The undisputed worst team in the NBA keeps piling on its already ugly loss total. But two courageous, gritty, and competitive showings this weekend in Texas should give already aching fans a reason to cheer.
The Oklahoma City Thunder headed to Texas for games against the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs with a gruesome 2-20 record. The league's newest franchise, uprooted from its former home of 41 years in Seattle, arrived in the Lone Star State with a chance to compile the worst record in NBA history, and that's how the Spurs and Mavericks played them.
The two recent NBA Finalists knew they played with fire and were lucky to play a team too green and disjointed to burn them in the final minutes. The Thunder should leave Texas knowing that they gave both squads a scare and competed in the face of towering adversity. That should spur their chemistry and development.
Playoff teams do not talk about moral victories. For the scary bad Thunder, who will be lucky to win 20 games, any close contests played against playoff contenders should be celebrated.
The Mavericks trailed for most of Saturday's game and needed 28 points from Jason Terry and 46 from Dirk Nowitzki to eke out a four-point win at the American Airlines Center.
The Spurs blew a 26-point lead at the AT&T Center and needed late-game heroics from Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to stymie a spirited second-half rally.
General Manager Sam Presti made P.J. Carlesimo the season's first coaching casualty. And while Scott Brooks' acceptance of the reigns, for now, has not produced a change in the win column, the team is playing harder. Moral victories for the Thunder this season will lead to actual ones in two or three years.
It will take several years to evaluate Presti's performance. The former Spurs assistant general manager has laid out a three-to-four year construction plan that promises to test the players and fans.
If he finds the job arduous this season, he'll need some strong happy pills in 2009 and 2010.
Take this astute opening line from an AP article about the Thunder's continued strong home attendance:
"No matter how many ways the Thunder finds to lose, it doesn't seem to have any trouble finding people to watch it happen."
The fans are enjoying the honeymoon now. They expected a stinker and should not grumble now that they have one. The excitement of the state's first permanent pro sports franchise will keep the Ford Center's seats full this season. But what about the next one and the one after that?
Here's the good and bad of the Thunder's trip to Texas and what fans should expect from the team in the next few years:
1. Kevin Durant and Jeff Green erupted for a combined 61 points in San Antonio, and approached or tied season scoring highs. I stopped counting Green's dunk total midway through the fourth quarter, but he hammered at least seven. From tomahawks to one hand flushes to baseline jams, his highlight reel performance would have made Julius Erving smile.
It will also have Gregg Popovich thrashing his team in its next film session for long stretches of porous interior defense. Why wouldn't Green and Durant want to celebrate pissing off a four-time champion coach and his players?
2. The Mavs and Spurs attacked Green and Durant with similar defensive gameplans. Both teams sagged off the sophomore studs and dared them to shoot. When Green and Durant responded as they should have, nailing most of those sparsely guarded jumpers, tighter perimeter pressure allowed them to use their athleticism to explode to the rim.
Durant and Green entered the league with nice shooting touches, but both have needed serious work to become outside shooting threats in the pros. As these two players discovered, offensive success in college does not always translate to offensive success in the NBA. It should encourage Thunder fans that the forwards exhibited intelligence in reading the defense.
With Green's and Durant's outside shots falling in the third and fourth quarters Sunday night, other teammates joined the scoring fray. Earl Watson drilled a pair of three-pointers, Russell Westbrook finished a slick three-point play, Nick Collison was active around the basket, and even Johan Petro hit a rainbow.
3. With made shots came greater intensity. The Spurs led 39-19 after the first quarter but were outscored the remainder of the game. The defensive hustle picked up, the ball movement improved and so did the team's confidence.
Against the Mavericks, the Thunder led most of the way, and at one point in the third quarter, 74-65. They led 91-89 with five minutes and change to play, before Terry and Nowitzki capped incredible shooting nights with free throws and three-point daggers.
The three-point marksmanship by both Texas teams should offer encouragement, though. The Spurs only canned 9 of 23 tries, and the Mavericks made 7 of 20. The Thunder dominated the points in the paint battle in both games.
Thunder 54, Spurs 38; Thunder 42, Mavericks 34
4. Desmond Mason and Joe Smith played solid minutes off the pine, defending with energy, if not overmatched by their assigned men, and knocked in some open jumpers to keep or change momentum.
The bench contribued at least 25 points in both losses, an encouraging sign for a team that sits in the bottom five in points scored per game and field goal percentage.
5. Durant used his length to bother the Spurs shooters and recorded an impressive four blocks. In one spectacular show of athleticism, he swatted away a Michael Finley 12-footer, then jumped up to recover the ball and keep it in play. When he used his lankiness as a weapon, he looked like a youngster capable of becoming an elite defender.
6. The Thunder tied the Spurs in the rebounding category, with 37, and outboarded the Mavs by 10, with 48.
7. Collison was useful in the absence of injured forward/center Chris Wilcox. He pulled down eight boards, dished five dimes and recorded a steal. Durant hauled in a team-leading 13 rebounds.
8. Most importantly, this pubescent bunch looked anything but. They did not fold after the Spurs scored 39 in the first quarter and led by as many as 26 in the first half. A wild Jeff Green three-pointer out of a timeout, which Finley defended superbly, brought the Thunder within two points with less than a minute to play.
The Thunder also managed to keep the Mavericks at bay until late in the fourth quarter, holding the lead, with a golden chance at an upset.
1. The Thunder did themselves in by giving up 39 points to the Spurs on 66 percent shooting in the first quarter. It's tough to win on the road as the underdog of all underdogs when you allow 62 points in a half, and most of those were scored off lay-ups or open, high-percentage, or rhythm jumpshots.
Two first quarter sequences in San Antonio offer a glimpse into the problem.
Durant cut the lead to 18 with a marvelous, yet ridiculously tough reverse lay-in. No one in a Thunder uniform hustled back defensively, and Tony Parker ran the floor for an easy lay-up of his own. Those kinds of plays are back-breakers. This team can't allow that if it wants to be any good.
On another sequence, Manu Ginobili sucked the defense into the paint with a drive and then kicked out to a wide-open George Hill, who swooshed the three. The defense aced the first part of the test in swarming Ginobili, but Watson needed to rotate to Hill to contest the shot. Epic fail.
Spurs TV analyst Sean Elliot commented that the Spurs players were having too much fun at a shooting practice. The Thunder yielded too many open looks in that opening frame, making that description on-target. Durant, Green, Westbrook, Watson, and even Mason are quick enough to make the necessary rotations. But they shouldn't need a first quarter butt kicking to be inspired to do it.
2. The Thunder had one assist after the first period, a sad indictment on the lack of ball or man movement. The team finished with 19 assists, including five from Collison and four from Watson, but many of those were owed to contested makes on the perimeter.
Most of those points scored in the paint, in both contests, came from dribble drives and one-on-one play. There were few backcuts, backdoor passes, finds from the perimeter for lay-ups or precision passes from the post.
3. In Dallas, Petro, Collison, Green, and any others who were switched onto Nowitzki did not show or curl off screens designed to get the seven-footer rhythm shots. Though many of Nowitzki's scores were pressured or face guarded, the primary defender and his help usually arrived late.
Punctuality is the most important facet of man-to-man and team defense. One to two seconds can make all the difference on a rotation or a switch. Even if the Mavericks jacked up too many jumpers, Terry, Kidd, and Nowitzki feasted on every brief opening.
4. If Brooks is any good at his job, this should be his first point of emphasis in the squad's next film session and practice. Rule number one of playing against superior foes: all the spirited scoring runs in the world become moot if you cannot stop their execution at the other end.
For the dejected Thunder, this murdered their chances to win either contest. Nowitzki and Terry gorged on simple and high screens. Nowitzki's dagger three developed from the defense's poor reaction to a simple set.
Durant willed in an acrobatic lay-up to cut San Antonio's lead to 106-104. Duncan, ever the great basketball quarterback, delivered a perfect full-court pass to a streaking Manu Ginobili, who drew contact and banked in the shot. Too many Thunder players hung around the basket as Durant threw up his shot and no one ran back defensively.
Credit Duncan's court awareness for the swift and fantastic find.
Yes, Ginobili is a fantastic finisher, expeditious on the break, and a clutch shot machine. Still, had even two defenders run to meet Ginobili at the other end, they could have bothered the pass or forced him to shoot with his weaker right hand.
5. Green threw the ball away with a chance to tie or give his team the lead in Saturday's final minutes. That giveaway turned into made free throws for Nowitzki for a 101-97 lead. Green coughed up the ball twice in the final two minutes, and each turnover further sealed the Thunder's fate.
The play-by-play on NBA.com describes that second turnover as a "bad pass." Oh, boy was it ever. Can you say understatement?
What the Thunder lacked in the odds and experience columns, they made up for with hustle. For slumped-over Oklahoma City fans, perhaps tired of watching a team that could win less than nine times in 82 tries, they should welcome that development.
The Thunder's only chance to beat playoff opponents in the next two seasons is to take advantage of those who offer lackluster efforts or who don't show up at all. The Spurs and Mavs both played down to the Thunder and survived heart-attack inducing finishes because they are far more experienced and talented.
While defenses continue to roam with Westbrook and he continues to misfire from distance, his decision making and defense continue to show marked improvement. He let Parker burn him too often, but showed on a few sequences that he might someday be able to defend him.
Durant and Green mostly delivered the goods in both games. Green should emerge as an athletic power forward who can also play significant minutes at the three spot, and Durant appears headed for superstardom. The Thunder seem to have a better core of neophytes than the comparably awful Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves squads did in in the 1990s.
The Future and Some Goals:
Oklahoma City, even if the nickname still sucks, should keep four players in its future plans—Durant, Green, Westbrook, and the heady Collison. The rest of this season will be about the coaching staff and front office deciding who else from the current roster should join them.
Smith and Mason are veterans better suited for ball clubs that can win now, so they'll be gone before long. Watson has already whined about his playing time and diminished role, and Presti should not hesitate to ship him somewhere else for a decent return.
Robert Swift cannot stay on the court long enough to show anyone if his high school talent will transfer to the pros. Useless and injury-prone players like Swift will be hard to move. Who wants this draft bust?
The odds don't look good when the Memphis general manager slammed for "donating" Paul Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to have a plan after all. Who will want some of the other leftovers, and what kind of a return could Presti get?
If he can land first and second round draft picks, how valuable are those? The team's chief problem is its average young age. More youth, especially would-be college sophomores, does nothing to help the progress of this program.
As the Spurs and Celtics proved the last two years, veteran presence and defense wins championships.
A center/power forward who can post-up and pass out of double teams
A veteran, back-up point guard who can stunt Westbrook's growth
Better wing defenders
Experience, experience, experience
So, even if this squad will not roar into the playoffs anytime soon, at least it's making discernable noise.