Three Lingering Thoughts Regarding the Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves

Last night's game was fully entertaining and stomach-turning.  My stomach will continue to churn until tomorrow night, when we get to see Andray Blatche and his uber-finesse game come to Loud City.

Meanwhile, here are a few more thoughts from last night:

1. Russell Westbrook played a poor floor game. Understand, the point guard position is the hardest one to master in the NBA; it is most akin to asking an NFL quarterback like Matt Ryan to continuously organize both the offense and defense, all the while doing it without any breaks in between plays. I can't criticize Westbrook, or any point guard for that matter, without first thinking about this reality. I think the frustration I felt comes from the fact that it appeared as if Westbrook had decided for himself that, after his two hour boxing bout with the Hornets' Chris Paul, that he looked at the Wolves' point guard Luke Ridnour and decided he was going to chew him up.

Unfortunately, the game didn't play out this way. Rather than having his way with Ridnour, instead Westbrook played out of control for most of the game. From a scoring perspective, he was frequently too strong on his mid-range jump shot. Instead of elevating vertically, he was often leaning forward, meaning he was carrying too much momentum into his mechanics. Off the dribble, Westbrook proved to be too much for Ridnour to handle, but instead of the way that we saw Westbrook finish against the Lakers and Hornets, he missed a number of lay-ins that he normally converts.

Most egregious though, Westbrook committed eight turnovers, and many of them were unforced. He had two offensive fouls that came in transition. This area is where I think the Thunder really hurt themselves last night, keeping the game closer than it should have been.  Particularly in the third, the Thunder had figured out how to defend the Wolves' high pick and roll at the elbow, stealing pass after pass. Unfortunately, they didn't reward themselves with easy 2 on 1 baskets; rather, their fast break was chaotic and disorganized. Westbrook picked up those charges, as did Thabo Sefolosha on one play. The shots were out of control and did not even generate free throws. 

Westbrook cannot and really does not need to play at the kinetic pace that Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo do. Running the team at 3/4 speed works pretty well, so I hope when he takes on John Wall tomorrow he'll find a better pace for himself and his teammates.

2. In the midst of Kevin Durant's scoring binge, the team didn't forget about Jeff Green. Unlike against the Hornets, when the Thunder surprisingly forgot who their most efficient scorer was, this time they remembered Green.  Green responded with a strong stat line, including 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists. If only for his penchant to take a few too many 3-pointers, I would laud Green's shot selection without reservation. Unlike Westbrook and Durant, he never seems to force a shot when it isn't there. He can take what the defense gives him and shows a remarkable patience on the low block.

Kevin Durant was burning up the nets during the entire second half, but it was Green and his clutch drive and jump hook that tied the game up in regulation. He has a supreme confidence in his ability to finish when it matters most, and I was happy to see the Thunder remembered that fact in the nick of time.

3. The Timberwolves are this/close. I am impressed by the team's ability (and their fans' support) to stay so up-beat in the midst of what will likely go down as a 60 loss season. You cannot deny that they still continue to play hard, even as the walls seem to be caving in. I think that has to be a testament first to their coach Kurt Rambis, and to their team leader Kevin Love. I've heard Love talk on the record on a number of occasions and he walks the line between optimism and somber reality well. He said that recently someone told him that the Wolves were "the best 3 1/2 quarter team in the league," and I think there is merit to that statement. They have a ton of talent in their starting five, and some good bench players who can help share the load. Where they falter (and this should sound familiar) is in defense and in the small details. Here is one example: in last night's game, a one point decision, the Thunder hit 26-27 free throws. Meanwhile, Luke Ridnour, a 92% free throw shooter, missed two on the night, one of which would have given the Wolves a three point lead going into the Thunder's final regulation possession. It doesn't seem like much, but in a league where the talent disparity is shrinking all the time, those small discrepancies add up over time.

This statement will sound like a tautology (and perhaps it is) but the best way for the Wolves to win games right now is to win games. What I mean is, all it's going to take for the Wolves to experience a winning streak is to close out a game like this past one. When we look back at the Thunder a year ago, there wasn't any difference in talent during the 2009-10 season between before the All-Star break and after the All-Star break. In fact, exactly one year ago, their record stood at 24-21, a record that would have kept them out of the playoffs. What changed though was the Thunder began to figure out all of the little details that go into winning basketball. They went on a nine game win streak, began to see themselves as a playoff caliber team, and finished up the season 26-11. Over the course of a season, everything changed. It can happen to the Wolves too; they just need to get a taste of how it is done. 

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