What is up my most excellent readers of Welcome to Loud City? We're here to throw down on a slammin' preview of the Thunder's playoff run. J.A. Sherman joins in as we answer some questions pertaining to the team's performance as a whole. I'll be blowing up the whole shebang tomorrow with a massive series preview. In the meantime, look at the questions below!
How would you describe the Thunder in the regular season?
Sherman: The Thunder are a young team that faced lofty expectations for the first time in their collective careers. There is something that changes when you go from being 'one of the best' to 'the team every other team measures itself against.' For the most part they handled themselves well but had a few slip-ups against weak teams because they were not mentally prepared. Losses to teams such as the Wizards and Cavaliers likely ended up costing the Thunder the #1 seed. That said, I think the #2 seed feels about right. San Antonio was clearly playing the best ball over the course of the season, so while the Thunder's final month of play was mediocre, it brought them to a record that is representative of their place in the pecking order.
Zorgon: The Thunder pretty much met everyone's expectations. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone in Oklahoma that's been disappointed in their performance, but, by the same token, it'd be a sheer miracle to find anybody who think they should be lower than they are. They had all the ingredients of a fun team to watch. Their offense relied on fast break points and highlight reel dunks. The team's defense is marked by great blocks and shutouts of well-known players. They're not arrogant, yet they're not so humble that it gets on your nerves. However, they've been a frustrating team to watch, as well. We've seen the team make mincemeat of elite clubs like the Lakers and Bulls, but they seem to have massive matchup problems against certain clubs, and can go through losses in focus. But such are the headaches you encounter when your team relies to heavily on three scorers.
What are the Thunder's strengths? Are there any areas that concern you?
Sherman: The team's strength is that when OKC is focused, they can play a level of basketball that is unmatched from both an offensive and defensive standpoint. They can score with anybody in the league and shut down almost anybody in the league, and so it is often frustrating to see that they only reached that level of focus on the rare occasion. The duo of Durant and Westbrook are operating at their highest level when 1) Durant is acting as a facilitator as well as scorer; and 2) Westbrook is locked in defensively. The combination of the two brings back memories of Jordan and Pippen, where Jordan could dominate offensively and Pippen would shut down the other team's best scorer.
The place where the team struggles is most often in the 4th quarter when their loose style of play tends to work against them. They struggle to get the same clean looks at the rim that are there in the early going. Through a combination of youth, impatience, and basic offensive sets, the Thunder have struggled to put teams away, be they playoff teams or lottery teams.
Zorgon: Their main strength lies in their defense. I know you hear all this crap about how good OKC's offense can be, but I've never seen a defense that can do so well in so many types of settings. They have bigs who are great against back to the basket players (Perkins, Mohammed), good at positioning (Collison), and excellent at help defense (Ibaka). They have guys on the perimeter who can both shut down an opponent (Sefolosha), take charges (Fisher) and grab a few steals (Harden, Durant). The only real problem the defense has is guarding against bigs who can shoot. Our post players are assessed a double-burden, because they have to constantly be looking out on help defense and guard their man, so they aren't exactly good at following their man out to the perimeter. Perkins and Mohammed are huge weak spots in this area, as they don't really have the speed to keep up with anybody on the perimeter. They can also focus on pressuring too much on offense, leading to some wide-open threes and quicker guards getting open shots.
Below: The Playoff Rotation, A Breakout Performer, How Far Will the Thunder Advance?
What is your likely playoff rotation? Who is likely to see their minutes increase? Who might fall out of the rotation completely?
Sherman: The Thunder starting rotation has been set in stone from day one - Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka, and Perkins. The team will likely stick to a nine man total rotation, with James Harden, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, and Nazr Mohammed representing the second unit. Unfortunately, key contributors Daequan Cook and Royal Ivey have seen their minutes shrink and those minutes will likely continue to regress.
Zorgon: The only thing I have to add is that I disagree with Cook being the odd man out. Last year, Mohammed was the one left out of the rotation, and his minutes have only continued to shrink. If anything, I think we'll see heavy doses of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka, Perkins, Collison, and Fisher. Mohammed and Cook will regularly see under 10 minutes, and Ivey will be thrown in when Brooks thinks the Thunder aren't playing defense.
Who is most likely to step up their level of play? Do you have a potential "breakout" peformer this postseason?
Sherman: James Harden is going to be the man who makes a huge difference in these playoffs. He is much more self-assured this time out, he knows his role, and knows that his play is essential to the Thunder's success. Westbrook will not likely have a breakout post-season, but what is needed from him is better consistency from game to game so that he remains on the court as a dangerous offensive threat.
Zorgon: Serge Ibaka. I know this is kind of coming out of left field, but we've seen Harden and Westbrook perform on a high level semi-consistently, so anything that they do can't really be considered a breakout performance. Ibaka is a guy who has the potential to score 15 PPG, but his jumper hasn't been consistent enough to warrant drawing up the plays necessary for that to happen. But he'll have a few games during this run that will surprise even his most ardent supporters. Think triple double, and a game where he scores above 20.
How far can you realistically see the Thunder advancing in the playoffs?
Sherman: The Thunder's playoffs will be considered a disappointment if they do not reach at least last year's advancement to the WCF. While the Finals is a realistic goal, the team that is playing the best (San Antonio) has dominated the Thunder over the past two seasons and OKC will face a huge mountain to climb if they are to break through to the championship round.
Zorgon: Realistically, they can win the whole thing or lose in the first round. Really, it's that big of an enigma with this team. There's certain teams that they can destroy, and certain teams they'll really struggle against. I'm not concerned about the Lakers, Nuggets, or Grizzlies, but I'm really worried about the Mavericks, Clippers, and Spurs. Go figure.