What we learned about the Thunder last week

After watching the Thunder defeat our Denver Nuggets twice this past week, some questions arose. Who better to turn to than a Thunder blogger for some insight? Dogburt, from Welcome to Loud City, was kind enough to provide me with the answers to my five brilliant questions. Click through for the Q&A ...

I watched last week's game in Denver at the Pepsi Center (from the center court nosebleeds) and the one in Oklahoma City from the comfort of my own living room. The one thing I discovered? Neither place is ideal for watching the Nuggets lose - both are equally miserable. The cool thing though, was on the way out of the Pepsi Center there were some fans starting a, "Let's go Nuggets!" chant and that reminded me that while Denver didn't win either game - there are still many reasons to remain optimistic.

With that - let's get to my aforementioned brilliant questions and Dogburt's insightful responses as we emailed about various topics from the likely upcoming playoff match-up that is brewing between the Nuggets and Thunder.

You can read my take on Dogburt's questions over at Welcome to Loud City here.

 

1.) Can Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant carry the offensive load for a whole series? What two other players can average double-digit scoring in a possible Nuggets vs. Thunder first-round series?

Dogburt: With rare exception, a team must have clearly defined roles for its offense if that team is going to go far. As I think the Nuggets have learned this year, a team is at its best when each player understands his role and then works hard to fulfill it without stepping too far past it.

With the Thunder, Kevin Durant has the role of primary scoring option. Here is the career-long challenge Durant is going to face. He wants to play that role, he must play that role, he is ready and willing to play that role, but the problem is that he does not yet know how to play that role on a regular basis. Durant is an elite scorer, similar in a lot of ways to Carmelo Anthony. He can generate offense in ways that few can. However, he does not always utilize his complete toolbox, and when Durant makes himself one-dimensional, he allows defenses to control him.

Here is an easy example for you, the Nuggets observer - remember in these past two games how, any time Danilo Gallinari guarded him, Durant almost always drove the ball to the rim and got good results? Well, that approach is the exception and not the rule. Far too often Durant allows himself to become a perimeter shooter, and this is the weakest part of his game. In the April 8th game, the Nuggets made their runs when Durant was settling for 3-point shots (he finished 2-7). When he's that kind of player, Durant is easy to guard. However, when he is willing to be the guy we saw against Gallinari, he completely changes the way the Thunder attack on offense. He becomes multi-dimensional, and so does the rest of the team.

Russell Westbrook, as we saw, can run hot or cold. He can dominate a game, or he can kill his own team. He can get 30 points, but I'd rather see him get about 18 and be patient with his own offense. I'd much rather see two other specific guys step into the scorer's role. Serge Ibaka, the starting power forward, has turned into a solid shooter with a burgeoning post-game. If he can get his average up into the 15 points per game range, then I think it adds a dimension to the Thunder offense that few teams can counter. Off the bench, James Harden is slowly but surely proving his worth on the offensive end. Like Durant, he sometimes gets a tad bit 3-point happy, and it kills the rest of his game. However, when he becomes a slashing and driving player, he can shred an opponent's second unit.

 

2.) The Thunder played at full strength in both games last week, while the Nuggets played without their starting shooting guard (Arron Afflalo) and without a true big man off the bench (Chris Andersen and Timofey Mozgov). Afflalo and Birdman will be ready for the playoffs - what does that mean to you?

Dogburt: With regards to the Nuggets' role players, two things were apparent in this past week's games:

A)  The Nuggets did not have the rebounding they needed.

Denver is going to have a major hole in its rebounding if Andersen and Mozgov cannot play effectively in the paint. What I had seen in the Nuggets' upset wins over the Mavericks and Lakers was an ability to stay with those two teams on the offensive and defensive glass. Specifically in regard to the Lakers, LA is ranked 3rd in the league in rebounding and relies heavily on maximizing its size inside. When Denver was able to match their rebounding prowess, it mitigated one of LA's major advantages and helped propel the Nuggets to the win.

However, when the Nuggets met OKC, Denver was not able to control the rebounds in the same way, and this fact had a great effect on their second chance points and transition game. I believe that Denver had only eight fast break points in each game. Not only does this rebounding underperformance take away points, but also it slows the game down so much that Lawson's and Felton's quickness is greatly lessened.

In a seven game series, I'm sure that Nene and Martin will probably have about the same number of rebounds as Perkins and Ibaka. However, the difference was that OKC has excelled with its secondary rebounders getting big games as well. Without Andersen and Mozgov helping out on the glass, Nick Collison was able to grab eight offensive rebounds in the last game, and in the April 5th game Kevin Durant had nine defensive boards. Without Andersen, I don't know if Denver has any other big bodies to use to even out this rebounding advantage for the Thunder.

B)  The Nuggets did not have the outside shooting they needed.

I know that Denver relies on its 3-point shooting both in transition and in the drive-and-kick half-court game to generate its league-leading offense. Without Afflalo, Denver did not get much out of this major part of its offensive game. I don't think I need to tell you how badly Wilson Chandler hurt the Nuggets in the last two games. He was a step beyond irrelevant - he was actively damaging the Nuggets' offense. There were a number of times where he was left wide open in the corner for open perimeter shots and most of them missed badly. The Nuggets never made OKC pay for leaving him open.

Also, it seemed like J.R. Smith never really got his offense going. We both know that he's a streaky shooter that can easily get you 20 and occasionally 30. However, he seemed completely out of rhythm for the last two games, and I honestly don't know why. What hurt his game even more was a rash of missed free throws, which could have potentially gotten him back in the shooting groove.

I think Denver needs to have that outside spot-shooter who will make OKC pay, and perhaps Afflalo can give it to them. Otherwise, the Thunder will continue to concentrate their defense on the interior and try to take away the drives and post play.

 

3.) How do you feel the Thunder played in the two games vs. Denver this week? Did we see the Thunder at their best?

Dogburt: I think this question can be broken down into the offensive and defensive components.

From an offensive standpoint, I don't think you saw the Thunder at their best, but I also don't think that the Thunder fans have seen the Thunder offense at their best most of this season. The reasons are varied: they're still young, they have a propensity to get sloppy, they're not a great passing team yet, etc. So really, the question is, did we see the Thunder as good as they're going to be this season? To that, I think we did see flashes of what makes their offense good.

In the first game, Russell Westbrook struggled early and the offense was out of synch. The guys that stepped in were the Thunder bench. In the second half, Eric Maynor led the charge to re-organize a broken offense and push the Thunder to a double-digit lead. What other teams should know is that if you're going to beat the Thunder consistently, you had better have a very good bench, because OKC's is not going to lose leads (and in fact they often add to leads). In the second game, what you saw was a much better spreading around of the offense. Durant is of course a guy who can get 40, but for the team to be truly great, he only needs about 25 and have everyone else get double digits. I think that the offense's ceiling is around 80% of what their capacity should be. However, I don't think they're going to max it out this season.

From a defensive standpoint, I think Denver got a pretty good look at a defense that is learning to become dominant. In those two games, you saw the Thunder hold the Nuggets to about 13 and 18 points below their season average, respectively. Granted, it is impossible to say how much better the Nuggets could have been had they been at full strength. All we can say is, the Nuggets tried to pound it inside to Nene and Martin, and the Thunder stopped it. The Nuggets tried to accelerate the game, and the Thunder would not let them. I for one am very interested to see what will happen when Denver can add some more offensive wrinkles.

 

4.) We like to talk about coaching at Denver Stiffs. Scott Brooks, a former Nuggets assistant, knows Karl well and the two are very friendly. What do you think of the George Karl vs. Scott Brooks match-up?

Dogburt: First off, let me say that I do like both George Karl and Scott Brooks. I think they are good for their respective franchises and have earned the respect that only comes through winning. I would grade them this way: Karl is a veteran B+ coach. Brooks is a novice B+ coach.

Here is what I mean by my grading. Karl has won a ton of games with a number of different teams, including the Thunder's ghost that still haunts the city of Seattle. He knows how to extract a lot from his team, build a winning franchise, and take his team into the playoffs. That said, there always seems to be moments when his coaching flaws come to light and they reveal themselves at the worst possible times. I hate to bring up this painful memory, but I can't help but think back to the 2009 playoffs when the Nuggets blew their series against the Lakers because they couldn't run basic inbounds plays in Games 1 and 3. Earlier in the season, new acquisition Chauncy Billups even commented that he was frustrated that the team had no inbounds play, and yet Karl never fixed this problem. The lack of repair cost the team a very good shot at making the finals. So it seems like there are always issues like this in Karl's coaching that keep him from getting to the top. Hence the B+.

For Brooks, it isn't fair to compare him to a coach that has over 1,000 wins on his résumé. It probably isn't fair to compare him either to Bulls rookie coach Tom Thibodeau. He's simply a young coach that has a much more limited body of work to learn and coach from, and while he has led his incredibly young team to over 100 regular season wins in the past two seasons combined, you can still see how green he is in some situations. His offensive scheme is incredibly simplistic. He relies a bit too much on Kevin Durant's playmaking ability (which is quite honestly not a great part of Durant's repertoire). His end of game strategy leaves much to be desired. And yet ...100+ wins with the third youngest team in the league.  Memphis cannot boast that, and Minnesota certainly cannot boast that. The guy is good and is going places, but he still has much to learn, just like his impressionable players.

 

5.) Why is the Thunder's arena called "The Oklahoma City Arena"? One my of readers suggested they rename it "The Thunderdome".

Dogburt: Let me just say that, in a world where there are stadiums with the names "Wankdorf"" and "Middelfart," Oklahoma City Arena isn't that bad.

Seriously though, my guess is that the stadium is in a bit of a transition state. It was originally named the Ford Center because of a sponsorship from the OK Ford dealerships. They later changed the name to its present state due to a breakdown in negotiations with the Ford party, and it will likely remain in such a generic state until another sponsor can be found.

A name like the Thunderdome would be pretty cool, since by all accounts the arena can get ridiculously loud. Our own blog's GM said in a recent interview that when the place gets rocking, it gets so loud that you can forget your own name. Here is one possible reason why that is, apart from the rabid fan base - the arena was built without the next-generation state of the art luxury amenities (primarily due to lack of local support for such expenditures). Luxury suites do a great job at bringing in revenue, but the downside is that the stadium loses a little bit of that extra juice when it comes to energy.

I'm personally a fan of the "Loud City" myself, but then again, I'm just a blogger.

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Nate_Timmons on Twitter
ntimmons73@yahoo.com

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