Denver’s Raymond Felton had five attempted field goals and a trip to the free throw line in the fourth quarter Sunday before the 11 second mark, when the game devolved into fouling and Thunder free throws. J.R. Smith had three shots, Nene had two shots and a trip to the free throw line, and the other Nuggets had fewer looks than that.
By contrast, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had six field goal attempts each in that same time period, and other than Eric Maynor’s two shots, no other Thunder player had more than one shot in the quarter.
That’s what happens when one team has two established stars and the other has an offense-by-committee mentality. And at least through one game, having the two stars worked out in Oklahoma City’s favor. It gives credence to the long-established belief that it takes a star or two to advance in the NBA playoffs.
In crunch time in particular, everyone knows who’s getting the shot for Oklahoma City. It could be argued that’s an advantage to the defense, which knows that denying the Thunder’s two stars cramps the offense. It’s well-documented that OKC sometimes struggles in half-court execution, especially in the fourth quarter, and that was evident in a stretch of 1-for-8 shooting in the final stanza Sunday. There will surely come a time when someone like James Harden or Serge Ibaka has to knock down a big shot, most likely off a pass from a double-teamed Durant or Westbrook. Recall that two of the biggest shots in Chicago’s title runs in the 1990s came off passes from Scottie Pippen (to John Paxson in Game 6 of the 1993 Finals) and from Michael Jordan (to Steve Kerr in Game 6 of the 1996 Finals).
But still … if you’re a fan of any team, which two players would you choose to take the bulk of your team’s fourth-quarter shots, regardless of the circumstances: Durant, Westbrook, Felton, Smith, Nene, Danilo Gallinari or Ty Lawson? Unless you’re a Nuggets fan, you probably choose Durant and Westbrook every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Not only does having the clear-cut Alpha players identified on a team make it easier to decide who’s going to take the shots, but it also undoubtedly makes it easier on the psyche of the other players on the floor who don’t get plays run for them at that point. Do you think Harden or Ibaka ever thinks, “Why not me?” when Scott Brooks draws up a play for KD? But that’s probably not the same, at least all the time, for Felton or Gallinari if George Karl draws one up for Felton, and the same for Felton if it’s drawn up for Lawson or Nene. These are proud men who are trying to carve out a niche in a still-developing team structure.
Years ago, I read a story about the NFL’s New England Patriots, famous for their consistent winning and Super Bowl titles over the last decade, that featured a scout discussing the New England roster. The scout said his team used colors to identify players of a certain caliber: red for star players and blue for very good players. The Patriots didn’t have nearly as many red players on its roster as other contending teams in the NFL. But it had a roster flush with many more blue players than anyone else had. New England, in the scout’s mind, wins games by having very good players at every position instead of a few stars pulling the weight of some below-average players.
That might be a formula for consistent winning and postseason success (until recently, anyway, for New England) in the NFL, but I’m not so sure that’s going to work, especially in the postseason, in the NBA. There are only five players on the court in a basketball game compared with 11 on the field in a football game. Two stars are going to stand out a lot more on an NBA court than two or even three would in an NFL game.
Much was made before the postseason, and in previewing this series, of the Nuggets winning with their current approach while the Knicks struggled with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. The Nuggets are fun to watch and they play hard, and those two things aren’t said as often about New York. But the Knicks don’t have a roster with that NFL scout’s blue players surrounding Anthony and Stoudemire. A lot of New York’s supporting cast wouldn’t even sniff playing time in Oklahoma City — or Denver, for that matter. The Thunder, on the other hand, has an abundance of those blue players surrounding KD and Westbrook.
There’s no doubt the Nuggets are good enough to win a game or two, or maybe even more, in this series with a roster full of very good players. But it’s already been proven the Thunder can win with its star players, even without a lot of scoring in support of their efforts by OKC’s own very good players. Denver just doesn’t have two players who are capable of going off like Durant and Westbrook did to carry the Nuggets to a win.
Through one game, the Thunder’s star power has proved to be a winning formula against Denver in a playoff series. My gut still tells me it will stay that way for three more wins.