Tag:Scott Brooks
Posted on: April 17, 2011 1:19 am
Edited on: April 17, 2011 2:09 am
 

George Karl has had some words for OKC -- why?

Posted by Royce Young



George Karl has been talking a bit of smack about the Thunder talking smack. Him, and the Nuggets, have accused their first round opponent of being "cocky" and talking a larger-than-usual amount of junk.

Karl said this recently: "There’s no question there’s a cockiness to Oklahoma City ... We know what they were saying after the game here. We know what they were saying. We know. I’m not going to bring it to the public, but we know."

But Karl took it even farther, calling his former assistant and current Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks, "cocky." "He’s confident and his team is confident,” Karl told reporters in Denver recently. “At times when you get beat by him, you think they might be too cocky." Brooks, who is decidedly uncocky responded in a very Scott Brooks way.

“I’ve been called a lot worse. Trust me,” Brooks said Saturday. “My mom calls me a lot worse after we lose.

"You guys know me,” Brooks continued. “I worry about what we do with our team and focus on what we do. My job is to get our guys ready to play. We’ve done a pretty good job with that. … I care about what I do. I care about what our players do, and that’s where it ends. Denver, they can do the things they do. That’s on them. That’s on George, that’s on their staff. I focus on our team, our guys and I believe in what we do.”

I have a pretty good feel for Brooks -- and the Thunder -- because I live in OKC and cover the team up close. And I have never seen anything out of them that I'd call cocky. I do think there's a new confidence to them and maybe a bit of swagger since the Kendrick Perkins trade, but I wouldn't call it cockiness. Especially when it comes to Brooks. "Scott Brooks" might as well be the antonym for "cocky." He is easily one of the most humble coaches in the league.

So of course it makes me wonder: What is Karl trying to achieve here by going on the offensive? It almost seems like he's trying to manufacture bulletin board material for his team. Almost like he's trying to bait the Thunder into giving him some. Could he really be that desperate for motivation? Possibly. Especially when you consider that Karl went on record saying he wanted to avoid Oklahoma City, and with the Thunder beating the Nuggets rather solidly twice in the past two weeks.

So far -- if that is indeed Karl's intention -- it's failed. Kevin Durant wouldn't bite when Jim Rome asked him about it. "We just play basketball. We don't do any talking other than letting people know how good a team they are and how tough the series is going to be." Durant made it a point to say a number of times how tough he thought the series would be and how good he thinks the Nuggets are. If Karl's trying to bait the Thunder, he's going to have to take it up a notch.

A big reason for OKC avoiding it? They fall in step behind their soft spoken leader. Brooks has set a very humble, respect-your-opponent, turn-the-other-cheek tone with his group. When asked if he had a response for Karl's claims, Brooks once again took the high road.

“I don’t think we need to warn our guys,” he said. “Our guys are basketball players. We play basketball. We’re into our team. We’re into what we do on the court. That stuff off the court…why worry about that? That has no bearing on this series at all. Our guys love to play, they’re gym rats, they care about the game, they respect the game. They care about what they do. They represent themselves, the organization and the city well. That’s all I care about.

“I don’t get into going back and forth and I don’t tell our guys, because that’s not who they are. We don’t have to address an issue that’s not there. … I’ve been with George for a few years and he does his thing his way, and he’s very successful. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Karl no doubt has never been shy about speaking his mind and being candid with reporters, but this just feels forced to me. He's been around the block and has won a lot of games so I'm sure it's calculated. If he's pulling out all the stops to motivate his guys, that's his prerogative. He might be trying to get in the heads of the young Thunder squad. He might be trying to make them play with the wrong kind of emotion.

Whatever Karl is up to, I think he's got his reasons. Doesn't stop me from thinking it's probably a bad move, though. In trying to make some bulletin board material from scratch, I think he just gave some to the Thunder.

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: November 1, 2010 1:31 pm
Edited on: November 1, 2010 1:32 pm
 

Oklahoma City and the full-court press

Posted by Royce Young

Kevin Durant and some of his teammates have nicknamed the Oklahoma City franchise "Thunder U" because of the college-like attitude the permeates from the team, ranging from the rabid home crowd to the togetherness of the players.

But the Thunder showed another college-like wrinkle in their 120-99 loss to the Utah Jazz Sunday night. A full-court press.



At basically every level except the professional one, basketball teams press. Nolan Richardson made "40 minutes of hell" famous with his swarming, intense full-court attack at Arkansas. Rick Pitino utilizes high-energy presses at Louisville (and before, at Kentucky) to try and turn up the Heat, speed up the tempo and get an opponent playing out of character and faster than they want to.

College basketball teams that know how to use a press often break it out when trailing by double-digits late in the second half of a game. It can lead to quick shots from your opponent, turnovers leading to easy buckets and sometimes, turn a 15-point deficit into a six-point one in a matter of minutes.

And with the Thunder trailing the Jazz by 27 mid-way through the third quarter, Scott Brooks called on the dogs.

Brooks used two different lineups with the press. The second one was the most interesting. Technically, James Harden was the point guard with Daequan Cook, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green and Kevin Durant, who played center. Durant was the "point man" on the press, with Harden picking up the ball-handler. Unlike Pitino's press, the Thunder didn't really try trap, but instead went for steals and tried for turnovers. (The first lineup if you're wondering was Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Green and Ibaka.)

It worked too. The Thunder quickly went on an 8-0 run, cutting into the Jazz lead while energizing the crowd. it helped too that Deron Williams was out because of foul trouble. So the Thunder funneled the ball into the hands of Gordon Hayward and C.J. Miles, players that aren't deft ball-handlers.

Oklahoma City pressed for the remaining six minutes of the third and for about four minutes of the fourth. After Williams returned, the Jazz found a few easy buckets and started breaking through.

Brooks probably kept the press on a little too long, as the Jazz adapted and moved past it with ease. The surprise element definitely caught the Jazz off-guard, especially with secondary ball-handlers on the court. That part was pretty smart by Brooks - put on the press with Earl Watson, Hayward and Miles handling the ball, not Williams.

Malcolm Gladwell made a very strong case for why NBA teams should press, citing reasons like supreme athleticism and the versatility of players to make a difference on an opponents offense. For OKC, those things definitely apply. Even if the press doesn't work, you make the other guy exert effort, you drain time off the shot clock, disrupting their offensive sets and potentially you pressure them into a mistake.

And it worked in Oklahoma City for a time too, igniting a small run and some energy to an otherwise flat team and crowd. But the Jazz pointed out the problems with it being completely successful - when you've got good players, breaking a press isn't that difficult.

A press at lower levels often is successful because players aren't as skilled, are easy rattled and the frantic pace can mess with someone that's not an expert at handling the ball. NBA players don't suffer from those issues, well, for the most part. So while the Thunder press was fun and potentially something we haven't seen the last of, it's not quite a deadly secret weapon in Brooks' back pocket.
Posted on: October 28, 2010 12:03 pm
Edited on: October 28, 2010 12:28 pm
 

Young, smart and hungry: Westbrook leads Thunder

The Thunder are young, but don't overlook the smart, efficient way they play and how that helped them to a big opening night win over the Bulls on Wednesday.
Posted by Matt Moore


Kids these days. One minute they're struggling to win games against bottom-feeders and the next they're rolling out a huge win in front of a raucous crowd with a combination of stout defense and efficient offense. If there was any question about whether the Oklahoma City Thunder were really grown up; last night they answered that question with finality in their 106-95 win over the Bulls. It wasn't just the win over a tough, gritty, talented Bulls team that even without Carlos Boozer is loaded with talent and expected to contend in the East, it was the way they did it. And that started with Russell Westbrook.

While Kevin Durant led the team with 30 points, as he will nearly every single night, he did it on just 9-of-24 shooting. On the other side of the aisle, the Bulls' leading superstar, Derrick Rose, was even less efficient, launching 31 shots with only 12 makes. That's 39% for a player who was expected to have a much-improved jumper. For Westbrook? Try 28 points on 8-of-15 shooting and 12 of 13 from the stripe. Throw in 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and a block (and an acceptable three turnovers considering his usage)? You've got a masterful performance that should put Westbrook in the talks of the elite point guards in the league.

Westbrook wasn't just blinding with his speed, he was patient and deliberate when the situation called for it. It's been this progression since his rookie season two years ago that has brought him to stardom. Well, that and his insane athleticism and uncanny ability to both see the floor and attack opportunities to get his own buckets. It's the complete nature of his game, including his spacing defensively and intensity that makes him so dangerous ... and at such a young age (Westbrook turns 22 next month).

Coach Scott Brooks spoke strongly about Westbrook's performance after the game (as told to CBSSports.com's Royce Young): “I hoped we would start making some shots and we did, but I thought Russell did a great job of leading us, controlling the game, picking his spots and figuring out where they needed the ball. He filled up the stat sheet and that’s what we like about Russell. He’s not a one-dimensional player.”

But of course, Westbrook, forever the second fiddle to Durant, will be looked over. Just as some will continue to look over the Thunder, even as conversely the hype continues to grow and they thrive as one of the most fun teams in the league. Don't believe me? Watch the Thunder in transition. According to Synergy Sports, the Thunder were 10 of 13 in transition last night, getting points 78% of the time. It's a high efficiency opportunity but the Thunder took it to its furthest extent. And they were just as good on the other side of the ball.

While Westbrook and company were harassing Rose into a 12-of-31 shooting night, Oklahoma City poured it on defensively across the Bulls. While an 11-point win doesn't look overwhelming, the Thunder held the Bulls to a 96 efficiency (96 points scored per 100 estimated possessions; need to be above 100 to be "good" in this category) while logging a 107 themselves. The Thunder got to the stripe by forcing the issue (47 free throws to only 22 for the Bulls: thanks home-court advantage!), and held the Bulls to 14% shooting from the perimeter.

Those are numbers. In execution, the Thunder were always attacking and then pulsing back on defense. With the Bulls missing Carlos Boozer, there was no need for the frontcourt depth of OKC to rear its head. Coach Scott Brooks only went to a nine-man rotation, and Serge Ibaka was the only real "big" off the bench. Then again, with Ibaka bringing 8 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 31 minutes, Brooks didn't really need to turn to Cole Aldrich or Byron Mullens (Nick Collison is out with an injury).

For the Bulls, things looked eerily similar to last season. Unable to spread the floor with shooters, Rose was harassed by multiple defenders, Noah a beast but the bench a no-show. Each team shot exactly 45 jumpers, and the Bulls actually had a higher effective field goal percentage (eFG%, weighing 3-point attempts), and were better on the offensive glass. But the Thunder turned transition opportunities into layups and got to the line at will. With the Bulls aiming for long jumpers and a silent 3-point attack, this is the result.

The Thunder are exciting. They've got highlights (like this one , good night, nurse). But they're also very smart, and that starts with Russell Westbrook. They play with emotion but they play with control. And if the Thunder are looking to take the next step in their rise to NBA championship contention, this was a solid first step. Teacher's pets, I suppose.

Posted on: October 8, 2010 4:04 pm
Edited on: October 8, 2010 5:50 pm
 

Brooks thinks the Thunder are coming along nicely

Thunder coach expects difficulty in managing frontcourt versatility, praises Westbrook's leadership growth.
Posted by Matt Moore


Scott Brooks simultaneously has an extremely difficult and conveniently easy gig right now. He's got a top club in the NBA's Western Conference, but operating with a young roster in a small market, expectations aren't through the roof. He's got a high volume of frontcourt depth, but he's got to figure out how to manage all the rotations and minutes. And he's got guys that love to play together. There's really no downside to that.

At practice Friday morning before OKC's preseason game versus the Heat, Brooks talked about that frontcourt depth. Cole Aldrich, the eleventh overall pick (acquired in a trade with the Hornets that also netted Mo Peterson) will get the start tonight in KC, less than an hour from KU where he made his bones in college. The Thunder this year have worlds of depth down low, with Aldrich joining Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison (another KU alum), and Nenad Krstic with Byron Mullens mopping up the excess. Brooks says the depth is a good thing to have, but a challenge for the staff.
"I like the depth we've got at all five spots. It makes it challenging for the coach, but it's better. You'd rather have that than have to bleed every minute of the starting five. I feel very confident that our guys off the bench whoever they may be will come in and do well. I like the frontcourt. We've have a lot of different style of players. Serge brings his game, and then on down the line: Cole, Nenad, and Jeff, with Byron and D.J. It's my job to figure out how to mesh it all together."
Brooks also spoke about Russell Westbrook and the leadership skills he took from his work this summer with Team USA:
"Any time you're around a great group of athletes like he was with Team USA, it's going to help your game and your leadership. Coach K's a terrific coach, and you learn something from every coach you have. Russell's leadership skills have improved every year. I think as a point guard you want that. It's hard to lead a team as a rookie. The only one I can remember is Magic. But Russell's done a great job in developing his leadership skills."
Westbrook will get his chances to show the offensive leadership tonight against a Heat team that will start Mario Chalmers (another former Jayhawk) and Mike Miller, filling in for an injured Dywane Wade.
Posted on: September 16, 2010 12:08 pm
Edited on: September 16, 2010 12:09 pm
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

Posted by Royce Young

Fall is here, hear the yell, back to school, ring the bell ... The NBA season is right around the corner, and NBA training camp starts in just a few short weeks. To get you ready for the NBA season, we've put together 25 pop quizzes. Pencils ready? We continue our Pop Quizzes with this question...

Is Oklahoma City actually ready to contend for the Western Conference crown?

The expectations started immediately following a rousing standing ovation Oklahoma City fans gave their home team after being eliminated by the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

I was in attendance at that game and while Thunder fans were obviously disappointed not to have forced a Game 7 in Los Angeles, once people started filing out of the then-Ford Center, the chatter began.

"Well, this shouldn't happen again next year," one guy near me said.

"Yeah, next year we shouldn't see the Lakers until the Western Conference Finals," another answered.

Then add in the summer Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had playing for Team USA and the Thunder has maybe moved away from fan expectations to now having a bit of pressure.

The talent is there. It was no fluke OKC won 50 games last season. And they know because of the earlier-than-expected success, expectation to do bigger and better things are there. It's the nature of the hype machine beast.

But forget expectations. Forget hype. The question is, is this Thunder squad actually good enough to contend in the West? Yes, they're fun to talk about and a trendy pick, but they were the youngest team in the league last season. Actually, here's how young they are: In three years, they'll still have over half the roster under the age of 26. So can this young group that overachieved last season take the next step?

Answer, plainly put: Yes. Absolutely yes.

If Durant showed the world anything in Turkey, it's that he's ready. Ready to shoulder the load of having 11 other teammates look to him to bail them out. He's ready to take on the pressure of a tough atmosphere. He's ready to carry a team. He was close to ready last season, winning the scoring title with 30.1 points per game and finishing second in the MVP voting behind LeBron James. But in the playoffs, he didn't play like himself. His percentages were way down, his scoring was down and in the heartbreaking Game 6 loss, Durant went just 5-23 from the floor.

But he hasn't forgot. No way. He talked about how much he learned in that series when he was leading his country to gold in Turkey and he's going to be thinking about that as motivation going in to camp. I almost think people need to be reminded daily that Durant isn't even 22 years old yet. The more he learns, the more hard experience he has, the more dangerous he becomes.

Not to mention the apparent improvement of Russell Westbrook. People don't realize how good Westbrook was for Oklahoma City last season, especially the last half of the year. Against the Lakers, he showcased his versatility and skill. In Turkey, he blew people away with his defensive ability and athleticism. And just like Durant, Westbrook is only 21 and will be entering his third year. He's darn good now, but just wait until he starts to figure things out.

Now OKC has questions. Jeff Green has looked overmatched at power forward. Nenad Krstic may not be a legit starting center. They didn't deal with any significant injuries last season. And of course, they're still young. If you don't want to believe that they can really contend, the reasons are there.

Plus, the West is always tough. The Rockets will be better, New Orleans has Chris Paul back for a full season, the Blazers will be healthy, the Grizzlies and Kings are improving and the old dogs like San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix can still play. But keep in mind: Oklahoma City didn't win 50 last season in a Western Conference that was down. They won 50 in a year that all eight playoff teams hit at least that mark.

Common sense says the Thunder should be better this year. They improved the roster with an inside presence in Cole Aldrich, shooters in Morris Peterson and Daequan Cook and an extra defensive-minded guard in Royal Ivey. And then of course the natural progression of all the young guys. Don't overlook the potential improvement of a player like James Harden who as a role playing rookie put up quality numbers and percentages. With an extra year, he might be a potential Manu Ginobili type player that can make a huge impact off the bench. And I haven't even mentioned Serge Ibaka yet.

Winning 50 seems like it should be a given with some even tossing around 55 or 60 for OKC. And after that once they get into the playoffs, you never know. They got the hard part out of their system last season with their first playoff experience. This time, they should be ready.

Last season, everybody told the Thunder they couldn't. They were too young, too inexperienced, too raw. They weren't ready. And they used that as motivation to prove everyone wrong. This season, all the expectation is there. They've got talent. They've got their star. They've got a great coach. But most don't think they're actually prepared to play for a trophy. Those questions are there. What happens if someone gets hurt? Aren't they still a year or two away? Aren't they missing one more player?

Just keep telling the Thunder they can't. I think they like it.

Posted on: September 8, 2010 5:56 pm
Edited on: September 8, 2010 9:50 pm
 

Pop Quiz: Which coach is on the hot seat?

Posted by Matt Moore

Fall is here, hear the yell, back to school, ring the bell ... The NBA season is right around the corner, and NBA training camp starts in just a few short weeks. To get you ready for the NBA season, we've put together 25 pop quizzes. Pencils ready? We continue our Pop Quizzes with this question...

Which coach has the hottest seat going into the season?


Scott Brooks.

No kidding, you have to put Scott Brooks on this list. Even though he's been instrumental in taking a team with nothing but young players and turning them into a playoff team that looks every bit ready to challenge for a Western Conference title, Brooks has to be on this list. Why? Because he was so good last year he won the career death sentence: the Coach of the Year award. Let's take a look at the previous winners, shall we?

Mike Brown: canned.

Byron Scott: deleted.

Sam Mitchell: terminated.

Avery Johnson: gonezo.

Yeesh. Watch your back, Scottie.

Okay, besides the superstition, who's actually in danger of losing their gig this year? Here are four candidates.

Jay Triano: It's been stunning how Triano has managed to avoid harsh criticism for his squad's performance which helped lead to Chris Bosh's departure without so much as a consideration for staying in Toronto. Brian Colangelo takes all the blame for constructing a spineless defensive team with too many inconsistencies offensively, despite acquiring Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans and being willing to spend for Hedo Turkoglu (who despite all his problems, was a legit quality free agent last summer). Yet Triano's team wound up with the worst defensive marks in the league, falling out of the playoffs down the stretch, and he walked away largely unscathed. Now the Raptors are suffering with a significant lack of talent, and often, guys who underperformed with talent end up getting removed when they actually have good reasons for underperforming... much like Triano faces this season.

John Kuester: The offensive wiz of a team now considered to be one of the greater disappointments of the last decade had a rough opening season. Injuries and subpar play from their big free agents (which most people saw coming outside of the Pistons, though not to the degree) played a part, but this is a cold hearted business that very rarely provides reasonable responses to legitimate causes for losing. If Kuester can't get the Pistons turned around with that payroll, his reputation may not spare him from the axe of Joe Dumars.

Flip Saunders: If anyone in the entire league has an excuse for struggling through two seasons, it's got to be Saunders. Saunders was at the helm for one of the most disastrous seasons in league history last year, and had to preside over the meltdown, grin, and bear it as all his talent was shipped out in a rebuilding plan. John Wall was a Godsend, but Saunders has to deal with re-integrating Gilbert Arenas, containing the combustible Andray Blatche, and trying to move the franchise forward with John Wall. Throw in new majority ownership from Ted Leonsis, and Saunders may have too much stacked against him to survive a poor start, fair or not.

Jim O'Brien: Larry Bird has committed to O'Brien, has stayed by his side, and recently gave him a vote of confidence. But he's in the last year of his deal, which makes letting him go much easier to swallow. On top of that, the questions about talent are no longer going to valid this year. The Pacers now feature a legit center in Roy Hibbert, a legit star forward in Danny Granger, and a star point guard in Darren Collison. If O'Brien can't make this team work in a thin Eastern Conference, with at least some improvement, Bird may run out of patience for him.


 
 
 
 
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