has to guard the second best player on each team. Conley needed to be flawless for this series. He wasn't. He was average. Which isn't bad, it just wasn't enough for Memphis to overcome the mismatches.

Grade: C+


Marc Gasol: Where did the beast go? OKC was able to hammer Gasol time and time again and without getting the calls, Gasol couldn't respond. Perkins and Ibaka contributing on offense reflects badly, but more importantly the work done on the offensive glass really takes the wind out of what was his coming out party.

Grade: C


O.J. Mayo: Step on up trade partners! Mayo had a phenomenal playoff series, and was the biggest reason the Grizzlies forced this to seven games. He did fantastic work, and actually won the matchup with Harden until Game 4. If Mayo's still on the market, he's going to elicit some big offers this summer. A great comeback story for Memphis, and parallels the city and team's resilience.

Grade: A-


Lionel Hollins: Hollins had no advantages outside of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and that was slim. He faced an uphill battle these entire playoffs and took the 8th seed to a seventh game against a star studded young team after a grueling first round series against the best team in the West record-wise. He had the Grizzlies respond to a Game 5 beatdown to force Game 7 despite every reason to quit. Hollins made mistakes trusting Sam Young too much and not reigning in Tony Allen's offense. But he did a phenomenal job getting the team this far. 

Grade: A-


Game 4:
A triple-overtime thriller between two great small-market teams with young rosters, giving everything they got. We had ten great moments from it. There could have been 20 more. Arguably the best game of the playoffs. 

Grade: A+

Posted on: May 14, 2011 8:13 pm
Edited on: May 14, 2011 8:50 pm
 

Playoff Fix: Thunder, Grizzlies tangle in Game 7

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies face off in the first Game 7 of the 2010-2011 NBA Playoffs. Posted by Ben Golliver.

kevin-durant-mad

One Big Thing: More than any other series, the Thunder-Grizzlies one has been about giant swings in momentum, emotion and energy. After an exhausting triple overtime in Game 4, the Thunder ran the Grizzlies out of the building in Game 5. In Game 6, the Thunder collapsed after halftime, looking out-of-sync and lethargic as the Grizzlies put the hammer down. Game 7, then, is simply about who has more left in the tank. With home-court advantage and an edge in overall talent, that should be the Thunder. 

The X-Factor: Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the league's best and most consistent scorer, sure picked a bad night to have his worst performance of the season. His season-low 11 points in Game 6 was troubling because he appeared openly frustrated -- both by the aggressive Memphis defense he's been facing and with teammate Russell Westbrook's decision-making.

Durant was sensational in closing out the Denver Nuggets in the first round, and an approximation of that performance should be enough to send the Thunder through to the Western Conference finals. If he no-shows again, though, Oklahoma City will find itself in a situation where Westbrook feels like he has to carry the entire burden. That's never a good thing. There are no excuses in a Game 7. Coexisting with Westbrook, the harassing defense and fatigue must become non-factors. Durant is staring at a legacy-impacting game and he needs to step up. 

The Adjustment: Before Game 6, I noted that Memphis needed to get back to what it does best: force-feeding Zach Randolph. It was better for the Grizzlies to go down doing what they do well than to go down doing what they do poorly. The flip is now true for Oklahoma City. If they're going to get eliminated from these playoffs, they need to force someone (anyone!) besides Randolph to send them packing.

Oklahoma City must double Zach Randolph early and often. It doesn't have to occur on every touch but it needs to happen a lot more than it did in Game 6, when Randolph went off for 30 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes. Yes, Nick Collison and company have done an excellent job handling Randolph in this series and they've gone above and beyond in doing their best to neutralize him on the glass. But Memphis simply lacks the floor-spacers to make the Thunder pay for over-committing to Randolph. If nothing else, daring Mike Conley to shoot at every turn would be a significantly better strategy than letting Randolph work one-on-one. Conley has shot just 9-for-40 in the last three games combined, including just 3-12 from downtown. 

The Sticking Point: Westbrook has become a lightning rod for criticism in this series thanks to his shot-jacking (17.8 field goal attempts per game), his turnovers (3.7 per game) and the Thunder's stagnation during critical late-game stretches that has produced a lot of one-on-one play from Westbrook and a lot of standing around from Durant. In the big picture, that Westbrook has already accomplished so much so early in his career is remarkable.

But this is not the time for Westbrook's supporters to be preaching patience, lest an opportunity be lost. Despite their youth, Oklahoma City is just five wins away from the NBA Finals and, when they're clicking on offense, they have the potential to be a legit title contender right now. Game 7 should be a good window into whether Westbrook and company are happy with what they've accomplished or are motivated enough to make some adjustments (better ball movement late in games, better shot selection, a bit more care with the ball when things break down in the halfcourt) so that they can move on to the next step.
Posted on: May 14, 2011 2:03 am
Edited on: May 14, 2011 2:06 am
 

Kevin Durant goes ice cold in loss to Grizzlies

Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant goes ice cold in a Game 6 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Posted by Ben Golliver.

Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant is the NBA's most prolific scorer and its most consistent. Nobody fills it up like Durant, who averaged 29.7 points on the season, and, we demonstrated earlier this season, nobody does it on a night in and night out basis quite like K.D. 

Like any elite scorer, Durant's overall impact on a game and his ability to get the ball in the hole are intertwined. When he's feeling it, things open up for his teammates and he plays defense with an extra kick in his step. When he's off, he's more likely to stand around as a passive observer of the game and to force his shots from outside. 

What we've seen from Durant in Games 5 and 6 against the Memphis Grizzlies is something he hasn't done all season: Have two "bad" scoring nights in a row.

In Game 5, Durant scored just 19 points (was still the team's leading scorer) in a Thunder blowout win, playing just 31 points. In Game 6, Durant had arguably his worst all-around offensive performance of the season, scoring a season-low 11 points and shooting 3-for-14 from the field. That tied season-lows in field goals and field goal percentage, and he attempted zero shots coming from in the paint. All in all, just terrible and very anti-Durant. 

During the 2010-2011 season (including playoffs), Durant scored less than twenty points just seven times. His ability to bounce back from those games was remarkable: In the seven games following his less than 20 point performances, Durant averaged 28.4 points and scored at least 26 points in five of them. In other words, the 30 combined points in Games 5 and 6 are by far his lowest two-game point totals of the year.

Here's a chart to emphasize the back-to-back scoring cliff Durant has fallen off. The season progresses through time from left to right.
kevin-durant-points

On Friday night, Durant obviously battled foul troubles, picking up two quick ones in the first quarter which led to an extended rest that appeared to affect his rhythm. It wasn't just the fouls, though. Durant was standing around and watching, strugging to get open and rushing his shots once he did get touches. He wasn't totally disintersted but he certainly wasn't engaged, especially as Oklahoma City crashed and burned down the stretch, scoring just 29 points as a team in the second half.

That Durant struggled for the second game in a row at the worst possible time should absolutely be concerning to Thunder fans. His excellent ability to bounce back from poor scoring performances will be badly needed during Sunday night's Game 7. Two games in a row under 20 points was, to this point, unprecedented. Three games in a row under 20 points is almost unfathomable, and it would very likely mean an early end to the Thunder's dream season.
 
 
 
 
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