The playoffs are like a new roller coaster every year – specifically, it’s kind of like if they changed the tracks at Space Mountain every spring at Disney World, because that coaster is in the dark. You can’t see the twists and turns coming. The highs can feel higher, and the lows can feel lower.
Through 11 games in this postseason, with yet another series boiled down to a best-of-three with the Thunder holding home court, we’ve already learned a lot about this OKC team. Some of the things we’re learning for the first time, and some of them are just things we should be learning to remember.
Here’s my list of 11 things we’ve learned, or learned to remember, in the first 11 games of this postseason.
1. KD and Russ still turn the ball over a lot.
OK, first and foremost – I hope none of us have had to learn to remember that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are amazing basketball players who make the Thunder who they are. Let’s start right there. Starting this list with a criticism of KD and Russ does not diminish the fact that they have us in the palm of their hands as basketball fans.
BUT. Turnovers, man. KD and Russ are still giving me chest pains with their turnovers, even though they are at least only having those bad turnover games a few times per series instead of almost every night. Case and point: Durant had eight turnovers in Game 4, and Westbrook had four. Chris Paul has had six through the entire series, with only one coming in the two games in LA. As much progress as KD and Russ have made over the years in all facets of their game, there’s still going to be more heartburn than necessary until they can limit their turnovers more consistently.
2. Steven Adams won’t be a James Harden trade punch line for long.
I’m not on board the “play Steven Adams 30+ minutes per night” bandwagon just yet, and it’s because of his foul rate. Adams simply cannot play that long with his current style. But as the coaching staff gets more time to work on those issues with him – especially keeping in mind that Adams has basically played only two seasons of basketball at a high level for players his age – it’s becoming clearer with each passing game that Adams is going to be a Thunder stalwart for years.
To say nothing of the smoothness with which Adams operates for a 7-footer, plus his obvious strength, toughness and tenacity, Adams has one key and basic skill that gives him massive utility on this team: his hands. Unlike Kendrick Perkins (who has been having a very-good-to-great postseason by the standards to which he should be held), Adams can actually catch the ball. That is becoming increasingly important as KD and Russ continue to enhance their ability, and willingness, to hit cutters and find open men when doubles come their way, especially when driving to the hoop. Having a defensive-minded center who can actually catch the ball and finish in one fluid motion? That alone can free up a lot of extra points in the Thunder’s simplistic offense.
3. The Thunder have really stepped up their arena T-shirt game.
Props to the Thunder for finally having shirts that you might actually wear outside of the arena fairly consistently this season. The choices this year are a lot better than the “COMMUNITY” shirts and the other pretty lame designs with awkwardly large and weird fonts we’ve had on a lot of nights in previous seasons.
By the way: For any of you multi-season playoff vets like myself, the best idea we could come up with for all the shirts from seasons past is to find one of those websites that will make t-shirt quilts for you. My wife and I had one made using a couple dozen of the older shirts, and it’s awesome.
4. No one – not Thunder fans and OKC residents, not the local or national media, not the team or the players – is ready for Oklahoma City to act like a major media market.
Can it really be true that coming up on two weeks since Headline Gate, people are still talking about it? It is? OK. Let’s talk about it one more time, and hopefully drop it forever.
Let me start with this disclosure: Not only have I been a Thunder season ticket member since Earl Watson and Joe Smith were starters and some guy that looked like a librarian was the coach, I also worked for The Oklahoman for five years. It’s safe to say that Headline Gate gave me as many feels as anyone who wasn’t directly involved.
Thunder fans and OKC residents aren’t ready for major media market-type treatment as evidenced by the horror with which they reacted to one negative (and admittedly bad) headline. Local media isn’t ready as evidenced by the way the TV stations brought out the pom poms to defend KD, as if openly rooting for the team is the professional thing to do. National media isn’t ready as evidenced by the fact they’re still talking about it, which they wouldn’t do if it was a headline in New York, and that OKC was chastised for daring to run something negative, as if the city barely deserves a team in the first place and shouldn’t ever say anything negative as a result. The team isn’t ready because they actually bothered to release a statement in response to one headline. None of these things would have happened if it were truly a major media market, where this type of stuff is more likely to happen when you have multiple papers jockeying for eyeballs on a daily basis.
But the main lesson here that everyone should learn? What people say they want from the media and what people actually want are always – always – two different things. I can’t tell you how many times callers to the paper or people talking to me in person told me they wished the paper would go after more sacred cows, or that they wished there were more “positive” stories in the paper. And it’s rather safe to say there have been calls on the DT comments sections for more local media willing to ask tough questions at the very least. And what happens the first time the paper points out KD is struggling, even if it happens to be done using a bad headline? MASS HYSTERIA.
The worst is when people accuse the media of doing things to get attention. Why is that the worst? For starters, it’s a business, and attention means money in that business. But the real reason is that people are hypocrites when they say that, as evidenced by what they give attention to. Do you know what was for a long time, and may still be for all I know, the most-viewed story in the history of NewsOK.com? A story about a guy in Tulsa who noticed a pile of blank DVDs in his house, only to discover they were videos of his mom having sex with her dogs. People click on what they click on, no matter how loudly they say they want more positive news or investigations into sacred cows.
5. Scott Brooks is getting better at making adjustments. But some of his adjustments fail, and he’ll be too slow to make others he should have made. Pretty much just like everyone else.
Although it never really was accurate to say Scott Brooks never made adjustments, it certainly isn’t now. Not after he’s done things that are drastic by OKC standards like plugging Caron Butler into the starting lineup or making huge changes to rotations, like playing Adams big minutes all of the sudden.
But is he still going to be slow to react to some things, like the way the Thunder stuck with that brain dead offensive approach down the stretch in Game 4? Yes. That doesn’t change the fact that harping on Brooks’ warts does nothing to erase warts on candidates to replace him. If Stan Van Gundy really goes to the Warriors, the list of replacements who would be a no-doubt, slam-dunk upgrade is suddenly zero. Everyone else is a gamble.
Brooks needs to improve, which makes him like almost everyone else in the world, not just other NBA coaches. But Pop and Rick Carlisle aren’t walking through that door, and a coaching change for OKC means finding the guy who can take a Finals-caliber team to a parade, which is a lot different from most coaching searches. Look no further than the opposing bench for an example of how it sometimes pays off to stick with the same coach. Doc Rivers was a punching bag for several seasons for a lot of pundits, and now he’s one of the more revered coaches in the league whose chops are questioned by no one.
If anything, let’s just refrain from writing off Scott Brooks when the Thunder are 2-2 in a tough series. With this season’s results till pending, the guy has improved his team’s playoff outcome in every single season that he’s had a healthy roster. The jury is not out yet, and a replacement for him who proves to be an upgrade might not be out there.
6. Sam Presti just might know what he’s doing.
Another free agent signing period and trade deadline came and went without the Thunder making what most people considered to be a major move. Some subsets of Thunder fans didn’t like it. Fast forward a couple of months, and Caron Butler is making big plays in the playoffs, the Thunder still haven’t hit the tax and started the dreaded “repeater” clock, and OKC is still right in the thick of it in what is arguably the toughest conference in NBA history right now. It’s up to the coaching staff to put Presti’s players in the right position to succeed, and so far that has given us mixed results (though mostly good ones, it must be said). But the work to keep a core together and mix and match supporting pieces looks to have been time well spent so far.
7. It’s hard to win an NBA title.
I’m 30 years old. There are 30 teams in the NBA. But in my lifetime, only eight of the 30 teams have won a title, and one of those eight teams only won one.
The best team in NBA history is arguably the 1997 Chicago Bulls. They lost two games in the NBA Finals. If you don’t think it’s the ’97 Bulls, you probably think it’s the 1986 Celtics. They also lost two games in the NBA Finals. Only the 2001 Lakers, who went 15-1 in the playoffs, have truly been able to just blast through the postseason anguish-free, and that was in a massive down cycle for the league from a talent perspective with an in-prime, in-shape mountain range of a man named Shaq having the best season of his life.
Moral of the story: Even though it’s hard to resist panicking and filling your heart with fear and dread every time the Thunder lose a playoff game, especially in a tough fashion, just breathe deep. On to the next game.
8. KD is the best.
Like, the BEST.
9. Choking away a big fourth quarter lead in a key playoff game does not mean you aren’t a contender.
The aforementioned team that won only one title over the last 30 years? The 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Those Mavs choked away a massive fourth quarter lead to leave their first-round series tied 2-2. Does that sound familiar?
It was one game. I doubt Mavs fans are still sweating Game 4 of the 2011 Western Conference opening round when they are remembering their team’s dream season.
10. It’s hard to be a fan of a Western Conference contender when you live in the Central Time Zone.
I told you earlier I’m 30 years old, right? How am I supposed to deal with games that get over at 12:30 a.m., even if it’s on a Friday night? I’ve usually been in bed for two hours by then.
Someone should do an authoritative study on how much the productivity declines in an NBA-obsessed city like OKC on days following a late playoff game.
11. The new CBA means it’s even more likely these stressful, agonizing and back-and-forth playoff series are going to be the norm for the Thunder for the foreseeable future.
In the new NBA, it’s only going to get harder to assemble a truly dominant roster. Making it more difficult to collect lots of of superstars, stars and superstar role players on the same roster means teams will be more evenly matched throughout the league, especially in an already cutthroat Western Conference that’s stacked with great front offices.
The days of at least one easy out are over, even if the Spurs are suggesting otherwise at the moment while they school the precocious Blazers. Quick: Which of the eight Western Conference playoff teams looks like it will decline next season? Basically none, right? The Suns, Timberwolves and especially the Anthony Davis-led Pelicans are only going to get better, too. What potential 2015 No. 1 seed in the West wants to match up with a No. 8 seed New Orleans team?
The playoffs have always been a difficult slog, but after the league spent some time dealing with diluted rosters as the NBA expanded through the last two decades, it looks like the new CBA has found a good balance at making the league more competitive from top to bottom. This is probably the new normal. Series are going to be tougher, longer and more exciting, which translates to higher highs and lower lows as contenders wind their way through the playoffs.
Kind of like this Thunder-Clippers series has already been. Buckle up.