Third Quarter Spurs Thunder To A Win

A 37-point, third quarter outpour led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 108-96 victory over the San Antonio Spurs Sunday night at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder came into the second half with a 54-48 lead and extended it to 91-69 thanks to their two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The All-Star duo combined for 21 points and eight assists to go along with six rebounds and just one turnover in the quarter and all but assured the Thunder of its third victory in as many nights.

Durant finished the game with 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists while Westbrook finished with 13 points and five assists.

Entering the game, questions surrounded Scott Brooks and his coaching staff about the backup point guard position due to Eric Maynor’s season-ending, ACL tear in their 98-95 victory over the Houston Rockets Saturday. Brooks hinted before the game that rookie guard Reggie Jackson would get the opportunity to seize the backup position and with his performance against the Spurs Sunday, he will likely hold onto it for the rest of the season.

Jackson entered the game at the 2:40 mark in the first quarter and didn’t hesitate to put points on the board. He missed a shot from beyond the arc with under a minute to play in the first, but got another opportunity and cashed in with a transition basket that gave the Thunder a four-point lead going into the second.

Jackson finished the game with 11 points and four assists in just over 23 minutes.

“I thought he (Jackson) did a good job,” Brooks said after the game. “That’s a tough position and I thought he did well at controlling the team. He’s worked hard since training camp and I thought he did a good job at picking his spots and running the team very well.”

Outside of a dominating third quarter from Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder was once again led by outstanding bench play. The second group combined for 53 of Oklahoma City’s 108 points and pulled down 23 rebounds. They also combined for 11 assists and six steals. James Harden led the way with 20 points and Nick Collison recorded a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Royal Ivey scored 10 points in garbage time at the end of the fourth quarter.

After the game, the Thunder players claimed that their victory over the Spurs was dedicated to Maynor.

“That’s what this whole season is for,” Harden said. “It was a tough loss and we’re all sad for him, but with high hopes and high spirits he will be back soon.”

Fear The Beard

As the Oklahoma City Thunder continue their 66-game, lockout-shortened season, it is becoming very apparent that James Harden is the NBA’s best sixth man.

Coming into the Thunder’s 109-94 route of the Houston Rockets on Friday night, Harden was averaging 17 points per game to go along with 5.9 rebounds. He has reached the 20-point mark three times this season including his 23-point performance Friday against the Rockets.

Harden is not only affecting his teammates by contributing to the total on the scoreboard, but in the passing game as well. Harden is second on the team averaging 4.1 assists per contest, just one short of point guard Russell Westbrook.

Coming into the season, most experts had Harden and Portland’s Jamal Crawford as the top candidates for this year’s best sixth man. Harden leads Crawford in points, assists and rebounds per game and Crawford has only reached the 20-point mark once.

“He’s (Harden) becoming a really good playmaker,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after Oklahoma City’s win over Houston Friday. “We always knew that’s what he would become. He is a diligent worker on the practice squad and he puts the work in every day. After a win or after a loss, it doesn’t matter. He’s playing good, making shots and defending.”

One topic that seems to be on the mind of a lot of Thunder fans these days is whether or not Harden should be the starting shooting guard over Thabo Sefeolosha. He scores more, he’s a better passer and he’s just as good on the defensive end of the court. That makes for a great resume and would help him get into the starting lineup on most teams, however, the Thunder rely on Harden too much coming off the bench. Their next best scorer off the pine is Daequan Cook and he is more of a three-point specialist than a main scoring option. Eric Maynor makes for a great back-up point guard, but rarely does he come close to scoring 10 points. Nick Collison is probably the hardest worker on the team, but that doesn’t always translate into points.

Sefolosha may not be a great scorer, but he is a great defender. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and an emerging Serge Ibaka, it’s not necessary for Sefolosha or starting center Kendrick Perkins to put the ball in the basket. They are counted on to stop other teams’ best scoring options on the perimeter and in the post. Harden can do that, but taking him from the bench to the starting rotation would then leave a void in the scoring attack for the second team.

There is no doubt that the offense goes through Westbrook, Durant and Harden although only two of them play with the first team. Westbrook and Durant get it going to start the game and Harden comes in later to finish and when they are all three on in one night, the only thing you can talk about is a Thunder victory.

Harden may not get the glamor that the other two do, but at the end of the day, his contribution is just as important.

Thunder Have Issues In The Half Court

We all know how great the Oklahoma City Thunder has been in the open court. They get up and down the floor better than any team in the league and are nearly impossible to stop in the fast break. That’s a fine skill for a team to have, but in order to win a championship; they need to back it up with great half court play as well. That’s something the Thunder hasn’t done through the first seven games of the shortened season.

Oklahoma City is fifth in the Western Conference in scoring and second in shooting percentage. However, they are 27th in the NBA in turnovers averaging 16.6 per game and tied for 22nd in the league with only 19 assists per game. In comparison, the Miami Heat is first in the league in assists per game with 24 and 26th with 16.5 turnovers per game. Although LeBron James and the gang turn it over quite a bit, they make up for it by spreading the ball around and making it tough for teams to lock them down in their half court sets. Something the Thunder has yet to figure out early in the season.

In Oklahoma City’s first loss against Dallas on January 2, the team produced just 12 assists compared to 13 turnovers. OKC’s starters only had six assists with their point guard, Russell Westbrook, leading the way with only three. Kevin Durant, who struggled from the field to put up 27 points didn’t have any assists and turned the ball over three times.

OKC took care of the ball much better against Portland Tuesday night, however three of their starters, Durant, Kendick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, combined for three assists and three turnovers.

Spreading the ball around in the half court offense is a must for any team on the road to an NBA championship. Last year’s champions, the Dallas Mavericks, led the NBA with 23.8 assists per game and only turned the ball over 14 times per contest. The Lakers, who won the title two seasons ago, only turned the ball over 13.4 times per game with an average of 21.1 assists. Oklahoma City needs to take a page out of the former champions’ books in order to get their turnover to assist ratio in shape.

There’s no doubt that Oklahoma City is one of the most talented teams in the league and they are still the favorites to come out of the Western Conference. They have two superstars with Durant and Westbrook and arguably the best sixth man in the league with James Harden. With the talent that the Thunder has, it shouldn’t be hard to take care of the ball and spread it around.

They better learn quickly, because if history repeats itself, the team that distributes the most usually comes out on top.

Westbrook Sets The Tone For The Thunder

Russell Westbrook’s reaction said it all after the first play of the game against the Phoenix Suns Saturday night in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder controlled the opening tip and Westbrook dribbled up to the 3-point line, watched Serge Ibaka set a pick, roll and then hit him with a bounce pass that set up a thunderous dunk to open the game. After the play, Westbrook was screaming and slapped Ibaka’s chest as he ran back to the defensive side of the court.

This would come as no surprise throughout most of the season, however, after a 0-15 shooting performance on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies and a 6-16 performance Thursday against the Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook showed that he was ready to put bench arguments and poor shooting behind him.

“I just try to stay positive and play for the fans,” Westbrook said after the game. “They do a lot for me whether they know it or not, and I just try to come out and stay positive and compete.”

Westbrook was Oklahoma City’s most efficient player against the Suns on Saturday night. He finished the game with 18 points, four assists, two rebounds and just two turnovers. His shooting percentage was much better than the previous two games, going 8-15 from the field and scoring most of his points by driving to the basket.

He looked like a point guard rather than a shooter who lost his touch.

“Russell (Westbrook) was solid,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in the postgame press conference. “He’s a player that keeps coming back and keeps working and keeps getting better. He started the game and set the table for us at both ends of the floor tonight.”

Westbrook sometimes gets criticized about his shot selection, especially since he plays alongside the number one scorer in the NBA. However, anytime the question is asked as to whether he needs to quit shooting and defer, his coaches and teammates always step in and defend him. Over and over again they explain that they want him to keep shooting and eventually it will start to fall.

There’s nothing better than a pure point guard who defers and facilitates more than he tries to score. However, that’s not what Westbrook is. Yes, he can be a facilitator at times, but he is also one of the best players in the league at creating his own shot. There aren’t very many defenders in the league that can stay with Westbrook off the dribble and when he has an opponent guessing whether he will drive or pull-up, he’s one of the most dangerous scorers in the Western Conference. He’s a hybrid style point guard. He’s a guy that can get you double-digit assists, but he can also go for 30 points on any given night, no matter how many shots it takes.

Prototypical point guards like Chris Paul and Deron Williams are hard to come by in the NBA. Most players across the league would love to play with guys like that who distribute the ball much more than they score. However, with his unique set of skills, Russell Westbrook might be the diamond in the rough that only comes around once in a lifetime, and the Thunder will gladly take him.

Breaking Down The Thunder’s Schedule

The biggest thing that sticks out when you stare down the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 66-game schedule, which is one of the toughest in the NBA, is the three Eastern Conference matchups with the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. They have to face three of the best teams in the East twice. It doesn’t get much tougher than that. In fact, the only comparable team-schedule is Boston’s as the Celtics faces the Thunder, Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks twice over the course of their season.

The second thing that peeks interest is the teams the Thunder will not face at home. They will not host the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers or the Washington Wizards. Almost guaranteed victories, those games have been wiped off the slate.

Although Oklahoma City is faced with quite possibly the toughest schedule in the league, there’s many ways to look at it. If you think about it, OKC has a tough road because they have finally leaped into the league’s elite. Let’s face it, the NBA knows nobody wants to watch one of their marquee teams beat up on a team that will likely hear their name called come lottery time, especially when they only have 66 games to fit it in. The easiest fix to the solution: tough matchups on national television.

You can also look at the schedule as a test of what’s in store come playoff time. Oklahoma City is scheduled for 17 back-to-back matchups and only one back-to-back-to-back. The 17 back-to-backs is a lot to handle over the course of 66 games, but they can take refuge in the fact that they only have to travel to one state (Texas) for their back-to-back-to-back that features Houston twice and San Antonio. This type of schedule is terrible in terms of staying healthy, but great in terms of playoff preparation.

When looking up and down Oklahoma City’s slate of games, there isn’t a month that sticks out as being easy. With only 66-games and six likely wins wiped out, there’s no way they can expect very many free victories.

February is going to be brutal. The month feature the first of two, five-game road trips and ends with two home games against the Celtics and Lakers before traveling to Philadelphia to take on the 76ers on the 29th.

March gives the Thunder the best chance to add to the win column with 10 of their 16 games at home. However, they do play Miami, Portland and the Lakers to round out the month before hosting Memphis and Chicago to start April.

The NBA didn’t allow any holes to slip through on this schedule.

David Stern understands that one of the leagues brightest stars shines in Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant) and his running mate, Russell Westbrook is on his way to stardom as well, and what better way to feature these players than force them to play tough games on the national stage? Although they are a small market team, this schedule will require Oklahoma City to produce large market play.

It’s like the old saying goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best.

Thunder’s Best Offense Is A Good Defense

The Oklahoma City Thunder are set to begin their fourth season since moving from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains and expectations surrounding the team have never been so high.

Everybody knows what the Thunder is all about offensively. OKC is obviously going to feature its two main scorers, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, with a plethora of role players. But this year, the focus should be on defense.

Head coach Scott Brooks knows what his team can do with the ball in their hands, but being a defensive-minded head coach, he needs to coax his guys into playing lock-down, game changing D. He has the athletes to do so, too. Westbrook, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Daequan Cook all have the skills to defend well on the perimeter and Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can dominate in the post.

OKC ranked 18th in the league last year defensively, giving up 101 points per game. In 2009-2010, they were much better. They ranked 11th in the league and gave up three points less per game. That stat doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of 82 games, it makes a huge difference.

Kendrick Perkins could prove to be the difference in 2011-2012. Although Perkins was part of the equation at the end of the season last year, it was obvious that he never took the court 100 percent healthy. He only played in 29 regular season games, 17 of them with the Thunder and 12 with the Boston Celtics. That’s not enough time to get your feet underneath you after a knee injury. That’s not even enough time for a big man to get ready for the regular season, period.

The Boston Globe recently reported that Perkins has been working out and shedding weight in order to take pressure off of his knees. This could make him even more of a presence down low. If he’s able to hold some of the league’s best post players to under their average points per game, OKC can be an extremely dominant defensive team.

The first test for Perkins will be on Christmas Day as the Thunder host Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic for the first game of the season. Howard is undoubtedly the games most dominant center so it will be pivotal for Perk to get off to a good start and try and hold him to under 20 points.

Two years ago, the eighth seeded Thunder took Kobe and the Lakers to six games before being ousted in the first round of the playoffs and last year they made it to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the eventual NBA champs, the Dallas Mavericks.

Oklahoma City is slowly stepping in the right direction with their combination of youth and experience and it’s hard to imagine that they’re not one of the teams with a chance to make a run at a title in the lockout shortened 2011-2012 season, especially if they tidy up on the defensive end.

No Time To Waste For Oklahoma City

The NBA work stoppage has been ongoing for the past three months and there is a strange agreement amongst most who cover the sport that there is no end in sight.

Fans in the Oklahoma City area find it hard to believe because their team, the Thunder, is fast approaching the status of the league’s elite. With young players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, why wouldn’t they think that an NBA Championship is well within reach?

Well, Thunder fans, the NBA’s best-case scenario isn’t necessarily your team’s best case scenario. The cancellation of half of the league’s preseason games foreshadows the fact that half of the regular season games won’t be played. The players and owners aren’t getting along real well and with the players still drawing paychecks up until Oct. 31, it’s almost a forgone conclusion.

However, January could be the saving grace because it could be the starting date for a shortened season that most fans don’t really want, but will gladly take.

The Thunder are one of the teams that find themselves in a non-beneficial situation, and their youth, which most of the time helps the team, is the reason. A shortened season benefits the older, more experienced teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. These teams have won Championships in their recent past, but most of their players find themselves on the edge of final seasons and retiring. Playing half the year gives them half of a year off and a free pass to the fountain of youth for just one more title run.

There is speculation that it could work the other way around. The Thunder, who don’t really need half a season to tune their games for a long, two-month playoff run, could hold an advantage over the teams that need time to get ready.

The Lakers, who’s best player might be the best player of all-time outside of Michael Jordan, are experiencing a situation where their older players might not be ready come January, especially with a new coach (Mike Brown).

The Spurs, who are the oldest team in all of basketball are so fundamental that tune-up games might not matter to them, still need time to get in shape and the Celtics are the same way.

Oklahoma City, the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic could use this time off to their advantage and run up and down the court for 40 games before the postseason.

There’s no clear way to predict what a shortened NBA season will do to the league’s players and teams. There really isn’t a way to predict whether the league will have a season at all. The one thing that we can rely on is the fact that the players will stop earning money after Oct. 1. That is the key date to all of the lockout talks. If the players don’t get their money, they might become more serious in their labor negotiations and actually sit down with the owners and get something done.

In the Thunder’s case, they just want to get back onto the court. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren’t the types of players who want to play overseas or play pickup games at the University of Central Oklahoma when they could be competing against the world’s best athletes on the biggest stages.

There is only so much time in a player’s career and the younger guys have no time to waste.

Oklahoma City Steals Miami’s Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder selected Boston College guard Reggie Jackson with the 24th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft on Thursday, giving them a third point guard in a rotation that includes Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor.

Jackson is a long and athletic player who can shoot the long and mid-range jumper. He also has the potential to be an above-average defensive stopper, especially if Thabo Sefolosha continues to decline. Westbrook and Maynor will continue to be the top two point guards on the team and will eat up the majority of the minutes. However, Jackson can fill in if injuries occur or if somebody just goes cold.

Reports say that Jackson’s agent tried to hide the player from teams to make sure he fell to the Miami Heat with the 31st pick. The Thunder, who usually takes the best player available, decided to go with him although he never worked out with the team.

Jackson played three seasons at Boston College, averaged 18.2 points and 4.5 assists per game during his final season. He stands 6’3”, 210 lbs. with a long wingspan. He can drive to the basket and finish off of the pick-and-roll, but prefers to play off of the ball and hit big jump shots.

The selection spurred talk of Eric Maynor not being a long-term answer with only two years left on his contract. However, Sam Presti made comments suggesting that the organization would prefer keeping Maynor as a long term option. With Nate Robinson also looking for playing time, Jackson will have to prove quickly that he was worth the first round pick.

The Thunder received different draft grades from different experts, but finished with an average grade of a B. There is only so much you can do with one pick, especially at the end of the first round, and in 2011 if you’re not drafting first or second, there isn’t much excitement.

The team can now enter the off-season, while nobody knows if there will be a regular season. The lock-out looms and it seems that the owners aren’t going to budge. This could hurt the momentum of the young Oklahoma City squad, but could help in the long run.

If there is no season, the older, more veteran teams will get a year older with their windows closing. Either way, the fans lose if the players don’t play, which definitely hurts the downtown Oklahoma City area.

Nobody knows if the season will begin in October or January. The chance remains that the season will be shut down for good.

However, one thing remains in Oklahoma City, the fountain of youth gets deeper each season.