Oklahoma City’s 100-97 win over Denver on Wednesday closed out its first-round Western Conference series in five hard-fought games. The Thunder have now reached the second round for the first time since the franchise exited Seattle. However, that means nothing for OKC, simply because its goal is to succeed the Lakers as NBA champs.
The relevant question is this: In the Denver series overall and particularly in the last game, did the Thunder demonstrate that they are indeed a championship-caliber team?
It says here that the answer is a resounding NO.
There’s no doubt that Kevin Durant is one of the premier go-to scorers in the league. His shooting range is virtually unlimited; where other high-powered scorers unleash long-range bombs, KD fires missiles. He handles like a guard, spins like a whirling dervish and releases his jumpers as quickly as a solider in combat throws live grenades.
To add to the mix, Durant can stop as suddenly as though he’s slammed into a brick wall, then take a small but critical step backwards as he shoots.
The only times he struggled were on those too-rare occasions when Kenyon Martin got into his grill and played aggressive deny-defense. Keep the ball out of Durant’s hands and the Thunder are a slightly better-than-average ball club.
Only when Durant can create his own shots is OKC’s offense free and easy. Indeed, Durant constituted nearly the entirety of Oklahoma City’s offense down the stretch. For the game at hand, the Thunder shot 36.6 percent — but subtract KD’s 14-for-27 marksmanship and his teammates combined to make only 29.1 percent of their field goals.
Durant, then, is plenty good enough to be the main man on a championship squad.
Russell Westbrook is quite another story. After firing up 30 shots in Game 4 (making 12), he was 3 of 15 as the series concluded. Yes, he’s quick to the rim, and he concentrated on getting his teammates involved in Game 5. But Westbrook continues to be undisciplined. He routinely forces shots, passes and penetrations because, to him, any given game is a 48-minute fast break.
It’s Westbrook’s impatience that causes the Thunder to hurry through their half-court sets — which results in far too many risky, careless, or just plain dumb passes. In their series-clinching win, OKC registered 16 assists and 14 turnovers — not a winning ratio by any means.
Plus, their helter-skelter half-court game essentially marginalizes Kendrick Perkins’ slow-moving mass and strength. Perkins was much more effective when he played with the veteran, savvy Celtics, who rarely rushed a shot when they weren’t on the run.
Thabo Sefolosha is a valuable defender and rebounder, whose efforts would contribute greatly to a team with authentic championship potential.
Serge Ibaka’s jumper has abandoned him, and he makes an inordinate number of mistakes with the ball — 0-for-4 shooting, 5 turnovers in Game 5. Even so, he’s the most compelling shot-blocking power forward in the league. That’s because he’s incredibly quick off his feet, possesses uncanny timing, and covers enormous distances to arrive at an opponent’s erstwhile shot. He swatted nine Nuggets shots Wednesday.
Include Ibaka as a worthy component of a championship team.
Otherwise, Eric Maynor often tries to do too much, James Harden often doesn’t do enough, and Nick Collison is a useful plugger who’s forced to play too many minutes at center.
It should also be noted that the Nuggets greatly contributed to their own demise. In Game 5 they were out-rebounded (51-38), were reluctant to attack the basket (shooting 21 free throws to OKC’s 42), and were even more mistake-prone than the Thunder (18 turnovers to 16 assists).
Worse still, the Nuggets could never figure out who their designated point-maker should be — Arron Afflalo’s 15 shots topped their stat sheet.
Even worse, Denver was embarrassingly inept in the clutch. The specifics included a missed dunk and a missed layup by Nene, and a pair of botched free throws by Ty Lawson — who, by the way, over-handled at every opportunity.
In sum, the Thunder deserve congratulations for exposing Denver as a pretender. At the same time, beating the nugatory Nugs constituted an uncomfortably high degree of difficulty.
Let’s face it, Kevin Durant is a one-man band. For the Thunder to seriously entertain championship hopes, he has to duplicate 14-of-27, 41-point games on a regular basis. Something that will get more difficult to achieve as the playoffs continue and the competition gets smarter, more physical and more experienced.
For sure, OKC is a coming team, but it still has a long ways to go. Too far a distance to travel this year with this roster.