Tonight, Oklahoma City plays Memphis in an entirely meaningless game. So the question is, do the starters play or sit? It’s already been reported that the starters will play, but how much? Both sides make a lot of sense and I’m not sure there’s a right answer. But over the course of a few emails, J.G. and I tried to come up with a solution.
Royce: I’m not entirely sure I have an opinion on it yet, so I’m going to form one as we go I suppose. How’s that for hard-hitting sportswriting? So what are your immediate thoughts?
J.G.: I’m thinking that despite the reality that they could use rest, they really, REALLY aren’t playing like a team ready for the playoffs, so I think they have to use this last game as a launching pad despite the heavy legs.
Royce: I definitely feel that too. They need some momentum. Going into the postseason losing three straight and five of your last six isn’t good for morale. But at the same time, like you said, they probably need a break. I think they’re worn out and a couple guys are banged up some. There’s absolutely nothing to gain in terms of playoff positioning.
But on the flip side, there’s a lot to be won. This could be 50 wins, which is a huge milestone. This game will be in front of a national television audience, which is only the third time OKC has appeared. You don’t really want the world to get more Kevin Ollie than Kevin Durant. And plus, this could be a game as we said, to build momentum and also iron out some issues. Of course there’s the looming, scary “What If?” that rhymes with scmimjury…
J.G.: I think your point about losing five of the last six and three straight is spot on, especially with a young team who, let’s face it, has had its share of ups and downs over the year both on an individual and team level. The problem is that this game is literally meaningless in terms of the end-goal that every team has coming into the season: win a championship. This one game will not affect seeding, could result in a ______ that could keep one of its star players out of the playoffs so in terms of substance, there’s nothing to be won from this game if you play all your starters 38-40+ minutes.
Except that this game would mean something to this team and this fan base. And I think it’s beyond the nationally televised game and the 50 win milestone, which are both huge, don’t get me wrong. I’ll just come out and say it. Westbrook is playing awful; this team desperately needs the Westbrook of January – March to return. Aside from the Utah game, when has Durant been clutch in end game situations?
And what is the hope for every team come playoff time, even if they’re playing the defending champs? That they have a shot to win it come crunch time. Collison has clearly shown that he’s not a starter in this league and, I never thought I’d say this, I honestly believe this team is missing Nenad Krstic more than we could have ever dreamed. Where is the team who beat the Lakers on March 26th when Krstic pulled down 9 boards in the first quarter and the crowd was almost frothing at the mouth for a victory, even with Bynum’s injury having to be taken into consideration.
Which brings you back to the fear of suffering an ______ against a Grizzlies team who will undoubtedly come to play with so many contracts up in the air. Can the Thunder lose any starter and not immediately get swept in the first round? Will they even be able to not get swept anyway?
Royce: That’s the rub. The ultimate goal is to win a championship and to get there, you’ve got to accomplish smaller goals. Win one game in LA. Win both games at home after that. Set yourself up to win a series. Advance on and try and win the next one.
And in order to achieve those goals, you have to set yourself up for them. What was the purpose of training camp? To get ready for the season. To work out kinks, to figure out rotations and have everyone ready to go for 82 games. I think that could be the approach Wednesday night. Maybe you don’t play Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook late in the fourth quarter of an eight-point game. But they absolutely need minutes. Not just for the fans and ESPN, but because that’s what will get them ready for a series against LA.
At the same time, I think back to last week after playing a tough stretch, Scott Brooks cancelled a practice and let the players skip shootaround. They came out fresh against Phoenix and found that energy and intensity on the defensive end again. So my thinking is, you try and find the best of both worlds. Give the players a rest both mentally and physically, while also trying to fix the chinks in the armor. It’s not an easy thing to do, but Scott Brooks is looking at Coach of the Year for a reason, and I have faith he’ll figure it out.
J.G.: That’s all well and good, and I agree with you, but what happens in that last quarter if your 8 point lead dwindles to 2 with five minutes to go and your starters are on the bench? In keeping with your training camp analogy, doesn’t this team absolutely need to workout the kinks, figure out rotations, and maybe even, um, LEARN HOW TO DIAGRAM A GAME ENDING PLAY before going into the playoffs against one of the most cold-blooded finishers the league has ever seen?
If your Scott Brooks, do you put those starters back in so your team can FINALLY feel what it’s like to pull out a close victory going into the playoffs? Or do you immediately send in Etan, Ollie, etc to signal that the ending of the game is relatively meaningless so it’s not like they’re really losing yet another close game to close out the season?
What do you think the fans/players would want Brooks to do? And can you even really have the best of both worlds in this Kobayashi Maru scenario? If the Thunder go boom, but no one’s around to hear it, doesn’t it still make a sound? My head hurts.
Royce: What do you do in that situation? I have no friggin’ clue. I want to see them close and win. I think it will do them good. Obviously the Memphis Grizzlies aren’t the Los Angeles Lakers, but with Kevin Durant posting things on Twitter about fans being fickle, I think restoring some good will heading into the biggest 4-7 games of the season would be huge. And if that takes KD playing 40 minutes, maybe it’s worth it.
But on the other, dark hand, what if a schmimjury happens? Scott Brooks should just set his Coach of the Year trophy on fire then. We’d never hear the end of it. It’s one of the greatest and yet most mind-numbing things with being a fan of a team. Hindsight is always clear and if it doesn’t work out, everyone is an idiot. Coaches and players get paid the big bucks to deal with that sort of second guessing, but still, can you deal with a week or more of it if the unthinkable happens? I don’t think I could. I’d break my computer, cut my cable cords and go live in a cabin in Alaska for two months until it passes.
Overall, I guess I just took up a lot of white space to really say I don’t know what I think should happen. On one hand, I see the value in playing (ESPN, momentum, confidence, 50 wins, treating fans) and the wisdom in not (schmimjuries, rest, nothing to gain). What decision do I endorse? I dunno, ask me after the game and I’ll tell you what the right one was. I’m a fan, remember?
J.G.: …I say go for it. That being said, if Durant and the team need some good will from the Ford Center faithful to boost their confidence and self-belief going into one of the more exciting David vs GoLiAth (see what I did there?) matchups, then I think you absolutely have to put those starters in and roll the dice for the final five minutes because, much like
Durant, I think the entire Thunder fandom could use a nice esteem shot in the arm. And Durant has a point, fanhood is a fickle thing, Royce. Celebrity athlete is as celebrity athlete does, never forget that. Durant probably needs to close out a game and round out a 50 win season at home before the playoffs just as much, if not more, than the fans do.
Plus, if a ______ happens then if I were Brooks I would simply say, “You play–to win–the game,” and then mix in a “Do you think we looked like a team who was ready for the playoffs before the Grizzlies game?” and ask anyone who doubts your decision if they think the Coach of the Year trophy you’re about to win is too shiny and distracting for the journalists to pose intelligent questions.
Plus, at this point, do we actually think an extra 8-10 minutes of rest will have ANY effect on Durant and Co. after they’ve logged 40+ minutes too many times to count for 81 games? Let it ride, Brooksy!
Royce: I thinkI’m in the same boat. If it weren’t for the fear of something horrible happening, I’d say give them all 30-35 minutes, play to win and get ready for the playoffs. They’ll have three days rest before the opening game against the Lakers and if they don’t play, then you’re looking at a five-day layoff and possible rust. I don’t think you push them tonight to the point of playing Jeff Green 44 minutes or something, but I think everyone needs to play and play as if the game counts for something. Not just for us fans and a national audience, but for themselves as they get ready for the biggest game of the year.