May 25, 2011

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Fallout at the OKC Corral

By: Rick Jarrell

Two days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a commanding 15 point lead with five minutes left in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant had just nailed a seemingly dagger-three, consequently celebrating by turning to the OKC bench and miming a wrestling championship belt around his waist. But the gesture was premature, as the Thunder fell victim to a Dirk Nowitzki led comeback by the Dallas Mavericks in one of the most epic collapses in recent  history of NBA playoffs.

To be fair, the Dallas comeback was both highly improbable and astonishing. No one expected them to make a run to get back into the game, let alone win, especially in the fashion they did – Dirk hitting ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. At one point, Nowitzki pump faked to draw contact, which he clearly did, severely altering his shot, but didn’t get the foul call. But it didn’t matter. He nailed the jumper. Just Dirk being Dirk.

Even more improbable than Dallas’s Game 4 comeback is OKC coming back to win this series. That’s a tall order, especially for a young  team with little NBA playoff experience. The series will likely end, in my opinion, tonight in Dallas. But Oklahoma City, team and fans, shouldn’t look on the outcome as a complete loss. For young teams, unfavorable NBA playoff losses and crushing disappointment often serve as building blocks for perennial championship contenders. The heartbreak Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka felt after Game 4 and (most likely) the end of the series will fuel their offseason routines have them more than ready for next year.

That’s part of the beauty of what OKC General Manager Sam Presti has built – a young team that’s molded together who, along with their coach, Scott Brooks, have a single goal in mind. Not fame or fortune, but a championship. Every indication coming from the NBA players leads us to believe they are in it to win it – together – for the long run.

Durant, the humble 22 year old superstar, leads the team on and off the court. During last summer’s free agent extravaganza, while NBA players LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and David Lee were being wined and dined by teams in need of superstars, holding egotistic press conferences and premature celebrations, Durant signed a five year contract extension with the small town team who drafted him. How did the public find out? He tweeted it.

The remaining young core exemplifies the same modesty, as well. Russell Westbook, Durant’s Robin to his Batman, was recently benched for the entire fourth quarter of a pivotal NBA playoff game. Most 22 year old budding stars would have been visibly upset, taking their issues to the media. But Westbrook handled it well, maintaining something along the lines of “as long as we win, it doesn’t matter.”

Kevin Durant

James Harden and Serge Ibaka, both 21 years old, have seen highs and lows in their sophomore seasons. Harden, a potential offensive powerhouse, and Ibaka, a block machine, have been benched and lost playing time for extended times this season, largely due to match ups with opposing teams. But they’ve both taken the reduced minutes in stride, as each has received more playing time since the trade of Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics. But will still sit, if needed, for match up sake.

Beyond the young core is a set of blue collar role players. Kendrick Perkins, the defensive minded center, provides toughness inside. Thabo Sefolosha starts at shooting guard, also as a defensive presence. Nick Collison spells Ibaka and Perkins when needed, providing solid rebounding, causing offensive fouls, and scoring back door layups. Eric Maynor, of Virginia Commonwealth fame, has developed into a more than capable point guard who can come in and hit shots and change the pace from Westbrook’s freight train style.

Together, the Thunder display the true meaning of the word team. They cooperate on the court, hang out off the court. Say the right things, do the right things. They’re everything that is right with sports and competition. Oklahoma City has developed a rare, but successful, organizational model that will be mimicked by other small market teams.

But even with all the right pieces in place, the Holy Grail isn’t a given. There is still work that needs to be done. OKC still has its weaknesses. Westbrook has a tendency to be a “black hole” and be less point guard, more scorer, sacrificing offensive plays and passes for kamikaze dives to the basket (good and bad, depending on the situation and outcome). Durant, while a gifted scorer, is not assertive enough with the team and lacks great defensive skills. Harden, also a capable scorer, is still very streaky and lacks a defensive presence. Sefolosha and Perkins, while strong defensive, are offensively inept. Perkins, too, has terrible knees, and often takes forever to get up and down the court (he also can’t really jump).

Clearly, they aren’t perfect. Presti and Brooks know this, as do the players. And they have the ability to improve and fix these issues, both internally through young player development, and externally, through flexibility available through draft picks and trades. As captain of the ship, Presti is more than capable of steering the Thunder even further in the right direction. So if my prediction is correct, Dallas defeats OKC in the NBA playoffs to reach the NBA finals, it’s not the end of the world (that’s scheduled for October now, right?). Unlike many teams, built for a 3-5 year run, the Thunder, assuming at least some of the team stays together, have the potential to be title contenders for the next ten years. As a Cleveland fan, I’m jealous, but also excited to see what the “good guys” can do.