Thought I’d share an interesting Thunder fact, courtesy of the Twitter account @ThunderStats:
A loss in Game 5 on Thursday would mark the first time the Thunder has lost four straight since April 4-8, 2009 — the team’s first season inOklahoma City.
I went back and looked at that streak, and it was ugly. A 35-point home loss to Portland and an 18-point defeat at home to Indiana. Shaun Livingston played point guard for the Thunder in a home loss to San Antonio, at which Wayman Tisdale was honored at halftime. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison are the only players remaining from that team, which lost a fourth straight at Denver.
According to @ThunderStats, no NBA team has gone longer without losing four straight than Oklahoma City.
Five thoughts about the conga line of “national apologies” to Russell Westbrook and his Game 4 performance:
1. When you’re wrong, it’s always good to admit it and apologize.
Stephen A. Smith went first on Monday, apologizing for his criticism of Westbrook’s Game 2 performance, and specifically for his use of the word “pathetic.”
Magic Johnson followed Tuesday, before, during and presumably after Westbrook’s 43 points in Game 4 performance. “Maybe it was my fault judging him as a point guard because he’s a scoring point guard,” said Magic, who called Westbrook’s first-half Game 2 play the worst point guard play in NBA Finals history.
2. Obviously, both criticisms were way over the top.
Both got carried away, lost in the NBA Finals competition for a fresh, hard-hitting perspective. They’re bright, talented people who tried too hard and come off looking reckless and irresponsible.
Sound familiar? Do you see the irony? Westbrook gets ridiculed for making these kind of mistakes and misjudgments in the split-second context of championship basketball.
3. The way at least one of the apologies came about reminds us again how young Westbrook and the Thunder are.
Stephen A. apologized after he was approached by Westbrook’s parents, who apparently took issue with that word. Kind of refreshing. I don’t recall hearing about anything like this in a championship setting at a major league sporting event. If LeBron James’ mom is taking Skip Bayless to task, she still waiting for her apology.
Most players have family in the stands, but the Thunder extended family is more moms and dads than wives and children. This is one more way — and a good way — the atmosphere around the Thunder resembles that of a college team.
4. Westbrook, perhaps in part because of past over-the-top criticism, is getting the benefit of the doubt today.
Westbrook wasn’t aware of the situation when he fouled Mario Chalmers off a jump ball. The shot clock, which ticked down to 0.8 seconds before James Harden tied up Udonis Haslem, was by NBA rule reset to 5.0 seconds. Today the conga line is criticizing that rule. And it’s a bad rule. It’s a do-over for an offense that couldn’t get a shot off in 23.2 seconds. It penalizes the defense for playing good defense.
But that’s the rule, and Westbrook didn’t know it. I didn’t either, until our columnist Berry Tramel pointed out the shot clock that was on 0.8 now showed 5.0. Neither of us knew why. It’s the Thunder coaching staff’s job to know the rules and alert its players. Why that didn’t filter out to Westbrook requires more explanation.
But in the past Russ wouldn’t have gotten the benefit of the doubt. He would have been automatically assigned blame. Hasn’t happened this time.
5. Westbrook’s response to it all couldn’t have been better.
Minutes after one of the best NBA Finals performances in a losing effort, Westbrook was asked if he felt vindicated.
“Let me get this straight. What you guys say doesn’t make me happy, make me sad, doesn’t do anything. It’s all about my team and us winning a game.
“I don’t have a personal challenge against you guys, and it’s not me against the world. It’s not the world against me. It’s me and my teammates trying to win.”
Without a trace of petulance, Westbrook let us know he doesn’t care what we say. And he turned it back everything back to the team. For a player who always seems on edge in interview settings, Tuesday night was his finest moment — on and off the court.
Driving back from San Antonio after Game 4 in San Antonio two weeks, we heard a local sports-talk segment in which one of the regulars asserted two things had to happen if the Thunder didn’t emerge from a 2-0 series hole:
1) Oklahoma City would need to seriously consider a coaching change.
2) The Thunder would need to make James Harden its point guard.
Five straight victories later, the Thunder leads the Heat 1-0 in the NBA Finals, so let’s presume Scott Brooks’ job is safe. But there’s still unrest in some corners with Russell Westbrook’s playmaking and ball security. The guy is two rebounds shy of a triple-double in Game 1, and somehow it’s still not good enough.
Question: If Westbrook is so ill-suited for the position, why is Miami game-planning for him? Heat coach Erik Spoelstra basically admitted to doing so in his pregame press conference Thursday, calling Westbrook “a relentless assault that just keeps on coming.”
Spoelstra attributed Westbrook’s post-season reduction in turnovers to the “evolution of great players. And in the the moment of great competition, they evolve.
“He’s such an aggressive, attacking player. I think even when he makes mistakes at times that they live with it because he creates so much on those assaults to the rim. So our job tonight will be to try to get him out of his comfort level as much as possible while we respect that speed.”
Spoelstra said Westbrook’s speed compares with what the Heat faced in the Eastern Conference Finals from Boston’s Rajon Rondo.
“Both of them are equally challenging in a different way,” Spoelstra said. “Rondo is such a brilliant basketball maestro, reads a game, and as soon as you turn your head and make one mistake, he makes you pay for it.”
With Westbrook, “if you’re not back ahead of the play, body in front of it, and that has to be multiple bodies in front of it, he’ll make you pay,” Spoelstra said. “And that relentlessness is probably part of his greatness.”
My favorite questions from my Power Lunch live chat today. Good questions and discussion.
Q: Who wins tonight and why?
A: The Thunder has more good players, and the best player, and it’s playing at home. Hard to pick against.
Q: What do you think the biggest adjustment will be for the Thunder in Game 2?
A: Dealing with LeBron guarding KD more; 2) Re-activating Serge Ibaka; 3) Re-activating James Harden. The Heat’s defensive intensity just has to increase, and Harden will be essential. The Heat has no answer for Westbrook. None.
Q: I know you guys rub elbows with national media types all the time, but are there ever guys in town where you catch yourself being a little awestruck?
A: Not by the national media. More with our city. Truth-telling time: I grew up just outside a major-league city (Baltimore) and spent my early career in OKC longing to get back to a big-league town. There’s just a buzz and excitement that you can’t quite describe, you have to experience. And now we’re in it.
What’s really rewarding is that we’ve been telling the story of this town’s rise for a long time. We’ve been telling the story of its love-at-first-sight with the NBA, and now it’s right here, on Reno. That’s the awestruck moment.
I like Stephen A. Smith. Nice guy. I got to meet Bill Plaschke of the LA Times a couple weeks ago and I can’t say enough about what a quality guy he and the other Laker writers seem to be. It’s always neat to meet new, good people who share your passion for something. But the pinch-me moments for us are really seeing what’s happening to our community.
Q: Do you think if LeBron is unhappy, it’s due to the prospect of losing this series, or is it the prospect of KD passing him as the country’s top NBA superstar, eclipsing both him and Kobe?
A: Put yourself in LeBron’s shoes: You left your hometown for the stated purpose of giving yourself a better chance to win a championship, and he probably is a step closer. I think he expected to be better than closer. I think he expected the Heat to be the Showtime Lakers and it’s not happening, mostly because they’ve got no money to surround him with supporting players who aren’t old or limited.
Take a look at their bench. It’s a wreck. That — and the weight of the expectations of his own making — is what’s he’s wearing around like a milestone. But I think the KD stuff is probably a minor part. He’s gotta be thinking: That used to be me. Carefree, beloved, having fun and on the fast-track to basketball immortality.
Q: Is Harden’s lackluster performance reason for Thunder fans to have confidence? The Sixth-Man of the Year didn’t play well, but the team still won.
A: Absolutely. It seems like there’s something like that every game. The Thunder’s free throw shooting is bad and it still wins. In the San Antonio series, Westbrook was off offensively and the Thunder wins in 6. This team is layered. And it doesn’t have this in-game drama crap that Miami has: Who will take over.
The Thunder’s approach: Play ball. Let the game, matchups and feel dictate that.
I grew up in Maryland — 13 miles up Route 1 from the University of Maryland and about 25 miles around the Beltway from Kevin Durant’s hometown of Seat Pleasant — arguing about the stuff the Washington Post’s Mike Wise wrote about today: Who’s the best basketball player in Washington, D.C. history?
This was back is in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Len Bias was close on Michael Jordan’s heels and when those I was debating — teachers, parents, coaches — actually saw Elgin Baylor play in high school.
It was a generational debate. Baylor (1950s), Dave Bing (1960s), Adrian Dantley (1970s), Bias (1980s). I left Maryland to go to college in Oklahoma, and moved on to other arguments.
But Wise — a true wise guy who in a press conference yesterday asked Durant if he was better than Greivis Vasquez — stirred an oldie and a goodie today, asking wise heads like ex-Georgetown coach John Thompson and legendary DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wooten where KD ranks in D.C. hoops history.
Think about that for a second. Baylor, Bing and Dantley already are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And yet there’s a legitimate argument that Durant could soon become the greatest player to come from the nation’s best high school basketball hotbed. (That’s right, I said it).
I grew up going to University of Maryland basketball games and attending Lefty Driesell’s basketball camp. At age 8 I went to another camp that started with a clinic at Baylor and Dave Bing’s home gym — Springarn High School in D.C. The first speaker was an old bald-headed guy with a rough way of talking. I went over and asked my mom, “Who is this guy.” Her reply: “Red Auerbach.”
So I once knew, and still love, what I referred to as Beltway basketball. Here’s my take on how Durant compares on my list of Beltway greats.
Durant > Grant Hill (Oak Hill Academy, Va.): Injuries robbed Hill of a Hall of Fame career. Sad.
Durant > Dantley (DeMatha, Hyattsville, Md.): KD’s already a better scorer and is the leader of a NBA Finals team. Dantley’s teams were good not great, and a little too Dantley-focused if you ask me.
Durant > Bing: A regal guard now the major of Detroit, Bing was as perennial NBA All-Star on bad Pistons teams.
Baylor < Durant, for now: Imagine KD leading the NBA in scoring playing on weekend passes while serving Air Force reserve duty at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. That, essentially, is what Baylor did in 1961-62 when he averaged 35 points for the Lakers in 48 games.
Elgin Baylor is the best ever from D.C., at least for another week or so.