I’m normally not a big “gut feeling” guy, but I randomly mentioned to the Grantland bosses last week in L.A. that the Thunder just “felt due” for some unexpected move. They didn’t have enough financial flexibility to add even one meaningful NBA player in free agency, perhaps leaving them (and their rivals) to wonder whom they might have lured had the league kept Kevin Durant’s max salary at its original level. They’ve watched the Western Conference get stronger around them. The Spurs are the Spurs, the Grizzlies tweaked around the edges (including signing Mike Miller, one of several wing shooters the Thunder could have used), the Clippers reinvented themselves, the Warriors are good and young, and the Rockets annual candy budget is probably near the $185,000 or so Andre Roberson lost when the Thunder hardballed him.
But this wasn’t, and still isn’t, a sob story. The Thunder are contenders, even with Kevin Martin gone and no veteran in his place. And that’s sort of the point: The window is still open, even with the rocky offseason, only there are more Western Conference teams strong enough to shove it closed. A team in that position — a contender, but a wounded one with hunters stalking it — cannot afford to stand still, or to wait for next July.
That portrait gets more interesting now that Russell Westbrook will miss something like 20 games after doctors discovered complications from an earlier surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The obvious way to jolt a franchise is via trade, but the Thunder’s salary structure makes a game-changing deal difficult. Kendrick Perkins is the only highly paid player the Thunder might be willing to move unless they find a blockbuster involving Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the trade chips earn so little money as to make salary-matching a challenge in a big-time deal. There are interesting trade options at lower prices, and the Thunder could sign a minimum-salaried ball handler — Roddy Beaubois, Daniel Gibson, Chris Duhon, et al. — without going into the luxury tax, provided they waive one of the Hasheem Thabeet/Daniel Orton/Ryan Gomes trio. The Thunder have some interesting young pieces, a few appealing international guys, and a Mavs pick that could become unprotected in 2018. You could make a deal for a semi-unwanted mid-priced wing — Lou Williams? John Salmons? Courtney Lee? Evan Turner? — with that kind of treasure chest. (The Thunder have two significant trade exceptions, including a $6.5 million bad boy leftover from the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade, but using either would take them over the tax line.)
If the first two games were any indication, the second-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies is going to be decided by the slimmest of margins. A mere eight points is all that has separated the two squads as they head to the River City, and between two evenly matched sides, any advantage, no matter how minuscule, could prove to be the deciding factor. It’s with this in mind that a four-minute stretch from Game 2’s second quarter might say a lot about Oklahoma City’s chances.
In the absence of Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City can no longer overcome its role players’ offensive deficiencies with the sheer firepower of two superstars. To come anywhere close to the incredibly efficient offense they were in the regular season, the Thunder now need space and shooters around Kevin Durant. Against Houston, a team with exactly one effective big man (Omer Asik), this was easily accomplished without exposing the Thunder to mismatch problems inside.
The Grizzlies duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring a different challenge. They make it much more difficult for the Thunder to both field these smaller lineups and match up with the Memphis front line. In two games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has chosen to match the Grizzlies behemoths with his own, but this has meant giving a staggering number of minutes to two players, Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet, who should be relative afterthoughts.
The first round started as a boring chalk-fest, with six of eight series going to 2-0, and only Nuggets-Warriors promising to double as both competitive and aesthetically pleasing. It transformed into madness, of course, with four Game 6s on a single delightful Friday night.
The conference semifinals have skipped right to the promising stage, with all four series tied at 1-1 as the league takes a breather tonight. Let’s use this blessed off day to do those errands we’ve been postponing, break out that vacuum, hit the gym, spend time with our loved ones, and take stock of where these four series might go from here — starting today with the two series that began first, but for some reason don’t resume until Saturday.
Even if luxury-tax concerns were the no. 1 factor in the Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden earlier than they had to, the deal still amounted to a calculated series of basketball wagers. The most general one: that the Thunder’s current personnel would evolve quickly enough to keep this team in the title hunt, and neck and neck with Miami, even after trading a borderline franchise player in Harden for a less dynamic guy in Kevin Martin.
I'm going to have to check IMDb really quick, but I'm pretty sure Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Brad Bird, Terrence Malick, and the Coen Brothers must have collaborated to make this commercial, because THERE IS NO OTHER WAY IT COULD POSSIBLY DELIGHT ME THIS MUCH.
Kendrick Perkins probably said it best, even if he didn’t really mean to. Following Tuesday night’s Game 4 loss, the Thunder center posed a similar question to the one I was asking after OKC’s 33-point first quarter:
I just don’t understand why we start out the first quarter the way we did, with the lineup that we had, and all of a sudden we change and adjust to what they had going on.
I can only assume that the slight difference in our concerns is that while Perk was worried about why he didn’t play after that first quarter, I was worried about how the rest of his guys did play.
Remember back when Blake Griffin wrote a mid-air obituary for Kendrick Perkins with the above dunk? Go to around the :10 mark, hit pause. See that girl in the lower left-hand corner of the frame, with the "OMGWTFROTFLBLAKEGRIFFINKSURFACETOAIRRIPPERK" look on her face? Yo! That's Katniss!
No, this is not a Fake Grantland tweet. So, as some of you might remember, the Academy Award-winning film American Beauty features a famous scene in which Ricky Fitts (played by Wes Bentley) shows a video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch). For Fitts, this discarded piece of modernity is the "most beautiful thing he's ever filmed," and represents "this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever." Very cool. This seemed mildly deep in college and sort of silly now. What is not silly is the Internet and what people can do with it.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
After trailing by 10 with under three minutes to play, no. 9 Duke stormed back and beat no. 5 UNC with an Austin Rivers 3-pointer at the buzzer. And if the jokes suck today, it's because I was watching the replay until about 5 a.m., intently studying the reaction of each individual Carolina fan as the shot went down in order to keep myself from ever being unhappy again. So, you know, apologies for whatever comes next.
No. 2 Syracuse needed overtime to emerge with a victory against no. 11 Georgetown as Jim Boeheim passed Dean Smith on the all-time wins list. And if you really want to confuse and then upset a Tar Heel fan, call him up, say you have a basketball question, and then ask how he feels about this. Also ask if they think Boeheim or Coach K is the greatest in history. And then tell them the 1924 championship was bogus.
You could say cheering for the Washington Wizards requires a sense of humor this season. If this is true, it means Grantland contributor, semiregular B.S. Report guest, and longtime/long-suffering Wizards fan Joe House is basically the basketball fan version of the second season of Chappelle's Show.
Obviously Thomas Wolfe, writer of the novel from which our little sub-hed borrows its name, never met Kendrick Perkins or Lamar Odom. This is largely due to the fact that he died in 1938. But let's say he had lived to see Perk and Lamar return to their old stomping grounds last night. Surely he would have been kicking himself for naming a book that. He would've been like, "Damn, Tom, you played yourself." Last night Dallas and Boston hailed their conquering (and departed) heroes. And it was kind of beautiful.