It’s funny how the playoffs work. You beat a team in five games, which seems kind of like it was easy.
But it was most definitely not easy.
The Thunder had to fight for a second round gentleman’s sweep of the Lakers, coming back twice, getting game-winners and scratching their way to the Western Conference Finals. But they’ve very clearly grown up. They don’t panic, don’t lose composure, stay the course, believe in team and battle to the final buzzer. The Thunder were a very good team last season, but the writing on the wall was there in the Memphis series. The offense still had crunch time issues, there were lapses in focus and energy and sometimes immaturity and inexperience reared their ugly heads.
This time around, it appears to be different. The Thunder dismantled a quality Laker team by outplaying, outcoaching, outsmarting, outeverythinging them essentially all five games. Save for a free throw war in Game 4, the Thunder were the better team. The Lakers played it close, but the Thunder moved on because they were quite simply better when it mattered.
Anyway, let’s rank the roster in that second round:
1. Kevin Durant – 26.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.2 apg, 51.6 FG%, 39.1 3P%
2. Russell Westbrook – 25.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.6 apg, 48.5 FG%, 0.8 turnovers per game
I think if I’m being honest, Russell Westbrook played better than KD. He was no doubt about it the MVP of the series. Westbrook turned the ball over only four times in the series. Four! He turned it over twice just when I was typing this sentence. He dominated three of the five games, controlled tempo and ran the Thunder offense masterfully.
So why KD other than the fact I have a getting-to-the-point-of-awkward man crush on him? Because of this and this. Add that to the fact KD was terrific in his own right, but the trump card for me was his fourth quarter defense on Kobe Bryant. Per ESPN Stats and Info, KD held Kobe to just 1-of-10 shooting in the fourth quarter of the series. Think about that. The fourth quarter is Kobe time. And Durant essentially eliminated him from the equation.
We know KD can score, we know he’s awesome. But defensively Durant has improved an incredible amount, to the point I’d venture to say he’s a great defender. Yep. Defense is built upon reputation and it’s about time KD starts getting his due. It seems that until the big basketball minds recognize it, saying something like KD is a great defender is hearsay. But on the ball, I’m not sure there’s a better guy in the entire league. He takes away a jumper over the top because of his length. He’s got great feet. His instincts are solid. And his ball denial has come a long way. Consider a possession late in Game 5: It was the first time Durant had officially switched to defend Kobe in the fourth, and he denied him the ball for 10 seconds, then Kobe got it and Durant completely sealed him off. It was an outstanding exercise in working a 24-second defensive possession.
Again, Westbrook was tremendous. The best player in the series. So yeah, it doesn’t make sense that KD is No. 1, but he carried this team through the opening round. The fact that it’s a close battle for the top spot speaks to the reason this was a five-game series.
3. Kendrick Perkins – 3.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 40.0 FG%
I’ve long been the defender of the Perk, and I must admit, I feel a bit validated right about now. He’s paid to defend guys like Andrew Bynum and I’m not sure he could’ve done it any better. Bynum’s averages for the series: 16.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 43.5 percent shooting. For the season, Bynum shot 56 percent. Everything Bynum got, it was either not against Perk, or it came with a whole lot of work.
And keep in mind, Perk was only about 70-80 percent healthy. Mike Brown said it well prior to Game 5: “Perk basically is the left offensive guard. And then you’ve got KD as the quarterback scoring touchdowns and Westbrook is the running back and Harden’s coming in as the receiver, those guys getting the headlines but shoot, what Perk brings to the table, you can’t replace.”
The frustration some fans face with Perk is when they see a box score of him only having four points and five rebounds and you’re left wondering, “We’re paying our starting center $8 million for that?” No, you’re paying him for what he did to Bynum. The Spurs are a whole new challenge and Perk isn’t a deft pick-and-roll defender. He’ll likely have a much smaller role in the Western Finals. Which means some will go back to ragging on Perk. But just know, the Thunder wouldn’t even be here without him.
4. James Harden – 16.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 35.8 FG%, 25.0 3P%
In terms of outrageously efficient production, Harden didn’t put up his typical numbers. He shot the ball poorly, went only 5-20 from 3 and averaged only 2.2 assists. But he did get to the line (he hit 37-40 on free throws), played quality defense on Kobe and made some truly big plays, most notably his two driving buckets late in Game 2. Harden is the constant X-factor. He can change a game just with his presence. He makes the Thunder a more dynamic attack, gives relief to Durant and Westbrook and knows how to take over a game without being in your face about it. He put his stamp on the series, if in a somewhat quieter way.
5. Serge Ibaka – 8.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.0 bpg, 46.8 FG%
A solid series for Ibaka. He had the potential to be a major X-factor, and showed up in a big way a few games. He was sat late in Game 5 not for playing poorly, instead because Nick Collison was playing so well. One thing I don’t think Ibaka got enough credit for: defending Pau Gasol. A lot was made of Gasol not being aggressive or assertive, but could it maybe have had something to do with Ibaka’s one-on-one defense?
6. Nick Collison – 3.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 75.0 FG%
Nick Collison was just sort of doing his Nick Collison thing for the first four games. Doing his job, playing solid defense, quietly contributing. And then bam! Putback dunk. His Game 5 performance was huge as he defended Bynum wonderfully, was good on the glass, took charges, set great screens and played his role. Collison was so good in Game 5 that he finished the fourth quarter while Ibaka sat, and that’s with Ibaka playing a good game and a good series.
7. Thabo Sefolosha – 4.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 40.0 FG%, 33.3 3P%
Thabo has been one of the best defenders of Kobe for a good while. Though I don’t think he did that well in the series. A lot of that has to do with the fact Kobe is ridiculous and can make some incredible shots, but most of those seemed to come over Thabo. He didn’t shoot the 3 well and was squeezed out of games late as placing KD on Kobe became the go-to defensive move for OKC.
8. Derek Fisher – 4.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 32.0 FG%, 42.9 3P%
After a major contribution in the opening round against Dallas, it was a little snap back to reality for Fisher. He played fine, hit a couple 3s — some with a frustrating toe on the line — and added a very calming presence. I hate trying to build someone up with such intangible things like “veteran leadership” and “locker room presence,” but this team clearly has a new-found mental toughness and I’m sure Fisher has been a big part of that.
9. Nazr Mohammed – 2.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 50.0 FG%
I was about ready to throw in the towel on Mohammed, especially when Perk re-tweaked his hip in Game 1, and then he showed off with some serious contributions. Then in Game 5, he looked old and slow, and then took Bynum off the dribble for a dunk. The lesson here, I guess: Never doubt Nazr. Or doubt Nazr often, which means he’ll do something good. Something like that.
10. Daequan Cook – 2.0 ppg, 40.0 FG%, 40.0 3P%
Cook didn’t play much of a role in the series, which I found a little bit surprising, but at the same time, his services weren’t exactly needed. Westbrook, Durant and Harden are playing more, which means less for Cook.
11. Cole Aldrich
12. Royal Ivey
13. Lazar Hayward
Pretty disappointed Aldrich didn’t cap the series with an obligatory garbage time dunk.
Inactives: Eric Maynor, Reggie Jackson