The Thunder are moving on, as nearly everyone expected, to play the Spurs this weekend. Before we get that far, I want to take one last look at the series past, OKC's domination over the Mavericks 4 games to 1 in the opening round. This in and of itself is not a surprise. Nor is it much of a surprise as to how thoroughly and completely OKC's offense overwhelmed the Mavs' one-superstar system of Dirk Nowitzki and Larry, Moe, and Curly (tm - Mark Cuban). What is perhaps surprising is which players struggled and which players stepped up to have the greatest playoff series of their respective lives. But we'll get to that in a moment.
It has been two long years since I've had the opportunity to write a post-mortem. I hope that you'll be patient with me as I re-learn the mechanics and footwork, just as one particular Thunder (super) star is having to as well.
As always, we borrow a wonderful quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
We endeavor to be masters of all three - the people, the events, and the ideas. Here we go.
I. The People
Let us first acknowledge one fact that is so easy to forget - we just enjoyed a healthy Kevin Durant for essentially an entire season. After last year's months long tease; "will he come back? When will he come back? IS he coming back?" Durant wisely and mercifully did not come back, which in the end sentenced OKC to an out-of-the-playoffs experience, something that KD and Russell Westbrook had not endured for many moons. But in this post-season, Durant is back and let us count our blessings that his foot injury is apparently a thing of the past.
All that said, let us consider his first playoff performance since 2014. It was, to be charitable, uneven. His performances ranged from solid if unspectacular as in game 5 to historically awful in game 2. Subsequently, he finished out the series playing at his B-level basketball, which is of course enough to silence the Mavs. But what to make of it? Was Durant simply over-hyped to be back in the playoffs? Or is there something more problematic in his approach? To me, he is the biggest question mark as OKC heads to San Antonio. A B+ level Durant is enough for OKC to have a chance at winning. Anything less than that, where he's taking 10 threes per game and turning the ball over at half court, could send OKC home for the summer. This could be Durant's defining series as a member of the Thunder, and I mean that in every context possible.
Is the "All-Star but not Superstar" angle played out yet? Yes? Oh well, I'll add my own two cents anyway. To consider Durant's interposing comments during the game 5 post-presser, unapologetic barbs towards the Mavs owner Mark Cuban; "He's an idiot." I wonder what exactly KD meant by that. Was Cuban an idiot for refusing to acknowledge Westbrook's greatness this season, a year after he nearly dragged a beat-up and KD-less team to the playoffs, but according to Cuban's definition of a superstar, still fell short because he didn't reach that arbitrary number of '50 wins?'
Or, did Durant mean it this way - "You tried to undermine Russ's mojo by attacking his place in the context of the game. Your gambit to try and provoke him into trying to prove his worth at the expense of the team backfired. Horribly. You forgot one thing - the honey badger don't care. Honey badger don't give a sh*t. You, sir, are an idiot."
Either way works, honestly. Because at the end of the day, Westbrook was the best player on the court in every single game and made nearly every play that was necessary to send the Mavs back to Big D for the summer.
Much has been written about Kanter over the course of the season, beginning with the apparent value OKC gained by paying a man so much money who had such glaring holes in his defensive game. To be sure, the Thunder have not done a great job with stacking their bench roster with 2-way players, a trend that has allowed the Warriors to lap nearly everyone. That said, it is funny how we tend to define non-star players by what they cannot do instead of what they can. And Enes' reality is the exact same as nearly every other non All-Star player - he is a role player in the truest sense of the word. He does 2 things at a league-leading level - he scores points and grabs rebounds at a remarkable rate. He does not play defense well, and therefore the team must construct a philosophy that maximizes one and minimizes another.
But is he wholly different from another player - Serge Ibaka? Ibaka does 2 things at an elite level (at least up until this season): he makes mid-range jumpers and blocks shots better than most. Yet he too has deficient holes in his game; he's not a playmaker, he hasn't figured out a floor game, and he still only works best in binary decision-making.
Ibaka and Kanter are two sides of the same coin, not so different from other great role players like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and one could even argue, Blake Griffin. Are their elite talents in some areas justifiable enough to absorb their deficiencies? Of course! But to say that those deficiencies cancel out everything that they can do well is only correct if their teams put them in too many situations where those limitations are exposed.
All hail role players; you can't win a championship without them. Kanter proved his worth in round 1.
Waiters has obviously been the punching bag to many jokes and irreverence this season, and he has also endured hardship that most have never come close to. He lost a chunk of the season to mourn and collect himself again, and yet there he was in the opening round, helping fuel a Thunder bench that vastly outplayed the one on the Dallas sideline. Perhaps only a bench as poor as Dallas' could have elevated Dion's shooting % to near 50% for the series, but no matter. What is important is that Waiters is a threat on offense, and when you're a threat, you have gravity. When you have gravity, you can force a defense to adjust, and once that happens and decisions have to be made, you're ahead one move that you didn't have before.
I graded Donovan's inaugural regular season coaching campaign at about a C+. Better than average, but I still felt that he did not succeed in accomplishing the things he set out to do. In this series, we finally saw the traces of some of the things we suspected and earnestly wished for - that he would see the struggles of Kyle Singler and Randy Foye, as well as the untapped potential of the athletic Josh Huestis, and begin to balance things out. Long have I thought that Singler is the sunk cost fallacy; that is, because of the team's investment in him, Donovan used the entirety of the regular season to try and figure out something that Kyle could do that would help the team. Coming up empty, Donovan has finally seemed to abandon the hope, albeit possibly temporarily, and Singler barely played vs Dallas.
Likewise, we saw a reduced amount of the "point guard-less line-up" that paired Durant and Foye while Westbrook rested, which resulted in bad offense, bad defense, lots of turnovers, and most importantly, no Cameron Payne. While we've only seen Payne in spot duty so far, he may prove to be useful against the elite Spurs defense in the next round, where they are perennially susceptible to guards who can drive and score. But more importantly, we saw a reduction in Foye's minutes from about 20 per game down to about 12, and the results manifested in far fewer turnovers and stretches of bad basketball. Instead, we saw the Thunder string together some of their best 4th quarters of the season.
I also enjoyed Donovan getting his team to focus on defense, at least through the first three games. He is going to need to maintain that kind of dedication vs the Spurs, who can unspool a ball of defensive yarn almost as fast as the Warriors can.
I have to remind myself that Donovan is still a rookie coach, and that everything he faces in these playoffs is quite literally the first time he's ever experienced it. He's like [insert your own pop cultural reference here], but he is showing some mettle. Good job so far.
There was a time many seasons ago when Felton was paired up with Ty Lawson in Denver and the duo made for an explosive pairing. They were both quick off the dribble, could score in bunches, and gave OKC fits. Then Denver started to implode/are still imploding, Felton moved on, and Lawson seemed like a really good 2nd tier PG. In the following seasons Felton looked and played like he was just waking up from a 4 hour nap while Lawson seemed like the bright spot on a rebuilding Denver team.
You know the rest of the story. After Felton was freed from the quagmire in NYC, he has re-created himself in Dallas. In the meantime, Lawson has gone from a rising PG to one with substance abuse and legal issues, although his talent keeps him on an NBA roster with Indiana.
My point is this - if you had asked me 2 years ago which of those two guys would have been the bigger screw-up at this phase in their respective careers, I would have been 100% wrong. Good job, Ray.
Truth be told, I like Cubes. I've followed his career since he bought the team, scratched my head when it seemed like he wanted to roll over his roster every three months, appreciated it when he overcame that insecurity by hiring and trusting in Carlisle, and I thought his roster building for their 2011 championship run was well designed. I also don't bristle and really don't even care when he shoots off some comments about Westbrook not being a superstar; to me, he's the business shark and he's always working to create some angle, even a temporary one, for his players. I respect that, even if it is sometimes cringe-worthy and blatantly transparent.
I also think he's a brilliant businessman who has continued to push the envelope for media, technology, and entrepreneurship, genuinely wanting people to work for themselves and find their own pathway to success. I like the fact that he doesn't always go with the status quo in the NBA, is unafraid to speak up about inadequacies even at his own personal cost, and freely admits that letting Steve Nash go was his biggest mistake.
Lastly, I also like the fact that he recognizes Durant's value and work ethic. As he said to Rolling Stone a few years ago:
Question: Which NBA player would make a great Shark?
Cuban: I think Kobe, LeBron, KD because they have the work ethic and have really pushed themselves to success.
But notice which Thunder player he did not mention. Heh.
Dirk is great, everyone knows this. But he's also a completely different kind of superstar, one fully self-aware of his career journey, which he expressed in honest and reflective words after his Mavs lost yet again in the first round (and once again with little chance to advance):
"It's been an unfortunate run," is all Nowitzki would say after Monday's loss, diplomatically refusing to criticize the team's front office. "The lockout kind of messed us up after the championship, we made some business decisions. Let all our guys that helped us win basically go and haven't really recovered from that."
Dirk's loyalty is admirable, but you could easily read that as, "and I haven't really recovered from that" as well.
II. The events
Let us be honest - after this game, we all thought to ourselves: "Hey, an OKC team that plays defense is unstoppable," right???
What alarmed me most about this loss is not that it was a loss, but how Durant's bad shooting night consumed the entire team. As if they absolutely needed him to be on track to beat this Dallas team. Donovan could have sat Durant down and still won, because their defense was on point and they were getting enough contribution from everyone else. Yet for whatever reason, it turned into a game where they force-fed a struggling guy shot after shot and it became more important than getting the win.
Durant's establishment game? Eh, not quite. KD's offense was still sporadic, but the Thunder offense showed, especially in the 2nd half, that they're too supercharged against an inferior opponent to be threatened, as long as they play to their entire team strengths.
This was as much a Russell Westbrook game as it was an Enes Kanter game, because as great as Kanter was, Westbrook was equal the part because it was his dedication to setting up Kanter over and over again that led to Kanter's historic night. Kanter became the first bench player in 30 years to score 25+ and shoot 90% or better in a playoff game. The last starter to do it? His teammate Serge Ibaka in 2012.
It wasn't pretty, the defense kind of fell off the wagon, but in the end, OKC got the job done on their home court. It will forever be remembered as the "Russ is not a superstar" game. How Westbrook responded to this verbal calling out is perhaps the greatest testament to his personal and professional growth. He stayed in the rhythm of the game from the onset, using his unmatched playmaking ability to keep the pesky but undermanned Mavs at arm's distance throughout.
III. The ideas
Let's take a walk.
In 2013, Monty Williams was the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, a time where he enjoyed modest but positive success and growth. One of his players was a young fellow named Ryan Anderson, and Anderson was in a relationship with a woman named Gia Allemand. The relationship was challenging for many reasons, and tragically ended when Allemand took her own life. Anderson discovered what happened to her in a way that I cannot even begin to try and describe, but SI's Chris Ballard did the heavy lifting, and I'd encourage you to read it in full.
One passage however I want to highlight in the immediate aftermath:
For Williams, the [first] night was a test of sorts. A fourth-year coach, Williams had played at Notre Dame and then for five NBA teams. He and Anderson were unusually close. Both men were Christians, and they bonded immediately despite the vast differences in their backgrounds. Williams grew up poor and once, at Notre Dame, considered suicide. That didn't make it any easier to relate to Anderson now, however. Everyone's pain is different.
As a crowd milled outside the apartment complex, Williams and the security guard hoisted up Ryan, who was limp and drenched with tears and sweat, too hysterical even to walk. They dragged Ryan to the elevator and then into a waiting car, the tops of his feet, still wedged into flip-flops, scraping the asphalt so hard that his toes still bear thick white calluses more than a year later.
As they drove in silence, Williams kept thinking that it was fine if he blew a game, but he couldn't mess up now. Once home, he huddled with his wife, Ingrid, and Ryan in the family room, praying. Ingrid's brother had committed suicide recently. She knew not to say it was going to be O.K., because it wasn't. "This is going to be hard for a long time," she told Ryan.
That night, as the family pastor came and went, Ryan cried so much that it felt as if he were dry heaving or bleeding internally. Each convulsion ripped his insides apart. Around 1 a.m., at Ingrid's urging, Monty brought one of his sons' mattresses down to the living room. There the two men lay through the night, Ryan curled on the sofa and his coach on the floor next to him. When Ryan wanted to talk, they talked. Otherwise there was only his muted sobbing. Finally, just after the sun came up, Ryan fell into a fitful sleep.
We all recognize one name in particular in this excerpt - Ingrid. Monty's beloved wife was killed in a car crash this season. Everyone who has ever worked with Monty says the same thing - this is what he does, who he is. He will walk with the broken-hearted for as long as need be. If you re-watch his eulogy, you can see a man pressed but not crushed, struck down but not destroyed. Monty walked with many over the years, and in this time, many people walked with him.
A merciless amount of time later, Thunder guard Dion Waiters endured similar tragedy. If you have followed WTLC this season you would know that Dion has dealt with death his entire life, and in this season another tragic chapter was added when his brother Demetrius Pinkney was murdered. Furthermore, if you look at Dion's comments about his life, it is apparent that he not only feels loss, but the enormous weight of responsibility and guilt. On this point I have done much meditation on the topic over the past few years, and I cannot say it much better than theologian John Piper, of whom I will paraphrase here.
There is no wasted work in loving those without light.
You can't persuade a depressed person that he is not without value if he is utterly persuaded that he is. But...you can stand by him. Just like slaver-turned-abolitionist John Newton, who knew his guilt thoroughly, did for his friend and song writer William Cowper. Cowper teetered on the edge of depression all of his life, and Newton walked with him through it, never leaving him alone, and continued to soak Cowper in benevolence, mercy, and goodness. Your friend may say that all these things are wonderful, but that they do not belong to him - as Cowper did.
The Thunder team, from Durant and Westbrook on down the line, come across as many things to the public's critical eye, some true, some not. But one thing of which I am utterly convinced is that they care about their brotherhood; they mourn together, and they celebrate together. 'Thunder U' may have let out some time ago, but these
young men understand empathy and walking with those who can't always see the daylight and the hope that tomorrow will be a little bit better. That one day, a mustard seed of joy will return and flourish.
And even in these past weeks, we see how it can happen. Two Thunder players, much maligned over the course of a season, had their best experience as professionals. Waiters is finding his place, and Enes Kanter is finding his peace in OKC, thousands of miles away from his home in Turkey.
In two separate articles published this week, we see how the Thunder culture, from the top on down, understand what it means to walk with one of their own. In a Wall St. Journal article by Ben Cohen, we see how the simple act of eating Kanter's halal food (which is made according to his Muslim dietary requirements) together has created a powerful bond.
The team also made sure that Kanter’s very first meal in Oklahoma City was cooked under halal standards, which means the meat was raised and slaughtered properly, and Thunder chefs started cooking for him with separate kitchenware.
But what happened next was something no one anticipated. The halal takeover started when Thunder center Steven Adams asked Kanter if he would share his post-game dinner. "Pretty much as soon as he came in," Adams said, "I just told him that I’m eating his food, so I told the guys to order double."[..]"It’s like a mini-party," said Thunder medical director Donnie Strack. "Everyone wants to steal Enes’s food."
Kanter eats halal because of his religion. Adams eats halal for a slightly different reason.
"Because it’s awesome," he said.
Does this seem trivial? It isn't. The embracing of Kanter's food, his culture, and his faith have built a bridge between a team's winning identity and a young player whose professional identity was the exact opposite.
From Kanter's phenomenal 'Stache Bros' friendship with Adams to his chemistry on and off the court with Durant and Westbrook, it is easy to see that their willingness to come along beside Enes during this season has had a deep impact, as The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater notes:
Kanter hosted a bunch of Turkish guests for the game. After it, Durant and Westbrook came out to visit them. Then both the stars did an on-court interview with Kanter on a Turkish station. In it, both detailed past trips to Istanbul and Durant called Kanter "my brother" and said "he's gonna do big things for us this year." Kanter posted it to social media for his fans.
"They're just really proud that a Turkish player comes to the NBA and have friends like Kevin and Russell," Kanter said. "They're just, like, really proud."
Kanter's work with Westbrook on the court is also reflective of their relationship off the court. As we all know/should know, Westbrook is, first and foremost, unafraid to leave behind expectations and reach out to people who are different than him. And he has embraced Kanter:
"There's something really special with me and Russ," Kanter said. "On the court, off the court, he's always tried to help me, tried to talk to me. I'm just blessed to have a point guard like that."
Keep walking together, guys. Through both sorrow and joy, keep walking together.