Back to the future: How a healthy Thunder will go all the way
by Mark Rodgers
OKLAHOMA CITY – We’ve grown spoiled by deep playoff runs around here lately. The Thunder have dominated the late spring and early summer landscape, not only in sports but the entire culture of OKC.
Watching these NBA playoffs has been a little maddening.
There’s nothing in sports that exposes every weakness like a seven-game series. The L.A. Clippers looked resilient and tough, eliminating the defending champion Spurs in the first round. Then were undressed by the Houston Rockets in the second round. No bench and no supporting cast for Blake G and CP3.
The Western Conference quickly turned into a Golden State paved road to the finals. Who can help but wonder, without the rash of injuries, where would the Thunder shake out in these NBA playoffs? Would we be clearing Reno for a ticker tape parade?
Broken down to one word, the answer is no.
Two big problems will greet a healthy Thunder team next fall. The first being the Warriors.
Golden State has activated its defensive approach rather than just discussing it. Andrew Bogut protects the rim. He does it with a big body and strength. He’s never out of position. Don’t confuse shot blocking with rim protection.
Shot blocking is great but having a guy in front of the basket who keeps easy shots from dropping is essential in the NBA.
Klay Thompson scored 37 points in a quarter and is one of the best at guarding his position in the league. Thompson provides a lethal offensive arsenal in addition to his capable defense. That’s a glaring comparison to what the Thunder need more of: two-way players.
The biggest news for the Warriors during these playoffs isn’t even the NBA MVP, Steph Curry.
It’s the stunning +/- numbers of 1st team all-defense Draymond Green. Deep into the western conference finals the Warriors had outscored opponents by 163 with Green on the floor and were outscored 43 without him. That’s just a ridiculous number.
Green could bolt the Warriors in the off season as a restricted free agent, but that’s highly unlikely. All this goes to prove the point, Golden State has evolved into what the Thunder strive to be. A team that can score 130 when it’s on, but one that can shut you down when it wants and needs.
The other thing standing in the way?
The most dominant 500-tool player in the game. LeBron James. Right now at the axis of his peak mental and physical powers, James is a force, even the Warriors might find too tough to beat. He dominates the court defensively, sets his teammates up for open shots and gets to the basket like a first class passenger takes an airline seat. My guess is he wins title number three this year in spite of injuries around him on the Cleveland Cavs’ roster.
What hurt the Thunder last year won’t necessarily be a problem next season. This team, when healthy, is a force. A regular season force.
Players can improve and must improve on the defensive end. That even means the stars. KD has to use his length to swarm opposing wing players. Russell must harness his athletic ability rather than gamble for steals that lead to easy baskets.
Steven Adams growth curve has to be amped up. He has the body of a Bogut but lacks experience and as a second year player, is prone to foul trouble. When the post season arrives, we will all have been mesmerized by the ease of offense from the 82-game schedule.
However, championship aspirations will be determined by the strides the Thunder have made guarding their opponent.
Just ask Golden State.