What happened to the Thunder this year?
(Current sports writing is almost exclusively so-called experts yelling at one another in the media to take either side of some extreme stance after each and every game. I wanted to write this article after game four of the Spurs-Thunder series, because it would show that my analysis was correct, regardless of the result of that series. But then the Thunder beat the Spurs and crushed the Warriors in games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, so it would look like I’m just jumping on the bandwagon. Instead, I am writing this after one of the greatest playoff games in recent memory, game 6 of the Thunder-Warriors series. Now that the defending champs have regained home court advantage, their improbable return from the dead will dominate the news, as they will probably advance to the Finals and then beat Cleveland in a competitive finals. It is in that relative quiet, I can analyze what happened to the Thunder this year and how it bodes for their future.)
In 2015, the last story lines you would ever imagine to be reading about OKC:
- Steven Adams’ early foul trouble was mentioned by coach Donovan as “something that got Oklahoma City off rhythm” in their home close out game against the Warriors, because he has emerged as their third best player.
- Andre Roberson scores a career high 17 playing center, and helped the Thunder to win game 4 and take a 3–1 lead in their series.
- Andre Roberson shoot 3-for-5 from the 3-point line, scoring a career high 14,to help close out the series against the Spurs
- Dion Waiters, defensive stalwart against the Spurs (WTF?)
- Dion Waiters, +18 in plus/minus during 26 minutes of play in game 5 win against the Spurs, as backup point guard
- Dion Waiters trusted backup point guard (WTF?)
- Enes Kanter’s defense helps the Thunder beat the Spurs in game 4
Look who’s on the floor in crunch time in crucial playoff games
Watching the underdog Thunder play a Spurs team that had reloaded and had its best regular season in history, I couldn’t believe who was on the floor for the last 9:18 of game 5 in San Antonio, with the Thunder trailing by 3: Durant — Westbrook — Waiters — Adams — Kanter.
How does Kanter play crunch minutes of this crucial game, with 3-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection Serge Ibaka sitting on the bench? How does Waiters play the entire fourth quarter, with defensive specialist Roberson stay on the bench until the final six seconds? How does Waiters have a +18 in a defensive struggle?
Now have a look at who was on the floor against the Warriors in game 1 over the last 5:33: Durant — Westbrook — Waiters* — Adams — Ibaka (Waiter and Roberson were platooned the last 30 seconds of the game, with the Thunder leading by 5)
Finally, look at the players on the floor in the fourth quarter of game 6 against the Warriors:
7:28: Durant — Westbrook — Adams — Ibaka — (combination Waiters-Roberson) (Note: Kanter was a +15 in plus/minus and helped give the Thunder an 8-point lead in the third quarter)
Where did these players come from?
Remember, under Scott Brooks, the Spurs were basically Westbrook-Durant and a little Serge Ibaka. In the 2014 playoffs, the Thunder were playing 39-year-old Derek Fisher during clutch time in the playoffs.
In 2015, Dion Waiters was a disaster in Cleveland. He failed to mesh with the greatest superstar and team facilitator since Magic Johnson. How does he go from being a frustrated ball hog to being a trusted backup point guard?
In 2015, Enes Kanter had the worst defensive RPM among all qualified centers in the NBA. How does he make a game clinching block on Tim Duncan in game 4 of the Spurs series?
In 2015, Andre Roberson was under 25% shooting threes for the Thunder. How does he become a game changer in this year’s playoffs?
In 2015, Steven Adams was voted as the second dirtiest player in the NBA. How does he become the Thunder’s best inside offensive threat?
How did a team known for blowing fourth quarter leads win 7 out of 10 playoff games against two teams for the ages?
During the regular season, the Thunder led the league in blowing fourth quarter leads, losing thirteen fourth quarter leads.
But during the playoffs, they have played well at the end of huge games:
- The Thunder won a tightly contested game, holding on to a one-point fourth quarter lead to win game 1 against the Spurs, 98–97
- The Thunder were down by 3 going into the fourth quarter of game 5 against the Spurs and came back to win 95–91
- The Thunder were down by 3 going into the fourth quarter (and a 13-point halftime deficit) of game 1 against the Warriors, winning 108–102
How do we explain this?
First, the Thunder were good against the best of the West. They held fourth quarter leads in all three of the regular season games they lost to the Warriors, including the spectacular Curry 38-footer that won at the end of overtime in Oklahoma City back in February. And they split their season series with the Spurs, so the match ups were competitive (on the other hand any team with two of the top five players in the NBA should be competitive, right?).
Secondly, Russell Westbrook’s continued improvement had led him to become “the greatest triple double machine in history,” according to 538.com. In the playoffs, his decision making has continued in crunch time:
Game 2 vs San Antonio (last 5:30, up by 1): assist to Durant 2-pointer, defensive rebound, two point shot, defensive rebound, misses 27-footer, assist to Durant 2-pointer, two free throws — responsible for 9 out of last 11 points in 98–97 win (4 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 0 TO, 1/2 shooting).
Game 5 vs San Antonio (last 4:31, down by 5): assist to Adams, 23-foot 2-pointer, driving layup, misses 17-footer, offensive rebound, assist to Kanter, defensive rebound, driving layup, free throw — responsible for 11 out of the last 15 points in 95–91 win (7 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 1 TO, 3/4 shooting).
Game 1 vs Golden State (last 6:47, up by 2): defensive rebound, misses 12-footer, defensive rebound, 17-foot two-pointer, assist to Adams, misses 18-footer, misses layup, one free throws, defensive rebound, two free throws — responsible for 7 of last 13 points in 108–102 win (7 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 0 TO, 1/4 shooting).
Those are pretty impressive crunch time numbers (18–7–5, 1 TO, on 50% shooting).
Clearly Westbrook is playing smarter, even though he continues to display more ferocity than any player in the game since Lebron’s early seasons with Cleveland.
Finally, we have to credit Donovan and his great coaching staff (former head coaches Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks) Without the development of the cast-off role players and inexperienced draft picks, how does Westbrook have the confidence to make the extra pass?
In addition, Donovan’s front line adjustment after the game 1 rout in San Antonio was a key to their series win. And his decision to use Andre Roberson as a screen and roll player and offensive rebounding around the rim (with Ibaka spreading the defense as a three-point threat) has been another great adjustment. Compare that to the past coach who refused to bench Kendrick Perkins despite all the advanced analytics showing that his presence was hurting the team.
The partnership and trust felt between Donovan and his general on the court is really special, giving Westbrook a say in player substitutions. But Westbrook has bought into Donovan’s system, too. Perhaps we can trace it back to Westbrook’s experience at UCLA, watching Donovan coaching Florida to back to back NCAA championships.
Win or lose in game 7 against the Warriors, what have the Thunder accomplished?
- They beat a team that tied for the sixth most wins in NBA history, coached by the greatest modern coach who is not name Phil Jackson
- The beat the team with the best home court record in history twice, winning games 2 and 5 against the Spurs
- They took a 3–1 lead against the team with the greatest regular season record in NBA history
- They were the only team to win consecutive games against the Warriors during their historic march to 73 games
- Only a historic NBA playoff 3-point shooting performance by Klay Thompson (11/18) saved the Warriors from elimination in game 6
What lessons can NBA teams learn from Oklahoma City?
I think the biggest thing that comes out of the Thunder’s historic turnaround is what everyone once talked about as the Coach K effect on players who played for the Team USA, especially in non-Olympic years:
So, what happened to the gold-winning 2010 squad that competed in Turkey? Tyson Chandler had a monster 2010–11 year for a championship-winning team after coming off an injury-plagued previous two seasons. Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon, Kevin Love and Lamar Odom also made huge strides. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook emerged as an All-Star, and Derrick Rose broke out to win the league MVP. (Durant was one of only two players from the 2010 squad to have a lesser-than-expected 2010–11 season.)
Good college coaches seem to have a great positive effect on young teams because so many players don’t have good fundamentals from playing four years of college basketball. Look at the four key role players and their years of college basketball who have developed this year under Donovan: Adams (1); Waiters (2); Roberson (3); and, Kanter (0).
The same thing can be said about Boston’s remarkable turnaround since hiring Brad Stevens in 2013 after trading away the core of their championship team. In 2014, the Celtics were 25–57, the 5th worst team in the NBA. (For reference, the Lakers were 27–55.) In 2016, the Celtics were 48–24, and seeded 5th in the East with the third youngest team in the league. (The Lakers had their worst season in history, finishing 17–65).
Compare this to the Warriors. Their key role players are veterans with playoff experience (Iguodala, Livingston, Speights, Barbosa, and Ezeli — with 5 yrs college experience) Their young core all had years of college experience: Green (4); Curry (3); Thompson (3); and Barnes (2), and having been playing together for four years on the Warriors since the 2012 draft. Their formative years were under the guidance of a gifted teacher in former point guard-commentator-minister Mark Jackson.
Where do the Thunder go from here?
Before their turnaround against the Spurs, I thought there might be a chance that Kevin Durant would throw in the towel and use free agency to move to the East where he would be guaranteed an annual trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. If you want to win a championship, it’s a lot easier if you only have to win one competitive series to get to the Finals. The West was brutal this year, and the improvement of Portland shouldn’t make things any easier.
But the rise of the role players have given Oklahoma City a viable team that will continue to improve and challenge Golden State for best team in the West for the next couple of years. Donovan’s coaching adjustments in the playoffs should give Durant and Westbrook the confidence to stay with the team. And that rumbling in the distance could be the emergence of a Thunder team that will finally ascend to the top of the NBA.