Durant and Westbrook Carry Thunder Past the Cavs

THUNDER REACTION

GAME 7 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers:  W (106-91)

The Oklahoma City Thunder earned their fourth straight victory with a 106-91 win over the Cleveland Cavs at the Chesapeake Arena Sunday. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined for 53 points while Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin scored in double figures as well.

1st QUARTER GAME NOTES

The Cavs jumped out to a quick start hitting eight of their first 10 shots. However, Oklahoma City’s defense stiffened and the Thunder went on a 20-4 run to end the period with a 27-21 lead. Russell Westbrook led OKC with seven points, but turned the ball over three times. Deion Waiters and Kyrie Irving combined for 13 points for Cleveland.

2nd QUARTER GAME NOTES

OKC extended their lead in the second quarter thanks mostly to Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin. The “big 3” combined for 16 points in the second, Westbrook leading the way with six. OKC’s defense held Waiters and Irving to just five after they scored 13 in the opening period.

3rd QUARTER GAME NOTES

Cleveland pulled to within six points after the third quarter thanks to Kyrie Irving’s 10 points and two assists. KD and Westbrook combined for 16 points including a half-court, buzzer beating three from Westbrook. OKC ended the quarter shooting 55% from the field for the first 36 minutes.

4th QUARTER GAME NOTES

Westbrook opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run after hitting a buzzer-beater three at the end of the third quarter. Westbrook, Martin and Durant combined for 19 points in the period as they put the Cavs away. Cleveland never stood a chance with Irving on the bench to start the fourth. The Thunder ran away down the stretch and earned its fifth victory while handing the Cavs their fifth loss.

 

SCOTT BROOKS ON: What other things think about defense.

“I don’t know what other teams are focusing on, but I know that we’re playing our best basketball when we’re thinking defensive thoughts.”

SCOTT BROOKS ON: Getting to know Kevin Martin.

“His last two teams were rebuilding teams and he was their scorer. The rest of the league looks at players like that and think that they don’t play defense. He’s come in and played defense. I think it’s solid. He’s making players work and he gets his hands on a lot of basketballs. His defense is much better than his reputation.”

SCOTT BROOKS ON: Perkins playing better.

“He didn’t play any basketball this summer. He had two surgeries that prevented him from playing and he played just occasionally during training camp. A lot of it was non-contact and by himself. He’s still getting the feel, but it’s not about stats with him. We need his toughness.”

 

MY RANDOM NOTES

 

  • I feel like Westbrook is trying this season to be more of a facilitator. He is making better passes and running the offense better, but he’s still turning the ball over too much. If he could ever figure out the turnover issue there’s no telling what he could do to this league.  

 

  • K-Mart is a straight scorer. Byron Scott said before the game that he helps OKC because he’s a better scorer than James Harden, who he (Scott) claims to be a better “overall” player. I think Martin is perfect for the Thunder. He creates offense off the ball, which is huge because Westbrook and KD have to have the ball in their hands for the offense to work.

 

  • I’m noticing a ton of head fakes from OKC this year, especially Thabo Sefolosha. He’s gotten more and more confident in his shot over the last few seasons, but he’s still smart enough to know a little pump-fake can lead to better shot-selection.

 

  • Scott Brooks has favored the small lineups so far this season. Against Cleveland, KD ran the four with Collison at the five and Perk at the five. Brooks’ first substitution of the second half came when K-Mart entered the game for Serge with about four minutes left in the third.

 

  • Kyrie Irving is quickly becoming one of my favorite players in the league. He can score with any point guard in the league including Westbrook. He’s quietly becoming one of the NBA’s youngest superstars after winning Rookie of the Year last season and once Cleveland builds around him, they will be a force in the East.

 

  • I still can’t figure out where Deion Waiters went after the first quarter. He scored seven points in the first seven minutes, but was stranded for the rest of the game. Cleveland has a bright future with their young backcourt, but it is obvious Waiters still has a thing or two to learn.

 

PLAYERS OF THE NIGHT

-RUSEELL WESTBROOK: 27 Points / 10 Assists / 6 Rebounds (POG)

-KEVIN DURANT: 26 Points / 8 Rebounds / 2 Assists

-KEVIN MARTIN: 16 Points / 5 Rebounds / 6-9 Shooting

 

-KYRIE IRVING: 20 Points / 5 Assists / 4 Rebounds

-ALONZO GEE: 18 Points / 2 Steals

-DANIEL GIBSON: 16 Points / 5 Rebounds / 1 Steal

NEXT GAME: Nov. 12 at DETROIT (0-7) 

NBA Finals Changed People’s Perceptions

Unlike a few recent NBA Finals match-ups, legacies weren’t going to be cemented depending upon the result of the Heat-Thunder series. Miami’s Big Three will all return next year to defend their title while still in their prime, while young OKC will, ideally, come back tougher, hungrier, more experienced and still just approaching their prime years.

Still, every year, the championship series plays a role in shaping the NBA landscape, either through the crowning of new champions or the re-enforcing of great teams continuing to reign. For the players involved, the Finals write another chapter and continue to develop their over-arching career arc.

Here is what this year’s NBA season meant for some of the key participants in the Finals.

The Main Players

LeBron James
One title doesn’t quite make you a pantheon-level all-time great, regardless of how much you came through for your team. But consider the possible alternative: another Finals loss – to a budding superstar four years his junior, no less – would have been more damaging (and embarassing) than last year’s defeat at the hands of the Mavericks. Now, he not only has his first ring, but has it on his terms as the unquestioned alpha of the Miami Heat. The critics won’t be completely silenced on account of his multi-title promise at the start of his Heat tenure, but that should only serve to keep “the King” motivated.

Dwyane Wade
Wade summarized the meaning of this title nicely to Stuart Scott on the podium last night, pointing out that his ’06 crown came without him learning any real adversity in the league. Now at 30 and having experienced the bitter taste of defeat last season, he probably has a greater appreciation for the accomplishment this time around.

Chris Bosh
Outside of maybe James, no one enjoyed more validation during the playoffs than Bosh. Yes, he won a title as a glorified role player, but he knew that would be the case as soon as he signed on with the Heat. However, his value to the team, which had been questioned at times during his two-year tenure, was made clear through his absence. He somehow became the biggest story of the Eastern Finals with his return from injury up in the air, and then proceeded to help turn his team’s season around from being on the brink against Boston (Miami won six of seven games with Bosh back playing regular minutes).

Kevin Durant
Arriving in a Finals puts everything under a microscope, so we were bound to learn a few things about the unassuming 23-year-old as he made his debut on the league’s biggest stage. Much was positive – he remained a clutch shooter, a savvy play-maker and a surprisingly effective slasher while matching much of LeBron’s contributions (offensively, anyway). We also learned, however, that he isn’t quite there yet. He still needs to get stronger to prevent defenders from locking him up 20 feet from the basket and isn’t quite as defensively sound as his length should dictate. Still, the dude’s 23!

Russell Westbrook
To paraphrase Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, Westbrook somehow managed to become the most polarizing player in a series that featured the most polarizing player (okay, so Simmons said second-most to Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA history. Yes, it was Westbrook’s explosive play and multi-faceted skill set that helped get the Thunder past the last 13 Western Conference champions and to the show, but can any team afford to have their starting point guard shooting 4-20 in a Finals game? At the same time, one looks at his 43-point Game 4 reveals his value and GM Sam Presti won’t be willing to do anything drastic to alter what is a championship-calibre foundation. His maturation over the coming years will be fascinating to watch.

The Supporting Players

Shane Battier
It can’t be easy gaining almost universal popularity when you’ve won NCAA and NBA titles with, arguably, the most hated team at each level (2001 Duke and 2012 Heat). Credit Battier not only for that, but also for using a stellar playoff performance to ensure that he didn’t win an NBA title on account of simply being along for the ride (sorry, Juwan Howard). Like Bruce Bowen before him, it will be interesting to see how NBA history remembers an all-time great defender and glue guy who was never “the Man” on his team.

Pat Riley
Two years and another title later, Riley still looks like the cat that ate the canary regarding his role in the formation of the Big Three during the summer of 2010. I still can’t shake the feeling that there is an awful lot of knowledge within that well-coiffed head of his.

James Harden / Serge Ibaka / Scott Brooks
While neither Harden nor Ibaka exactly had a playoff performance for the ages, their value to the club was made plainly clear throughout the season. The Thunder will soon have to put a price tag on that value, with both young talents slated for free agency after next season. With both Durant and Westbrook signed to big deals and Harden and Ibaka set to hit paydirt, Presti will have to do some serious roster massaging for any shot at keeping his entire core together while not being cap-strung for years to come. Even more pressing, though, is the status of Brooks, whose contract expires at the end of the month.

Durant Snatches The Torch From Durant

Game 1 of the NBA Finals didn’t really teach us much. Mostly it reconfirmed everything we’ve known for days, weeks, even years. Kevin Durant can take over any game, having recently developed the “edge.” LeBron James has a tendency to become less than the most talented athlete on the planet during the fourth quarter of Finals games. Dwyane Wade still looks hurt. And Russell Westbrook is the Tasmanian Devil.

By way of what we might have learned from this one game, it was a relatively placid affair—as should probably be the case for singular events.  However, it did signify the passing of the torch.

For first time in the last 14 years, neither Dirk Nowitzki nor Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan is representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And, in an apparent alignment of the basketball cosmos, the Thunder rolled past the Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Bryant’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs on their way to this year’s championship round.

This means something.

Suddenly, Bryant doesn’t seem so interesting. He is on the cusp of being pressed out of the narrative of NBA champions, resigned to pushing for the all-time scoring crown. Duncan and Nowitzki may have playoff runs left in them, but their chances look increasingly unlikely as the Thunder grow more impressive with every game.

A generation of players and teams, long dominant, is giving way.

“Precocious” has become the word of the month in NBA circles, and for good reason. Durant and Westbrook are each 23, not yet close to their primes. James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each 22, have become stars in their own right. Reggie Jackson was born in the 90’s. The 90’s!

The Heat, led by James (27) and Wade (30), look like fogies by comparison.

We haven’t seen this sort of shift since the late-90’s with Michael Jordan’s (second) retirement, and the quick decline of a decade’s worth of dominant big men in Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. The turnover of superstars is good for the league, surely, but it’s no less a strange sight.

We are quickly reminded that our heroes age, and we with them.

Fortunately, Durant and Westbrook are no Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury circa 1998. They are no Chris Webber, no Antoine Walker, and there are no “back in my day” complaints to be made of the Thunder. There is only basketball—good basketball—to take in, and a fresh age of superstars to watch grow into a dynasty.

As LeBron James might say, “We are all witnesses.”

Some Bold Predictions For The NBA Finals

Thanks to a great idea from Justin Wells, the HOOPSADDICT.com staff emailed me who they thought the NBA Champions would be, their Playoffs MVP and they picked a “glue guy” for the playoffs.

Chuck Nunn: I’m calling it for Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant as Finals MVP. Serge Ibaka’s defense and his ability to get out and run the floor will be a key difference maker in the series, so he’s my glue guy for the Thunder.

Chris Deacon: I think Oklahoma City have a real chance at going all the way this season but it’ll go right down to Game 7. They’ve defeated strong opposition on the road to the final series, including the Lakers and the Spurs, and this means they’ve already had to up their game and succeeded. If the Thunder are crowned champions then MVP must go to Kevin Durant, he’s been outstanding in postseason. That means I think James Harden is the glue guy, his win share off the bench is as good as they come.

Hiren Joshi: I have Heat in seven games. OKC looks great but I think Heat finally pull this out. The role players (Battier, Chalmers, Miller, Jones, Haslem etc) all key to the stabilization of the series for the Heat. LeBron James will be named MVP. Fatigue will be the only issue, but he looks like a man on a mission. Glue guy is Shane Battier. Brilliant NBA mind, great leader, fantastic defender. Thabo Sefolosha on the other end for the Thunder. Both have an interesting dynamic, smart defenders, smart players.

Matt Cote: OKC Thunder will become Champions, Russell Westbrook will win MVP and the glue guy is Kendrick Perkins.

Caardel Eeady: The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown all season that they are too deep not to win. These finals will prove that and that is why the Thunder will win this series 4-2. As a team they present a very tough challenge that the Heat can not stop. The Thunder not only score, but play very solid defense to win games. This is their season and that is why they will win. The finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) will be Kevin Durant. His offensive game is just unbelievable right now. He can make any shot at any time, no matter the defensive pressure. This season Durant has proven that he can hit clutch shots and help get his team to the finish line. Chris Bosh is the “glue guy” for the NBA Finals. Without Bosh the Heat are a very weak team who can not win without his scoring. Bosh is very underrated with his defensive abilities, but expect him to be a big factor on that end of the floor.

Robert Kester: I’ve got the Heat over the Thunder in seven games. The Thunder have arrived, but Miami’s new found resolve will carry them in the Finals. LeBron James has put his team on his back this entire postseason and will continue to dominate games in the Finals and take home his first ever Finals MVP. Chris Bosh needs to play big in the Finals. If Bosh can stay healthy he will be the “glue guy” keeping the Heat together when they face adversity against the Thunder.

Heather Newsome: To win the playoffs I say OKC. I don’t think the Heat have it in them to be consistently good, they’ve proven in recent past games that their top stars can’t always make the shots and then they get discouraged easily. Wade in game 7 was 3-8 in the first half. It’s just not good enough for the NBA Finals. MVP for the playoffs should go to either LeBron James for his determination or to Kevin Durant for pulling it out for his team when they’re down and being able to keep everyone involved so its not a one man show. The “Glue-guy” again would be Kevin Durant. He knows how to rally his team when they are down. He’s not a selfish player and helps everyone on the team get their shots off and then takes his own. He’s key to OKC winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy this time around.

Danny Lovi: Before the playoffs started I predicted that the NBA Champions would come out of the West. As tempted as I am to pick Miami over Oklahoma City, I am sticking to my guns and predicting that the Thunder will beat the Heat in six games. Conventional thinking tells us that the best player on the winning team will be the MVP. Therefore, it’s a foregone conclusion that Kevin Durant will be the MVP. I am not going to go against conventional wisdom, although I think the Thunder’s success relies heavily on Russell Westbrook. Durant will get his (even while being smothered by LeBron James or Shane Battier), but the Thunder goes as far as Westbrook goes. I think Westbrook is the most important player even though he probably won’t win MVP. Besides Westbrook, I think the two players who will have the biggest impact are the two guys with championship experience: Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. Look for Perkins to be aggressive in the post not only on defense, but on offense as well. Fisher continues to live up to his reputation as a clutch playoff performer, and he will be the cool head in the huddle, keeping guys focused when things go astray. When Fisher signed with Oklahoma City, didn’t you picture him hitting a big shot to clinch a Thunder victory? I think the NBA Finals is the perfect stage to see that picture come to fruition.

Zach Salzmann: OKC dismantled a great Spurs team in 4 straight games, and look unbeatable when they limit their turnovers. James has had an unbelievable post-season, but OKC has too many weapons. Thunder in 6. My pick for Finals MVP is Kevin Durant and my glue guy is Serge Ibaka — protecting the lane and knocking down the open jumper.

Will Guillory: I’m going to take the Miami Heat to win the NBA Finals in six games. I simply just think it’s their time and not the Thunder’s. OKC is a great team but Miami is the better defensive team and much more ready for this moment. I believe the MVP trophy will be handed to LeBron James at the end of this series. This has been his year and every time his team has needed him to step up and put them on his back he has done it (i.e. Game 4 against Indiana and Game 6 against Boston). Also, his defense will make life a lot tougher on Kevin Durant than it has been thus far these playoffs. My key glue guy(s) of this series will come down to the matchup between Chris Bosh and James Harden. While these two will not be guarding each other this series, both teams need major contributions from these two players in order to achieve their maximum potential. Bosh’s ability to hit the outside jumper and pull Serge Ibaka/ Kendrick Perkins out of the paint to give James and Dwyane Wade more driving lanes will be the difference.

Jakob Eich: I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will win the championship this year. The Wade/LeBron duo is a little better than Durant/Westbrook, but Miami does not have anyone beyond those two players. The Thunder have Ibaka, Perkins, Fisher, Sefolosha, Cook, and Collison, just a lot of depth. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will probably not sit for long stretches, but after all you have twelve players on your roster. Chris Bosh is a better offensive player, but Serge Ibaka is a lot better defensively. The rest of the Heat are seriously outplayed by OKC. Especially the option to give Wade and Lebron different looks by putting Sefolosha, Durant, and Harden on him is a huge advantage. Therefore the Thunder will win the championship in six games. If the Thunder should win there is no way around Kevin Durant being named MVP. He is their best player and closer. I don’t expect too many close games but he will undoubtedly put his fingerprint on this series. He has become much better defensively, although I do not believe he will outplay LeBron, he will earn the award. James Harden has been named the X-Factor all throughout the playoffs and he still is. He is the difference maker, a supremely talented player with a great shot and great defense and great attitude. Not many players with his talent have been willing to be a sixth man so … well, willingly. If he keeps on performing at this level he will give the second unit such a big lift that the Heat won’t be able to overcome.

Jerel Marshall: Both of these teams have their fair share of star power, but the Thunder will benefit from a wealth of contributors. Miami has struggled with depth ever since LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach. Oklahoma City will also enjoy a bit momentum after snapping the most impressive win streak in recent history by beating the San Antonio Spurs four straight times. Kevin Durant is one of the few players who can seamlessly combine playing unselfish while still being a big shot taker and a big shot maker. He very rarely forces things on the offensive end, but if he is feeling it or if the game is on the line he will burn you every time. Dwayne Wade and James will have their hands full chasing around the trio of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Durant. Sefolosha will be responsible for making sure that Wade has a tough time on the offensive side of things as well. If Sefolosha can continue to pester scorers while knocking down an open shot here and there, the Thunder should have no problem becoming this year’s champs.

Michael Collins: I think the Thunder take it, in six games. Miami showed a lot of potential flaws against a Boston team that was nowhere near as athletic or fast as OKC. Having Bosh back obviously made a difference, but it won’t be enough to get past the Thunder. If the way he finished off the conference finals is any indication, I think Kevin Durant will be the MVP. He has the ability to just put the team on his shoulders and go. The battle between he and LeBron should be epic, however. I think despite losing, Chris Bosh will be the ‘glue guy’ for the Heat, and for the Finals. It will be through his ability to make plays and to keep others focused that Miami will even stretch this series to six games. This would be the one disadvantage I give OKC, as they don’t really have a ‘glue guy” in my eyes. When Durant is having a bad night, he doesn’t know how to keep the team focused and moving forward, and (as witnessed in the first 2 games of the WCF) his team suffers.

Ryan McNeill: Kevin Durant and LeBron James battling each other is going to be a match-up for the ages, but Thabo Sefolosha is one of the better defenders in the NBA and he should be able to contain a hobbled Dwyane Wade. Where this series really starts to swing in OKC’s favour is at the point guard spot because Russell Westbrook should have his way against Mario Chalmers. Chris Bosh, who had a huge impact in the final few games of the Eastern Conference Finals, will have a tough time battling against Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in this series. The final nail in the coffin of Miami is the fact nobody on Miami’s bench will be able to slow down James Harden. I’ve got OKC winning in six games. My MVP is Durant and my glue guy is Ibaka or Sefolosha. Sorry, I couldn’t choose.

Justin Wells: I’ve got OKC Over Miami in 7. Thunder just have too many mismatches, and Ill take scott Brooks over Erik Sploestra all day long. My MVP is Russell Westbrook because Lebron will be shadowing Kevin Durant most of the series. My “glue” guy is Serge Ibaka. If Ibaka can maintain the lane like he did all season, Anthony/Turiaf/Haslem will hate him.

Kevin Brolan: Give me Thunder winning in 6, Kevin Durant MVP, and Nick Collison for glue guy.

Tom Westerholm: Miami in six. I think LeBron’s defense will affect Durant more than people are expecting, and OKC’s offense has struggled in the half court in the playoffs. My MVP is clearly LeBron James. Let’s be honest, this is a two man race for Finals MVP between James and Durant, and if I’m right about Miami winning, it will be LeBron.  A glue guy? Like someone who keeps the team happy together? Juwan Howard. He gives us all someone on Miami to make fun of instead of the Big 3.  JUWAN IS OLD, GUYS!!!

Lance Rinker: Having covered the Indiana Pacers’ postseason run, I was fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest individual playoff performances in recent memory: LeBron James in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I watched James compile a stat line of 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. And I saw a wrecking crew of two, James and Dwayne Wade, virtually outplay an entire team. With Chris Bosh back, the Heat are close to full form and will emerge as the top team in the league. In my mind, James is the greatest player in the world. When he is focused and on a roll, there is little a defense can do to contain him. Whether it be scoring, defending, or finding an open teammate, James does it all. After finally winning an NBA title, James—and the media—will relinquish the monkey from his back. Haslem and Wade are the only players remaining from Miami’s 2006 championship team, and although Haslem isn’t getting the same minutes he did six years ago, he still makes significant on-court contributions. Even with Bosh back in the rotation, Haslem will be depended on to haul down rebounds and provide a scoring option in the frontcourt. Simply put, in the 16 postseason wins thus far, Miami is nearly six points better with Haslem on the court. In their six losses, Haslem has struggled, and the Heat are about five points worse with him on the floor. The ninth-year forward makes a much larger impact than most spectators might think.

Why I’m Cheering For Miami

If you’re looking for insightful projections into just what will happen once the NBA Finals kick off in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, you can find the two cents of many Hoops Addict correspondents here. This piece comes less from the perspective of an NBA analyst and more from a fan of the game, as well as its narrative.

The fundamental storyline of these Finals leans heavily in favor of the Thunder. Among the leading men of the two clubs, Miami’s LeBron James is the hated villain for a generation of fans unwilling to forget his painfully misguided “Decision”, while OKC’s Kevin Durant is the anti-LeBron – a down-to-Earth superstar that quietly re-upped with the franchise that drafted him while James and co. were doing this.

There are, however, two main issues with this overly simplistic outline of what will be a multi-layered series. Not only is it an outdated take that fails to account for James’ recent growth as both a player and a person (as well as the exceptionally unique pressure he faces), but it fails to acknowledge the rest of what are two diverse, varied rosters of interesting players.

But first, a few words on James. Much has changed since he turned the better part of the country against him and the Heat by taking his talents to South Beach. His tone-deaf demonstrations of self praise and premature celebration have been replaced by a hoodie-wearing symbol of support for Trayvon Martin in precisely the type of socially conscious display that superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have been famously loathe to engage in.

On the basketball side of things, he has been lauded as a great teammate who is leading by example in both selflessness and worth ethic. While LeBron critics may choose to focus in on his disappearing act during the 2010-11 postseason, his 2011-12 playoff stat line currently reads 30.8/9.6/5.1.

At the same time, while the public perception of the 27-year-old may not have changed much, there might be at least a partially enhanced understanding of just what it’s like to be in his shoes. A Newsday story from last week features the now-famous words of teammate Shane Battier explaining what life is like for LBJ:

“He sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don’t know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.”

James’ team-first approach may have been helped along by his inherently likable supporting cast. Dwyane Wade has officially ceded top dog duty his younger and more physically imposing teammate, but he retains far-reaching popularity that has pretty well remained untainted by anti-Heat backlash.

Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was maligned as the undeserving member of the “Big 3″ before finding success this season by growing comfortable in his third-option role and even serving as an emotional rallying point in his Conference Finals return.

Outside of the three dominant personalities of the Heat, several character guys round out a roster of players who seem to genuinely enjoy each other. Battier has lost a step, but continues to be a valuable glue guy and reigns as a much-respected veteran in the locker room. Ronny Turiaf and Juwan Howard aren’t getting consistent minutes, but they both offer visible support from the bench.

Meanwhile, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller have all learned how to best complement their superstar teammates while not being afraid to get their own looks (Chalmers, in particular, has no problem taking open shots in clutch situations).

No disrespect to the equally (if not more) likable Thunder, but this is LeBron’s time. Lost in the digital, 24-hour news cycle age is the pure simplicity of watching the greats win. Durant (and, to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook) may well be among those greats, but he’s also just 23 with plenty of prime years ahead of him. With James turning 28 later this year, he is firmly within what should be his prime.

When he earns himself an NBA championship ring (even if he doesn’t win six, or seven, or eight…), we will have all been witnesses.

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.

Thunder Capitalize On Gift-Wrapped Victory

With 2:08 left on the clock, Game 2 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers was all but over.

That is until Kobe Bryant giftwrapped the game and handed it to the Thunder.

The Lakers owned a 75-68 lead and the Thunder were in the midst of one of the most miserable halves of their season. Kevin Durant wasn’t shooting enough, Serge Ibaka shot too much and Kobe started to turn on the Kobe.

It was over and the Thunder had all but handed the Lakers their first win of the series. Then, Bryant turned around and gave Oklahoma City the best thing they could have ever asked for: a chance.

With 1:48 remaining and the game all but sewed up, Bryant looked to pass the ball into the post. Durant, Thunder coach Scott Brook’s defensive secret weapon at the end of games, reached up with every inch of his nine-foot wingspan and plucked his pass straight out of the air, drove to the basket and cut the Lakers’ lead to three.

“He’s (Durant) guarding the best player in basketball,” Brooks said after the game. “It takes a team to stop him (Bryant). There was a moment when I thought Kobe was really starting to feel it and I thought Kevin’s length could bother him.”

“It was a great play,” Bryant said. “He just jumped the passing lane and got a good steal. Other than that, I was just too far away from the basket.”

The Lakers kept the Thunder from scoring after another turnover, but with 1:01 left on the clock, Bryant, so used to the late game drama, missed a fade-away that would have ultimately sealed the deal and sent the Lakers home with a huge win. Instead, Kendrick Perkins grabbed the rebound, Harden drove to the basket and with 56 seconds left, the Thunder was down by one.

Los Angeles still had the lead. With under a minute, they were still in the driver’s seat. All they had to do was milk the clock and get to the basket for a layup or a foul.

Easier said than done, even with Bryant.

Bryant had already helped get Oklahoma City back in the game with his turnover two possessions prior and wasn’t exactly feeling it after missing a fade-away. So, after draining the clock with the lead in hand, what did he do? He launched a three that clanked and landed in the hands of Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook got the ball to Durant and with 18.6 seconds left, the NBA’s leading scorer put the Thunder up by one with a seven-foot floater reminiscent of his game winner against Dallas in Game 1 of the first round.

Los Angeles tried to respond with a flare out to Bryant, but Metta World Peace instead passed to Steve Blake who launched a desperation-three, missed and gave Oklahoma City a 2-0 series advantage.

“I got open,” Bryant said. “I don’t know what Metta (World Peace) saw, but he kicked it to Steve (Blake) and I got in position for the rebound. I couldn’t pull it down.”

The Lakers will now head home disappointed. They can’t be disappointed that they lost two games in one of the loudest arenas in the league, but in the fact that their star player couldn’t lockup the game like he’s so used to doing.

Bryant is one of the game’s greatest players of all time, as professed by Brooks after Game 1 Monday night. However, in the clutch Wednesday, he looked more like an aging veteran than the assassin he has been over 16 years.

Kobe just wasn’t Kobe.

Give all the credit in the world to Oklahoma City. They got the job done. Their superstar (Durant) came up big in the clutch and L.A.’s star didn’t. For 46 minutes it was the Lakers’ game to win, but in the final minutes the Thunder capitalized on costly Laker mistakes and ultimately stole the victory.

“This is what the series is going to be about,” Brooks said after the game. “Each game is going to be a one or two possession game going forward. Each game is going to be physical, but we feel we can win that way.”

Instead of taking the game from the Thunder, Kobe gave it to them. It’s a mistake he has so rarely surrendered over the course of his career, but it could end up being the demise of this year’s Lakers.

It could also be a boost for Oklahoma City, a boost that could lead them to the Western Conference Finals and ultimately an NBA championship.

A Look At The MVP Candidates

Now that this compressed NBA season commenced, there are a plethora of players that deserve the regular season MVP. Theoretically, an MVP is defined as a player who has the most importance to his respective team. Players like Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose can all win it this year, but just like the tag line to previous NBA playoffs has been, there can be only one.

Lebron James – Miami Heat

Based on his Player Efficiency Rating, he is having the best single season in NBA history. His season averages are 27. 1 PPG, 7.90 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.8 steals, and just under 1 block per game. His stats are not the biggest or best ever seen, but his efficiency is on course to be the best of any NBA player in any single season in history.

To put this in perspective, Wilt Chamberlain averaged a career high of 31.84 PER in the1962-63 season. Michael Jordan reached 31.8 in the 1987-88 season. Lebron is currently at 32.4 PER, and is well on track to surpassing probably the consensus top two players to ever play in the NBA.

To make this more unique, with the help of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he has helped the Heat clinch the second best record in the Eastern Conference. On offense, James can post like a power forward on one possession and then handle the ball like a point guard on the next possession. On defense, he can guard four positions: the point guard, shooting guard, and both forward positions.  

These qualities are enough for Lebron to become a three-time MVP, but when he joined forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, two of the top-10 players at their positions, he automatically disqualified himself from the MVP discussion.

Kevin Durant –  OKC Thunder

Kevin Durant is one of the fastest rising Superstars in the NBA, and is on the cusp of becoming one of the greatest players of his generation. Durant, along with Russell Westbrook and James Harden, has turned the small market OKC Thunder into one of the hottest teams on the planet; and possibly the first dynasty of the 2010’s.

Durant has led the OKC Thunder to the second best record in the Western Conference with a 47-19 record. His season averages are 28.03 points, 7.98 rebounds, 3.50 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game.

This season, Kevin Durant averaged a career high, in rebounds, assists, and blocks. He is also the first three time scoring champion. This season, Durant has had grueling duels with fellow MVP candidate, Kobe Byrant .  These scoring duels have been reminiscent of Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins, or Isaiah Thomas and Bernard King.

One devalued aspect of Kevin Durant’s 2012 campaign is his ability to share the limelight and the shots with his All-Star teammate, Russell Westbrook. Throw in Durant’s bewildering ability to deliver in the clutch, something James has yet to do, all of these components make a very strong case for Durant to win this year’s MVP.

Chris Paul –  LA Clippers

Chris Paul is one of the top Point Guards in the NBA. This season’s turnaround in Clipper land is reminiscent of the impact Jason Kidd had on the Nets in the 2001-2002 season. Although the Clippers are seen as the JV team in LA, the gap has been considerably closed between Clippers fans and Lakers fans for basketball superiority in LA.

Since Paul’s arrival in the offseason, he has changed the culture of the Clippers from a perennial looser into a contender. 

Paul’s season averages are 19.8 points, 3.55 rebounds, 9.05 assists, and 2.5 steals; and his 26.82 Player Efficiency Rating is only second to Lebron James.  Paul’s contributions have been brilliant and his ball distribution has taken his teammates from marginal players to above average players.

For a guy who only stands 6-feet tall, he makes an impact on the defensive end of the ball as one of the league leaders in steals. His well-rounded game separates himself from past MVP’s at the point guard position, such as Steve Nash and Allen Iverson.

Kevin Love – Minnesota Timberwolves

What’s love got to do with it? Believe it or not, Kevin Love is making a strong case for MVP.

His improved play has given him the label as the best power forward in the league. He is putting up numbers not seen since the days of Moses Malone. When you look at his season averages you would think they came straight out of a video game. His season averages are 26.04 PPG and 13.36 rebounds. 26.06 PPG is a career high for Kevin Love; some season stand out games include a 42-point, 10-rebound game against the Spurs, and a 51-point game against the OKC Thunder. 

One of the factors that will affect Kevin Love’s MVP status in a negative way is his team record, as they are not in the playoff hunt. They made tremendous strides to improve their overall team record. For a franchise that has been dead in the water since they traded Kevin Garnett in 2007, they are on their way back to relevancy in the NBA due to the stellar play of Kevin Love.

Derrick Rose –  Chicago Bulls

The defending NBA MVP is having an impactful season just as he had last season. The Chicago Bulls are the number one team in the Eastern Conference for two consecutive years and this season Rose averaged 21.8 PPG, 7.87 assists, and 3.36 rebounds per game. His points are down by 3.16 from last season and he has played in fewer games this season due to injury but his impact on the team remains the same.  He is the team scoring and emotional leader, and without Rose, the Bulls are just a middle-of-the-road team.

Lamentably, there can be only one winner for this prestigious award. Only the truly great, and impact players have won this award.  For players to justify winning this award, they have to take their teams and level of play to a higher plateau, and most importantly win games.

As the late Al Davis famously said, “Just win, baby. Just win”.

Mavericks Falter In Cliché Must-Win Game

The Dallas Mavericks faced quite a few issues with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first two games of their playoff series, both of which they lost.

Surprisingly, one of those issues was not Kevin Durant. Durant still scored 25.5 points per game, but all of that came on 34% shooting. Superstar caliber players like Durant will always get their points, but it’s just a matter of making them work for it and Shawn Marion was making him do just that.

For the Mavericks, the frightening part about Durant’s sluggish start was that the Thunder were still able to win both games in Oklahoma City.

With an already tough task in front of them, the Mavs were hoping to keep Durant in his mini-slump just to make their series deficit surmountable.

Fat chance.

Not that the Thunder are unbeatable when Durant plays up to his normally high standards, but his 15 quick points in the first quarter shocked the Mavs who found themselves back on their heels in the blink of an eye. Going into the series, the Mavericks actually expected these vintage Durant performances while hoping to keep talented, but easily frustrated point guard Russell Westbrook’s scoring down. Their plan could not have been more opposite as Westbrook was the one with the hot hand coming into Thursday night averaging 28.0 points per game with a sterling 50% shooting percentage.

If both Durant and Westbrook are performing at a high rate, their opponent faces quite a climb no matter who they are.

Despite being down 0-2 and not technically facing an actual elimination game Thursday night, all teams down two games to none in the playoffs essentially face an elimination game considering a team has never come back from that 0-3 hole in the history of the NBA playoffs. That’s a feat that the Mavericks came into tonight having no interest in trying to overcome.

Unluckily for the Mavericks, the Thunder didn’t care.

After Kevin Durant (31 points, 11-of-15 shooting) quickly jumped back into his elite form, Westbrook (20 points, 8-of-19 shooting) followed suit with his highly effective mid-range game and the Mavs had no answer in the crushing 95-79 loss.

They had no answer from Dirk Nowitzki, no answer from Jason Terry, and no answer from anyone else.

The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder are simply a better team than the 2012 Dallas Mavericks, meaning the Mavs would have to play nearly error free to have a chance of winning the series. Games 1 and 2 followed that pattern even though the Mavericks fell just short, but Game 3 was a pure comedy of errors.

Whether it was the combined 34% shooting, the porous defense of their three-point line, or the inability to force the Thunder to commit any more than six turnovers, the Mavs had plenty of problems tonight that they could point to for their demise. While all of that is true and had a hand in the Mavs falling into an 0-3 hole, the main reason is because the Thunder are simply the more talented team. The series between these rivals last year aren’t even comparable due to the roster turnover and the improvements Oklahoma City’s young stars have made.

There is obviously still the chance of a miracle from the Mavs, who now have the unenviable task of have to win four straight games against the Western Conference’s two-seed in order to take the series. Considering the Mavericks are now an amazing 1-8 against the Thunder this season counting the preseason, it may not be a good bet to make.

Mavs On The Brink Against A Better Team

Queue up Al Pacino’s locker room speech from Any Given Day because this Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder playoff matchup has fully proven the ‘Game of Inches’ theory. The inches went Kevin Durant’s way in Game 1 and didn’t for Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2.

And now the Thunder are up two games to none with full control.

By using the crazy concept of mathematics, this series appears close on many levels. Only separated by four points over two games, the pace and scoring has been nearly identical so far with the Thunder scoring 99 and 102 points and the Mavericks with 98 and 99 points, respectively.

Despite a run last night where the Thunder led by double digits for a short period of time, the first couple of games have been stocked full of ties, lead changes, and play closer than the distance between Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow and Russell Westbrook’s face. That’s what tends to happen in a rivalry of teams who know each other so well and let there be no doubt, this Oklahoma-Texas duo has quickly become a rivalry.

Shocking, I know.

Still, despite the numbers, how close actually are these two teams? There is a reason the Thunder are the two-seed and the Mavericks are the seven: The Oklahoma City Thunder are better than Dallas this year. They’re better than most anyone. The Mavs aren’t underdogs like in so many (all?) of their series in last year’s playoffs, they’re the actual inferior team this time around. There’s nothing wrong with that as upsets happen all the time, but it means their margin for error is extremely slim and they’ll have to work harder for everything they get.

Specifically, the dispersion of scoring causes stress for one team and is a non-issue for the other. On Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant can shoot 5-17 in Game 1 and Russell Westbrook or James Harden can be consistently counted on to contribute in a scoring role. When scoring can be so easily relied upon by a few, good things begin to happen for that team. Guys like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and, my God, Derek Fisher can get on scoring rolls that makes the opponent feel like their collective sky is falling.

Everything seems to come so easier for the better team who has things rolling. We saw it last year in Dallas.

Right now on the Mavericks, a 5-17 shooting night for Dirk Nowitzki would almost certainly bury Dallas on that night. Jason Terry has proven he can be that additional scorer, but with defenses rolling to him late in the game, it’s Nowitzki or bust so far.

So far, by a few inches, that hasn’t been enough.

Still, we’re not done here. Thanks to Rick Carlisle’s adjustments and overall mastery of anything Thunder coach Scott Brooks is capable of, the Mavericks are a tough matchup for the Thunder who can’t seem to gain consistent separation from their seven-seed counterparts. They’re beating the Mavericks, but Rick Carlisle, along with Nowitzki, deserves massive praise for not allowing this to get out of hand.

It’s not quite smoke and mirrors, but Carlisle certainly isn’t working with the same group he has in 2011. He and the Mavs have had very little margin for error, but coming home for two game on Thursday and Saturday will crack that window open a bit more.

They’ll need it, too. Counting the preseason, playoffs, and regular season, the Mavericks are just 1-7 against the Thunder this year. Considering that, it will be quite a tall order to take four of five games from Oklahoma City over the next few days to win the series. It may feel like the Mavericks barely lost the first two games, but they need to make some drastic adjustments to turn their fortunes around. They can start with a return to their ball movement oriented offense and someone stepping into a consistent scoring role next to Terry and Nowitzki in order to pull off the relative miracle.

And perhaps a center can show up for Dallas, as well.

It starts on Thursday in Dallas where the Mavericks face their first must-win game of the season. The inches, among other things, need to start falling in the favor of the Mavs.

Kate Upton In Skullcandy’s Take A Supermodel To Work Video

Forget take your kid to work day — today is Take a Supermodel to Work Day. Watch what happens when Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model and member of Skullcandy Supermodel Crew, Kate Upton, goes to work with NBA superstars, and members of the Skullcandy NBA Crew, Kevin Durant and James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Podcast: 2012 NBA Playoffs Preview

After nearly a year, the Hoops Addict Podcast is back on a regular basis. I’ve linked up with Mark Cheel with the intention of bringing back the Podcast on a weekly basis and we started with a preview of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

Mark and I break down why Atlanta can give Boston a scare, we debate if Utah’s frontcourt can muscle San Antonio out of the playoffs, we lament that the Clippers lack of a strong coach will result in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul not lasting as long as they should in the playoffs as well as the rest of the first round match-ups.

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Here’s the MP3 of the Podcast if you want to download it.