1. For our fans who may not have followed the Thunder closely this season, how has Kevin Martin fit in since the trade?
Kevin Martin has blended in well with the Thunder concept. While he is not nor ever will be the threat that James Harden was off the dribble or in the pick-and-roll, what he does better than Harden is find open spots on the floor and hit medium-range and 3-point jumpers. There is a positive and negative aspect to this.
The positive is that the Thunder have long struggled with 4th quarter issues when the offense bogs down, Kevin Durant can't get open, and Russell Westbrook ends up forcing jumpers. With Martin on the court, he plays very well off the ball and knows how to balance out the court, which alleviates the defensive pressure that Durant & Westbrook face. Martin's understanding of the game has allowed the Thunder to maintain a good offensive flow all the way through to the end.
The negative however is that the Thunder bench is no longer an automatic asset. If Martin is the primary scoring option for the 2nd unit, unless he is making his outside jumpers, the bench can really struggle. They have some good pieces on the 2nd unit - Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, and now DeAndre Liggins bring good energy and smarts to the court, but at the end of the day the unit has to produce points so that the starters' efforts aren't wasted. We're still looking for more consistency there.
2. Russell Westbrook's assist numbers are back up this year. What's the difference between this year and last?
Simply put, Westbrook is an incredibly hard worker, and his work ethic in making himself a better player and better teammate is paying dividends. Both he and Durant have come into this season with a higher level of knowledge about how the game works, how to play off of each other, contribute to each others' strengths, and most importantly, set up their teammates. Westbrook has shown great confidence and patience in setting up his teammates, in particular Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka. Both players have improved their scoring as a result.
We could argue that last season was an anomaly, that Westbrook's assist totals just dipped that one year while in other years maintained a steady incline, but I think that trend misses out on the fact that Westbrook is displaying better knowledge of the point guard position than ever before. To be sure he's never going to morph into Jason Kidd, but he doesn't need to. He just needs to know how to set up his offense, how to get his teammates into the right spots, and then deliver.
3. What's been your favorite moment the first half of the season?
Dominating the Lakers never gets old, as I'm sure you're aware, so that's always a big bonus. However, I'd say that my personal favorite moment came in their recent win over the Trail Blazers. The Thunder were missing two starters and bedrock defensive players in Ibaka and Sefolosha, yet their defense probably played its best game of the season. Portland had been on a hot streak as of late and were nearly unbeatable at home. The The Thunder offense was struggling, the Rose Garden was hopping, and we were wondering if the missing players and the home town's juice were too much to overcome.
The defense had to be the element that won the game, and it did. Despite missing their two defensive specialists, OKC played crushing defensive ball for the better part of 48 minutes. They forced the Trail Blazers into 3 misses in the final 9 seconds of the game and held onto a 4 point win. It wasn't pretty, but sometimes those are the types of games that tell you the most about a team's make-up and their will to persevere and win.
4. What things do the Thunder need to improve on prior to the playoffs?
I would argue that there are two elements that need improvement.
The first is, as I mentioned above, the bench is still inconsistent. Kevin Martin is the lynch pin of course, but the point guard position is still unsettled. Currently 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson is getting the playing time, but Eric Maynor, who missed almost all of last season, is in the mix. Maynor has struggled in the early part of the season but is a known quantity. Jackson is a hot or cold type player. One game he looks like the perfect backup who can score, rebound, and pass the ball, and other times he is too passive and gets lost in what the team is trying to do. One of these guys needs to step up and lead this 2nd unit so that Martin can get open looks and Nick Collison, and underrated offensive player, can be involved in scoring.
The second is that the Thunder are still prone to taking games off, as we saw recently in their road loss to Washington. I know that every team has these types of let-down games where they come in unfocused while believing that playing 1 quarter of great ball is enough to overcome 3 bad quarters, but for the Thunder, the margin for error is small. The top of the West is going to be extremely close the remainder of the year, with both the Clippers and Spurs biting at OKC's heels. Sad losses to the likes of the Wizards are the kind of thing you don't think much of in January, but come April, it might mean the difference between a #1 seed and a #3 seed. Every game matters.
5. What does Dallas need to do to beat OKC?
The Mavs are always going to play tough against the Thunder because in Dirk they have a dependable scoring option who can push the offense forward and they have a defender in Shawn Marion who challenges Durant both length-wise as well as strength-wise. So step 1 is that Marion has to play a great defensive game. It is getting ever the more difficult to have a great defensive game against KD, but if anyone can do it, it's Marion.
Step 2 is that the Mavs need to devise a plan on how to funnel Westbrook into the spots where he is not as comfortable shooting the ball. In Dallas' playoff win against OKC 2 years ago, they knew that if they let Westbrook drive the ball just inside the free throw line, he'd become uncertain of whether he wanted to shoot the short jumper or try and barrel to the rim. The result was that Westbrook played poorly and Dallas won the series. In last year's playoffs, Westbrook almost always got to the 2 spots he wanted - the free throw line jumper and at the rim. The places where he does not shoot as well are the two free throw extended elbows. Get him forcing those jumpers, and Dallas has a chance to make Westbrook a sub-par shooter.
Step 3 is that Dallas has to get into OKC's 2nd unit with a shot to balance things out. If they can turn things into a 4th quarter game, the return of Dirk and the home crowd may be enough.
All that said...if Dallas cannot stop the point of the Thunder spear, which is actually Westbrook, not Durant, you guys are in trouble. If he is allowed to get to his spots and shoot a high percentage, the Thunder are almost unstoppable. See recent OKC wins over the Suns and Nuggets for all the evidence you need.
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