All the world's a stage,And all the men and women merely players;They have their exits and their entrances,And one man in his time plays many parts,His acts being seven ages.- William Shakespeare
In most cases, the result of a team's first games of the year, whether they win or lose, is downplayed. The season is a marathon, not a sprint! Under normal circumstances, that is the right way to look at it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's 112-106 victory over the San Antonio Spurs was not your run of the mill opening game of a season. In what has been tagged as the most critical season in Thunder history, there was much more than a simple "W" or "L" at stake, the result of their opening game of the season could not have been better had it been scripted.
Thunder Season, 2015-16
Scene 1 - The History
The San Antonio Spurs throttle a Oklahoma City line-up missing Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Andre Roberson, 130-91 on March 25th, 2015. Roberson returns in the rematch two weeks later, but the results improve only slightly in a 113-81 embarrassment at "the Peake". The Thunder miss making the playoffs by the slim margin of a tie-breaker. By month's end, long-time Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is released from the last year of his contract and Billy Donovan is named as his replacement.
Scene 2 - A new sheriff in town, new kids on the block in Orlando
Kevin Durant sits at Donovan's first press conference, his surgically repaired foot propped up in front of him in a protective boot. Doubts about the former MVP's playing future and questions about his feelings about playing for a new coach looming over the proceedings. Donovan expresses his gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of the Thunder organization and talks about his coaching style and philosophies, specifically his feelings about commitment. Also in attendance is newly re-signed Thunder stalwart Nick Collison, his stoic expression betraying nothing about his thoughts as Donovan is speaking. Russell Westbrook does not attend the press conference.
The Thunder select highly touted Cameron Payne with the 14th pick of the NBA Rookie draft, thanks to the lottery ticket the Spurs handed them with their season ending loss. Mitch McGary leads the Thunder to a 3 and 2 record in the Orlando Summer League. Donovan attends the summer league, as does Kevin Durant, Anthony Morrow, and Dion Waiters.
On the subject of basketball and life, Durant surprises NewsOk's Berry Tramel when he tells reporters in Orlando that he could be a better teammate:
"Look, man, this is the toughest year I’ve ever been through in my life as far as basketball is concerned... I can’t wait to get back out there and be fully cleared to play. These are my two off days, so I just tried to get out and see some basketball and check out the guys..."
Making an appearance in Orlando is normally penciled into Durant's calendar every summer but his next comments revealed that this trip has taken on a deeper meaning and that he spent his time off the court on much more than just doing rehab on a broken 5th metatarsal:
"I think I know my teammates, but getting to know them deeper... just knowing how to talk to guys and not looking at just the bad and try to focus on the good of everything from everybody. Just getting to know every single guy." Then Durant added, "I don’t think I did a great job of that so far since I’ve been in the league. I thought I did. But looking at myself, I can be a better teammate, a better friend to my teammates. And I learned that...That’s why I look at this last year as a blessing in disguise. I learned a lot about myself and about my team that I can help. I know it’s going to be ups and downs. I know I’m going to have my good and bad days. But I just try to limit the bad ones and try to be the best teammate and person I can be."
Russell Westbrook had shared similar sentiments in his exit interview three months earlier.
Scene 3 - "The Signing"
Enes Kanter signs a $70 million offer sheet with the Portland Trailblazers that touches off three days of heated online debate. Kanter is freakishly gifted on offense and gives the Thunder the low-post scoring threat they have never had, but the half court line magically transforms an offensive beast into a defensive marshmallow by the time Enes arrives on the other end of the floor.
Kanter's -3.88 DRPM last season ranked 469th.... out of 474 players, but Kanter's supporters say his weak defense is not a problem because he will not start. His detractors point out that after Utah cut into Enes' minutes he pitched a fit that ultimately led to the trade.
Kanter's on/off defensive splits at Utah, 112.1 points per 100 possessions on vs 103.5 off, and Oklahoma City, 113 points on vs 105.1 off, are almost identical, but Kanter's supporters say that the return of Serge Ibaka will hide Kanter's defensive lapses. His detractors respond that is not Ibaka's job and Enes needs to focus on improving his own defensive game, something he has never done, because babysitting Kanter will just reduce Ibaka's defensive impact.
The endless back and forth arguments are temporarily put on hold with "agree to disagree" or "time will tell" type truces when the Thunder matched Portland's offer sheet on July 12th.
Scene 4 -The "Bro-Trip"
After going home to his native New Zealand, Steven Adams travels to Switzerland to spend time and work out with his gold medalist shot-putting sister Valerie. He even demonstrates the form that earned him a runner-up finish at high school national finals in 2010. Apparently Steven prefers the glide over the spin technique...
and Valerie is not overly impressed:
Tough coach... https://t.co/EsYYlalZQo— Steven Adams (@RealStevenAdams) June 23, 2015
Adams will tell you his sister does not cut her baby brother any slack and Valerie training with Jacko Gill after he beat her brother in those 2010 nationals backs that up.
Adams makes a quick stop in Croatia before flying to Seattle on July 17th for a "Bro Trip" with teammate Nick Collison. Adams announces he will not to play with the New Zealand national team on July 27th and posts this picture on August 1st:
Excited.. lad pic.twitter.com/SP72hPXqHe— Steven Adams (@RealStevenAdams) August 1, 2015
"We are of course disappointed not to have Steve as part of the campaign...He is a world-class player and would add plenty to our group, just as we believe the Tall Blacks environment will offer plenty to Steve...We have enjoyed good open dialogue with him throughout and feel that we have now established a level of communication that has both parties comfortable looking into the future. However, we also understand his position and the changes that have occurred at OKC in recent months - changes that have meant he must pay closer attention to what is happening in the States. Our door is always open, however, and we look forward to continuing to build on the relationship with Steve and OKC to enable him to pull on the black singlet sooner rather than later."
The decision to stay in the U.S. was a tough one for someone as fiercely loyal as Steven Adams, and I have no doubt that he put his time with Collison to good use. Time that included:
Scene 5 - The 'Work-Out"
Billy Donovan takes Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook through shooting drills on the UCLA campus on July 20th. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Steven Adams, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler, and rookie Cameron Payne join them for some non-mandatory workouts the next day along with new Thunder assistant Monty Williams and D-League Blue's assistant, Royal Ivey.
Durant and Westbrook had expressed a desire to take their team and leadership skills to another level and were not satisfied to wait until September to get started. Ten teammates and three coaches coming together with such limited off-season time at their disposal says more than words could ever express about this team's level of commitment to their goals and to one another.
Scene 6 - Finally... Media Day, training camp, and pre-season games.
Durant's recovery from foot surgery is complete and he enters camp with no restrictions, but questions remain about how quickly Durant and his new teammates will gel, how the team will respond to a new coaching staff, and Durant's overall conditioning.
The Thunder win all but one of their pre-season games, but turnovers and fouls are a problem. Donovan's offense shows promise, but it is obvious that it is a work in progress and for the most part remains vanilla. The same can be said about the defensive end of the court.
Scene 7 - First Game, The Spurs
When the NBA regular season schedule was finally released in August, my first thought after looking at Oklahoma City's first opponent was, 'what kind of twisted mind matched the Thunder against the team that exposed every single late season flaw?'
Trusting a coach is vital for team success, and a big loss to the Spurs could seriously undermine Billy Donovan's quest to earn his new team's belief in his leadership. A close loss could do the same thing if there are glaring mistakes made that cost the team the win. I feel the best case scenario would be a rather bland eight or nine point Thunder win, but what transpired is... as Billy Donovan would put it...much, much better.
Durant struggles to find his rhythm and the turnovers that plagued the Thunder during the pre-season are still a problem. At halftime the Thunder find themselves down by five. The Thunder are hitting at a higher shooting percentage, but Thunder turnovers are giving the Spurs more shots. When Russell has the ball stolen with 6:10 remaining in the game,resulting in the Thunder's 19th turnover, the Thunder are behind by seven. The Spurs are in control, time is running out, and Billy Donovan is going head to head with Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
The Thunder's defense stiffens and DJ Augustin cuts the Spurs lead to five with a driving bank shot. Donovan subs Dion Waiters in for Augustin at the same time Popovich brings in Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. The Thunder defense continues getting stops and after Westbrook knocks down a jump shot and two free throws moments later, the Spurs' lead is cut to one.
For most of the game, Spurs star Kawhi Leonard has had his way with Thunder superstar Kevin Durant. Leonard finished the game with 32 points, a regular season career best, but Durant did not win the 2014 MVP award strictly on his offensive prowess. Throughout his career Durant has shown a knack for making big defensive plays late in games against players he has struggled with and on the Spurs next possession after Westbrook's free throws, Durant struck.
Leonard catches a pass from Tim Duncan under the basket. He is too deep to take the shot and pump fakes, Durant doesn't take the bait. Leonard fakes again, Durant holds his position and Leonard moves his pivot foot and is called for a travel. A huge play, but Durant calmly runs to the other end of the floor and sets up for a long-time Thunder staple. The high pick and roll with Russell Westbrook.
Russ brings the ball to the top of the circle as Durant steps out to pick Parker. Just as Thunder fans have seen countless times, Westbrook blows past Parker and Leonard switches to Westbrook. A confused Parker is unable to cover the passing lane to Durant and KD knocks down the 3 point shot with 4:17 left in the game as long-time Thunder TV announcer Brian Davis screams into his microphone, "THE THUNDER ARE BACK ON THE HIGH SIDE!!"
(Welcome home KD!)
The two teams battle to 101-101 tie with just under 3 minutes left in the contest. When Dion Waiters breaks up a Spurs fast break by punching the ball away from Tony Parker and out-of-bounds, the TV networks take a commercial break.
The closing minutes of a tight basketball game are the moments that tell us most about a coach, and after six long months of speculation about the coaching change, Billy Donovan rose to the occasion.
In the aftermath of Durant's 3 pointer, Pops had assigned the taller Danny Green with the task of stopping the Westbrook/Durant high pick and roll and moved 6'1" Tony Parker to cover the often maligned 6'5" Dion Waiters. The adjustment worked and Green disrupted Durant's next shot. Donovan then made a key decision during the TV timeout.
When the game is tied with less than three minutes left, every Thunder fan knows that this is KD and Russell time. That is all we have seen for seven years, but Billy the Kid breaks with tradition and tells his superstars to pass the ball.
Billy Donovan talked about reaching a third level of commitment at his opening press conference and now was the time to "walk the walk." Pass the ball to Dion. He has accepted his role off the bench and you say you believe in him. Reward him for his sacrifice for the team and show him that you trust him.... pass the ball to Dion.
The teams return to the floor and Parker makes a lay-up, putting the Spurs up by 2. Westbrook brings the ball down and passes to Durant, the Spurs are in position, and Durant does exactly what his coach told him to do. Durant kicks the ball out to Waiters and then moves down into the low post. Waiters dribbles to his left and waits for Leonard to drop back into the passing lane to Durant. Waiters jab steps to freeze Parker then rises and knocks down the jump shot.
After Serge Ibaka defends Lamarcus Aldridge beautifully on the other end, Westbrook races down the floor looking for a gap, but Green cuts Russell off and the Thunder settle into a half court set. OKC immediately isolates Waiters on Parker again. Waiters feints a crossover, dribbles to his left, jab steps, steps back (much to the chagrin of his detractors) and nails his second jump shot in a row. Westbrook's excitement is obvious as he pumps his arm to congratulate his teammate.
Leonard misses a jump shot for the Spurs, the Thunder secure the rebound, and Donovan calls timeout.
Donovan has Pops on the ropes and he wants to maximize his advantage. The Waiters call had paid off, but let's face it, traditions become traditions for a good reason. Donovan calls Durant's number in the huddle. The teams take the floor and Durant isolates on Leonard, goes for the 3, but misses. In a wild scramble, Ibaka gets the rebound by tipping the ball over Aldridge and kicks the ball to a wide open Russell Westbrook, who has come from the other side of the floor to get into position. The shot clock had not been reset, even though Durant's miss had clearly bumped the rim on its way down. Westbrook coolly hits the shot-clock beating three, and puts the Thunder up by 5 with only 54 seconds left.
Five points down with less than a minute to play is hard to overcome, but Popovich and his Spurs have not won five championships by giving up and Pops is as sly a fox as you will ever find in a hen-house. Many coaches would panic and call time-out after a team hits a bit shot, not Pops. He knows his team and he studies his opponent and let Leonard take advantage of the Thunder post-shot celebration. Leonard converts the old-fashioned 3-pointer in the confusion. When the Thunder failed to score on the other end, Pops made his move and called timeout with the ball and 21.4 seconds on the clock.
Green inbounds the ball to Duncan, drifts toward the low post, then reverses for a high pick and roll which that Adams defends perfectly. I wrote the following about the play in the comment section of a post Welcome to Loud City's Marina Mangiaracina did on Nick Collison's role in the Thunder's win because Collison's role in this game manifested itself in more than just his physical presence on the floor:
.....he [Collison] taught the Funaki a trick this summer [during Adam's Bro Trip] that payed off huge against the Spurs. On the key defensive stop of the game, Adams is guarding Duncan as Green is in-bounding the ball with Roberson guarding the in-bounder. When the Spurs were unable to get the ball to Leonard, Green, who had drifted toward the baseline reverses his field and goes for the high pick and roll. Adams has already bodied up to Duncan and fixes his eyes on Green after Duncan passes the ball back to Green who has created space between himself and Robes when he changed directions.
The trick was Adam’s timing and first step when he had to switch to Green. The Funaki did not rush and stayed with Duncan long enough to slow him from rolling to the open paint area for an easy 2-point jumper and by not stepping directly toward Green on the switch he took what my old football coach called an "angle of pursuit" step in the direction Green would have gone had he kept his dribble and attacked the paint. When Green picked up his dribble, Adams second step took him at an angle toward Green and put him in a perfect position to contest the 3-point attempt. Vintage Nick Collison pick and roll defense.
The timing of Adam’s first step was a thing of beauty and it reminded me of a common pick off play used in baseball at second base when a base runner is hedging his lead an extra step or two. The pitcher knows when the play is on when he checks the runner and sees his short stop has positioned himself directly behind the runner. The pitcher fixes his eyes on the runner and waits for the signal. The SS signals the start of the play by extending his right arm toward second base and then breaks for the bag after a slight hesitation. As soon as the pitcher sees the runner has not moved and space between the SS and the runner he guns the ball at the runner’s side of the bag. When run correctly the base-runner is dead meat.
Adams did something very similar. He had his eyes fixed on Green and waited for Green to move past Duncan before making his move. When there was no Roberson in the picture, Adams takes that critical first step. Just like you said, "illustrations in the subtle". Take the step too soon and it opens an easy passing lane to Duncan, too late and Green doesn’t have to alter his shot. Perfect.
Adam's stop seals the victory. The Spurs only remaining option is to play the foul game and Durant and Westbrook make quick work of that and Billy Donovan's Act 1 triumph is complete.
(end of Act 1)
Thunder Season, 2015-16
Scene 1 - The Road to Orlando
ORLANDO? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THE TEAM DONOVAN STIFFED 7 YEARS AGO?!? I need to speak with the author, this is too much!
When I finished this post Friday evening I looked at the time and realized I was missing the Orlando game. Imagine my shock when I realized that the 7 pm start time was eastern time and it was now 7:37 pm in Oklahoma. Take that shock and hook it up to a 10,000 watt amplifier and you can get a pretty good idea of my reaction to seeing the score when I finally turned on the game and found my beloved Thunder down 14 points with 3 1/2 minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
Not only are we getting killed but I had just spent my entire day off gushing over the win against the Spurs in a 3300 word post that was about to go in the recycle bin!!!!
Can you believe it? Act 2 topped Act 1. Welcome to Oklahoma City Billy Donovan!!!!