NBA@2: 2012 Still A Success For OKC Thunder
Before the start of the 2012 NBA Finals, it was clear that the stakes were different for the two teams involved. A loss for the Miami HEAT would mean utter destruction. Fans and media would be calling for head coach Erik Spoelstra’s job, they would demand that at least one of the team’s big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh be traded, and they might even call for team president Pat Riley’s head. We know this because that was the reaction whenever the team lost a game or two that they probably “should have” won during the regular season. Anything less than a championship would probably mean that the entire city of Miami would just slide right into the ocean and never be heard from again.
Such was the ridiculous nature of the expectations riding on Miami’s postseason run.
For the Thunder there would be no such dire consequences in the event of a loss. Just getting to the NBA Finals was a huge step for OKC, especially given that they had to take out the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first, the oft-decorated Los Angeles Lakers in the second, and the red-hot San Antonio Spurs in the third. Last year they fell just short of the Finals, so getting there was the next step in their progression as a franchise.
Last night the HEAT wiped the floor of American Airlines Arena with what was left of the Thunder, a team that was so good in the clutch and played at an amazingly high level throughout the playoffs, only to look completely out of their depth when the big stage presented itself. Apart from Kevin Durant, who averaged 30.6 points and shot 55% from the field in the series, the Thunder looked completely unprepared for the experience. Russell Westbrook had a couple of nice games statistically, but even in his 42-point outing he committed a huge turnover at the end that cost his team the game. James Harden, who scored 19 fourth quarter points to eliminate the defending champs in the first round, was so busy exchanging Twitter barbs with Ron Artest that he seemed to forget the season wasn’t over. After averaging 18.5 points against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, Harden managed just 12.4 points on 38% shooting while missing everything from dunks to wide open threes.
While Miami’s big three were mentally prepared for the task at and and their supporting cast was ready to step up in amazing ways, only Durant seemed ready for the experience on the OKC side.
But the Thunder will be back. Even as people want to make the story in OKC that the team can’t afford to keep both Harden and Serge Ibaka – neither of whom will even be free agents until next summer – the real story is that this season was a resounding success for the Thunder. The long-term vision of Sam Presti continues to improve year over year, and while they convinced a large part of NBA nation that they were ready to skip a step this season, that didn’t happen. Like the HEAT did last season, the young Thunder had to get to the Finals and lose before they could really understand what it was all about.
Again, excluding Durant, who seems to have been born for high-pressure, high-stakes games.
“It hurts. It hurts, man,” Kevin Durant said after the game. “We’re all brothers on this team, and it just hurts to go out like this. We made it to the Finals, which was cool for us, but we didn’t want to just make it there. … Unfortunately we lost, so it’s tough. It’s tough, man. That’s the only way I can explain it. But as a whole, I’m proud of the guys on how we fought all season. During the lockout, we came together as a group and worked hard, and we will continue to work hard.”
Through it all, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks kept his guys focused on the present, not allowing them to get caught up in their ultimate goal of winning a championship. They were asked all season about the chances of winning it all, and the unified response from coaches and players alike was simply that they were only worried about that night’s game and getting better every single day.
“I just told the guys, we didn’t win a championship this year, but they gave it a championship effort all season long,” Brooks said. “It’s something I’m proud of. I love our guys. I love what they’re about. They’re winners. Unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish our goal of winning the championship, but I thought we gave great effort all year long to put us in this position.”
Last year the HEAT didn’t take this process seriously enough. They showed little maturity and even less poise as they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. This year they came back with a very different mental approach, and the experience of losing in the Finals taught them a lesson in humility that would serve them well this time around.
In a telling moment, HEAT point guard Mario Chalmers started a little celebration dance with something like 6:00 left in the fourth and Miami comfortably ahead. LeBron James walked over and told him emphatically: “Not yet.”
The Thunder will be back. They’re a young team that’s still learning and growing. Even Durant is constantly looking to improve his game, and finds ways to do it each and every night. This same core group will return next season with the experience of tasting the ultimate goal and falling just short still ringing in their ears. “OKC! OKC! OKC!” will resound in the Chesapeake Energy Arena again, as fans show their adoring support for one of the most impressive young teams in all of basketball.
And next time around, they’ll have the bitter experience of losing to help push them to the elite level required to avoid that mistake again.
Bobcats Divided On #2 Pick
It should come as no surprise to learn that the Charlotte Bobcats are a house divided when it comes to the second pick in next week’s NBA draft. Team owner Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho have different ideas about which direction to go with the pick, and the immediate future of the team hangs in the balance.
Cho and his team are very high on UNC small forward Harrison Barnes, high enough on him that they would make him the second pick in the draft. There aren’t many NBA GMs who would be willing to make Barnes the number two pick, and Jordan is not on board, despite the tie with UNC. Sources close to the situation tell HOOPSWORLD that there is a rift between Jordan and Barnes, though details of the rift were not offered. The reason we’re hearing talk of the Bobcats trading the pick for an established NBA star is due to the fact that Jordan is not impressed with anyone enough to take them second overall.
That could chance today, as the Bobcats workout Robinson for the first time. Bobcats brass had dinner with Robinson last night in preparation for today’s workout, and if his first impression with the Bobcats was anything like his first impression with the media in Chicago, a love affair could ensue. Robinson is a confident, passionate young man. He believes in himself, though not in an arrogant way, and seems like the kind of player who would rally his teammates and push them to achieve. The Bobcats haven’t had that kind of presence since Stephen Jackson, who was the reason they made the playoffs for the first and only time.
Robinson is also a beast on the court, with a monster post-up game, dominant rebounding skills, and a ferocity that has been sadly lacking in Charlotte.
As of right now, the Bobcats are a divided camp when it comes to what should be done with the second overall pick. By this time tomorrow, the divide could be gone. Robinson might make their decision a whole lot easier.
The word is that the Bobcats have talked to the Cleveland Cavaliers about swapping picks, which would allow the Cavaliers to get the player they covet – Bradley Beal – and still give the Bobcats the chance to draft Barnes at four. The word out of Washington, where the Wizards own the third pick, is that Beal is their man, and if he’s on the board at three he won’t be there at four, where the Cavaliers currently pick.
Needless to say, this is going to be a very interesting week leading up to the draft. Stay tuned.
Ainge Keeping the Band Together?
The basic assumption made at the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, as the Boston Celtics walked off the court for the last time this season, was that the next time we saw the green and white of the Celtics take the basketball court it would be a very different group of players sporting the colors. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, most notably, are unrestricted free agents, and a rebuild could very easily be where Boston is headed.
Then again, getting to the Eastern Conference Finals was an unexpected turn of events for the team, and team president Danny Ainge is now indicating that he would like to bring the team back for at least one more run at a championship before he resigns himself to rebuilding.
“We want to get younger; we want to add younger pieces,” Ainge admitted in an interview with WEEI Radio in Boston. “But these guys, not healthy, and Ray and Paul (Pierce) were more healthy than our young guys … but had we had our 24- and 21-year-old healthy, we could have been playing in the NBA Finals right now. The reality of it is this team is not old. Our guys are still performing. These guys are playing well.”
The first decision that has to be made revolves around Garnett, who has not yet decided if he wants to continue to play or if he wants to retire.
“Kevin and I had a good conversation last week and the conversation was mostly of how he needs time before that decision. I think that we’ll talk within the next week, but I’m not sure that’s a decision day for him. He may want to wait and see what sort of team we have. I know that he wants to come back. I know that he likes Boston and loves playing for Doc. I think that his decision is going to be, ‘Do I really want to play?’”
Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass are also free agents this summer, and Ainge told the Boston Globe he would love to have them all back.
“In my perfect world, absolutely. It was a good mix of guys, and had we been healthy this year we had a real chance. Had we had the team that we sort of thought we’re hopeful to have before the year started, I think we had a real chance this year. And we did in spite of it. We were close anyway. But there’s nobody on the team I wouldn’t want back. And now it’s just a matter of trying to piece this thing together with the framework of the collective bargaining agreement and budgets.”
Indeed, the CBA will weigh heavily on Ainge as he makes long-term decisions for his team over the next few weeks.
“I don’t think free agency is what people think it is,’’ Ainge said. “I don’t have a lot of flexibility if we sign a couple of our free agents back. We only have flexibility if we allow all our free agents to go by the wayside. And our four guys are in the top 10 free agents available.’’
There are a number of teams teetering on the precipice of rebuilding, though none had as much success this season as the Celtics. It will be interesting to see if the band comes back together for one more shot at a title, or fi they decide to turn the page and head in different directions.
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