Enemy: Oklahoma City Thunder
Coach: Scott Brooks
Potential Starting 5: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Other Key Players: James Harden, Eric Maynor, Perry Jones III, Nick Collison, Hasheem Thabeet
Threats: Playmaking, Quickness, Shooting, Shot-blocking, Attacking the basket, Open court play
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 1-3
Over the course of the past few seasons, no team in the NBA has made such a systematic and stratospheric rise as the Oklahoma City Thunder. Three short seasons ago, the Thunder opened the basketball world’s eyes to their exciting brand of basketball, as they took the then-reigning (and soon to be again) NBA champion Lakers to six. The following year, they survived a tough series against us, (which I believe we would have won had Rudy been on the court, but that’s a story for days passed), only to fall to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Then last year, Oklahoma City finally conquered the west, only to find themselves over-matched and out-gunned by Lebron James and the Miami Heat, in the NBA Finals. The Thunder’s elevation has been remarkable, and while it’s no consolation, losing in the playoffs only to the champion-to-be three years in a row is nothing to scoff at. To claim the championship throne, there is now only one more step that OKC needs to take… but the last step is always more of a leap than a stride. I know that this sounds crazy talking about a team of 20-something-year-olds, especially one that has made such prominent advances with each subsequent year, but one is left to wonder if the current incarnation of the team will plateau. Unless they do something drastic with the supporting cast, I’m not sure how much better Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant can make this team. They have each been playing at phenomenal levels, and I don’t make as much of Westbrook’s ball-hogging ways as most folks (except in the final minutes), but how much better can we expect the trio to be? There is a fine line between being very good, and being a real champion. As long as Lebron James and the Miami Heat are representing the east, it seems to be unlikely that the Thunder are going to win it all, without some changes.
So why is this so? With another year of chemistry mounting and an even better group of shooters to open the paint for Lebron, barring injury, I don’t see anybody in the east remotely challenging Miami this year. After emphatically taking the finals last season, Miami got better, while OKC stayed about the same this offseason. Oklahoma City has made routine out of simply abusing the “elder statesman” teams. Now that sounds rude! But seriously, the Thunder’s style of play has proven to be incredibly effective against the more veteran teams of the league, because of their combined ability to completely run them off the floor and bang bodies in the post. On the contrary, the Heat are not that kind of monster. When pinned against an opponent with similar strengths, and maybe even one that executes those strengths even better, the Thunder had trouble finding an answer to dispatch them. While the Thunder possess a post advantage over Miami with two capable big bodied guys on the roster in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, neither is remotely talented or polished enough on the offensive end to actually be able to utilize that advantage. Perkins is a great enforcer, and Ibaka is a fabulous shot blocker, but both are pretty post-ridden on the defensive end, leaving them exposed as liabilities against teams like Miami. The result was quite the opposite from ideal, as the Thunder paid mightily in the “front-court” matchups, as the Heat sent Shane Battier out there to drain open threes all series long. Not for lack of effort, but Ibaka couldn’t effectively chase him around, out on the wing. This made the Thunder bigs pretty ineffective with regards to the outcome of the series. What this does is expose a major weakness for this Oklahoma City team. Barring a huge arrival of Perry Jones III, a free-fallen draft commodity who boasts a combination of freakish length, tantalizing lottery potential, and a checkerboard of a durability report with his knees, or a sudden realization of untapped talent from free agent “presence,” Hasheem Thabeet, the Thunder are relying heavily on more internal development going forward.
Two seasons ago, we were on the cusp of our first Western Conference Finals bid, as we extended a series against the Thunder to seven games. We played them straight last season in 4 of 4 meetings, winning one and losing the other three each by only single-digits. What this shows is that we can do it. The Thunder are good… very good. However, we are also a very good team, and one that aligns pretty comparatively to what’s going on over there in OKC. Where we contrast in a negative sense in terms of media buzz and star power, we compensate with balance and depth, which is exactly why we are able to play them straight more often than not. The issue with this is that playing Oklahoma City straight up is not nearly enough to beat them. Durant is in the process of receiving the torch from Kobe Bryant as the premier late-game killer, and I can’t say with confidence that there is a shot from anywhere on the floor that I would be comfortable forcing him to take at the end of a game. Tony Allen is a fantastic perimeter defender, but even the best of the best have little to no chance of keeping Durant and Harden quiet for 48 minutes. Additionally, Conley has really relied on bailouts from Jeremy Pargo and OJ Mayo in the past, with regards to defending Westbrook, and it remains to be seen whether or not Jerryd Bayless and Josh Selby can offer that same security. On the big men front, I expect nothing less than 48 minutes of physicality between the two teams. Which leads me to what I believe to be the featured battle of any contest between these two teams: Rudy Gay vs. Kevin Durant. We’ve got two Maryland guys playing for hometown bragging rights on top of their team’s interests that are at stake. Sometimes we see Rudy let this get the best of him, to where he’s guilty of trying to do too much, but if he can play under control, he is one of the few guys in the league that I believe could check KD on any given night. Is that statement equipped with a bit of homerism? Maybe. We might need a bit of that to truly believe we are as good a team as OKC. Thus, in attempt to be objective, I’m going to err on the spineless side of pessimism here and say that we take no more than one game from them again, this upcoming season. While I do believe that we have what it takes to win, the Thunder are just a very tough draw.