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Friday, May 20, 2011

State of a Depressed Basketball Fan

I would like to take this opportunity to formally announce my entrance onto the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bandwagon. After a nut-crushingly brutal near-sweep at the hands of arguably my least favorite sports team ever, my Boston Celtics were knocked out in gut splattering fashion. Without a “dog in the fight” I feel the need to throw my allegiance towards someone, ANYONE besides the Heatles.

I find myself inextricably drawn to the Thunder. I would like to see the aging duo of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd win a title after honing their craft for over a decade (and in Kidd’s case, maybe a century). I like Tom Thibadeau and Derrick Rose a hell of a lot…and the Memphis Grizzlies were quite a story; a writers dream. But something about these Oklahoma City Thunder—formally the Seattle Super Sonics—keeps drawing me back in. Something about this Western Conference title fight has kindled my great-basketball-sensors.

Here’s why I love the Thunder:

1. The Russell Westbrook-Kevin Durant dynamic…

It’s absolutely fascinating. They have no idea how to play with each other. Westbrook has all the physical talents in the world yet has no ability to harness it. He has no idea how to use his body, use his teammates, or control a ball game. I’m not saying I have any of that either, but Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd—I have seen them dominate games with four points. Russell Westbrook just doesn’t understand that yet.

Imagine you’re hanging out with a group of friends, and someone tells a joke or points out something really funny. Everyone goes with it for a while but there’s always one guy who takes it too far. He takes the joke to the point where it isn’t funny anymore. I think everyone has a friend like that in their group. That’s Russell Westbrook. He doesn’t recognize a good time to launch an 18-foot jumper or when it’s a bad time to take his man one-on-one. He seems to make the wrong decision at the worst possible time, like last night when he took his man to the hoop only to have the ball stripped just as OKC was beginning their run.

Kevin Durant, already a phenomenal player, has own faults. He seems to view screens as an insult to his scoring talents—he would much rather launch fall away 20-footers (which, admittedly, he’s way to good at). And he doesn’t have a post-up game—part of the reason both Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony are completely unguardable.

Part of the reason the Durant-Westbrook combo is so likeable is that both young player’s flaws are painfully evident. But we can also see them growing all the time. Last night, with DeShawn Stevenson fronting Durant and playing him physically, Kevin returned the favor more than a few times. I hadn’t seen that side of him before; I’m glad it’s there.

2. The James Harden-Eric Maynor bench backcourt…

His beard says a lot, but surprisingly, there’s more to James Harden than that savage mask of manliness. Harden has been a favorite of mine since he came into the league two years ago and even more so now that he’s reaching his potential. As recently as December we wondered whether GM Sam Presti made a mistake taking Harden third overall before Stephen Curry or Tyreke Evans. I think we can close the books on that argument. Curry and Evans are fantastic NBA players, but neither is the type of passer and playmaker Harden has shown himself to be. Curry might be able to shoot the lights out but he isn’t the slasher and foul drawing machine Harden is. Evans might be a bull in the paint but he can’t match Harden’s shooting ability. Harden combines the best of both players and seems to have come into his role as Oklahoma City’s sixth man.

Eric Maynor hails from my university of choice, so of course I live vicariously through his success. When you attend a college not exactly known as a basketball star breeding ground, you’ll take anything you can get—and Maynor making a meaningful impact on a title contender is more than most expected.

And then last night happened, when Coach Scott Brooks rode Eric Maynor at point for the entire fourth quarter of a must-win playoff game. Over Russell Westbrook. Yes, that Russell Westbrook…the all-star. I think it’s more about how well Maynor was playing and less of an indictment of Westbrook. But I gotta say I like the way Eric Maynor plays point guard.

3. Serge Ibaka’s rise…

What are the chances we’ll see another Serge Ibaka story? Probably pretty low. If you didn’t know, Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka was born and lived much of his life in the Congo—the third youngest of 18 children. When Ibaka was selected with the 24th pick of the 2008 draft he spoke nary a word of English and relied on teammate Moses Ehambe to translate for him. Now, he is fluent in English, French, Spanish, and Lingala—his native language. Entering the league he was a developmental prospect—a raw athletic specimen with little knowledge of the intricacies of the game. In two years he’s worked himself into becoming a starter on a title contender, averaging nearly four blocks a game and eight rebounds. He even participated in the annual dunk contest at all-star weekend this year.

I’ll say Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka’s rise has been pretty meteoric…and it isn’t finished yet.

4. Former Celtics…

Watching the Celtics during the latter half of the season I missed Kendrick Perkins’ scowling, his mean glares, and his prolific trash talking. As often as he would get caught for illegal screens he would just as often set Ray Allen free on the perimeter for wide open threes with bone-crushing picks. I missed how he would defend the paint like a blood-crazed grizzly bear protecting her children. With Perkins gone the Boston Celtics lost part of their identity…a part they have yet to recover and maybe never will.

Perkins hasn’t playing well as of late, but he still brings his mean streak and leadership to the Thunder’s young squad. Watching Perk death-glare officials, rough up Tyson Chandler, and even nail a few jumpers has been like porn for Celtics fans.

And then there’s Nate Robinson—a player I despised, not for his personality but the way he would jack up three after three like he was the spawn of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen. But for all his ills on the court Nate Robinson is arguably the best bench cheerleader of the modern era. He’s a prodigy—a joy to watch. And for that, begrudgingly, I miss him.

For everyone, myself included, the Thunder have been a hard team to figure out. Their collection of talent is prodigious. Kevin Durant is as adept with screens as David Kahn is with jokes and doesn’t even have a post game, yet he still manages to lead the league in scoring two straight years. Russell Westbrook looks like a top ten player during his best games and a bottom ten after his worst. But we all know basketball is more than just talent; it’s how the pieces fit. If the Thunder were a jigsaw puzzle, it would be pretty phenomenal—like a picture of Kim Kardashian or something, but the individual pieces wouldn’t quite fit together perfectly. It would still be sweet looking but the edges might be jagged or some of the nubs might have been snipped off. If OKC can figure out how to piece that puzzle together just right we might be talking dynasty.

So when will they figure it out? Conventional wisdom holds it takes a few years. You need to lose on the biggest stage, take your lumps, and push back harder than ever. But that’s the conventional wisdom, and if we’ve learned anything it’s that this team DEFIES the conventional wisdom. I’ve written about it before, but the Thunder are challenging our concept of championship basketball and an OKC title would be a natural evolution.

But that’s a matter of two young stars learning to excel with each other. It’s a matter of every piece fitting seamlessly and ever player locked in completely. That’s what scares me about the Mavericks; they look locked in. Everyone’s contributing and everyone is fulfilling their role. They know what they are, and everyone knows who they are. I can’t say the same for the Thunder.

But you know what? That’s why I love em’.

As corny as it sounds Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are on a journey of exploration and we’re along for the ride. Only time will tell where it will end—and how it will progress…

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