Finals or bust for this season's Thunder squad
FEB 19, 2013 4:33p ET
Win the 2013 NBA championship, or else.
Simple as that.
Anything else casts a pall over the season.
It would be the first time Oklahoma City has not improved upon the previous season since arriving from Seattle before the 2008-09 season. In the last three seasons the Thunder have gone from the first round, to the second round and then to the Finals.
Failure to take the next step on the ladder would validate the criticisms of the James Harden trade.
So, as the Thunder approach life after the All-Star break and their final 29 games of the regular season, starting Wednesday against the Rockets in Houston, Oklahoma City needs to look at everything it does in terms of how it will help them beat Miami.
Or else it will be a season without a championship.
Miami is the only barometer for the Thunder and when it comes to title talk. There's the Heat and then there's "Not exactly."
What this season has shown us is the Thunder is good enough to beat San Antonio and the Clippers, Lakers and Memphis. Oklahoma City is 39-14, which is the second best record in the league trailing only San Antonio, and is on pace to win 60 games.
And what this season has also shown us is the Thunder is a championship contender, but not a great match for the Miami. Twice already, Oklahoma City has been beaten by Miami and dating back to a season ago, the Thunder have lost six-consecutive against the Heat.
Figure the moves general manager Sam Presti is considering as we count down to the trade deadline later this week are equal parts making Oklahoma City better and equal parts trying to solve Miami.
What has to happen to beat the Heat?
First of all, Oklahoma City needs a third scoring option. Two guys have proven to be enough when it comes to playing against San Antonio and the best of the West, but look at Miami and it seems like seven guys are scoring options — from Lebron to Shane Battier and everyone in between. The Thunder struggled in a home loss to the Heat on Valentine's Day, in part because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook shouldered the majority of the scoring load.
The two shooting stars combined for 66 points. The bench chipped in all of 16 points and Serge Ibaka was absent. He had only six points on six shots.
Kevin Martin has shown he can be counted on, but he hasn't shown he can be expected to carry a team if Westbrook and Durant are stagnant. Martin had nine against the Heat and was an invisible two-of-five shooting.
Next, the Thunder have to decide what kind of lineup they are going to use. Is Kendrick Perkins enough at center? Doesn't seem to be against the Heat, where playing big doesn't help against the Heat's smaller lineup that has had Perkins running all over the court chasing scorers. Other options in the middle? Well, kinda thin. Hasheem Thabeet has shown dim flashes, but past that there's Nick Collison off the bench and almost no scoring threat at all.
And you have to consider the Thunder aren't satisfied with their guard play behind Westbrook. Eric Maynor has been a no-show this season, leaving most of the reserve play to Reggie Jackson, who doesn't look for his shot when Durant shares the court with him, limiting the Thunder even more offensively. Maynor has also been the one most-rumored to be traded.
But perhaps the most-important thing when it comes to beating Miami is the fact that the Thunder don't know if they can.
Durant and Westbrook both said they were a bit surprised that the team didn't come out and play better early on Valentine's Day, which suggests there's a mental hurdle to overcome. Four-consecutive losses in the Finals will do that. So will a sweep in the regular season.
Even Kendrick Perkins, king of the solidified locker room, said there was something about getting over the hump of playing Miami and they would have to figure it out if the teams met again.
Durant has 11 technical fouls this season, tied for the most in the league. Westbrook has stormed off the court once and blown up at the media more than once. Maybe they realize the pressures they are up against and the expectation to keep improving.
Or else it will feel like a lost season.
Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman
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