The Thunder don’t have to wait for a chance to exorcise their playoff demons. With the Mavericks coming to Oklahoma City on Saturday and a potential matchup with the Lakers in the second round after that, the Thunder have to go through the teams that ended their last two seasons just to get to where they’ve already been before.
None of the potential first-round matchups for OKC would have gone without a fight at the very least. But the Mavericks present a unique challenge. First, when looking at all the rosters of the Thunder’s potential opponents, you choose one without Dirk Nowitzki on it. He was last seen in the playoffs rampaging through Oklahoma City and Miami. And the Mavericks have recent experience being better than the Thunder at making adjustments over the course of a series, a big mental edge that the Thunder have to overcome.
There’s a reason why teams like the Mavericks and Celtics started the season in “just make the playoffs and then see what happens” mode. Starting a series on the road isn’t going to scare veteran and well-coached teams like them. The playoffs are about matchups and coaching adjustments, and Rick Carlisle showed last season why he’s one of the best in the league at making the latter, and Dirk is a walking matchup problem for anybody. Those teams knew that they could get to the playoffs and out-execute most teams in their path. If they lost because they were getting old or just didn’t have the depth, so be it.
Well, the playoffs are here, and the Mavs find themselves on the road, but against a team that it knows it can out-adjust when it comes down to it. Dallas probably doesn’t have the overall quality it’s going to need to beat the Thunder in a long series, but it wouldn’t be one of those playoff upsets that are talked about for years to come. Dallas isn’t going to repeat as champions, but they could still beat the Thunder four times in two weeks.
For all the Thunder’s troubles in late-game execution against the NBA’s best at the same thing, Scott Brooks, the players and everyone else deserve the benefit of the doubt through this playoffs and probably the next. All they’ve done to this point is get better. As smarter basketball minds than myself have pointed out, even though the Thunder continues to struggle with those pesky set plays near the end of games, they’ve gotten better. For now, even though a first-round exit to a weakened version of the same team that beat the Thunder last year would be a step back in the short term, there’s no reason to think OKC won’t continue to improve as a team even without making major roster or coaching changes for at least another year. Now’s their chance to prove the long, steady ascent continues, and the path to a deep run starts with a chance to make a statement against a team that openly declared OKC a “little brother” early in the year.
Really, these two days off are a good time to step back and take stock of where the Thunder really are. And they’re pretty much exactly where we thought they’d be. I don’t think many people envisioned they’d go 7-7 down the stretch, losing to every playoff team on the finishing schedule (and proving me wrong on the season-long focus comment). That has certainly been disappointing. But if the Thunder really do have another gear, and I think they do, I don’t think they ever decided to turn it on for a full game this month except against the Bulls. Chalk it up to immaturity. Ask me again in two weeks if it ended up being a big deal.
What better way to gain confidence heading into the NBA’s final four than doing it by dispatching the two teams that ended OKC’s previous two seasons? I doubt anyone would be throwing out stats from April as reasons why the Thunder couldn’t win it all at that point. The players and coaching staff would go into Game 1 feeling pretty good about themselves, and deservedly so. This is a chance to grow up a whole heck of a lot over the course of the next month, and the Thunder are perfectly capable of taking advantage of it.
But there are three main things that need to happen if the Thunder are going to make another deep playoff run. There’s no chance Oklahoma City makes it to the final two rounds without improvement in these areas.
1) OKC has to come ready to play. These maddening slow starts, which have affected the Thunder for much of the season, have to stop and they have to stop immediately. It’s one thing to fall behind by double digits early to the Kings and Nuggets, as happened Tuesday and Wednesday. The Thunder have the horses to come back against those teams even without James Harden, as proved by the successful comeback against Sacramento and the almost successful one against Denver. But that’s not going to happen against the Mavs or Lakers or Spurs or whoever. The Thunder almost game back from a gigantic deficit against the Spurs this spring, but almost is the key word. A team coached by Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle is not going to choke away a huge lead. If the Thunder fall behind like that a couple of times in a series, they might as well write those games off.
2) Harden needs to be involved in the fourth quarter. I made the assumption that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden would learn how to play better together in the fourth quarter. If you define that as getting Harden more involved, then I was mostly wrong, as evidenced by Harden’s criminally low usage rate in clutch situations. That’s going to have to change. OKC has a reliable third scorer, and Brooks (and the players, who are capable of making decisions on their own with the ball in their hands, remember) needs to do a better job of using him late in games. Plays down the stretch need a nice mix of Westbrook getting to the rim, Harden operating off the pick-and-roll and KD scoring in the myriad ways KD can score. The Thunder need to focus on being multidimensional. As teams adjust to OKC while series play out, the Thunder has no choice but to be creative and varied in their offensive sets.
3) Daequan Cook and Derek Fisher need to produce. Bench players typically get fewer minutes in the playoffs as rotations shorten. So it’s likely the opportunities for Cook and Fisher to do what they do best will be reduced as well. But they’ve still got to make plays. Cook’s flurries of 3-pointers are a true weapon for the Thunder’s second unit. If he can average 40 percent from behind the arc on five shots per game each series, OKC will be getting what it needs offensively from the non-Harden part of the second team. Anything better is huge, especially because Cook’s buckets are likely to come in bunches. He might go cold for a game that the Thunder loses, then go 4-of-5 the next game in an OKC win. And it sure looks like Fisher should stop shooting 3-pointers and just slash to the bucket. For a guy supposedly losing his speed and quickness, his cuts to the rim have looked pretty good for the Thunder recently, whether he gets a layup or passes to an open teammate. If he can keep from shooting OKC out of a game, limit turnovers and play average defense, a couple of cuts to the basket and timely passes each game would be exactly what the Thunder hoped to get when they signed Fisher.
And one idea, specific to the Dallas series: I’d like to see Durant get the assignment of checking Dirk in the fourth quarter. They’re about the same height. The Thunder’s burlier players aren’t quick enough to guard Dirk well consistently, and the Thunder’s quicker players aren’t big enough — and OKC joins the rest of the NBA over the last decade in this regard. But KD, at his best, can give Dirk problems. And KD is at his defensive best in the playoffs, specifically in the fourth quarter and big moments. He shouldn’t have to chase Dirk around for 40 minutes. But Durant wants to be a Hall of Fame player, and a Hall of Fame player should be able to play good defense on his counterparts on the other team. Durant needs to put his length, athleticism, instincts and work ethic on display against Dirk and see what happens.