Daily Doctrine (4/26): Westbrook Dooms Thunder Sweep

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

If the Oklahoma City Thunder had their way, they’d have no doubt left the Pepsi Center Monday night with a hard-fought victory against the Denver Nuggets, resulting in a commanding, decisive, and message-sending 4-0 series sweep.  After a confounding 104-101 game four loss to Ty Lawson and company, though, coach Scott Brooks’ team will have to settle for a golden opportunity to close out the series at home and leave the first round in their dust at a sure-to-be raucous Ford Center on Wednesday night.

Even taking last night’s setback into account, there may not have been a more impressive team over the postseason’s first ten days than Oklahoma City.  Facing a rejuvenated, post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets squad that many experts saw as a dark-horse Western conference threat, the Thunder have looked like championship contenders.

With the February acquisition of C Kendrick Perkins, OKC has seemingly every ingredient needed to make a sooner-than-expected title run.

Size on the interior? Check.  Athleticism? They’ve got it in spades.  Shooting? No doubt.  Defensive stoppers? At both levels.  Quality depth? Maybe more than any team in the league.  Star power? Say hello to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The one thing the young Thunder truly lack, then? Tangible buzz-words like “experience” and “decision-making,” traits that are perhaps overvalued during the regular season grind, but completely necessary once spring and summer finally roll around.

At the heart of the issue is Westbrook, OKC’s dynamo lead-guard, and that fact has never been more evident than in the critical moments of his team’s loss in game four.

Throughout the season, some lamented that Westbrook’s ascent to stardom hindered the development and play of Durant, himself a young player that has growing to do despite his already-gaudy career accomplishments.  As Westbrook improved, it was obvious he’d want the ball in his hands more and more.  After all, this is a guy that only started playing point guard two seasons ago, and – like contemporary Derrick Rose – whose first instinct is to score rather than set up his teammates.  Problem is, with an alpha dog like Durant already rightfully established as the team’s best player, there is only so much ball to go around.

Getting to the point: Over the final minutes of OKC’s loss, Westbrook’s score-first, “I got this” mentality doomed the Thunder.  Beginning at the 4:43 mark with a missed 20-footer, he used eight possessions down the stretch, only capitalizing on two of them.  More troubling than his inefficiency, though, was the way he went about it.

Westbrook, a still-developing shooter with a lightning quick first step, missed four long jumpers, committed a senseless charge twenty feet from the basket, and on multiple occasions passed-up open teammates – and the league’s top scorer, Durant, no less – to go one-on-one.  There was a lot of dribbling by Westbrook, and a lot of standing by the other OKC players on the floor, as if they knew they weren’t getting the ball.

A perfect microcosm of Westbrook’s overall performance were OKC’s final two possessions.  Down three with eight seconds left, he raced up the floor, stopped on a dime, and pulled up from deep, the end-result a hopeless air ball.  Just seconds later, the Thunder clinging to hope down three again on the heels of a Durant trey, Westbrook eschewed advancing the ball with a pass despite just four seconds remaining in the game.  Instead, he once again dribbled furiously up the sideline before getting off a desperation, 35-foot runner that clanged hard off the glass.

Westbrook’s me-first approach becomes ever clearer when you consider what PG peer Jason Kidd did in a similar last-effort situation over the weekend.  Kidd secured a defensive rebound with four seconds left on the clock and his team down two.  Instead of taking it himself, he immediately looked up and fed an open Jason Terry – standing just outside the three-point line – for a game-winning attempt.  Though the result was the same as Westbrook’s, the point is obvious: Kidd got his team a good shot by making the play a point guard should – giving the ball up to a teammate with a better chance to make a play.  Westbrook, on that final play and throughout the game, rarely did the same.

This is not meant to bash Westbrook; other than Durant, no Thunder player is more influential to OKC’s success.  He’s one of the brightest young talents in the game, and will only improve as his career wears on.

For the sake of the Thunder’s fortunes this postseason and beyond, however, it’s pertinent he realizes his role as a secondary option to Durant and the limitations of his own game.  Durant, after all, had 31 points on 18 shots including two threes in the game’s final minute.  Westbrook, on the other hand, had 30 points on as many attempts, half of which were jumpshots that he routinely struggles to make.

If Westbrook learns from the game four loss to Denver, honing his shot-selection and decision-making , one thinks the Thunder won’t mind having to close out the April  first round series in five games rather than four; because as a result, they could be playing another in June, the NBA Finals.

Pope’s Pick: March 2

March 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks

Horford played arguably the best game of his young career in Atlanta’s 83-80 comeback victory over the Bulls on Wednesday. The underrated Hawks star tied a career high with 31 points, pulled down 16 rebounds and connected on 13 of his 20 field goal attempts. He also scored the game’s biggest bucket, a running dunk down the middle of the lane to put his team up one with 29 seconds remaining.

Its doubtful the Hawks will make any noise in the playoffs this season, but they’re a bigger threat to the East’s elite than in the past due in large part to the vast improvement of Horford, who has quietly developed into his team’s best player.

Daily Doctrine (3/2): Finally at Full Strength, Kansas Could be Country’s Best

March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Kansas Jayhawks are 27-2, ranked second in the country, arguably the most statistically impressive team in college basketball and will gain a record seventh straight Big 12 title if they win just one of their remaining two regular season games .  Despite those rare and gaudy accomplishments, there’s been a season-long aura of unpredictability and the slimmest of doubt surrounding coach Bill Self‘s squad.

Why? Lethargic second halves and an unsteady perimeter rotation withstanding, the primary reason for worry among the citizens of Jayhawk nation have been consistent player injuries and suspensions.

It started out when ballyhooed freshman Josh Selby was kept from the season’s first nine games for taking impermissible benefits in high school.  PG Elijah Johnson was suspended for two of those contests as well for violating team rules.

Shortly thereafter, senior F Mario Little was held out for a month due to a run in with law enforcement.  As he returned, reserve wing Travis Releford tweaked an ankle, missed several games and took longer than expected to heal.  Worst, impact reserve big Thomas Robinson lost three immediate family members within as many weeks and missed two Big 12 match-ups.

Finally, Tyshawn Taylor – a third year starter – was suspended ten days ago for an undisclosed violation and reinstated on March 1 by the coaching staff.  Not to mention that both Selby and Robinson weren’t a part of three KU wins in February due to minor injuries.

Bill Self, coach of a team as impressive as any in college basketball this season, has had the full Kansas roster at his disposal in a mere two games this season: a 90-66 home blowout over rival Kansas State and a 22 point stomping of Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Obviously, that the Jayhawks have had almost no time at full strength this year is a scary thought for the college basketball world.  Despite the year’s rash of untimely injuries and mysterious suspensions, KU has been a fixture at or near the top of the polls, ranking outside the country’s top five only once since passing that threshold in the fourth week of the season.

More impressive than that though, is the team being among the country’s leaders in a breath of statistical categories.  Kansas is currently second in RPI, third in guru Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings and first in assists per game and field goal percentage among other team metrics.  This is a squad that is arguably the country’s best on offense and – despite grumblings from fans of otherwise – still one of its elite on the other end of the floor.

Without Selby, Robinson, Taylor or anyone else, Kansas could play big.  They could play small.  They could run you of the gym.  They could bog you down in the half-court.  They could light it up from the outside.  They could dominate on the interior.  It didn’t seem to matter the manner in which they played, but the Jayhawks won almost every time they took the floor and as much as any other team in college basketball.

Tonight – senior night at Allen Fieldhouse – KU will play just their third game of the 2010-2011 season at 100 percent.  No suspensions, no injuries.  With postseason play right around the corner, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Of course, with a finally full roster come questions.  How will Taylor fit back into the rotation? Will Selby continue to come off the bench? Will Kansas go big with the Morris Twins and Robinson more often now that it’s March? Does Releford have a meaningful role going forward? There’s an infinite number of queries facing Self and his staff.

Still, Kansas’ head man no doubt prefers trying to find the right answers than go into his team’s “real” season with the KU cupboard anything but full, because this team – even missing an integral part or two – is an NCAA Tournament contender.  At full strength? They could be its consensus favorite.

Pope’s Pick: March 1

March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks 37 year-old point guard Jason Kidd partied like it was 1999 tonight in Philadelphia.  Against the rejuvenated Sixers and young Kidd-Doppelganger Jrue Holiday, the 17 year veteran played his best game of the 2010-2011 season in his team’s 101-93 victory.

Kidd, a future hall-of-famer, posted a triple double of 13 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists while swiping three steals and committing no turnovers.  He was at his best down the stretch, scoring seven points in the game’s final three minutes as the Mavs methodically put away the home team.

While Kidd no doubt wishes he could have saved this epic retro performance for the postseason, the fact that he’s still capable of such makes Dallas an extra scary opponent come spring time.

Daily Doctrine (3/1): Nuggets’ Future Looks Bright Post-‘Melo

March 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a summer and first half of the season rife with incessant supposition, analysis and media attention concerning the status of Carmelo Anthony, last week the Denver Nuggets finally made the decision to trade the unhappy superstar to his preferred destination of the New York Knicks.  The opinion of Denver’s haul in return for Anthony, veteran Chauncey Billups and spare parts – young wings Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, cost-effective lead man Ray Felton, seven-footer Timofey Mozgov and draft picks plus added financial flexibility – varied depending on what NBA expert or fan you talked to.  After four games with this new crew of Nuggets, though, views on the trade from Denver’s perspective have taken an upward trajectory toward positive.

Why? Despite the team’s gaudy 3-1 record Post-Melo (hereafter referred to as P.M.), it’s the collective attitude, energy and youthful exuberance of the new-look Nuggets that has Denver and its fans smiling.  Gone with the trade are awkward cheers for an unhappy Anthony, stern but polite media posturing from players and the feeling that wins are irrelevant in the long run.  Denver is playing an exciting new brand of basketball, players are happy to be a part of it and the Nuggets – though left for dead P.M. this season by prognosticators – look poised to challenge for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference.

How is this group of ragtag players excelling? It begins with the most surprising aspect of the new-Nuggs: they’ve been stellar on defense in three games P.M. with their new acquisitions in tow.

First, the Nuggets held perennial power and championship favorite Boston to a mere 75 points and 39% shooting while out-rebounding the Celtics by 14.  A day later on the road in Portland, Denver lost an overtime heart-breaker by one but kept the Blazers to just 97 points in regulation, a commendable feat considering the home team’s prowess at the raucous Rose Garden.  Finally, last night the Nuggets dominated the playoff-bound Hawks forcing them to 40 percent shooting and just 90 points.

Clearly, P.M. Denver has early returns of being vastly superior on defense to the team that ranked in the league’s bottom third of defensive efficiency.  Coach George Karl has a litany of quick, long and bouncy athletes at his disposal in his deep new rotation, and is using it to the Nuggets’ great advantage on that end of the floor.

Offensively, Denver’s barely missed a beat despite losing the awesome talent and production of the Anthony/Billups tandem.  The Nuggets have averaged 104 points per game and shot 46.3 percent from the field P.M., both numbers just shy of their season-long average but still among the league’s leaders.  Denver need not worry about the smallest slippage on offense, though, because their increased defensive acumen – if maintained, of course – makes the margin for error on the other end greater.  In other words, the Nuggets’ immediate improvement in stopping their opponents gives them more time to integrate new and important pieces Gallinari, Wilson and Felton into their offensive schemes and sets.

Simply, this Nuggets team is much better P.M. than anyone anticipated.  They have one of the deepest and most athletic rosters in the entire league, with two talented young PGs (Ty Lawson is the other, a potential star), a bevy of wing scorers, an imposing and physical front-court (led by Nene) and solid defenders at every position.  Plus, the team’s most talented and valuable members of their nine man rotation are 28 or younger.

Denver – despite their impressive P.M. beginnings – will likely serve as nothing more than a playoff road-bump for one of the west’s best this spring.  However, the collective youth, talent and attitude of these Nuggets combined with stable finances going into the summer make Denver’s future undeniably bright P.M., a far cry from where most thought they’d be just a few weeks ago.

Pope’s Pick: February 24

February 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls

In a marquee matchup of Eastern Conference powers, the Chicago Bulls outlasted the Miami Heat at the United Center 93-89 Thursday night. While MVP candidate Derrick Rose was his typically stellar self for Chicago, it was SF Luol Deng that was the team’s MVP.

Deng was extremely active on defense and the glass all game long, and led the Bulls’ third quarter offensive surge that brought them back from a nine-point halftime deficit. He made no bigger play, though, than his corner 3-pointer with 16 seconds left that broke a tie and put the Bulls ahead for good.

For the game, Deng scored 20 points on an efficient 7-12 from the floor, pulled down 10 rebounds and doled out five assists. If these teams meet in the postseason, performances like this from Deng will go a long way in determining whether the upstart Bulls can beat the Heat.

Daily Doctrine (2/24): Perkins Trade Beginning of Potential Dynasty in OKC

February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perhaps the most active trade period in NBA history ended Thursday afternoon, as the deadline for deals to be completed finally passed.  Months of speculation and anticipation regarding Carmelo Anthony’s future finally yielded the predictable answer, Deron Williams was shockingly shipped east, and an already frenetic pace only picked up as 3:00PM approached.  12 trades have been reported thus far, and – to the surprise of the majority of fans – the most influential one this season and beyond didn’t involve New York or New Jersey.

Rather, the NBA’s most important exchange of the 2011 trade deadline was made between perennial eastern power Boston and rising western contender Oklahoma City.  The terms? Celtics enforcer and C Kendrick Perkins was sent to OKC along with Nate Robinson for Thunder swingman Jeff Green and finesse C Nenad Krstic.

Obviously, there are two sides to this barter and looming ramifications for each squad in both the present and future.  Who came out better? The clear winner – to Roundball Refuge, at least – is the Thunder, and as such precocious GM Sam Presti and company are the focus of the Daily Doctrine.  Let’s break the deal down from OKC’s perspective, and why it makes them much more formidable contenders this season and in those following.

Last season, the extremely green and surprising Thunder took eventual NBA champion Los Angeles to six games in the first round of the playoffs.  In fact, if not for a last second offensive rebound and put-back by Pau Gasol, the series would have gone back to Staples Center for a decisive game seven.  The notion that OKC was the Lakers’ toughest postseason opponent other than Boston last Spring isn’t just popular opinion, it’s fact.  After sneaking by the Thunder with a scoring margin of just +3.3, LA eviscerated Utah in a four game sweep and took down a rejuvenated Phoenix squad in six games with a margin of +4.2.

The primary reason for the Thunder’s truly shortest-of-comings against the Lakers in round one? The series’ decisive play served as the ultimate microcosm; OKC couldn’t keep up with their stronger and longer counterparts on the glass.  In each loss, the Thunder were out-rebounded by their seasoned opponent and allowed a large number of offensive rebounds.  In their pair of victories? OKC won the battle of the boards and limited the Lakers’ second-chance opportunities.

LA’s collective length and strength gives the entire league problems; that – even more so than the singular brilliance of Kobe Bryant – is the driving force behind their three straight Finals appearances and two consecutive titles.  The Thunder’s 2010 frontcourt, though, was woefully ill-equipped to handle Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom by average NBA standards.  As a lanky, 6’9” “stretch 4”, Green didn’t have the requisite base or style of game to keep pace with the LA interior, and Krstic – despite his relatively thick 7’0” frame – is a notoriously soft player that’s never averaged a mere seven boards in a single season.

Against most teams, the Thunder could use their speed, athleticism and overall energy level to get away with being undersized.  Not so against the powerful Lakers.  This new-look, post-trade Oklahoma City team, though? That could be a different story.

The Thunder, presumably, will start an entirely new frontcourt once all their pieces are healthy.  Perkins has a history of knee problems – which kept him out of game 7 of the Finals – but the rewards of combining his skills with those of Kevin Durant and company outweigh the risks his balky legs may present.  Perkins is one of the game’s premier interior defenders, using his massive 6’10”, 280 pound frame to thrive in one-on-one, screen/roll and help-side defense.  He also plays with unbridled passion, and is perhaps the NBA’s most intimidating physical force.  Perkins isn’t just a big body, though, as evidenced by his career 56.3% mark from the floor and underrated back to the basket game.

Nearly as significant as the addition of Perkins is the prospect of second-year pro Serge Ibaka taking over for Green as OKC’s starting PF.  Growing up in the Congo with 17 siblings, the 21 year-old Ibaka didn’t play competitive basketball until well into his teens.  Just several years later, the 6’10”, 235 pound thoroughbred is one of the league’s brightest young bigs, combining his elite physical gifts with a burgeoning skill-set.  He ranks sixth overall in blocks per game despite playing just 25 minutes, shoots a stellar 56.3% from the field and is already an above-average rebounder for his position.

Prior to Thursday’s deal, OKC was considered the league’s best young team, and a potential thorn in the side of LA and San Antonio in this year’s playoffs.  After? They’re still – and even more convincingly – the NBA’s best group of youngsters, but pose a much bigger threat as contenders this season.

Coming into the year, Oklahoma City was a sexy pick to gain the West’s top playoff seed.  Though they’ve outdone last season’s pace, the Thunder haven’t lived up to those lofty preseason expectations.  The reason? OKC has been decidedly average on defense, ranking just 16th in points per 100 possessions, despite the fact they ranked eighth in the same category last year.  With the addition of Perkins and increased minutes for Ibaka, the Thunder will no doubt improve their play on that end of the floor.  With Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way offensively, if all goes according to plan Oklahoma City will have nary a weakness as the postseason approaches.

Regardless of whether or not the Perkins trade helps OKC this year, the deal no doubt made their prospects for the future even brighter.  No team boasts as well-rounded and talented a young core as that of Durant, Westbrook, Perkins, Ibaka and promising second-year wing James Harden.  Beginning next season, they’ll be clear-cut favorites for the Western crown every year as long as that group is kept intact.  Considering the Thunder’s well-managed finances and the individual ages of that quintet, and it’s possible OKC is looking at a decade of dominance.

While it remains to be seen whether the Perkins deal will help derail the transcendent eras of LA, San Antonio or Boston come June, today’s exchange made one thing crystal clear: Oklahoma City has begun one of their own.