Westbrook Is A Work In Progress

Kevin Durant wasn’t the only Thunder player to put up great numbers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook’s 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists didn’t look too shabby in the box score either.

Not everyone agreed that Westbrook had a good game, however.

After the ESPN crew was done analyzing the game, Mike Wilbon cut to Stephen A. Smith who immediately dispelled any notion that Westbrook had a good game. To paraphrase, Smith claimed that OKC would’ve won by a blowout if Westbrook had made better decisions on the court.

In other words, if Westbrook would have deferred to Durant more often.

Instead, Westbrook shot the ball 24 times — taking four more shots than Durant. He did indeed make some head-scratching decisions, shooting out-of-rhythm jump shots when the pass seemed like the better option. One bricked 3-point shot, after he’d worked his tail off to force a turnover, was particularly infuriating.

What Smith didn’t focus on, however, were the 11 assists that Westbrook dished out. Westbrook’s been roundly criticized for the times he’s failed to pass the ball, but it’s only fair to also focus on the times in which he’s been a willing facilitator.

Game 1 wasn’t an anomaly. Westbrook has slowly grown into the role of a willing passer. In the San Antonio series he was more than happy to defer to the likes of Durant, James Harden, and even Serge Ibaka. Westbrook’s post-season assist average is 5.9 per game—up from 4.6 during the regular season.

Combine that with his low turnover numbers, and there’s been a marked improvement in the weaker facets of his game during these playoffs.

For the Thunder, it’s a fine balance with Westbrook. OKC is built in such a way that they need Westbrook to be aggressive and look to score. Generally they don’t get much offensive production from their front two, so realistically, Westbrook needs to be averaging over 20 points a game.

Westbrook can’t simply play the role of a pass-first point guard. Scott Brooks knows this and is Westbrook’s biggest fan, publicly at least — constantly encouraging him to stick to his strengths, and stay aggressive. In private, of course, the Thunder’s coaching staff would like their point guard to temper his more self-destructive tendencies—to look for the easier scoring option at times.

But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the saying goes. OKC can’t afford to lose all the many positive aspects of Westbrook’s game, by trying to mold him into something he’s not.

It’s easy to forget that Westbrook was a two-guard in college and is still developing at the point guard position. It isn’t an easy transition. Other than LeBron James and Blake Griffin, no other player in the NBA has had their game analyzed and picked apart more than Westbrook. He’s 23-years-old, supremely talented, and could be an NBA champion in a couple weeks. It doesn’t seem fair. Derrick Rose takes his fair share of wild shots as a point guard, and isn’t scrutinized in anywhere near the same manner.

There’s room for improvement, but right now, I’m sure Scott Brooks will be more than happy with near triple-double numbers, and 2 turnovers a game, from his young point guard. And just for the record, the Thunder are 25-5 when Westbrook takes more shots than Durant this year.

Just something to mull over, Stephen A. Smith.

Oklahoma City’s Calm Under Pressure

The Oklahoma City Thunder possess all the traits of a championship-caliber team.

They’re explosive and athletic at both ends of the floor. They defend with skill and tenacity; have an elite shot-blocker in Serge Ibaka, and solid role players like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha.

Of course, in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, they possess three of the greatest shot-makers in the game today.

Perhaps the most underrated, and dangerous, aspect of the Thunder’s game, however, is their supreme confidence level. This team is cold as ice in the clutch.

No team absorbs the opposition’s best punches, flips the switch, and keeps their composure when all seems lost, better than OKC. Time and time again, against the Spurs in Game 4, Oklahoma City weathered the storm.

San Antonio came out firing at the start of the game, while Oklahoma City missed their first seven shots. Did they panic? Of course not.  They simply went on an 18-5 run to end the quarter.

At the start of the third, Manu Ginobili took over the game and the Spurs put together a 23-9 run—but still no panic from the Thunder. Durant stepped up and Oklahoma City led by nine at the quarter’s end.

In the fourth, the Spurs once again attempted to seize the game by the scruff of the neck—going on a 13-2 run and getting within two points of the Thunder.

Oklahoma City’s response: James Harden hit two massive 3-point shots, including the game’s biggest basket—dropping the trifecta with Kawhi Leonard draped all over him, to put the Thunder up by five.

This team simply doesn’t waver off course.

Against the Mavericks and Lakers, they were down late in games and hit massive, momentum-shifting shots to win. Durant did his best Michael Jordan impression in Game 4 of this series, hitting 18 points in the fourth, but if he’s not feeling it (and that’s rare), Harden and Westbrook are more than ready to take the big shot.

The Big 3 of Oklahoma City epitomizes the fearlessness this team. Miss or make, it doesn’t matter—nothing fazes them. Last night Westbrook turned the ball over, and missed jump shots on consecutive possessions, but his confidence level never faltered.

He followed up some poor possessions by draining a ridiculous 20-footer. Westbrook never seems bothered by his failings. Sure, he makes some poor decisions at times, and will continue to do so, but he never loses confidence in his game. Scott Brooks realizes that Westbrook will live and die by the jump shot—but it’s a risk that’s worth taking. We may pick apart his game, but we cannot question his character.

Harden also seems immune to fluctuations in confidence. He wasn’t at his best against the Lakers—looking tired after having to defend Kobe Bryant for long stretches—and in the first game of this series he struggled. But like Westbrook, Harden seems to have selective amnesia. He followed up Game 1, with a 10-13 shooting performance in Game 2, and has been clutch ever since.

Last night, Harden took two of the biggest shots in these playoffs thus far. A three-pointer, that became a four-point play when he was fouled by Manu Ginobili, and the aforementioned game-clinching shot.

Before the series began many, myself included, pointed to the Spurs’ experience and veteran know-how, as a reason why they would prevail over a young Thunder team. The Spurs were playing unbelievably great basketball—some of the greatest we’ve ever seen—and maybe the Thunder, as young as they are, just weren’t ready for the Finals yet.

But perhaps we overlooked the fact that the Thunder don’t worry about outside perceptions—they don’t feel like they’re too young and inexperienced. They just go out and play their game. If they feel pressure internally, they don’t’ show it externally.

Experience and championship pedigree go a long way in the playoffs. No team as young as the Thunder have won an NBA title. But no team has looked as supremely confident as Oklahoma City —as unconcerned with external pressures.

They’re young, skillful and talented, but their tranquil state of mind, in the biggest moments, might just be their biggest strength.

Rondo Continues To Be An Enigma

Rajon Rondo is a fascinating enigma.

At times, he’s transcendently brilliant—a throwback to a bygone era, where on-court vision and basketball I.Q. triumphed over size and strength.

Other times, he can be painfully frustrating—missing easy layups, passing up open shots, and doing his best impersonation of a sulking, moody teenager.

But Rondo is captivating to watch, in whichever incarnation you find him. He fixes butts on seats, glues eyes to television sets. At times he displays a confident Iverson-esque swagger, giving the impression that he can make the impossible possible, with his unique abilities.

Simply put, it’s hard to ignore him when he’s on the floor.

And no one was ignoring him last night—except maybe the Miami Heat defenders.

Last night’s Game 2 against the Heat, reemphasized what we’re all starting to realize about Rondo—he absolutely thrives on the biggest stage. Just check out his triple-double numbers when playing in front of a national audience—they’re outstanding.

Against a Heat team that was absolutely rolling, and looking to stick another nail in Boston’s postseason coffin, Rondo had the greatest game of his career.

He scored 44 points, shooting 16 of 24 from the field, while racking up 10 assists, and 8 rebounds. Even more startling was the fact that Rondo played every minute of the game. 53 in total! Rondo had only 3 turnovers in that time.

Rondo’s display ranks up there as one of the all-time great Celtics’ playoff performances—and there are plenty of those to choose from.

Of course, Rondo’s efforts were largely in vain. The Heat received big-time displays from their stars too, and some timely scoring from their bench. The backbreaking loss may prove to be the defining moment of the series for the Celtics.

Coming back from 0-2 down, against this Miami team, will be nearly impossible.

Whatever the impact on the series, however, the night belonged to Rondo. The basketball public was given a glimpse into a world where Rondo could be the greatest point guard alive.

Chris Broussard put it best during ESPN’s halftime show, when he said: “It’s the NBA’s worst nightmare: Rondo with a jump shot.”.

And he’s right. If Rondo can consistently knock down that 15-18 footer, watch out, world! Teams have become accustomed to giving Rondo space to shot, begging him to take that mid-range jumper, and willing to live with the consequences.

If Rondo can shoot even half as well as he did last night, on a regular basis, then he may just become un-guardable. Add a jump shot to a player that already has elite level basketball I.Q., athleticism, solid defense, rebounding, and unreal playmaking abilities, and we’re talking about a top-five player in the NBA.

This is all a massive ‘if’, of course. We may never see another shooting display like that from Rondo again. Even without a jump shot, his other elite attributes still make him a genuine all-star and top-5 point guard in this league—as well as being one of the most entertaining players to watch.

But boy, he could be so much more. We saw it yesterday and lets hope we see it again.

Plenty To Feel Positive About In Philly

The fairytale run finally came to an end last night for Doug Collins and his Philadelphia 76ers. In a game that seemed like a microcosm of their season—suffocating defense, stagnant offense, and plenty of grit and determination—the 76ers fell to the Celtics, 85-75.

When the dust settles, and the pain of a disappointing Game 7 defeat is eased by a few days of measured contemplation, 76ers fans will be quietly encouraged by a season in which their team defied expectations—and sometimes belief. Defeating the number-one seed Chicago Bulls in the first-round, albeit without Derrick Rose, and taking the 4th seed Celtics to seven games, was no mean feat.

When you consider the dismal way in which the team played during the last two months of the regular season, the 76ers run becomes all the more impressive.

Collins’ men began the year on fire. They raced out to a 20-9 record, comfortably led the Atlantic division, and were one of the best teams in the league before the all-star break. It was obvious that Collins had installed a discipline in his team, one that had been lacking in past incarnations of the 76ers.

They were playing fantastic defense, making good decisions with the ball (reflected in their lack of turnovers), and getting timely scoring from their bench.

And then things began to fall apart.

After such a confident start, Philadelphia’s weaknesses began to surface. Defensively they held steady for the most part, but their offensive cohesion completely dried up. It became painfully obvious that the 76ers lacked a go-to scorer in crunch time. Lou Williams played well during the first two months of the season, but his production dipped after the all-star break. In the 4th quarter it became a matter of mid-range jump shot or bust.  A blowout loss to the lowly Wizards, and a 7-point 4th quarter against the Raptors, summed up Philly’s offensive ineptitude.

There were even rumors of discontent in the locker room, with Doug Collins alluding to the fact that some of his players weren’t receptive to his abrasive approach.

Stumbling to the finish line, the Sixers narrowly held on to the 8th seed and finished with a mediocre record of 35-31

It wasn’t boding well for a match-up with the Bulls—the best team during the regular season—despite the brash confidence of Evan Turner. And to be honest, until Rose’s uncooperative body decided to betray him, it didn’t look like things would get much better for the 76ers.

Rose’s injury turned the series around. Jrue Holiday was freed from the shackles of guarding last seasons’ MVP and excelled on the offensive end—playing excellently for the remainder of Philadelphia’s playoff run. Andre Iguodala recaptured his form of January and February that saw him selected for his first all-star appearance, while Turner emerged as a genuine threat from the 2-guard position.

After closing out the banged-up Bulls in 6, the 76ers gave the Celtics all they could handle. Brilliantly coach throughout the playoffs by Collins, Philadelphia made the absolute most of their defensive strengths and speedy transition game. They were ultimately undone by an inability to put together fluid offensive in the half-court game.

It will be an intriguing off-season for the 76ers. The team has some exciting young talent to build around. Holiday has emerged, during these playoffs, as an exciting young point guard—unafraid to take the big shot, while Evan Turner has shown promise at both ends of the floor.

How Turner’s development is viewed by the 76ers front office may determine what they decide to do regarding Iguodala’s future. Turner has been playing at the shooting guard spot, but he may ultimately end up at the 3. Iguodala, who has undeniably become an elite perimeter defender this year, may be expendable if Turner can excel at small forward.

Philly’s most pressing needs are in the frontcourt. Spencer Hawes is a free agent, and Lavoy Allen has shown enough upside to render Hawes’ services redundant. The real elephant in the room, however, is Elton Brand’s hideous contract. Brand is set to make $18 million next year, and should be a prime amnesty clause candidate. The 76ers, as evident throughout the season, desperately need a player who can take the pressure off their guards in crunch-time, and grab easy buckets in the post. Brand isn’t that guy.

Whatever happens in the off-season, Philadelphia has plenty of positives to build upon. It’s been a rough few years for the 76ers and their fans. Not since the heady days of Allen Iverson, back at the turn of the century, has there be much to get excited about in The City of Brotherly Love.

Despite some ugly moments this year, things are definitely looking up.

Appreciate LeBron James While You Can

In a must win game for the Miami Heat, LeBron James underlined his MVP status emphatically, with an absolutely monstrous performance. He finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists, as well as 2 blocks and 2 steals. Not too shabby.

More importantly than just his stat-line, James was the Heat’s emotional lynchpin from start to finish. He was aggressive from the first quarter onwards—driving to the basket and getting to the free-throw line with consistency. It was clear from the opening tip that James wasn’t going to be shackled by the likes of Danny Granger and David West. He refused to settle for low-percentage mid-range jumpers, and was a major factor in getting the Pacers big-men in foul trouble early.

It’s difficult to overstate the immense impact James had on a monumental Game 4. Entering the game, all the discussion had been about how poorly the Heat had played without Chris Bosh, and whether they were heading for a shocking playoff exit.

James has silenced the doubters. For now.

He scored in bunches and dominated the glass, while at the same time facilitated for his teammates, playing the point guard position for much of the game. There was a shade (just a shade), in James’ Game 4 performance, of Magic Johnson’s epic Game 6 in the 1980 Finals.

Dwayne Wade, who eventually finished the game with 30 points—hitting 10 shots in a row at one stage, owed a big part of his second half revival to James. While Wade was struggling early on, hitting only 1 of his first 8 shots, James did his best to keep his team in the game.

The Pacers had threatened to run away with the game early, breaking out to a furious 9-0 lead, with the Indiana crowd going wild, but James stayed aggressive and made big shots while his teammates struggled.

By the end of the second quarter, Wade began to hit his stride, owing largely to the league’s reigning MVP. James got Wade going with some beautiful inside passes, finding Wade as he cut to the basket.

Just as crucially for the Heat, James got the much maligned, and criminally underused Udonis Haslem, firing in the third and fourth quarters. James drew defenders towards him with his dribble penetration, before kicking the ball out to Haslem who knocked down some nice open jump shots.

James and Wade were unstoppable in the second half, hitting 46 of their team’s 48 points at one stage. It was a not-so-subtle reminder, after a week of intense media scrutiny, that the Miami Heat possesses two players that can single-handedly win playoff games.

Indiana simply had no answer to Miami’s two-man show.

Of course, James’ detractors will still question why the assertive, aggressive demeanor he exhibited today, isn’t on display in every game he plays. It’s a valid question, and there’s no denying that it’s frustrating to witness a player, who is essentially unplayable, fade in and out of games at times during the season.

James has been rightly criticized when he’s gone AWOL in 4th quarters and deferred to inferior teammates. At the same time, however, the general public and sports media need to learn to appreciate the league’s greatest player when he has an all-world performance like the one we all just witnessed.

No one else in the league can put up the sort of numbers James did in Game 4. Yes, it’s frustrating that he can’t hit such transcendent heights in every game, but you won’t see anyone else in the NBA coming close to that level of dominance—that sort of impact on a game. He’s sadly a victim of our own absurdly high expectation levels.

Charles Barkley often says that the basketball world will regret taking LeBron James for granted when he finally hangs up his sneakers. He’s right.

Granted, we value winners in sports—James hasn’t yet won anything yet. And yes, we admire players with cold-blooded killer-instinct, and James has only showed glimpses of channeling his inner Michael Jordan. But sometimes it’s worthwhile watching a game in a vacuum. Forget last years NBA finals, all those messy 4th quarters from the regular season, and the noise from pseudo-sports psychologists claiming to know all about James’ inner demons.

On days like today, just sit back and admire the greatest basketball player on planet Earth, and all the freakishly amazing things he can do on the hard-court. We won’t see another LeBron James for a long time. Don’t take him for granted.