I know that right now, actual basketball being played on an actual court with actual NBA players is probably pretty far back in Thunder fans’ minds. I think the Thunder fan thought flow right now goes: “Draft-Draft-James Harden-Ricky Rubio-Food–Work–Draft-Sleep-Trades-Food-Draft-NBA Finals-Hasheem Thabeet.” Or something like that.
But the truth is, the Finals are what we all want. I may be totally crazy here, but I’d much rather have won a title than won the lottery. Heck, I’d rather have gotten swept in the Western quarterfinals than been in the lottery. But that’s me. I’d rather be playing than watching and wishing. The Finals are the reason we all care so much about free agency and the draft. Because you know, we want players that can help us get there.
Anyway, so with the Finals starting this week and I was thinking: What can Thunder fans and/or players take out of this? Here’s five things:
1. A superstar is needed, but the other four guys are just as important. Watch the way the Lakers maneuver with Kobe Bryant. He’s the unquestioned MAN of that team, but there’s a reason they are here and the Cavs are not. Those reasons are Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Kevin Durant is already a fantastic - I say FANTASTIC - player, but he can’t do it on his own. Nor could Russell Westbrook or Jeff Green. It’s got to be five guys working as one. Or at least three or four. Kobe doesn’t have to take every shot. He’s perfectly content scoring 18 on 6-11 shooting. He just waits and strikes when needed. Nobody does it better.
I remember some of my favorite basketball the Thunder played this season was while KD was out (don’t read anything into that). The team swung the ball side-to-side, made crisp cuts and moved the ball everywhere. It was beautiful basketball. They didn’t have the out of KD standing on the wing. They couldn’t just toss it to him and hope for the best. They all had to contribute. That’s the type of basketball is really takes to win, but insert a superstar player into the middle of it and you’ve got something special. It’s harder to figure out than you think though. The Magic understand Dwight Howard’s abilities and deficiencies and adjust accordingly. Same with the Lakers. You have to understand how everything works around your best player. Both these squads have that figured out pretty well.
2. You don’t need a great point guard – you need players that work together. Look at both the Lakers and Magic – do Rafer Altson or Derek Fisher really scream, “GREAT POINT GUARD!” to you? They both know their role and handle it well. They hit shots, pass well, can score a little but most of all manage the game. I just wrote about Russell Westbrook’s issues about managing the game. He could learn a lot from either of these point guards and neither one is really all that great. But they don’t try and do too much. They just play within the flow, take shots when they have them and try and make their teammates better. That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to just take four shots and average seven points per game. OKC needs Westbrook’s scoring and playmaking ability. Heck, Alston had 26 in Game 5 against Cleveland. But he chose his spots. He wasn’t forcing anything. He was just playing. I really think Westbrook will start to figure that out this season. I really do. And that makes my face tingle.
3. Defense really does make the difference. The Magic aren’t known for defense, but boy, they guard you. Every possession was an absolutely grind for Cleveland. Orlando is physical, in your face and don’t just give you an easy two. Ever. They truly make you earn it. The Lakers are more your classic defensive team. They guard well, help defend well and get in passing lanes. They don’t do anything outrageously awesome, but they do everything well. Lots of teams can score the ball. But the teams that make it more difficult than usual are the ones that go far. Stan Van Gundy convinced the Orlando of it this postseason. And you can see where it’s got them.
4. You need an identity. What was the Thunder’s calling card? And don’t say “losing” because that’s not what I mean. When you see San Antonio, you know what they do. Same with the Suns or the Nuggets. Good teams have an identity. Great teams have one and do whatever it is extremely well. The Lakers play solid defense, run the triangle offense and have Kobe. The Magic play excellent defense, shoot the three and pound it down low to Howard. You know what they are going to do before the game starts. But they do it so well that even though you know it’s coming, you can’t stop it. What’s going to be OKC’s identity? Defense? Run and gun offense? Solid defense with efficient offense? I don’t think even Scott Brooks really knows yet, though I know that they want a good defensive team. But then again, who doesn’t? Oh yeah, Don Nelson.
5. When all else fails and goes to crap, you need someone that can put you on their shoulders. And in the case of Dwight Howard, some extremely wide and broad shoulders. But the Lakers have Kobe. He won me over when he walked off the bench in OKC after the Thunder had pulled to within a few points and immediately ripped off 12 straight. It was the ultimate, “I got this” moment. And he can do that. He takes the biggest shots and makes them. He’s ready and willing to take the game over and more importantly, he’s not afraid to fail trying. Dwight Howard had his moment Game 6 against Boston after calling out his coach. He had it for his team. Kevin Durant will absolutely get there. He had some moments this year, but sometimes would disappear late in games. But for the 476th time, he’s just 20 and he’ll figure it out and sense the moment. And when he does, it will make us very happy.
Oh, and just because I know you care – Lakers in 6. What say you?