NBA teams match up at most just four times during the regular season. That's enough to draw some insights, but it's not the same kind of expertise of watching a team night in and out all season.
The biggest change for the Thunder from last year to this year has to be the addition of former University of Florida coach Billy Donovan. What sort of changes have you seen in how the Thunder play and is the fan base happy with the way things are going?
Donovan's first season has gone as well as anyone could have expected. I have mentioned it on Welcome to Loud City, but his situation was almost unprecedented in that he took a job with a mandate to simply "make sure things keep going well." There were some fans that dreamt of Spurs-ian ball movement and defensive schemes, but Donovan's job was always going to be to keep his distance and add subtle refinements to a Durant- and Westbrook-heavy offense while fixing last year's inexplicably poor defense. Because literally anyone with a pulse could have taken steps to improve the defense, Thunder fans have gotten all they could have realistically hoped for: home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, with at least mild optimism that OKC can get past Dallas and then truly push the Spurs. I understand the general narrative surrounding the Spurs, but the Thunder remain an abysmal match up for San Antonio. Despite the intense rivalry between the Mavericks and the Spurs, I'd imagine few American cities are rooting harder than San Antonio for the Mavs to pull off a round 1 upset.
Fans have been critical of Donovan's disturbing propensity to play Kyle Singler, and maybe it took a few games (or months) too long for Donovan to start staggering Durant and Westbrook in the lineup, but I don't think there are too many other valid complaints regarding the rookie head coach. Early in the season, Thunder fans were introduced to something called an "out-of-bounds play," which has been a pleasant wrinkle throughout the year, and Donovan clearly has a better feel for managing the game than Scott Brooks ever did. Where Brooks would allow 8-point deficits to balloon to 13 or 14 points before stopping the bleeding, Donovan has brought a more proactive awareness that has kept the Thunder in games that they might have let get away in years past.
Finally, as has been widely noted, Donovan's top assistants Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks have been absent from the bench down the stretch. Williams, of course, lost his wife in a tragic car accident, while Cheeks had major hip surgery that has prevented him from being with the team. All things considered, Donovan has handled the adversity admirably, and at the very least avoided becoming a completely liability.
How do the Mavericks beat the Thunder?
For a series that many don't expect to last very long, there sure is a pretty obvious road map for the Mavericks to make the Thunder uncomfortable. Only the Bobcats turn the ball over fewer times per game than the Mavericks, which means there will be fewer run-outs resulting in OKC dunks and layups. Transition points have long been a staple of Thunder basketball, and one doesn't have to look back very far (Round 1 against Memphis in 2014) to find a should've-been-easy series that was very difficult for OKC due to a lack of easy baskets. As great as Durant and Westbrook can be, both players continue to demonstrate a general impatience in half-court offensive sets, leading to an endless barrage of outside shots. This shouldn't work for the Thunder as often as it has, but when the shots aren't falling OKC is very, very beatable.
Dallas probably doesn't have the inside presence to stop Durant and Westbrook if they can get to the basket (and they will), but the way the Mavericks beat OKC is basically the way everyone does: force them to take outside shots -- a task that isn't nearly as difficult as it should be by now.
One recurring story for OKC this year has been the fourth quarter collapses. What's been going on and is it something to worry about in the playoffs?
There are, perhaps, two ways of explaining these collapses.
The first is that the Thunder offense is much like an NFL quarterback attempting to change his mechanics. When the pocket is clean, and when the timing is clicking, he looks great. His footwork is sound, the ball is held high, and the release is quick and compact.
But then the running game breaks down. The defense starts sending blitzes. The offensive line is getting overrun. The cumulative result? A total regression to the throwing motion that the quarterback has used for his entire life.
This is kind of what the Thunder offense has looked like in fourth quarters this season. Everything is working early and the ball is flying around, but when the starters come back in for their final shift it's as if they just try to run out the clock by reverting to the isolation sets we have seen them run for a half decade. This often works, because the truth is that getting the ball to Durant or Westbrook still represents the path of least resistance to scoring points, but any nuances added to the offense this year have been discarded late in games, and the result has been long streaks of fruitless possessions just as they start to matter most.
The other, slightly less-fun-to-think-about, possibility is that Durant and Westbrook still don't trust their teammates enough to give up the ball late in games. Westbrook's passing has reached a new level this season. His assists are not just up, but they also have generally been of higher quality. Russ is getting the ball to guys that he previously was not even seeing, while Kevin Durant's passing has always been an underrated part of his game. Again, though, all of this generally has applied far more to the first 45 minutes of games than the final three. When you take an already predictable offense and remove the only existing variables, defenses become more effective at stopping Durant and Westbrook. Touting the growth of both players and admitting that they still have issues trusting their teammates are not mutually exclusive viewpoints.
It's worth noting that these late-game situations really are cases where the Thunder must pick their own poison. Everyone wants to see great ball movement and motion-heavy sets late, but we also know that every big shot not taken by Durant or Westbrook is taken by Dion Waiters or Randy Foye. Ideally, OKC would be able to ensure a shot by one of the two stars while also running just enough action to keep the defense off-balance in late game situations, but as things currently stand Thunder fans will have to settle with two of the six best players in the NBA taking the most important shots. I can live with that, even if there is room for improvement.
Past Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, which Thunder player do you consider an X factor for this series?
Many non-Thunder fans may not realize it, but Serge Ibaka was relegated to "x-factor" early in the season, and has yet to re-emerge as the reliable third piece he once was on track to becoming. He can't create his own shot, his post-up moves look like they are being performed on fiery coal, and his once-patented "baiting" of smaller players where he gives them a step off the dribble before easily recovering and blocking the shot now just looks like an ill-advised switch of Big Man A onto a player he has no business trying to defend.
Any actual production from Serge Ibaka, Playoff X-Factor, however, would be outweighed by what his emergence would represent. When Serge is engaged and hitting his patent pending-18 footer (still far too inconsistent), it's often because the Thunder offense as a whole is humming. This usually means Westbrook is easily turning the corner off of Serge's screens, and the opposing defense is constantly being forced to choose between covering Durant or Ibaka (hint: they don't choose Serge). Russell has been criticized endlessly over the years for his refusal to get teammates involved, but this year he has made cosmic strides in reading the defense and finding the open man. I predict there will be at least two games in this series where Mavericks fans find out the hard way in the form of 5-assist first quarters from Russ. When that happens, Serge will be right in the middle of it all.
In terms of a more traditional x-factor that comes in and delivers a game-altering performance out of nowhere, OKC really only has two prime candidate: Dion Waiters and Cameron Payne. I suspect Payne's minutes will be limited, but the pure skill and disposition he brings off the bench could turn into an underrated subplot of the playoffs if Donovan keeps him in the rotation. For fans requiring their annual Dion Waiters update, there isn't much that is new: he still takes heinous, stunningly-purposeful step back jumpers from 19 feet right after driving hard to the basket or showing off a very underrated passing ability. In other words, Dion Waiters still should be so, so good. But he isn't. And he won't be.
But if he is, Waiters could absolutely change a game or two in this series, even if he does still suffer from Early Westbrook Syndrome - a condition that renders 3/3 starts from the field meaningless due to an inevitable regression to a 35% shooting mean.
Anthony Morrow can get hot quickly, perhaps putting a game out of reach or cutting into a big deficit, but doesn't have a complete enough impact to quality as a classic x-factor.
From what you've seen of the Mavericks, which player (other than Dirk) do you think would fit in the Thunder rotation?
Without question, the only answer is Wesley Matthews. Since trading James Harden, the Thunder have been so desperate for competent shooting guard play that I just listed Dion Waiters as an x-factor in a playoff series. The advanced numbers for Matthews don't look great this year, but the Mavs obviously didn't sign him with the 2015-16 season in mind. The fact that he played 78 games and averaged nearly 34 minutes after his injury just seems like a typo.
If we take positional factors out of the mix, Zaza would obviously be a pretty solid contributor for any playoff team, and I also kind of like Justin Anderson. I've checked out a few Mavericks games on League Pass, he could stands out as someone who might be pretty obnoxious to Thunder fans during this series.
The Thunder have a ridiculously talented roster. What's your ideal 8 man rotation for the playoffs?
With the starting lineup set, the three players I'd would love to see get the most time off the bench are Enes Kanter, Cameron Payne, and Anthony Morrow. The three players that actually will get the most time off the bench are Kanter, Dion Waiters, and Randy Foye.
We'll start with Kanter. I don't think many people realize just how good Enes Kanter is. He is going to be a nightmare for Dallas, and I'd expect at least two 15/10 games from him even if the series is relatively short. He can catch the ball in the post and go to work. He can flare out to the wing and either make the open shot or go to the basket. He is a decent and willing passer. Seriously - Enes Kanter is absolutely worth every dollar of the mammoth contract the Thunder game him last summer, and a lot more fans opposing fans will come to that realization as he dominates the offensive glass virtually every night in a playoff series. His advanced numbers are legitimately insane. According to Basketball Reference, Kanter finished the season with a PER of 24.0 (10th in the league, and ahead of guys like DeMarcus Cousins and LaMarcus Aldridge) and grabbed 16.7% of available offense rebounds while he was on the floor (tops in the NBA by a hefty margin). Is he bad on defense? Yes, he certainly is - but not nearly as bad as his reputation might state.
After Kanter joined the team at the trade deadline last season, watching him play defense on a night-to-night basis was akin to what I'd imagine riding along in a race car for the first time might be like. You hear rumors about its intensity, but never imagine it could be as jarring as people say. Then you do it, and realize words themselves could never do it justice. That's what seeing Kanter on defense was like last year. I had heard he was bad, but nothing could have properly prepared me for what I saw. It was like he intentionally wrote off giving even the slightest physical or mental effort. Thankfully, his effort looks much better this year, allowing him to play more minutes in tight games. Mavericks fans are really going to hate him.
Thunder fans have been clamoring for more of Morrow and Payne all season long, but to be honest I am fine with Dion and Foye getting the lion's share of bench minutes. I've already discussed Dion, but I actually like how Foye has fit in since being traded to OKC. He is somewhat limited as a player, but he has knocked down some important shots and looks comfortable in big situations. When the trade happened, it was widely reported that it was for financial reasons, as swapping D.J. Augustin for Foye saved ownership some cash, but Foye has actually contributed more than I believe any fans thought he would. I'd still love to see Payne and Morrow get minutes, as they are both far more dynamic on offense than Foye, but at this point I'm fine with the rotation I expect Donovan to go with as long as Kyle Singler doesn't see the floor too much. Singler has very few redeeming NBA-level qualities, and his playing time has been a mysterious subplot all season long.
Any series predictions?
Thunder in 5, and I think a 6-game series is far more likely than a Thunder sweep. Also, for the record, I wouldn't be absolutely shocked if the Mavs get their win in Oklahoma City.
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Thanks again, Jeff! Be sure to stop by Welcome to Loud City for more Oklahoma City perspective on the coming series.