The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, 4-1, and will not advance to the Western Conference Finals this season. Projected to compete with the Miami Heat for the NBA Championship at the beginning of the season, OKC traded superstar sixth man James Harden to the Houston Rockets and had to play in a much more difficult conference in order to try to take the crown from King James and Co.
The Thunder lost to another team that traded away its superstar—Rudy Gay was dealt to the Toronto Raptors in the middle of the season—but they also had to play without a cornerstone player, Russell Westbrook, who got injured in Game 2 against the Rockets.
Fortunately for basketball fans in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are one of the youngest teams in the league and will have other chances, but this one still hurts…
Fans are going to be left wondering: What if we had Harden?
Harden began the year in “Eff You” mode, dropping 37 and 45 points, respectively, in his first two games for the Rockets. Oklahoma City got to see him up close in its first-round series, when it dispatched Houston in six games.
Mr. Harden had a few tricks up his
sleeve beard, dropping 30 points in three of the six games and scoring at least 20 points in five of the games. He only tallied 15 in Game 4 but got the last laugh with a 105-103 win.
The team obviously did not expect Westbrook, who never misses a game, to get injured when it shipped Harden to Texas, but he is more talented than what it has now. Kevin Martin, 29, will never be the impact player Harden is, and it's uncertain how good Reggie Jackson, 22, will end up being.
It’s nothing to lose sleep over; what’s done is done, but this is going to haunt Thunder fans after the early exit.
How do you win after a big trade? Just ask Memphis.
"Yeah I'm still up on my grizzly, Mike Conley. That was just a preview, cause they got nothing on we."—"Handclaps & Guitars," Chiddy Bang.
The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the best-run organizations and a model franchise for small-market teams. They knew that Gay was due for a windfall, and there was no way that a professional basketball team in Memphis was able to afford to blow through the luxury tax to keep its superstar player.
When the Grizzlies dealt Gay to Toronto, they knew that somebody had to step up to replace his production.
Marc Gasol may be establishing himself as the Alpha Gasol in the NBA (sorry Pau!) and Zach Randolph has been playing motivated (like he’s being chased by a cat), but it is Mike Conley who has really stepped up for the Grizz.
Zach Lowe broke it down in his recent Grantland profile of the Memphis point guard:
The biggest difference between Conley and Gay — and Gasol and Gay — is that Conley's shot-hunting grows organically from within Memphis's offense. Gay's shot-hunting largely existed outside of that offense, or ground it to a halt. Most of Conley's scoring chances come via the pick-and-roll, which means that if a Conley scoring pursuit goes nowhere, there is a natural pass available — one that keeps all the screening and cutting gears turning.
The Grizzlies are benefiting from smart management: They were able to let their star go because another one would thrive in their offense.
Oklahoma City needs to do the same thing with Durant.
OKC must take advantage of Durant’s efficiency.
Durant looks at so many shot charts, you’d think he was playing Battleship. He is so focused on efficiency; John Hollinger should describe his motor as “hybrid.” Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated reports that he has hired his own analytics expert and has found his “hot spots” on the court:
[Justin] Zormelo sits in section 104 of Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena, with an iPad that tells him in real time what percentage Durant is shooting from the left corner and how many points per possession he is generating on post-ups. After games, he takes the iPad to Durant's house or hotel room and they watch clips of every play.
He will find spaces where he struggles to score and work on the shot in practice. If he finds that he is unable to score from a certain place, he will simply avoid taking that shot. He has even gone so far as eschewing buzzer-beaters during the regular season.
Durant scored at least 25 points in every game during the postseason, but he underperformed because he was forced to take shots he was uncomfortable taking in an effort to replace the production lost when Westbrook got injured.
With a healthy Westbrook, this offense should once again cater to Durant’s strength and allow him to adhere his own green movement.
Durant needs Westbrook. That’s the bottom line.
The former isn’t going anywhere, and the latter is known as one of the most reliable players in the league. The two should be able to challenge LeBron and the Heat in the future; it’s just not going to happen this year.
For the time being, fans need to forget about Harden. The team should take a couple of notes on Memphis, a fellow small-market team that appears to have things figured out.
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