Not “If,” But “When . . .”
* When the Thunder move the ball and play as a defensive unit as they did today, they are the best team left in the playoffs: more balanced than Miami, more versatile than Chicago, more explosive on both ends than Dallas.
* When Kevin Durant works for good position and gets a few early shots to fall, he is the most unstoppable offensive force in basketball: more polished than LeBron James, a much better shooter than Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, more athletic than Dirk Nowitzki, more efficient than Kobe Bryant.
Durant atoned for his much-lamented Game 6 by erupting for 39 points on 13-25 shooting, scoring on every conceivable shot and answering the bell against physical defense from Tony Allen and Shane Battier.
* When Russell Westbrook thinks the whole game and tries to contribute in ways beyond scoring points, he is the NBA’s most fearsome point guard: more skilled than Rajon Rondo, a better distributor than Rose, sturdier than Chris Paul, a better defender than Steve Nash and Deron Williams.
Westbrook posted his first career playoff triple-double (14 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds). It went beyond numbers: he snagged six offensive rebounds to maintain his team’s control of possession time, and made the correct decision in seemingly every halfcourt offensive set.
* When Nick Collison, James Harden, Eric Maynor and Nazr Mohammed fit seamlessly into their team’s attack, the Thunder have the most productive bench around. Each player is a true weapon and a potential game-changer every time he checks in.
Harden’s 17 points, four steals and four three-pointers were huge today, but just as significant were Collison’s back-taps for extra possessions and wrestling holds to keep Zach Randolph at bay.
* When the officials allow some off-ball contact – and they did, whistling the two teams for a mere 39 combined personal fouls – the Thunder have the best defensive big-man rotation available.
Collison emerged as the Randolph stopper when needed in this series, while Serge Ibaka has become a feared shot-blocker. Mohammed and Kendrick Perkins understand defensive positioning well enough to close off most scoring opportunities.
Luck of the Irish?
That’s the good news that Thunder fans can take away from this triumph. But as they head into a Conference Finals showdown against Dallas, there was one puzzling subplot that never got enough attention these past two weeks. It has to do with the two former Boston Celtics who played prominent roles in this series.
Thunder GM Sam Presti acquired Perkins primarily to match up with low-post beasts like Tim Duncan, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol. He never anticipated having the most trouble with Randolph and Pau’s younger brother. Perkins’ defense against Gasol and Randolph during this series was ineffective at worst, neutral at best.
Today, he provided plenty of ammunition for those who question just how much Boston lost by giving him up. Choosing his most awkward offensive moment of the first half is difficult, but the top contenders are his missed wide-open putback layup and his tentative refusal to shoot while holding the ball six feet from the hoop that resulted in a three-second violation.
Tony Allen provided two worst-play contenders of his own, first with a corner three that bricked off the back rim and led to Durant’s three at the other end, and then with an attempt to drive-and-dish to Randolph when the latter was six inches away and had no chance of catching the ball.
For all the talk coming out of Beantown about how much identity Danny Ainge gave up by letting Perkins and Allen go, both men proved today that they are capable of making terrible plays at inopportune times just like the rest of us.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.