Monday, May 30, 2016

NBA Update

In Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals, Cleveland smashed Toronto 113 to 87 to win the series four games to two, and to book its place in the NBA Finals.  It will be Cleveland's third trip to the NBA Finals -- they also made it in 2007 and 2015, losing to the Spurs and the Warriors, respectively.  It will be LeBron James's sixth consecutive trip to the finals -- something that no great player has accomplished since the Bill Russell era.  So far LeBron is 2-3 in the finals, so he'll be looking to even the score.  And Cleveland will be looking for its first title since Blanton Collier led the Browns to the NFL Championship in 1964.

But the real story of these playoffs -- at least so far -- has been in the West.  So let's consider the history of the Oklahoma City Thunder.  The Thunder didn't exist at all until 2008, when the Seattle SuperSonics abandoned their hometown for a new start in Oklahoma City.  Four years later, a young Thunder team led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Hardin swept through the Western Conference -- smashing Dallas (4-0), the Lakers (4-1) and the Spurs (4-2) along the way.  A new Superteam appeared to be on the horizon -- and when Oklahoma City beat Miami 105-94 in the first game of the NBA Finals, it appeared that the Thunder would likely go all the way.

But that didn't happen.  The Thunder lost the next game, 100-96.  And then they lost Game Three, 91-85.  And then they lost Game Four, 104-98.  Every one of these games was a heartbreaker, and they were also marred by some of the worst officiating I can ever remember for an NBA Final.  In Game Five, the Thunder collapsed, the Heat won by 15, and LeBron had his first NBA Title.

Thunder fans had every reason to be disappointed in the outcome of the final -- all the breaks had gone Miami's way, and many of us are still not convinced that Miami was the better team that year.  But on the other hand, the Thunder were a young team, and I expected a rematch the next year.

But it was not to happen.  The Thunder gave away James Harden, and the team was not the same without him.  In 2013, OKC actually had the number-one seed in the West, but lost in the second round to the fifth seed, Memphis, in a brutal defensive struggle where the Grizzlies won four close games in a row.  In 2014, the Thunder fought their way back to the Western Conference Finals, but were eliminated by San Antonio four games to two -- losing the last game at home in overtime.  In 2015, the Thunder were hobbled by injuries and missed the playoffs entirely.

By this time, many of us had quit paying much attention to the Thunder -- they had broken up their great triumvirate, they had lost so many close games, and Russell Westbrook appeared to be fundamentally uncoachable.  Besides, there were now two great powers in the West:  the Spurs (who won the NBA Title in 2014) and the Warriors (who won in in 2015).  So we didn't think it would make that much of a difference -- except to Florida Gator fans -- when the Thunder hired Billy Donovan as their new coach.  And we didn't pay much attention when the Thunder went 55-27 to grab the third seed in the Western Conference -- the Warriors had gone 73-9 and the Spurs had gone 67-15.  And we didn't pay much attention when the Thunder rolled over Dallas 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs -- because the Spurs were up next, and the Spurs would have home court advantage, and the Spurs would take out OKC.  And sure enough, the Spurs won the first game 124-92, and we said, "See, told you so."

And then, for the first time since 2012, the Thunder came back.  Instead of trying to control Westbrook, Donovan had  convinced the Thunder to concentrate on defense.  And almost before anyone knew what had happened, OKC had won 7 out of 9 games against the Spurs and the Warriors (home teams listed first): 

5/2:  San Antonio 97 - 98 Oklahoma City
5/6:  Oklahoma City 96 - 100 San Antonio
5/8:  Oklahoma City 111 - 97 San Antonio
5/10:  San Antonio 91 - 95 Oklahoma City
5/12:  Oklahoma City 113 - 99 San Antonio
5/16:  Golden St. 102 - 108 Oklahoma City
5/18:  Golden St. 118 - 91 Oklahoma City
5/22:  Oklahoma City 133 - 105 Golden St.
5/24:  Oklahoma City 118 - 94 Golden St.

Even after Golden State fought back to win Game Five by the score of 120-111, thereby forcing a Game Six in Oklahoma City, you still had to like the Thunder's chances.  After all, they had rested up during Game Two against Golden State -- and had crushed the Warriors in Games Three and Four.  You know that the Warriors would give it everything they had in Game Six -- after all, it was an elimination game for them -- but the Thunder now appeared to be the better team.

And sure enough, the Thunder led 97-92 with four and one-half minutes to go, despite a spectacular performance from Klay Thompson of the Warriors (who would set a record with 11 three-pointers in a playoff game).  The Thunder had taken what the Warriors had to dish out, they were at home, they were in the lead.  Victory would be a tremendous vindication for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Billy Donovan.  Winning back-to-back series against former NBA Champions, both of whom had started with home court advantage, both of whom had won at least 67 games, would be a spectacular achievement.

Then this happened (OKC possessions in italics):

4:31 left:  Green FT (OKC 97, GSW 93)
4:13 left:  Durant misses a jump shot
3:58 left:  Curry 3-pointer (OKC 97, GSW 96)
3:42 left:  Westbrook 2 FTs (OKC 99, GSW 96)
3:20 left:  Iguodala misses a 3-pointer
2:55 left:  Durant turnover
2:48 left:  Curry 3-pointer (game tied at 99)

It happened so fast.  The Thunder were getting ready to pad their lead, and then the ball was gone, and the game was scrambled, and Curry was open, and the game was tied.  But OKC was still at home, and still had a chance to take the lead -- which they did.

2:37 left:  Westbrook misses layup -- rebound to OKC
2:25 left:  Durant misses jump shot -- rebound to OKC
2:22 left:  Roberson put back (OKC 101, GSW 99)

See?  That's the play the Warriors couldn't stop -- the Thunder are just bigger and stronger than Golden State, so OKC could attack the rim over and over.  It seemed almost impossible for the Warriors to defend them.  And then this happened (OKC possessions in italics):

2:06 left:  Iguodala layup (game tied at 101)
1:40 left:  Westbrook turnover (steal by Iguodala)
1:35 left:  Thompson 3-pointer (GSW 104, OKC 101)
1:23 left:  Durant misses 3-pointer
1:01 left:  Curry misses layup
0:55 left:  Westbrook dribbles the ball off his foot and of bounds
0:39 left:  Thompson misses 3-pointer
0:36 left:  Westbrook turnover (steal by Iguodala)
0:14 left:  Curry makes driving bank shot (GSW 106, OKC 101)
0:13 left:  Westbrook throws away the in-bounds pass (steal by Curry)

And that was it.  Westbrook committed four turnovers in five possessions, and the game was lost.

There's not a whole lot left to say at this point.  OKC has one more chance -- Game Seven, in Oakland, tonight -- to save its reputation.  I have no doubt that the Thunder have enough talent to win this game.  I won't be particularly surprised if they do win.  They're that good. But if they don't win, I will always remember that moment in Game Six, with 1 minute and 40 seconds left, when Iguodala stole the ball and almost immediately, Klay Thompson was hitting a three-pointer to put Golden State on top.  Unless something changes tonight, that sequence perfectly captures the legacy of these two squads.

55 comments:

  1. OK, here are your starters:

    OKLAHOMA CITY:
    Serge Ibaka, PF (Republic of the Congo)
    Kevin Durant, SF (Texas)
    Steven Adams, C (Pittsburgh)
    Russell Westbrook, PG (UCLA)
    Andre Roberson, SG (Colorado)

    GOLDEN STATE:
    Draymond Green, PF (Michigan St.)
    Andre Iguodala, SF (Arizona)
    Andrew Bogut, C (Utah)
    Stephen Curry, PG (Davidson)
    Klay Thompson, SG (Washington St.)

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  2. With 6:08 left in the 1st quarter, OKC leads 11 to 10.

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  3. With 2:34 left in the first, OKC leads 21-15. Except for that little stretch at the end of Game Six, it feels like OKC has been in the lead pretty much whenever it wanted.

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  4. After one quarter, OKC leads 24-19. Durant is 3-3 and has 7 points. Westbrook is 2-6 for 5 points. Curry is 3-8 for 8 points. Thompson is 0-4 with 1 point. The Warriors went only 2-6 from 3-point range in that quarter.

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  5. OKC leads 28-19 with 9:49 left in the second. I remain convinced that OKC is better than Golden State. They should win this game.

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  6. So far, the Warriors have made only 8-26 shots from the field. This is the sort of defense OKC played when they closed out the Spurs in Game Six of the semi-finals. The Thunder blew that game open in the second quarter.

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  7. OKC leads 35-22 with 7:01 left in the first half. Imagine UK leading some team from the SEC by that sort of score with 3:01 left in the first half. You'd think this was going to be an easy win for the Cats.

    Warriors now 9-31 from the field.

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  8. OKC by 35-25 with 5:42 left.

    On the other hand, I have seen UK blow leads like this in SEC road games. But even then, I thought UK was the better team.

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  9. Klay Thompson is 1-8 from the field so far. Curry is 3-8. That ain't gonna get it done.

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  10. OKC leads 37-33 with 4:08 left, as the Warriors are clawing their way back.

    Translating this into a college time frame, the teams have now played almost exactly 20 minutes, and the score is only 37-33. So this is a very low-scoring game so far -- just as OKC wants it.

    On the other hand, the Warriors are on an 11-2 run.

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  11. Now OKC is back off to the races. Thunder lead 42-33 with 3:18 before the half.

    Golden State has to keep it close and hope that OKC blows it again. When the Thunder pay attention, the Warriors can't stay with them.

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  12. OKC leads 44-33 with 2:52 left, and Draymond Green hits the court hard after getting mixed up with Steven Adams. If he's hurt, the Warriors will really be in trouble.

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  13. I definitely think that OKC is better than both the Spurs and the Warriors, but I'm not convinced that they will beat LeBron. Cleveland won't be intimidated and pushed around -- they've got some big guys of their own, and they might be happy to grind it out and wait for Westbrook to make mistakes.

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  14. Golden State on a 7-0 run to make the score 45-40 with 30 seconds left. With momentum on the side of the Warriors, and the crowd going nuts, Westbrook throws up a 3-pointer that never had any chance.

    Now the Warriors have Curry going to the basket to cut the lead to 3. But his shot is blocked by Serge Ibaka, and here come the Thunder going the other way. Naturally, that turns into a 3-point play the old fashioned way for . . . Russell Westbrook.

    But the half isn't over. With almost no time left, Curry drives the length of the court and makes a last second layup.

    Great, great stuff. At the half, OKC leads 48-42.

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  15. 1st half stats:

    Durant: 4-5, 9 points
    Westbrook: 5-14, 14 points

    Curry: 5-11, 12 points
    Thompson: 4-11, 13 points

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  16. I should also point out that Enes Kanter, back-up center for the Thunder, is 4-7 for 8 points. He's really good.

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  17. OKC leads 54-51 with 7:57 left in the third quarter.

    So if this were a college game, and the score was 37-33 at the half, the score would now be 54-51 with 11:57 left in the game. The pace has picked up, but not by much -- we are headed for a 40-minute score in the low 70's, which is not good for the Warriors.

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  18. Curry makes a 3, and we're tied at 54 with 7 minutes left.

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  19. Curry makes another 3, and the Warriors lead 57-54 with 6:16 to go in the third.

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  20. Durant drives thru the defense for a layup. 57-56. This is just great.

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  21. Curry's 3 to take the lead was like something out of a commercial. He was being guarded by Steven Adams, the OKC center. So he does a little step to one side, then steps away from Adams (and the basket), and shoots the ball before Adams can catch up. Nothing but net.

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  22. Golden State leads 59-56 with 4:16 left in the third. Something has happened to OKC's offense -- the Thunder only have eight points in this quarter.

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    Replies
    1. They still miss Hardin. Oklahoma City needed one more shooter this whole series. I'm hopeful Murray State's Cameron Payne, who appears to be about 14 years old, turns out to be that guy next year.

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  23. Warriors now lead 64-58 with 2:11 to go in the third quarter -- and they steal the ball from Westbrook.

    OKC has been outscored 22-10 in this quarter so far.

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  24. And now the Warriors are running and gunning. They lead 69-58 with 1:13 left in the third, and Oakland is going nuts. The Warriors have had to fight back over and over in this series. Can the Thunder do the same?

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  25. After 3, the Warriors lead 71-60.

    Durant: 6-10, 15 points
    Westbrook: 5-17, 14 points

    Curry: 8-18, 21 points
    Thompson: 5-14, 16 points

    So far, the league MVP has been the best player on the floor in the biggest game of the year. That seems very appropriate.

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  26. Warriors lead 73-64 with 10 minutes left.

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  27. Thunder hanging tough on D. Warriors lead 73-66 with 9:04 left.

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  28. Serge Ibaka hits a 3 for OKC, and the Thunder now trail only 73-69 with 8:11 left.

    But then Curry hits a long, soaring 3-pointer. At the 40 minute-mark, the Warriors lead 76-69.

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  29. And now Curry makes a 15-foot jumper. 78-69 with 7:20 left.

    Westbrook responds with a 3. 78-72 with 7 minutes to go.

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  30. Curry makes a layup: 80-72 with 6:40.

    Durant makes a 3. 80-75 with 6:35 to go.

    Oh, my goodness. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THIS IS WHY WE WATCH!

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  31. Green makes a layup: 82-75 with 6:10 to go.

    OKC misses a 3. And so does Curry.

    But the Warriors get the rebound. And then turn it over.

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  32. With 5:26 left, Ibaka drives and is fouled by Klay Thompson. He will be going to the line with the score 82-75.

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  33. Durant: 8-14, 20 points
    Westbrook: 6-19, 17 points

    Curry: 11-22, 28 points
    Thompson: 6-16, 18 points

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  34. Ibaka makes both FT's, and the score is now 82-77, Golden State.

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  35. Thompson hits a 3, and GS leads 85-77. OKC misses a layup at the other end.

    And now GREEN HITS A 3, and the Warriors lead 88-77 with 4:30 to go.

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  36. Durant misses an off-balance jumper, and the Warriors get it back. They miss, but the ball goes out on Durant.

    4 minutes left. Thompson misses a 3.

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  37. Westbrook drives through two men and makes a layup. 88-79 with 3:24 left.

    But Curry beats Durant at the other end for a layup of his own. 90-79 with 2:57 left, and they are celebrating in Oakland.

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  38. That last layup by Curry was another for the highlight reel. Curry is out beyond the 3-point line, with Durant all over him. Curry drives toward the basket, feints one way, gets Durant off balance, and scoots the other for an easy layup at the rim. Just beautiful basketball.

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  39. I still think if the Thunder would stick to their knitting, they would beat the Warriors. But it's really hard to judge how good Golden State is, because Curry is unlike almost any other player I've ever seen. He's like a combination of Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird.

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    Replies
    1. I think he must be what Bob Cousy was.

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  40. Durant comes out of the time out and makes a 3. 90-82 Warriors with 2:40 left.

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  41. Thompson misses a turnaround jumper. OKC struggles to figure out what to do, and bricks a jumper. But the Thunder grab the rebound and Durant finally just charges at the basket. He is fouled and makes both FT's. 90-84 with 2:07 left.

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  42. Green fumbles a pass out of bounds. Thunder ball with 1:50 left.

    Durant beats Thompson and makes a 17-footer. 90-86 with 1:40 left.

    WHY DO THE THUNDER LET WESTBROOK TAKE MORE SHOTS THAN DURANT?? WHY???

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    Replies
    1. It's like Durant is Jordan's talent with Pippin's personality and Westbrook is Pippin's talent with Jordan's personality. And then there's no Paxson or Kerr on the team.

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  43. Durant now on a 7-0 run by himself.

    Durant: 10-17, 27 points
    Westbrook: 7-21, 19 points

    Curry: 12-23, 30 points
    Thompson: 7-19, 21 points

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  44. OK, it's back up for grabs now. Here come the Warriors. Green almost loses the ball again. He and Westbrook go to the floor, and Green calls time. OKC is annoyed. But there's only 5 seconds left on the shot clock.

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  45. 90-86 Warriors. 1:22 left in the game. 5 seconds left on the shot clock. Warrior ball. Everyone is standing.

    Curry starts to shoot a 3, and is FOULED BY IBAKA. That was a good call.

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  46. Curry makes the first FT, then the second, and then the third. 93-86 with 1:18 left.

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  47. Durant misses, but the Warriors don't score either. 51 seconds to go.

    OKC misses a long shot, and then Curry puts on a little show. He dribbles all over the floor, stopping and starting, until the shot clock is almost gone, and then -- with 26 seconds left in the game, he fires up a long 3.

    NOTHING BUT NET. Warriors lead 96-86 with 26 seconds left.

    The place goes absolutely nuts. Someone calls time.

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  48. I heard on the radio this morning that seats on the front row of tonight's game were going for $29,000 apiece. That price now seems reasonable. Curry has been unbelievable in the second half -- one of the greatest individual performances I have ever seen.

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  49. And that's your ball game. Final Score: Golden State 96, Oklahoma City 88. Warriors come back from 3-1 down to win the West.

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  50. Durant: 10-19, 27 points
    Westbrook: 7-21, 21 points

    Curry: 13-24, 36 points
    Thompson: 7-19, 21 points

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