Tag Archives: Russell Westbrook

Patience, Frustration, and the Whole Crazy Thing

Kevin Durant is frustrated.

He’s frustrated with putting in MVP effort and finishing runner-up. He’s undoubtedly frustrated with the absence of Russell Westbrook—although there is nothing anyone can do about bringing him back. He even seems frustrated with his own public perception, evidenced by Nike’s “KD is Not Nice” campaign conflicting with the long-held public view of an ideal humble superstar.

Through Durant’s six years in the league, we have seen him rise through the NBA. In year one, he was Rookie of the Year. In year two, he continued to grow his game and his confidence. In years three through five, he evolved into an All-Star and lead the league in scoring. This season, despite putting up a 50-40-90, he still finished second to LeBron James in the MVP voting.

In each year his Thunder reached the playoffs, they have won an additional playoff round, and each team to whom they’ve lost has gone on to be the eventual NBA champion—until this season. The Thunder were dismissed in the Conference Semifinals after Westbrook’s injury left them shorthanded. Thus, Durant had to settle for an honorable mention yet again.

It may seem odd for a 24-year old player in his sixth year to feel so frustrated with such a long career ahead of him, but he has had everything come to him so quickly—except for the ultimate goal of a championship. Having to hear about those close to him accomplishing this feat while he is left longing has to be difficult. You can almost see it on his face that basketball doesn’t seem as much fun as it used to for him. But this type of adversity is a required trial of all great players.

As it turns out, becoming an NBA champion is really, really difficult. Basketball abilities and accolades have likely always come easy and often for Durant, but that’s not enough to get your team over a championship hump. It’s not easy, nor should it be, and that’s why takes many great players several years to reach that peak. He should ask LeBron, his summer workout partner, about the patience required to get there.

By now, we know the LeBron James story, but there is a lot Durant could take away from James’s journey. Granted, LeBron came into the league with more hype, but each player was also well-liked and even hit similar career milestones like Rookie of the Year and earning their first All-Star berths in the third years. Furthermore, LeBron was well-liked publicly—much like Durant has been up to this point. But as James would later learn, much of that hinged on expectation on him being able to deliver a championship on a timetable the fans saw fit. He lost in the Finals to the Spurs in ’07, but he was excused by the world at large. After all, it was his first time in the Finals, and he didn’t have enough help. Then, we saw the MVPs add pressure on LeBron to deliver, the mentally-checking-out against the Celtics series in ’10, and then the loss to the Mavs in ’11. Finally, in ’12 he was able to say he was a champion and did so on his own time.

LeBron didn’t win his first championship in the same year of his career Michael Jordan and neither did Jordan win his first in the same year Magic Johnson won his first. No, the story Kevin Durant is writing is his own, and unfortunately much of what it takes to win a championship is out of his control.

Yes, there are more things required than Durant’s elite skillset or physical tools to win a championship at this level. I hate to say it, but you need luck, especially in the form of health. Losing Westbrook killed the Thunder in the playoffs. Without him, the Grizzlies were able to send multiple defenders at Durant to shut him down. He no longer had a teammate to keep the defense honest or who was more than ready to shoulder some of the offensive load. For once, Durant’s elite mid-range game and athleticism were not enough to overcome the defensive scheming of the Grizzlies, and I’m sure that was as surprising to us as it was to him.

For the first time, Durant was learning what it was like to have to do it all on your own and not have your God-given ability alone be enough. To a player that’s always had his skills be the only requirement for success this isn’t easy to deal with. LeBron learned that he couldn’t do it alone, just like Jordan couldn’t do it without Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, and Magic would have struggled to do it without the Kareems or Michael Coopers. The good news for Durant? He doesn’t have to wait for his team to find that help. He knows he will have Westbrook back next year to try again.

Durant is young, talented, and successful. Like anyone in any other profession under similar circumstances who feels like they are at the brink of achieving something great, it’s hard to wait for that to happen, and that’s where frustration can set in. For Durant, he’s dreamed about winning MVPs and championships, but has only had to settle for stories from his Team USA teammates. But he’ll get there. He may not have gotten there this year, but when he does it will be in a way all his own, on a timeline all his own, and accomplished unlike anyone else before him. The fact that Durant hasn’t been able to bring these purported dreams to fruition may be frustrating, but his patience will be rewarded eventually.

Profile Paroxysm: The Education of Reggie Jackson

The Thunder’s selection of Reggie Jackson in the 2011 NBA draft was surprising, to say the least. Clearly, the Thunder didn’t bring in Jackson to supplant Russell Westbrook, but with super-sub Eric Maynor firmly entrenched as the team’s back-up point guard, it was hard to see where Jackson figured into the Thunder’s plans.

Sam Presti, in his press conference on the night of the draft, said of Jackson: “He’s a guy that is a willing learner. He’s a guy with great athletic ability. He’s a guy that can shoot the ball. And he’s a guy that really understands that he has room to grow and wants to improve. And that’s what his focus is.”

That learning process sped up in Jackson’s rookie season after Maynor tore his ACL just nine games into the lockout-shortened season. Jackson, however, failed to make much of an impact, averaging just 3.1 points per game while shooting thirty-two percent from the field and twenty-one percent from beyond the arc. The Thunder signed Derek Fisher, and Jackson’s minutes quickly diminished.

In this, his second season, Jackson’s improved play, coupled with Maynor’s slower-than-expected recovery from his ACL tear, inspired enough confidence in the Thunder to trade Maynor to the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving Jackson as the team’s clear-cut back-up point guard.  The increase in minutes—17.8 minutes per game after the Maynor trade, versus 11.8 prior—and responsibilities granted Jackson a greater opportunity to show his talents. An even greater, though unfortunate, opportunity arose just a few weeks ago, when the Thunder lost Westbrook for the remainder of the playoffs due to a meniscus tear. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Jackson was thrust into a starting role for a team many picked to represent the Western conference in the NBA Finals.

Injuries, be it to a role player or a star, are both unfortunate and inevitable parts of the game. And when one player goes down, the next in line has to be ready to step up and fill their predecessor’s role.  Keyon Dooling, a 13-year NBA veteran, has seen more than his fair share of these “Next Man Up” situations, and knows the value of this always-ready mentality. “Being ready and mentally focused, and having that confidence in yourself knowing that you can play. It’s a catch 22, getting to play behind somebody as great as (Westbrook), because you don’t get to play that much, but you get to learn a lot. He’s shown in a short amount of time that he’s a good player.”

Jackson is no Westbrook, but Dooling does see parallels in their playing styles. “Their games are similar: [they’re both] athletic, good with the ball, have size and can pull up.”

Nick Collison, who has been with both Westbrook and Jackson since their respective rookie seasons, also notices the similarities between the two. “They’re both guys that like to attack off the dribble, and both can make jump shots.”

In fact, taking and making more shots is one of the biggest reasons Jackson’s filled in so admirably for Westbrook.

Per NBA.com, Jackson is attempting nearly three more three-pointers in the playoffs (4.1) than he did the regular season (1.5), an uptick Jackson attributes to sharing more time on the court with Kevin Durant. “Playing with KD more, everybody’s collapsing, so I’m getting better looks,” says Jackson, who knows that knocking down those shots is key to taking pressure off Durant. “I have to continue to believe in myself and work on it.”

Collison is impressed with Jackson’s production as a starter, and attributes the second-year guard’s improvement to an increased comfort level within the team. “Early in their careers, it’s tough for all players that get limited minutes, especially point guards, to know exactly what to do. But he (Jackson) is a lot more comfortable. When he has chances to attack, he’s doing it. He’s pulling up or making the pass when it’s not there.”

The circumstances may not be ideal, but Jackson now has the opportunity to put those lessons learned observing Westbrook to use at time when the Thunder needs him the most. Says Collison: “It’s huge to lose Russell, but this has been huge for Reggie to be able to get time and experience. He’s really improved and we’re counting on him.”

Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com

A World Without Westbrook

In sports, as in life, we get so used to certain presences that we’re unsure what to do once that presence fades. Tonight will be the first game Russell Westbrook has missed not just in his professional career, but in his entire sports career, high school included. That a player so devilish and reckless, so bruising and physical would be so immune to injury is somewhat unfathomable. Just as unbelievable will be tonight, when the Thunder takes the floor without Westbrook.

Two years ago, my parents, sister, and both grandmothers came in town for my college graduation. At dinner the night before the actual ceremony, my mom looked at me and asked where I was going to get my haircut from now on.

“What?” I asked, bemused. My mom had always had a propensity for asking questions that seemingly had little to do with the current conversation, and I figured this to be another instance. The beat of puzzled silence that follows these questions came, but the laughter that usually comes after, from both my mom and the rest of my family, didn’t.

“What?” I asked, this time concerned. I turned to my dad, but in the time it took for me to make eye contact with him, my brain had pieced it together. So, when I came face to face with my dad, instead of asking “what?” again, I simply, quietly, said, “no.”

“Jerry passed away,” my dad said, confirming my fear. Jerry, my barber for the better part of my entire life, had suffered a massive heart attack following a tennis game with his friend and business partner a few weeks prior. My dad waited to tell me because he didn’t want the news to interfere with school.

The loss of a barber may seem inconsequential to some, but it was profound to me. He wasn’t just a barber; he was my friend. We’d talk about the Chiefs, the Royals, the Jayhawks, fishing, movies, school and all of the common topics of conversation between men. Jerry had been there through all the phases, and corresponding hairstyles, of my life, from the short, simple “Princeton” haircut, to my unkempt, knotty, unmanageable Jewfro that required the use of a machete just to trim, and back to a shorter cut, less Slideshow Bob and more a shorter Harpo Marx.

I’d go off to summer camp, come back, then visit Jerry in the next few days. I’d go off to college, first at UConn then Tulsa, and almost every time I returned home, I’d call Jerry and ask if he had anything open. Usually, he did. He was always there, the very definition of a constant. And now he was gone.

Westbrook, for so young a player, has been a pivotal figure in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2008, a franchise cornerstone for a franchise that was soon to end. He was there for the Thunder’s inaugural season, a miserable, and turnover-prone one to be sure, but formative and integral to the development of the team and specifically the chemistry between Westbrook and Durant. He was there for the Thunder’s first playoff appearance, for the Jeff Green/Kendrick Perkins trade, the emergence of James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and started (and starred) in the NBA Finals just four years after being drafted. And through it all, he has been maligned, celebrated, jeered, scapegoated, praised, and an overall polarizing figure.

More than any other player on the Thunder, Westbrook has been the team’s constant. Nick Collison, though fully embraced by the Oklahoma City fans, will never wholly belong to them, as his history is just as much with the specters in Seattle. Jeff Green and James Harden were traded (to decidedly different fanfares, of course). Even Kevin Durant, the face of the franchise and the second best player in the NBA, has missed a few games because of injury. But not Russell Westbrook. He’s always been there, night in and night out, bad game or good game. He may cost them the game with a silly mistake, or he may win it with a daring feat of athleticism and skill, but either way, his presence has always been undeniable.

Good or bad, he was always there. It never crossed the minds of Thunder fans, and basketball fans at large, that he would ever not be. He’s fallen down hundreds of times, grimaced, limped, doubled over in pain, but he’s always come back, no matter what. His presence, nearly as much as his production, is what made him Russell Westbrook.

A few days after moving back to Kansas City, I made an appointment at Bock’s, where Jerry used to work. Pulling up to the shop, nerves, like so many corn kernels in a microwave, jumped and bounced and wrecked their way throughout my stomach. I pulled open the front door to see Bernie and Maurice, two other barbers, one of whom, Maurice, was Jerry’s brother.

Maurice tended to the first chair, while Bernie was stationed at the third. In the middle, unoccupied, untouched, was the second chair. Jerry’s chair. My appointment was with Bernie, whom I’d known just as long as Jerry. Inevitably, we talked about Jerry, and through the entire haircut my eyes rarely strayed from Jerry’s vacant chair, magnetic in its emptiness.

It was all so wrong, and I kept expecting Jerry to come out of the back room, or walk through the front door, or just be there. And every time I go back, I still wait for him to appear, and every time reality disappoints me.

When the news broke that Westbrook was out, first indefinitely, then later for the rest of the season, we were introduced to a reality we never thought could possibly exist: a world without Westbrook. It’s as uncharted a territory for the Thunder as it is for fans, navigated easily by neither. But navigate it they, and we, must. That  means more Reggie Jackson and (unfortunately) more Derek Fisher, the former unproven, the latter far past his prime, and neither enough to compensate.

It doesn’t, and won’t, seem right for the Thunder to play without Russell Westbrook. We’ll look to the court, wondering where the dynamic guard is before catching ourselves and remembering that the Thunder’s greatest constant is now, in more than one way, their greatest absence.

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: The Thunder-Rockets 2012-2013 Playoff Preview

From October through April, thirty teams scratched and clawed their way for this opportunity. Who will make it out? Who will be disappointed? Who will shock and surprise? Who will hit an insane buzzer beater that will make us all collectively gasp so loudly that we will be able hear each other from six counties away? WHO? TELL ME, WHO?

Welcome to the Hardwood Paroxysm 2012-2013 Playoff Previews.

Virtual Systems Analysis

by Andrew Lynch

I wanted to start this preview off with the V for Vendetta volume of V’s video, because apparently I’m stuck in 2005. Honestly, though, that’s way too many V’s for this series. THUNDERROCKETS needs but three:

Vengeance. Vindication. Variance.

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but vengeance? She is a visage best viewed bearded, like some sort of angry carnival attraction. And James Harden, the PT Barnum of Offensive Efficiency, has a whole circus’s worth of vengeance to unleash upon his former mates in Oklahoma City. The Thunder wouldn’t give him his $6 million dollars, so he’s going to bring his Omer Asik elephants down I-35 like a millionaire Hannibal of Carthage.

Unfortunately for Harden and his three-point shooting acrobats, Oklahoma City stands to be vindicated for its decision — for now. The Thunder are heavy favorites, as they should be. Kevin Martin has done his level best to provide three-quarters of Harden’s production off the bench, and organic growth of the young core players has taken the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka combination to a higher plane of enlightenment.

The Thunder are far from nirvana, though, particularly with a Dalai Lama whose Four Noble Truths are predicated on playing Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher copious minutes. And, if the Rockets can jack up the variance in this series by running, gunning and doing what they do best, they’ll stand a chance — to win two games instead of one. It won’t be a very good chance; after all, circuses are kind of a dying business. But a little bit of probability goes a long way when the alternative is impossibility.

I Do Declare

by Amin Vafa

Any number of unexpected things can happen in this series. As a wise man once said, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!!!!” And he was right. Records can be topped, players can get injured (knock on wood that they don’t), upsets can occur, and hearts can be broken. But enough with the schmaltz. Let’s make some kooky predictions, shall we?

OK, I’m going to make three tiers of predictions, and make three predictions in each tier. Here we go:

Tier One: The Potential for an in-game fracas

1. Kendrick Perkins and Thomas Robinson will get double technicals in Game 1 because Robinson will misinterpret Perkins’s regular frown-prone face as a personal affront and will argue with him.

2. Kevin Durant (who is apparently “not nice” these days) will get a technical foul in Game 4 for yelling at Joey Crawford for calling him for a charge that he deserved.

3. Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia have to be separated in Game 4 because of Martin’s insistence that Knucklehead is better than that Parker’s.

Tier Two: Fans Gone Wild

1. OKC fans will boo James Harden in Game 1, causing him to go 3-15 in the first half. He will finish the game with 48 points.

2. Game 4 will be suffer a delay in the fourth quarter for over 20 minutes as the floor is being cleared of promotional “FEAR THE BEARD” fake James Harden-like beards that unhappy fans have thrown onto the floor of a 25-point rout.

3. Game 5 will begin on a 45-minute delay because “Mini Oil Derrick Giveaway Night” will have made the floor too slick. But for real, they should have seen that one coming.

Tier Three: WHAT THE WHAT?

1. The Rockets will lose the series at home at Game 6 because Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha will be replaced by MONSTARS. Kevin McHale is notoriously bad at game-planning against MONSTARS.

2. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will both get technical fouls in Game 2. This will occur because a fan from the stands will scream “WE SHOULDA TRADED YOU, RUSS!” Unfortunately, for Harden, the fan in the crowd will be an amateur ventriloquist, and Westbrook will think think Harden was the one who said it. The confusion will result in a very tense and confusing moment that will end in Westbrook sitting more minutes than he normally would.

3. Both teams will forfeit the series because they’ll all get emotional having watched hours of footage with Harden on the Thunder and Martin on the Rockets. As soon as both teams step out onto the court, Harden and Martin run past each other and hug their old teammates. They embrace and cry for so long that even the officials are too overcome with emotion to blow the whistle and start the game. The crowd goes silent for 10 minutes, until you hear one child sniffle. Then the entire stadium is filled with wailing sobs and memories of yore. The jumbotron no longer carrie a live feed and is instead filled with montages of Martin and Harden on their respective previous teams. The Rockets montage is set to “Good Riddance” by Green Day (those lyrics are so tricky, though! they’re so loving in parts!), and the Thunder montage is set to “Closing Time” by Semisonic.

Then the Thunder and Rockets all sign each other’s yearbooks. “H.A.G.S.!”

Through the Looking Glass

by Jordan White

Predictions for this series:

James Harden will score 45 points on 20 shots

James Harden will score 20 points on 30 shots

Chandler Parsons will continue to be handsome

Kendrick Perkins will continue to mean mug everyone

There will be at least one spat between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and once again we’ll find ourselves in the throes of the beaten-t0-death “they don’t like each other” narrative.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will continue to say how much they like each other

Jeremy Lin will remind everyone that he wasn’t a product of the New York media hype, and is actually pretty damn good

Omer Asik will be hilarious, without ever cracking a joke. Seriously, just look at the way he runs.

Derek Fisher will hit one big shot in a close game, vindicating Scott Brooks, but not really.

Reggie Jackson will miss an insignificant shot, and will get pulled instantly.

Serge Ibaka will bite on a pump fake

Terrence Jones will have a 20-10 game

Patrick Beverly-Reggie Jackson, though a likely insignificant match-up, will cause unexpected entertainment

Kevin Durant will have a triple double, and it won’t even be his best game of the series

The Thunder will win in 5.

LION FACE/LEMON FACE 4/12/13: IT’S NATE ROBINSON’S WORLD

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, unless of course you consider the show to be the NBA regular season in which case it’s actually ending very soon. Regardless, with the regular season winding down and the playoffs getting ready to start up, we’re bringing back America’s 34th favorite semi-running column: Lion Face/Lemon Face. As a refresher for those that forgot and introduction for those who are new here, Lion Faces are given to the best players, plays, or moments of the night; Lemon Faces are for the worst. Have a suggestion in the future? Tag it on Twitter with #LionFace or #LemonFace during a weeknight game and we’ll make sure one of our 921 writers see it. Without further ado, on to the LF/LF nominees from Thursday’s TNT doubleheader…

Lion Face: Nate Robinson

GIF from Beyond the Buzzer

It’s been a while since I watched professional wrestling regularly, but I do know that Wrestlemania XXIX was this past Sunday. I was shocked to find out and completely unaware that they unified five different championship belts, and they were apparently all won by Nate Robinson. Either that, or he is the most insured man on the planet after busting out the never before seen Discount Septuple Check following a three pointer. Robinson finished with 35 points on the night, a season high and the most points he’s scored in a game since New Year’s Day 2010. He also added 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, and infinite swag in helping the Bulls snap the Knicks’ 13 game winning streak.

Lemon Face: Jarrett Jack

GIF from DailyThunder.com

In the immortal words of Harry Doyle, “Juuuuuuuust a bit outside.” On the plus side, the Raiders are set to start Matt Flynn this year and Terrelle Pryor is currently Flynn’s backup, so if the whole basketball thing ends up not working out for Jack, he can still put that arm to use in Oakland.

Lion Face: Jimmy Butler

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/JeffGurt/status/322536544089042944"]

Butler has been playing extremely well lately having chipped in a double digit scoring effort in 10 of his last 12 games including his career high 22 tonight. Butler also pulled down 14 rebounds, another career high, against the Knicks. Not too shabby for the 30th pick of the 2011 Draft.

Lemon Face: This Bulls fan

GIF from @SBNationGIF

This is actually a fantastic shot, so don’t think that it got a Lemon Face because it was somehow the worst of the night. I’m giving this a Lemon Face only for the sole fact that it looks like she might be ready to actually ingest a full lemon sometime within the next four seconds. Also, what is Joakim Noah doing in the stands right behind her? Why isn’t he getting back on defense? And why is he wearing a t-shirt jersey?

Lion Face: The Durant-Westbrook Connection

Without question, Durant and Westbrook gave us the best sequence of the night. A swat by Westbrook followed up by Kevin Durant’s complete lack of regard for human life coupled with Golden State’s complete lack of regard for transition defense made this happened. Just sit back and enjoy it.

Lion Face: Golden State’s 3 Point Shooting

GoldenState3s

Typically, if you shoot 183.3% from beyond the arc, that’s a pretty solid shooting night. Unfortunately for the Warriors, this actually appears to bring down the torrid 248.8% they were apparently shooting coming into last night’s contest. If you’re the type of person that’s actually into “statistics” and “actual facts”, Golden State actually entered the game shooting 40.2% from 3, good enough for first in the NBA. They finished last night 7-16 from 3 to slightly raise their shooting percentage on the year. Consider this as more of a season long Lion Face honor because honestly, the Lion Faces are hard to come by when you get blown out by 19 points on national TV.

Lion Face: Guys named Kevin on the Thunder

Kevin Martin Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Martin Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Durant Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Durant Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Martin: 8-10 from the field. 4-5 from beyond the arc. 3-3 from the line. 23 points in total. Yeah, Kevin Martin had himself a night off the bench for the Thunder. And if you ever wanted more proof that single game +/- is hilariously misleading at times, Martin finished with a +1 for the game. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant turned in a ho-hum 31-10-8 night on 10-16 field goals and shot 90% from the charity stripe. In the race for the scoring title, Durant now is averaging 28.2 points per game while Carmelo Anthony has widened his lead by averaging 28.6 points per contest. Speaking of Melo…

Limón Face: Carmelo Anthony

On one hand, Anthony became the first Knick to ever post six consecutive games of at least 35 points. In his five previous games, he shot at least 51% from the field, and shot over 60% in four of those five games. On the other hand, last night he needed 34 shots from the field to get his 36 points, and finished the game 13-34 (38%) including missing all four three-point attempts. It’s not often that a guy with a 36 point, 20 rebound effort deserves a Lemon Face, but 13-34 is far from Lionesque. Instead, he gets a hybrid of the two: the Limón Face.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com

Statistical Anomaly: Timberwolves @ Rockets

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Rockets 108-100 victory over the visiting Timberwolves.

Omer Asik continues to grab rebounds, but his offensive game is as limited as ever. For the third time in four games Asik recorded 0 FTM, 10+ rebounds, and single digit points. Prior to this run, Asik only had one such game in the calendar year. A consistent presence on the offensive end would be nice, but Asik gives Houston exactly what they need. With their high scoring back-court, Asik provides toughness and grit on the interior, a reason why no team wants to see Houston in the first round. They don’t match up well with Oklahoma City, but if they can move up to the six seed and play Memphis, Asik’s role would be a key factor in their potential success.

For the second time in three games, James Harden attempted 10+ three pointers and 10+ free throws, something he hadn’t done once in his career prior to this stretch. Is it possible that Harden is the most complete (not the best but the most complete) scorer in the NBA? He’s more consistent from distance than LeBron and he attacks the basket better than Durant. At 23 years old, Kobe Bryant averaged a similar number of points (25.2 as compared to Harden’s 26.2), but he shot 25% from distance. Harden’s ability to get to the rim is highlighted by his 10 FTA per game and the fact that no player averages more FTM+3PM (11.0).

Harden

The Timberwolves have lost 41 games this season, but heading into action Friday, they had a better winning percentage when scoring 100+ points (.733) than the Denver Nuggets (.712). The stat line from James Harden (37 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds that all came on the defensive end) was eerily similar to the stat line Russell Westbrook produced on January 22nd (37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds that all came on the defensive end). The last time the Timberwolves scored 100+ points in a losing effort. Minnesota’s success when scoring 100+ points comes from their successful offense inspiring solid defense, but without a true star player (healthy), they lose high scoring games when they can’t match the scoring abilities of the opponent’s best player.

Oddly enough, JJ Barea has been at his best from inside the arc in those games that Minnesota losses despite eclipsing the century mark. He has had just three games since the beginning of February in which he has made at least two two point field goals and shot better than 50% on two pointers, with the Timberwolves losing all three contests while scoring 100+ points. With Barea being an undersized, yet aggressive, point guard, it makes sense that when he is on the floor, the scoring picks up. He has an uncanny ability to get into the paint and thus get Minnesota good looks at the basket, but he also has a very difficult time matching up with bigger guards on the defensive end. That is why Barea is pigeonholed as a valuable piece off the bench as opposed to a starting PG in the NBA.

Ricky Rubio continued his run of well rounded games, notching seven rebounds to go along with his seven assists and 14 points. Over his last 13 games, Rubio is averaging 13.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 6.9 rebounds. For reference, Chris Paul’s greatest season AR (assist + rebound) average was 16.5. Rubio’s seven dimes against Houston was the most predictable stat of the entire game due to the 10 assists he handed out on Wednesday. If you break the Timberwolves point guard March into consecutive two game segments, you’ll notice that in all four instances, he has tallied exactly 17 assists. It is clear that Rubio is getting comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, a dangerous thought for the rest of the league when Kevin Love is on the active roster. “Testigo” (“witness” in Spanish) is still only 22 years of age, the same age Steve Nash entered the NBA at. In a league where explosive point guards are becoming the norm, Rubio is a throwback floor general who makes everyone around him better. He may not be a player to build a winner around, but he is certainly the type of PG that will maximize the talent of the pieces on the floor.

The Rockets improved in a big way seemingly overnight by acquiring Harden and Lin this off season, and the Timberwolves could be the 2013-2014 version. With a solid back-court, a healthy Kevin Love, and a top 10 pick (Shabazz Muhammad would be a nice fit), things are headed in the right direction for Minnesota. When it comes to the rockets, they score enough to keep up with anybody. That being said, they need to commit to the defensive end of the floor if they want any chance in a series format. They have lost as many games this year when scoring 100+ points as the Timberwolves have scored 100+ points, not the ideal formula to win in June. James Harden has proved himself a championship level player and the Rockets have a nice core of young players to support him. Their arrow is pointing up, but their improvement in the win column next season will be directly correlated to their defensive intensity. Offense sells tickets, but defensive still plays a vital role in winning titles.

 

 

Statistical Anomaly: Jazz @ Thunder

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Thunder’s blowout win over the Jazz.

Oklahoma City is the highest scoring second quarter team in the NBA (27.8 points per game) and are typically even better at home (28.8). Utah managed to hold the Thunder to a mere 21 points, but lost the quarter (12) by more points than the lost the other 36 minutes by (11).

There is no doubt that Kevin Durant is an elite talent in this league, but his 23 turnovers and 22 assists over the last week (5 games) is a bit concerning. When you consider that KD is shooting 50.5% from the field, his 4.6 turnovers per game over the week is costing the Thunder an average of roughly five points. It didn’t matter (OKC has outscored its opponents by 52 points) this week, but the playoffs are played in a much tighter window. Interestingly enough, Durant has excelled more than normal at the free throw line when he is plagued with the turnover bug. Over his last ten 3+ turnover games, Durant has made 101/108 (including 44/46 in his last four such games) free throws. This shows the maturation in the game of the three time scoring champion, as he understands when he is struggling and finds a way to positively impact the game.

Serge Ibaka managed only three rebounds and one blocked shot against the big front line of the Jazz. One would assume that rebound total and blocked shot total would be directly correlated, indicating a dominating force in the paint. However, entering this game, Ibaka was averaging 4.3 blocked shots in games in which he grabbed three or fewer rebounds. He isn’t your prototypical center of the past, but his style of play very well could be the new norm in our increasingly athletic league. Here’s a look at how many rebounds Ibaka averages this season based on number of shots blocked.

Serge1

Everybody tends to focus on the shot count when it comes to comparing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but why not look at shot location instead? The Thunder beat the Jazz with Westbrook not making a single three pointer, something they have done on a regular basis over the last two regular seasons. In fact, OKC has a higher winning percentage in games in which Westbrook doesn’t make a three (0.767) than when he does (0.705). The Thunder will peak as a team when Westbrook plays his game (attacking the rim and pulling up for midrange jumpers) and lets Durant take care of the outside shooting.

Each Jazz starter totaled at least 18 minutes of action, combining to shoot 25.7% from the field and score 26 points. Utah’s four bench players who played 18+ minutes shot 45.7% and scored 51 points. With Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson both playing at less than 100%, the Jazz are frantically searching for ways to make the playoffs. You have to wonder, though, would they be better off missing the playoffs? Qualifying for the eight seed isn’t really as much of a selling point to their free agent eligible paint protectors as a young and promising floor general they could acquire in the draft. With Derrick Favors playing well, is that far of a stretch to say that the Jazz (as currently constructed) are a top 10 PG away from being a similar team to Memphis?

Silver lining time for Jazz fans. Enes Kanter nailed all six of his free throws and has now converted on 90.9% of his freebies dating back to February 2nd. Kobe Bryant (83.4%) is considerably behind the 20 year old while the league’s leading FT shooter (Kevin Durant) is just slightly ahead (91.1%). If the Jazz lose one or both of their big men this summer, Kanter has showed promise as an interior presence (55.6% from the field and nearly 14 rebounds per 48 minutes) and seems to be developing an outside game thanks to the tandem of Jefferson and Milsap.

The Jazz seem to be in free fall, but the Lakers lost Kobe Bryant to the dreaded “severe ankle sprain”. Utah, when healthy, can dominate the paint on both sides of the floor, which gives them a chance in most games. Can they take advantage of the Bryant injury? If they do qualify for postseason play, can they ugly their way to a win or two? I realize they may lose most of their scoring/rebounding this offseason, but they do have some nice pieces, and may be closer than you think to being a legitimate playoff team who can win a series.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Russell Westbrook

Photo by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man,
Now I’ve reached that age, I’ve tried to do all those things the best I can.
No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam.

-          Led Zeppelin, Good Times Bad Times

Coming out of UCLA while still in the days of his youth, Russell Westbrook was told, and taught, very quickly how to be a man. As part of a draft class with Serge Ibaka, Westbrook joined Kevin Durant as the Oklahoma City Thunder laid the blueprint for what would eventually lead to OKC’s emergence as one of the premier franchises in the NBA. Westbrook’s ability to “man up” and play through the rigors of an NBA season has been nothing short of impressive thus far into his career. Much like his high school and college days, Westbrook has yet to miss a game since coming into the NBA. It’s the type of consistency that Oklahoma City has come to both rely and depend upon on a nightly basis.

Now that he has reached the age of 25, Westbrook has tried to do everything possible to be the best that he can. It’s hard to argue that he’s not succeeding. So far this season, Westbrook has racked up 22.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 8.1 assists per 36 minutes. Throw a PER of above 23 into the mix as well, and it’s clear that Westbrook has firmly entrenched himself as a top 10 player in the league not just today, but for the foreseeable future. While Westbrook has not reached the level where you can count on him for a guaranteed highlight every night, he remains one of the few players in the league that always seem on the cusp of doing something that is capable of taking your breath away.

Unfortunately for Westbrook, no matter how hard he tries, he finds himself in the same old jam. Criticism that he still takes too many shots and isn’t a “true” point guard, whatever that means, comes from far and wide. His 42.7% shooting, down a full 3% from last year, isn’t good enough to crack the top 20 in field goal percentage among point guards in the NBA this season. And perhaps most of all, he is prone to behavioral outbursts such as throwing a mini tantrum in the middle of a game in which the Thunder were leading by 18 points…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_wLTGvp5ctU

…or responding to, admittedly, less than intelligent, clichéd questions by reporters…

…but just when you think he couldn’t possibly be any more immature, he goes and does something like this…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF3eEZHabvQ

…AND COMPLETELY REDEEMS HIMSELF.

Despite the extracurricular shenanigans he chooses to engage in during timeouts or off the court, it’s his on-court talent that makes him a perennial All-Star. More importantly, it is going to be his ability to continue to perform at an All-Star level for the duration of the season and throughout the playoffs that will determine whether good times or bad times are ahead for Oklahoma City.

Paging Shane Battier: Miami Heat Have To Find Makers

Via Flickr - Ranguard

Whenever told that every team should follow the “OKC Model” I can’t help but think what a silly statement that is. Sure, it seems simple in hindsight, but the number of variables involved in hitting on multiple draft picks is anything but. Typically, when having this conversation my go-to answer is, “How do we know Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren’t simply the next Malone and Stockton, who ran into another once-in-a-lifetime talent and were denied rings time and again?”

LeBron James is certainly playing at an all-time level coming into the Finals. But will it be enough to overcome the Thunder roll? Despite picking Miami over OKC in six in the Finals in preseason (so I’ll stick to my guns. Why not, right?), I haven’t been able to convince myself going in that the Miami Heat are deep enough, as deep as those 90s Chicago Bulls teams that the Stockton-Malone-Hornacek Utah Jazz squads came closer than anyone else to beating during their Finals runs. LeBron will have to reach a whole other level — an historic level of play — to beat back the model of efficiency the Thunder are playing at right now.

This season’s pair of championship combatants share many facets on paper, including often reaching the free throw line and relying on individual play sets when a game goes down to the nitty gritty.

Both teams boast top ten offenses and defenses, practically a requirement to take the title in the last 15 years — only three teams, the 2010 Lakers, 2004 Pistons, and 1999 Spurs lacked a top ten offense in title years, and only a single team, the 2001 Lakers, lacked a top ten defense in a title year — so tenacious and intense defense is a given in the series. It will get chippy, and it will be glorious.

Both have once in a generation talents roaming the floor, creating havoc and filling up stat sheets and scoreboards in spectacular fashion. This series will come down to shot making. Advantage, OKC. Taking a closer look at Kevin Durant we find that he’s shooting the highest FG% of his career. Your first thought may be that he’s hitting from midrange and the perimeter more, but this isn’t so.

 

Durant’s doing more work in and around the paint and taking less of those dreaded long twos, the lowest percentage shot in basketball, although it helps that he’s hitting on more of those attempts than ever before. It’s been Russell Westbrook’s vastly improved jumper — now almost automatic — that’s opened up this area of the floor for Durant to damage his opponents.  (Lest we forget, Serge Ibaka gained a midrange game last summer at EuroBasket as well, further opening up the paint for Durant to fully uncoil on the rim.)

James has been in takeover mode since Chris Bosh went down, hoisting the Heat upon his broad shoulders in an attempt to duplicate the dominance he was required to provide as more or less the only viable option for the Cleveland Cavaliers for all those years. But he’s been awful from three in the playoffs, .275, far below his career and season averages of .331 and .362, respectively.

Certainly we don’t expect Bosh to begin banging away from downtown on a regular basis — his three makes from three in the Game 7 Boston win tied a career mark — and Dwyane Wade has never been a consistent threat from the arc.

Erik Spoelstra has to find makers if Miami is to finally overcome that final hurdle that James promised when he packed his sandals and suntan lotion and hit the surf.

The Thunder have been playing over their collective heads from three in the playoffs, thanks in large part to the addition of Derek Fisher and a red hot Thabo Sefolosha, hitting on .374 from the arc up from an 11th-best in the NBA in the regular season of .358, a respectable number, but not one that makes you ooh and aaaw, while the Heat have taken a nose dive down to .325 in the playoffs from a 9th-best .359 in the regular season.

Getting this LeBron James in enough games to take out OKC all by his lonesome is a taxing prospect at the least.

He’ll need help.

While the Thunder had to hit an atypical amount of long shots to get where they are now in the postseason, a regression to the mean seems a likely avenue in the Finals even as Miami experiences a progression.

Whomever finds the range soonest and most efficiently opens up the floor for their talent to take over, in the process running the opposing defense ragged. Unless the Heat find a hot hand four times the Thunder’s superior depth should be able to contain the two or three real threats the Heat have from the perimeter.

Paging Shane Battier.

Tremendous Tandems: Kevin Durant And Russell Westbrook Aim To Make A Baker’s Dozen

Through 52 games the prodigious pair of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have scored 2,711 points this NBA season, a shade more than half of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s entire point total. Both lead not only at their position in points-per-game, but have been mainstays in the top five on the PPG leaderboard all year long.

Twenty two times this season has this potent pair of assassins posted at least 25 points in the same game, 42% of the entire OKC schedule. Any given night you have to pick your poison, choose which to tie up hoping your roulette gamble pays off and you don’t get torched by the other. Should RussWest, averaging 24.5 PPG as I write this a few hours before the Thunder will square off with the Memphis Grizzlies, go on one more tear and manage to bump up his scoring average to 25.0, he and Durant will become just the thirteenth tandem in NBA history to post 25 PPG for the same team.

The feat has been accomplished only 15 times previously in NBA history by a dozen sets of twosomes.

• Accounting for 57% of their team’s 100.6 average scoring in 2000-01, Shaquille O’Neal put up 28.7 PPG while Kobe Bryant chipped in 28.5 PPG. The Los Angeles Lakers would take the title in dominating fashion.

• Accounting for 57% of the Lakers’ scoring once again in 2002-03, 100.4 PPG, Kobe would knock back 30.0 PPG while Shaq played an increasingly disgruntled second-fiddle to Bryant putting up 27.5 PPG. The Lakers would lose to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.

• Accounting for 52% of the Lakers’ 101.3 points-per-game in 2001-02, Shaq continued his prime with 27.2 PPG to Kobe’s up-and-coming 25.2 PPG en route to the last three-peat seen in the NBA.

One other tandem, also of Royal Blue and Gold, decorates the annals of prolific pointdom with three appearances on this list of copious scoring in combos.

• Accounting for 52% of the 1964-65 Lakers’ 111.9 points, the logo himself, Jerry West, dropped 31.0 PPG to Elgin Baylor’s 27.1 PPG. The team would lose their third trip to the Finals since moving from Minneapolis to LA to the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics. You will see these super-twins again shortly.

• Accounting for 51% of last season’s superteam Miami Heat 102.1 scoring on average, LeBron James threw down 26.7 PPG while Dwyane Wade followed closely with 25.5 PPG. Still fresh in the memory is their Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

• Our current tandem chimes in here currently accounting for 50% of the Thunder’s 103.7 PPG offensive output, Kevin Durant in a heated scoring champ battle with Kobe knocking down 27.7 PPG as of April 1 to Russell Westbrook’s much-improved efficiency leading to 24.5 PPG. Postseason fate: TBD

• Dipping under the majority mark for the first time on this list with 49% of the total 109.7 PPG we find the 1963-64 Lakers led by Jerry West’s 28.7 PPG and Elgin Baylor’s 25.4 PPG. They would be bounced by the St. Louis Hawks in what was then the first of three rounds of playoffs, who would in turn be bounced by the eventual Finals-bounds San Francisco Warriors led by Wilt Chamberlain.

This season’s Heat also finds 49% of their 101.3 PPG led by LeBron’s 26.5 PPG and D Wade, although Wade is not near enough the 25 PPG highlighted here with 23.0 PPG. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. Dominating your team’s scoring in tandem is by no means a guarantee of a title. Only three on this list have managed to reel one in — all Lakers squads — and only three others even have a Finals appearance the year of making this list.

I can’t be the only one to be at least a little surprised that the Boston Celtics, in all their historical glory, only give us one fleeting glimpse in this group. Without looking I’d wager they do appear on more passing lists though. Nevertheless, I present to you…

• Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, accounting for 48% of the 1986-87 Celtics’ 112.6 PPG, Bird hitting at 28.1 PPG, McHale at 26.1 PPG. However, Magic Johnson and the Lakers would take the playoff cake. Sadly, this would be Larry Bird’s last Finals appearance.

Four different dynamic duos accounted for 47% of their team’s scoring, listed here in order of team PPG. Two would fail to reach the postseason, two others would get relatively early vacations, losing at the conclusion of round one.

• In 1960-61 the Cincinnati Royals would put up an astounding 117.9 PPG behind Oscar Robertson’s 30.5 PPG and Jack Twyman’s 25.3 PPG. But it would be in vain as Cinci would finish the season dead last in the Western Division, then the Western Conference, failing to make the playoffs.

The Big O and Jack Twyman

• Before Willis Reed and Walt Frazier there was Rich Guerin and Willie Naulls who, in the 1961-62 season, led the New York Knicks and their 114.8 PPG with 29.5 and 25.0 PPG, respectively. Despite leading the NBA in attendance in the famed Madison Square Garden that year the Knicks would finish ahead of only the expansion Chicago Packers in the regular season standings, missing the spring season.

• When you think Pistol Pete Maravich you think… Lou Hudson and the Atlanta Hawks?! Putting up a third-best-in-the-NBA 112.4 PPG in 1972-73, Lou Hudson would lead the Hawks with 27.1 PPG with Maravich a free throw behind at 26.1 PPG. Although his most prolific scoring years would be with the New Orleans Jazz, Maravich would never see the playoffs there. This particular year the “Hudson Hawks” would lose to the Boston Celtics in the “first round.”

• The Knicks and Amar’e Stoudemire isn’t the first time someone tried to build a super-core around Carmelo Anthony. In 2007-08 the Denver Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson to pair with Melo and put up an NBA second-best 110.7 PPG, AI dropping 26.7 to Melo’s 25.7 PPG. Hopes were high coming in.

But the Nuggets would fizzle rather than sizzle, getting swept in their first round playoff series with the LA Lakers. Denver is the only other team on this list aside from the Lakers that can boast more than one dynamic duo. Read on to find out who.

• For the third time in four years, in the 1966-67 season, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor would be most prolific on offense, leading the Lakers’ 120.5 PPG with 28.7 and 26.6 PPG each. Yet that elusive ring continued to evade The Logo, and would for a few seasons more as LA would fail to reach the Finals for the only time in a six-year span this year (they lost all five Finals visits between 1964-65 and 1969-70). But West isn’t done yet…

Our other Denver Duo checks in twice in the space of three years here:

• Accounting for 45% of the Nuggets’ 1981-82 point total of 126.5 PPG, Alex English at 28.4 PPG, and Kiki Vandeweghe at 26.7 PPG, terrorized teams with a fast-paced attack in Doug Moe’s first year in charge in Denver.  And then…

• …in the 1983-84 season the tandem would flip-flop, English leading with 28.4 PPG to Kiki’s 26.4 PPG accounting for 44% of the Nuggets’ 123.7 PPG. But like Carmelo Anthony they would be plagued by first and second round playoff exits.

• Battered but not broken, Jerry West would finally break through and get off the schnide in the NBA Finals, albeit it not with Elgin Baylor carrying the bulk of the load of sidekick scoring duties. West is the only player to appear four times on this list of monumental immortality, and the only one to lead the points punch for every tandem appearing more than once. But his partner in crime this time would be Gail Goodrich. In 1971-72 the Lakers would put up 121.0 PPG, West and Goodrich accounting for 43% of the total output, 26.6 and 25.9 PPG apiece.

• Russell Westbrook needs to average 26 PPG over the Thunder’s final 14 games to solidify his and Durant’s standing on this list of scintillating scoreboardery.

A Final Note, Taking It To A Trio

Last season, the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all scored at least 25 points in a game four times, although two of those times were after the 66 game mark. This season they have done so only once thus far with the 66-game season quickly winding down.

This season, the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden have scored at least 25 points each in a game two times. Don’t be too surprised if they do so a lot more often in the near future.