Let’s be brutally honest, no one thought OKC would even be in the playoffs this year. The reasons are as varied as they are valid.

After watching Lebron leave the Cleveland Caviliers for no return, with his now infamous “Decision” and sending Cleveland into NBA Purgatory for several years, to then watch him do it again to the Miami Heat a few years later and decimate a team who, prior to that was in the finals for 4 straight years; what GM in their right mind would allow a top 5 player in the league be in the  exact same position?

Sam Presti would and in fact did!

An usually astute GM, who I actually consider to be one of the top GM’s in the NBA today, made a decision of the heart in allowing Kevin Durant to hold the team in limbo for an entire year, without commitment, rather than trading him for whatever considerable pieces and valuable draft picks a player of his calibre would have returned to the team.

The OKC roster was built around having KD in the lineup. A declining Serge Ibaka was traded for Victor Oladipo, a true 2 way shooting guard, which OKC has been searching for it’s entire existence. To sweaten the deal even further, OKC who had no first round picks in the draft, obtained an 11th pick which netted them the promising power forward Domantas Sabonas, as well as getting a true 3 point shooting threat in forward Ersan Ilyasova. One of the greatest trades I can recall ever in OKC’s favour.

Presti then bought out the contract of 2013 draftee, Alex Abrines, another young SG, to allow him to leave Spain and join the Thunder roster. He promoted Semaj Christon to the lineup to backup 2nd year PG Cameron Payne and was in heavy discussions with Al Horford in free agency, to truly make a “Big 3” in OKC to rival that of any other team.

All that fell apart when KD made his own version of the “Decision – Mark II” however. OKC was left with a 28ppg hole in their lineup and no Al Horford, who apparently was able to read the KD situation of non-commital better than Sam Presti did.

Very valid reason for failing.

OKC  was now left with the 2nd youngest team in the league, behind only the perennial cellar dwellers, the Philadelphia 76’ers. They had 8 new faces on the roster, 3 of whom only joined after the all-star break and had 3 rookies in Sabonas, Abrines and Christon who all played significant minutes each game.

Without a doubt, these are all great reasons for OKC failing this year.

Except for one fact. They didn’t!

One man, Russell Westbrook, ensured that no excuses were to be accepted this year and behind a season of the ages, he carried his young Thunder team on his back all the way to the 6th seed in a tough Western Conference. In fact, 3 weeks before the season’s end, OKC had a very real chance of getting the 4th seed and securing home court advantage in the first round.

So let’s not start accepting excuses now. This is the playoffs. It’s time people put their big boy pants on and started accepting responsibility for the losses.

Victor Oladipo, who was easily the second best player on the Thunder team all season, has appeared scared and lost in the playoffs. Yes, this is his first time ever to the playoffs, but let’s face it, he is no rookie. This is the time he should be shining!

A usually reliable scorer, who consistently dropped 16ppg all season and was known for hitting clutch buckets exactly when the Thunder needed it; a player who when hot, could easily torch teams for 30 points, has simply crumbled under the pressure of playing on the big stage.

In game one, he played 32mins and scored a total of 6 points. He also shot a very Andre Roberson style 0%, going 0 for 6 from three point range. Ironically, Andre Roberson who played 35mins, scored a career high 18 points and shot 67% hitting 4 for 6 from deep.

In game two, Dipo played 41mins and scored a slightly better 11 points, but his three point shot was a still atrocious 14%, going 1 for 7 from deep. Roberson, was his more usual 0%, going 0 from 3 from deep but he still cut hard to the bucket and scored 12 points in only 27 minutes. All this, while playing the entire game protecting James Harden and making him miss shot after shot, with the majority of Harden’s points coming from the free throw line.

Oladipo needs to look himself in the mirror and think hard; as the second best scorer on the team is he really going to allow the elite defender, but offensively challenged Andre Roberson outscore him for the remaining two games of the playoffs? Because if he is, then the Thunder WILL only have 2 games left to play. Dipo needs to do whatever he needs, to get himself back to his usual attacking, no one can stop me, mind set he has played with his entire career and start scoring.

Even the great Michael Jordan was unable to win in the playoffs by himself. Dipo needs to step up and become Westbrook’s Pippen, for OKC to have even a remote chance of seeing game 5 in this series.

Enes Kanter has been MIA the entire series. The third highest scorer on the team and the undisputed leader of the second unit, has scored a total of 8 points in game one and 4 points in game two.

On the face of it, you would be excused for thinking he has done a Victor Oladipo and simply crumbled under the pressure of the playoffs. That is until you see the amount of minutes he has played per game. Coach Donovan has only allowed his 6th man of the year candidate, a man who had more double doubles than any other player in the league coming of the bench this season, to play 16mins in game one and 7mins in game two.

It has been widely speculated that in game one, with James Harden blowing past Kanter time and time again, after being caught out repeatedly on the switch on a high pick and roll, that Billy Donovan turned to Mo Cheeks (his senior assistant) and seemed to mouth the words, “We cannot play Kanter.”

People blame Kanter’s defensive inability as the reason Houston scored so many points in game one. They nod their heads in understanding Coach Donovan’s decision, in not playing Kanter in game two and having him as little more than a highly overpaid spectator on the bench.

But really is it Kanter’s fault?

Kanter is an offensive threat. He is the only consistent scorer on the second unit and his defence has lifted dramatically from last year. He is also a rebounding juffernaught who passes the ball out of the post with the skill of most backup point guards. But let’s face facts, he is a 6’11, 245lb centre who was not blessed with the greatest lateral quickness in the league.

Is the coach seriously expecting him to be at the top of the arc and defend James Harden, who makes his living blowing by nearly every point guards and shooting guards in the league, whose actual job it IS to stop him, by himself? Is he expecting Kanter to be on an island on his own and defend Harden one on one at 24ft from the bucket and actually stop him? That is just an exercise in futility.

No, it is Coach Donovan who is the man who needs to accept the lion’s share of the responsibily for OKC’s playoff woes. He has looked lost this entire series.

In both game one and game two, Houston has been running the exact same set any time they were in desperate need of a bucket. That is the high pick and roll, with Harden going downhill against a less mobile defender, usually the centre of the power forward.

Only once, in game two, did I see this get defended well however. Harden got the switch he wanted and drove straight to the bucket, only to find Adams had stepped in front of the restricted zone blocking his path and another player boxed out Nene, closing down the passing lane for Harden to either drop it off to his big man or throw it up for an alley oop. Result, no bucket.

Every other time the centre, usually Adams, has been focussed fully on Nene or Capella to prevent the pass off and relying on the high post defender to stop Harden one on one. Adams most times isn’t even close to attempt to challenge Harden’s shot!  Even Roberson, OKC’s best wing defender, hasn’t been able to consistently stay in front of Harden in those situations and you are expecting a 245lb centre to stop him one on one? Seriously?

It is up to the coach to put in play some defensive schemes to prevent this from occurring. If Kanter is able to steer Harden to the left hand side only to meet Adams or Gbson in the paint, with another player blocking the passing lane, it would force Harden to either make a difficult contested shot, or to kick it back out instead of the easy layup and one he has been living off this series. I’ve seen it work once, why isn’t this a focus on their defence.

Maybe then the coach could utilise his 3rd highest scorer on the team all season, instead of having him sitting on the bench the entire, soon to be short if no changes are made, playoff series.

The other reason Coach Donovan needs to held accountable is his player rotations. I am certain Donovan has this written up on a blackboard somewherein the locker room.

He has been living and dying by this philosphy the entire season. It seems to be embedded in his DNA and he won’t deviate from it one iota. You know what else has been happening the entire season? Extended scoring droughts when Westbrook is on the bench. OKC blowing big leads. OKC digging themselves into a hole. A hole they constantly pray Westbrook will be able to dig them out of.

This defence to the exclusion of all else philosophy results in lineups of Semaj Christon, a regular seson 17% three point shooter, playing alongside Dre a 25% three point shooter. Two great defenders no doubt, but both abysmal offensive players. Semaj averaged about 3ppg even though he played close to 20mpg the latter part of the season with Roberson averaging 6.6ppg while playing 30mpg. The thing with Roberson, is that nearly all of his 6.6ppg come off easy buckets which are assisted by Russell Westbrook. When Russ sits, Roberson’s points are non-existent.

Add to that Alex Abrines, who has disappeared in the playoffs scoring a grand total of 0 points in both games even though he has averaged 12mpg. Kyle Singler, who was played in favour of Sabonis, even though he sat on the bench spectating the entire season, most of which he wore a suit. After one good game defending against Gallinari, he suddenly became Donvovan’s go to man for the playoffs however. He scored 0 points. Sabonis, who granted only played 2mins 20 the entire second game also scored 0 points.

Kanter, the man OKC has relied upon for two entire seasons to provide points off the bench, a man who averaged 21mpg and provided 14ppg and 7rpg in return, saw a dismal 7 mins in game 2 and scored only 4 points.

Is there little wonder how the Thunder blew a 12 point lead, to end up losing game two by 4 points?

What is even more perplexing than playing his “defence win championships,” zero offence lineup whenever the team’s leading scorer, Westbrook, was sitting on the bench, is that Taj Gibson only saw 20mins the entire game, a trend which hasn’t deviated since the day he joined the Thunder. Why not play your veteran PF who can both score and defend at a high level.

Doug McDermott, who whenever in the game, always seems to score and make good things happen; even when he isn’t shooting he occupies a defender and opens the lane making it easier for Westbrook and the bigs to score; he saw only 13mins, even though he scored 11 points in those little minutes.

It is like Donovan has no idea how to play McDermott. He has had little playing time all season, with the coach opting to stick with Abrines, even when he is having a poor shooting night, or as happened this series and other games through the season, a 0% shooting night. McDermott is older, has more confidence, is stronger and can defend better than the laterally challenged Abrines, who was getting blown past by players in both games, yet still McDermott either sits on the bench for the entire game, or sees less minutes than Abrines.

Here’s a clue coach.

Go back and watch how Atlanta Hawks utlilised Kyle Korver last year both offensively and defensively. McDermott is the exact same player, except younger and cheaper. He modelled his game after Korver. He has the exact same strengths, the same weaknesses as Korver. Atlanta was one of the best defensive teams in the East last year while still having Korver hitting dagger three after dagger three on opponents.

Research Korver! Use McDermott!

Norris Cole, the vet PG with playoff experience, who was signed up for $300,000 for only a few months work, for the exact reason that he would be vital in the playoffs has seen a total of 5mins in game one and 0mins in game two. Cole is a decent defender, but more importantly he is an offensive threat. He can create his own shot and create shots for others.

Donovan needs to stop playing guys who can’t score, just because they are better defenders. None of the OKC players are terrible defenders. Some are definitely stronger, yes, but not so much so that it warrants playing them if they produce nothing on the offensive end of the floor.

Great offensive players will always beat great defensive players in the NBA. It is how the game has been structured. The NBA wants high scoring, exciting offensive displays. That’s why they changed all the rules to give the offensive players an advantage. Do you think everyone who guards Westbrook is that teams equivelant of Kanter? Of course not. But he still goes out and averages 32ppg on them. What about Dre defending Harden? Harden is still going to score his points. Lebron, Kwahi, KD, Cousins, the list goes on. They will get their points no matter who you put on them.

You just need to accept that fact. But you can’t then go and play people who provide 0ppg for you just because they are great defenders. That’s why OKC goes on so many scoring droughts. Against teams like Rockets, GSW, Cavs, Spurs – the powerhouse teams, you simply cannot afford to go on scoring droughts or you will just be beaten game after game. Westbrook cannot keep on digging the Thunder out of a hole every single night, then bare the brunt of the criticism because people think he takes too many shots, as he is after last nights loss. That is just the perfect recipe to lose your superstar player and most likely MVP of the league to free agency.

Play your players who actually can put points on the board. They are not that bad defensively. Even if they are, Donovan has coached them for a year or two now. Work out ways to mitigate their weaknesses.

I just wish someone would go into the Thunder locker room and scrub the “Defence wins Championships” quote off the board. In it’s place, post up this quote from Davies Basketball Head Coach, Bart Manson. It encapsulates everything I have been thinking all year long, every single time I see the lineup Coach Donovan goes with when Westbrook is sitting on the bench.

 

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