Thunder Thoughts – Will The Real Thunder Please Show Up?

Thoughts on the Oklahoma City Thunder and how they’ve performed through three games in the NBA Finals.

It’s not surprising that the Oklahoma City Thunder are down 2-1 to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat are a great team with the best player in the league and two other guys who are considered top 5 at their position. The Miami Heat were in the Finals just last year while the Oklahoma City Thunder have been considering “too young and inexperienced” all playoffs. Being down 2-1 isn’t shocking, nor is it overwhelming. This is the same Thunder team that came back from being down 2-0 to a San Antonio Spurs team that had won 20 straight games.

How they’re down 2-1 is the surprising part.

The best free throw shooting team all season has fallen apart at the line. The sixth man of the year hasn’t swung the momentum. The best home team in the playoffs is only showing up for one half. The point guard has stopped driving to the hoop. One of the better coaches in the league is out-smarting himself. And the best scorer in the league is settling for jump shots.

You have to give credit to the Miami Heat, especially their defense, but there is no excuse for some of the Thunder problems. They’re just flat out not cashing in on opportunities. The biggest concern has to be poor free throw shooting. It’s like someone entered in a cheat code that made the Heat, a mediocre free throw shooting team, and the Thunder switched abilities when they’re at the charity stripe. Have the refs been great, or even good through the first three game? Not really, but the Thunder can’t afford to leave easy points on the board. A turning point in game 3 was Kevin Durant missing two free throws that would have put his team up by 1. The Heat got the rebound, but Derek Fisher came up with a steal, which led to a James Harden basket to put the Thunder up 1 (should’ve been 3). LeBron James was fouled on the next possession, made both free throws to put his team up 1, and the Heat never trailed again in the game. The Thunder haven’t shot over 75% from the line all series, including their game 1 victory. It’s actually amazing that they’ve been so close in these games when they’re failing to score easy points. And again, this isn’t a poor free throw shooting team. They were the best in the league during the regular season at 80% with Durant, Westbrook, and Harden being nearly automatic from the line.

A big advantage that the Thunder were supposed to have was their bench play, led by James Harden. So far besides Harden in game 2 and Nick Collison in game 1, the bench hasn’t done much of anything, mainly because they haven’t gotten the opportunity to. In fact, besides those two and Fisher, Brooks hasn’t used his bench at all. I understand shortening the bench right now, because the Heat are doing the same thing and you don’t want to get caught out there with your second string guys against LeBron and Wade, but it’s effectively eliminated one of the advantages people thought the Thunder had when this series started. And when Collison, Harden, and Fisher are in the game, their output has to be more than it is right now.

The biggest problem the Thunder have offensively is their lack of willingness to go to the rim. They’ve always been a team that have relied on their jump shooting ability, but in game 1 they were unafraid to attack the basket. That hasn’t been the case in the last two games. It’s been especially noticeable in Russell Westbrook’s game. I’m by no means a Westbrook hater like so many others. I think he’s the perfect point guard for this team, but he’s the perfect point guard when he’s attacking and not settling for jumpers. Westbrook has such a unique blend of speed, power, and athleticism for a guy his size that it’s really going to waste when he’s taking jump shots. Now he is taking a beating when he gets in the paint and not always getting the call, but that shouldn’t stop him for continuing to attack. His body will heal a lot faster in the off-season if he can call himself a champion and the calls will come a lot more often when you’re initiating contact by going to the hoop and not shying away from it by taking jump shots. The same thing goes for Harden and Durant.

Speaking of Durant, it’s very troublesome how often he settles for jumpers. To his credit, he has arguably the best looking stroke in the league and is an excellent shooter, but when you’re built like he is and were put on this earth to score every time you touch the ball, you can’t just settle. Again, you have to give credit to the Heat and especially LeBron for how they’ve defended him, but this is when a great player and a great coach get creative. And it’s not all LeBron and his defense either. Even in transition Durant will look to make a pass or pull up for a jumper instead of lowering his head and getting an easy bucket.

Furthermore, Durant can’t keep showing up for only portions of a game. He was nearly invisible in the first half of the first two games and he was invisible in the fourth quarter of game 3. He has been in foul trouble during the series, but he can’t let that affect how he plays and his coach can’t let that affect how he plays him. Durant doesn’t have a history of committing bad fouls and some of the calls on him during this series have been dubious, but he and his coach can’t change their entire mindset thinking that he’s going to foul out. It’s like thinking about what could go wrong before something actually goes wrong. When you do that, you change how you do things in your everyday life, and usually nothing ends up going wrong and you suckered yourself into changing things up for no reason.

I also question the way Brooks has been handling his rotation. I can understand shortening the bench, but I can’t understand sitting Westbrook and Durant at the same time (one of them should always be on the floor at all times) or not using Serge Ibaka more effectively. Ibaka isn’t a automatic low post scorer, but he is a big body who, at the very least, should be banging around the small defensive line of Miami and wearing them out. He should also be part of the closing rotation instead of Collison or Perkins at center.

On the flip side, the Heat are doing exactly what the Thunder aren’t, and that’s getting baskets in the paint. After getting dominated inside in game 1, the Heat decided to go on full blown attack mode in games 2 and 3, and it’s led to a lot of dunks and layups. I don’t know if they mentally flipped a switch, if they got their legs after a grueling 7 game series with Boston, if the Thunder changed up how they’ve guard them (it does look like they’re playing on the ball a bit more, as opposed to off the ball a bit and essentially daring them to take jumpers. They’re also not making Miami pay at all when they get into the paint), or what has happened but whatever is it, it’s leading to Heat victories.

This series isn’t over. Far from it actually. The Heat had a 2-1 series lead last year and ended up losing three straight games. The Thunder have already proven during this run that they don’t really get fazed when things go wrong. In fact, the opposite happens, they’ve made the proper adjustments and risen to the occasion.

They need to do the same thing in game 4, because, while this series is still up for grabs, it won’t be any longer if the Heat go up 3-1.

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