In their 116-98 victory Wednesday night at Phoenix, the Oklahoma City Thunder demonstrated why they will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. The win made OKC 8-1 with Kendrick Perkins in the lineup and also marked its 14th victory in its past 16 games.
At the same time, the Thunder also revealed several weaknesses that could prove costly in the money season.
Perkins had a positive impact on the offensive end — 5 of 6, 13 points. He bagged a couple of jump hooks, was a willing passer and even connected on a short jumper. Needless to say, his massive screens helped to loosen the Suns’ already porous defense.
Serge Ibaka — 6 of 13, 10 rebounds, three blocks, 15 points — could very well be the quickest big off the floor in the entire league. He’s also, at least, a five-space rebounder and covers lots of ground on defense. When he gets the ball in the low post, Ibaka wants to turn, face and shoot jumpers, which are only semi-reliable.
If Perkins was literally the centerpiece of the February trade with the Boston Celtics, the absence of Jeff Green enables Ibaka to enjoy more daylight. And it’s already clear that Ibaka’s game is much more dynamic than his predecessor’s.
Russell Westbrook is super-quick and strong enough not to be derailed by solid contact — 6 of 9, eight assists, 16 points. His right-to-left crossover eats up gobs of space, making his drives virtually unstoppable. Once he penetrates, Westbrook’s kick-out passes are usually on target.
Thabo Sefolosha—3 of 8, seven rebounds, two assists, no turnovers, six points — is an earnest defender who’s also been known to drop 3-pointers. A perpetual-motion man, Sefolosha is an excellent role player.
Kevin Durant didn’t have a particularly hot shooting game — 8 of 18, 22 points — but his range is unlimited. If his shot release is somewhat low-slung, KD creates space with tricky dribbling, quick head fakes, irresistible pulls and fades, and snappy jab steps. On defense, Durant is an alert, long-armed, shot-blocking menace when approaching the ball from the weak side.
James Harden is an explosive scorer — 7 of 9, 22 points. He has the exquisite knack of finding or creating open lanes for his powerful drives to the hoop. Moreover, when he doesn’t rush his jumpers, Harden is a knock-down shooter.
Nick Collison often gets out-sized, out-quicked and out-talented, but he inevitably makes excellent decisions at both ends of the court. He can score with soft jump hooks, and he even dropped a 17-foot springer.
Like Sefolosha, Collison is the kind of hard-working role player who all championship teams absolutely require.
Overall, the Thunder are extremely efficient on the run, usually look to make the extra pass, and — except for Perkins and Collison — have incredible team speed and quickness. Even when Durant has a subpar game, OKC can still make a scoreboard flash like a pinball machine.
And when KD is on it, the Thunder can make plenty of noise regardless of the opponent.
Perkins’ slow feet make him late on too many defensive rotations. His chronic susceptibility to foul trouble was evident against Phoenix, limiting him to 14-plus minutes.
Ibaka is rapidly improving but remains a work in progress.
Westbrook’s jump shots are lame. Moreover, for every fantastic zippity-do-dah layup he scores, Westbrook’s tendency to over-penetrate results in a turnover — five versus the Suns. And, too often, he over-dribbles.
Furthermore, when high screens are set up for him, Westbrook tends to run Great Circle routes around them, giving defenses too much time to make adjustments. This flaw was harmless against the defensively challenged Suns but will be more costly if/when OKC advances deep into the playoffs.
Durant’s one-on-one defense is still deficient — both Grant Hill and Vince Carter feasted on KD’s ineffective D. When he has to contend with weak-side screens and combo screens, Durant’s defense is even worse. At the other end of the game, Durant is asked to create too many shots on his own.
His lack of power gets him bounced around in the low post, forcing him to make extra-quick moves once he latches onto inbound passes.
Harden is a total liability on defense.
Further additions to the debit side of the Thunder’s game include:
• OKC’s vulnerability to screen/rolls, mainly because its baseline rotations are frequently late so that rollers are undefended when they approach the rim.
• Middling perimeter offense (19th in 3-point shooting), middling perimeter defense (16th) and middling scoring defense (18th).
Looking ahead, the Thunder will have a rough road to survive the Western Conference playoffs. That’s because the increased physical nature of postseason play will greatly limit OKC’s on-the-run scoring opportunities. And Durant will get worn down by the routine bump-and-grind defenses. Plus, the holes in their defense will be fully exploited.
Still, once the playoffs commence, the Thunders’ incendiary firepower make them a dangerous team, no matter how elite their opponents might be.
Several NBA watchers have insisted that Mike Antoni (still no D) must change his game plan to accommodate the one-on-one styles of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. But this claim is errant nonsense.
Coaches are people, too. They have their own personalities, principles, methodologies and subjective views of how to succeed in the NBA.
D’Antoni’s game plan is all about quick-hitting offense, perpetual ball and player movement, and the conviction that the team that scores the most points always wins. This is precisely the kind of team he had at his disposal before the trade. The Knicks were entertaining, a dangerous foe to all comers, four games over .500, and comfortably occupying the sixth playoff seed.
Credit went to Donnie Walsh for creating a roster that perfectly matched his coach’s philosophy, which is precisely the way all teams should be assembled. Only Kevin Loughery and Gene Shue had the total flexibility to adjust their game plans to suit the specific talents of the players they had at their disposal.
These days, the compositions of virtually all of the league’s elite teams have been suited to match the resident coach’s proclivities. So, players who are incapable of yielding to the demands of the triangle offense are persona non grata in Lakerland. Nor are dim-witted, selfish performers welcomed in San Antonio. Doc Rivers wants nothing to do with guys who can’t buckle down on defense, and so on.
However, if the primary duty of every NBA coach is to adjust to his available players, then any coach could theoretically coach any team.
Since the Knicks could not even think of trading either Stoudemire or Anthony, the only solution for the dilemma that James Dolan has created is to can D’Antoni and replace him with somebody who’s comfortable implementing isolation basketball. But, above all, D’Antoni can’t be blamed for Dolan negating what his coach of the moment does best and for putting him in a straitjacket.
• As previously noted in this space, the absence of Kendrick Perkins’ massive screens has effectively removed Ray Allen from being a prime factor in Boston’s offense. That’s why the Celtics have had so much trouble scoring in the 90s lately — and also why there’s no immediate remedy for this situation.
• The Lakers are out to win another championship. Period. So to propose that they’d rather face the Hornets or any other specific opponent in the first round of the playoffs is absurd. Sooner or later, the Lakers will have to contend with one of the West’s elite squads. Better sooner while their legs are still relatively fresh. Plus, the veteran Lakers will require minimal time to adjust to playoff basketball.
Indeed, a relative stress-free advancing into round two would be detrimental to the Lakers establishing a three-peat mindset.
Legitimate coach of the year candidates:
• Phil Jackson, because it’s extremely difficult to win when you’re supposed to win. Also, to compensate him for winning 11 rings but only one COY award (1995-96 with the Bulls).
• Gregg Popovich, for resurrecting the old-and-in-the-way Spurs.
• Nate McMillan, for keeping the Blazers in contention despite so many devastating injuries to key players.
• Doug Collins, for lifting the Sixers out of the depths of despair and into the light of the playoffs.
• Tom Thibodeau, for bringing Jordan-esque excitement back to the Windy City.
• Byron Scott, for surviving with a modicum of his sanity still intact — and for deflating the overweening arrogance of the Heat for at least one game.
And the winner?
While PJ is the sentimental and historic favorite, it’s Thibodeau who deserves the honor.