OK, let's acknowledge this up front: When Russell Westbrook got hurt, everyone agreed it almost certainly killed OKC's title chances. They probably wouldn't even make it to the conference finals, we thought. Fast-forward two weeks, they go down in the Western semis, and suddenly people are criticizing Kevin Durant, second-guessing Sam Presti, and calling for Scott Brooks's job. It's ridiculous, yes.
And yet ... Even if the title window isn't closing as long as Durant and Westbrook are there, shouldn't it matter that the best young team we've seen since the Kobe-Shaq Lakers blew the doors off the West and went to the NBA Finals last year, and then came back and got worse? That happened, right? Even with Westbrook, this Grizzlies team would've given Oklahoma City problems, ditto for the Spurs, and the Heat would've destroyed them if they had gotten that far. Their regular-season numbers were great, but I tend to be on Team Marc Stein here: "The regular season didn't expose OKC but the playoffs would have."
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous weekend, along with ones you will remember forever.
The Black Falcon Has Landed
Jay Caspian Kang: Last spring, when the Golden State Warriors were redefining the acceptable parameters of tanking and Harrison Barnes was redefining the boundaries of how badly I could troll a player on my beloved Carolina Tar Heels, I wrote a series of columns stating the Warriors were doing the NBA a disservice and that Barnes was a bust. Around that time, I recall a friend joking that the best possible outcome would be if the Warriors tanked their way into the middle of the lottery and picked up Barnes. That way, my two beloved hatreds could be intertwined forever. If Barnes ended up being an NBA bust, the specious logic of sports predictions and the Internet record would vindicate me forever.
Making adjustments in the playoffs is like any art form, in that inspiration is derived from experience. As coaches navigate the gauntlet of playoff basketball, they rely heavily on the situations they’ve already seen. When a coach makes a brilliant, calculated gamble or keenly alters his team’s tactics on the fly, it’s not a moment of virtuosity taking place on a higher plane. It’s a product of tapping into years of scenarios he’s already come across. Perhaps no coach is better at reflecting on that process than Stan Van Gundy. Widely recognized as one of the best at his craft, Van Gundy has experienced almost everything the NBA postseason has to offer — from the highs of coaching in the NBA Finals to the lows of an untimely first-round exit.
But one element of in-game and game-to-game adjustments that remains steady no matter the scenario, Van Gundy says, is that they’re never all that drastic.
“Barring injuries, it’s just going to stay to the core of who you are,” Van Gundy said. “You’re not going to play the way Denver does during the year and then back up your defense and play from the 3-point line and not get in the passing lanes and stuff. I don’t see those kinds of adjustments from people. It’s much more subtle.”
That first qualifier is one that’s come up several times already in these playoffs. As we’ve seen in Oklahoma City’s recent struggles, an injury to a star player can throw an entire team out of whack. Though a lot changes for those teams, the adjustment doesn’t necessarily have to be widespread. When talking about the Thunder, Van Gundy mentions that while things will no doubt be different, they likely won’t be new. Instead, OKC will have to rely on using previously less-emphasized concepts more frequently.
Rarely have so many non-involved NBA people watched a playoff game out of sheer curiosity as was the case Saturday night, when the NBA world tuned in to see how the Thunder would function without Russell Westbrook. Things went well in many basic senses. Oklahoma City won, Kevin Durant didn’t pass out from a Luol Deng–ian minutes requirement, and the Thunder’s offense, no. 2 in the league in points per possession during the regular season, checked in with a scoring mark that would've tied San Antonio for seventh-best overall, per NBA.com.
And yet the verdict from those curious onlookers was almost unanimous: The Thunder might be in even deeper trouble than we thought. Oklahoma City has never had an offensive system in the way the Spurs or Heat do — a structure in which each possession features a series of movements, countermovements, built-in options, and side-to-side actions the teams run through until the most desirable shot becomes available. The Thunder instead have a series of pet plays designed to produce certain end outcomes — a Serge Ibaka midrange jumper, an open Kevin Durant shot, a driving lane for Westbrook, or a favorable isolation for one of the perimeter stars. There aren’t really third, fourth, and fifth counters; if the first or second actions don’t produce a clean look, the players mostly stand still and watch Durant or Westbrook go to work.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. The Thunder's Body Language
If you have Insider, you should check out David Thorpe's piece on the chemistry of the Oklahoma City Thunder. There's a lot of speculation in the article, a lot based on the very shaky science of body language, most of it suggesting that this is a more selfish Thunder team than ones we've seen in the past. The piece serves as a reminder that if it's spring, it must be time to judge every time Kevin Durant shakes his hands in the air to demand the ball, every time Russell Westbrook ignores him, and every time Serge Ibaka stares into space. Last night? They looked fine to me.
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.
The song is called "Rolls Royce." The setting is Oklahoma City. And I think this pretty much buries all the "All those Thunder guys do is stay home and play video games and Skype with their families" stories. Serge Ibaka looks like a crushed-velvet salesman in this video. Happy turkey day.
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.