It’s April 7th 2009 at the Ford Center. There’s a seemingly meaningless game in the house, yet it’s not so meaningless. On one side of the ball there is the Oklahoma City Thunder, at the time a 21 win team with no post season prospects, and on the other the San Antonio Spurs with their 49 wins in the bag, playing for playoff seeding. Even more, the Thunder had managed to eek out two wins against the Spurs in the previous 2 1/2 weeks or so. The Thunder really believe they can win, the Spurs are both pissed and determined to step on this bug that keeps swarming them at a time when they’re trying to close out the season with some winning mojo.
The Thunder actually take a lead into half time at 51-50, showing some spunk and confidence. In the third, both teams make runs. First OKC goes on an 11-5 swing, followed by the Spurs and a 12-3 run of their own. Late in the fourth, the Thunder lose ground, but make a little push and get the game close, down 89-85 with 2:31 left. Coach Popovich calls a timeout and both teams plan their strategy; the Thunder need some scoring and they need to hold the line defensively.
It doesn’t happen. The Thunder manage 3 made free throws and a meaningless 2 point jumper by Westbrook with the game clock expiring. In that final 2:31 the Thunder were 1-5 from the field. The shots were there but they weren’t falling. It was a winnable game that we didn’t win.
In that last 2:31 Coach Brooks used a lineup of Durant, Green, Krstic, Westbrook and Livingston, with Thabo subbing in for Livingston in the final :25 for defense (the Spurs went with Parker, Duncan, Finley, Udoka and Drew Gooden). Durant and Green have established themselves as effective three point shooters and are offensive weapons suited to this situation. Krstic is the best we have in the middle with a balance of offense/defense. Westbrook, Livingston and Thabo are the weak links here when we needed scoring punch and quick offense.
- Livingston is an average shooter at best, with a career .231 shooting percentage from three.
- Thabo also is a lightweight shooter with career marks of .427 from the field and .313 from three.
- Westbrook stroke looks good, but better shot selection and experience are needed before he becomes a potent weapon. He’s at .398 from the field and .271 from three.
A situation just like this is why I am so excited about our new Draft picks, and why I give Presti an A for a draft grade. In that last 2:31 there were repeated ball stops for timeouts and free throws. Brooks looks down his bench and wonders where he can find somebody to hit shots. Coach Pop knows he has to keep an eye on the big three for the Thunder, but is probably less concerned with being burned by Thabo from deep, or Livingston.
Now, consider Brook’s options. He can sub offense for defense on the ball stops and actually put out a high powered offensive five. I’m thinking a lineup of Harden, Vaden, Durant, Green and Krstic can make shots. Who is Pop going to cheat off of? How can he defend all five spots when the ball begins to swing around the perimeter? Good luck with that. If anybody was paying attention in the Orlando/Cleveland series you know what I’m talking about. Dwight Howard in the middle being guarded by Ilgauskus and 4 deadly shooters around the perimeter, swinging the ball and setting screens and double screens. I think Harden is a good enough handle that he can be the primary ball handler in that hypothetical lineup.
And don’t count out Vaden. He is an absolute gunner; an assassin. He shoots the three like few others in the nation. He’s one of only three other players in the NCAA’s that attempted 300 or more 3 pointers last season, the other two were Steph Curry and Lester Hudson; and he’s one of only a handful that made over 100 of them. In 07-08 Steph Curry and Vaden were 1 and 2 in both three pointers made and attempted, and Vaden shot a very nice 40% from beyond the arc.
Vaden doesn’t pass the ball much, or rebound. Draftexpress says he has some ability defensively, but let’s face it, on a team that didn’t shoot or hit the deep ball much, last actually, Vaden’s skill is a needed commodity.
Ricky Rubio has great upside, but if we want to win games now and begin to build confidence and a winning swagger, the tools that Harden and Vaden bring to the roster are going to prove more helpful in the upcoming season.