Thursday night didn't go quite as expected for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I had a busy late afternoon, as I had a 5 p.m. deadline to make. The task? Get myself some delicious food from Ike's Love and Sandwiches in Oakland. (I got the MC Hammer, can't touch this.) That deadline? Getting myself in front of a television so I could watch the Miami Heat take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. The purpose? To witness the return of Russell Westbrook to the NBA's best team. Oh happy day.
More on Thunder-Heat
More on Thunder-Heat
However, LeBron James and the Heat all turned on their collective Game Genies and smothered an OKC squad just trying to get its bearings after acquiring a top-five player at the trade deadline. In Miami's 103-81 victory, we remembered that the Heat have flashes of brilliance where their defensive pressure and offensive potency can eviscerate anything in their path.
It's the lineup I've been dying to see since the beginning of the regular season. We've been deprived of it partially due to the repeated injuries of Westbrook, but the development of Perry Jones makes it a real possibility. We've seen Brooks roll out a few similar lineups in the past with Thabo Sefolosha or Jeremy Lamb playing in place of Westbrook in the lineup. When it's Sefolosha instead of Westbrook, the Thunder are allowing a microscopic 75.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. (Note that the Indiana Pacers lead the league, allowing 93.9 points per 100 possessions overall.) Of course, this is in just 30 minutes.
Nevertheless, with Westbrook back, this might be the Thunder's most athletic lineup, and yet they still match up quite well defensively.
It's the lineup that Scott Brooks seems to love the most, and I understand why. This is all Sam Presti's fault, because as it stands right now, Derek Fisher is the best spot-up three-point shooter on OKC's roster. While many thought players like Gary Neal or Jimmer Fredette could be added to the roster for this specific purpose, Brooks and Presti seem ultimately content with Fisher being a key guy to hit big shots. As a former Lakers hater, this still makes me shudder, but ultimately in clutch situations, this is the five I believe we'll see.
Name the five best big men of all time ... wait, what? Oh, my bad Perk. (Hope the big fella's groin is okay though. Yikes.)
I know what you're saying, "Yo, Ed! That's the starting lineup!" I know. For as stubborn as Brooks has been, this is his starting five, and for the life of me I can't see it changing anytime soon. While matchups against Miami and Golden State have made it clear that flexibility in roster management will be crucial to the Thunder's title hopes, let us not forget that this five is the one that will ultimately have to plow their way through teams like Memphis in Round 1, Houston or the LA Clippers in Round 2 and the San Antonio Spurs in the West finals. If the Indiana Pacers shock the world and beat Miami in the East finals, then this lineup could still prove to be the most crucial.
For those who have said OKC should trade Kendrick Perkins, keep in mind that teams only shoot 40.2 percent when he's contesting a shot near the rim, according to SportVU data. Frankly, there's not another big man on OKC's roster who can consistently defend without fouling all the time. Nick Collison and Steven Adams are good in spells, but they accumulate fouls like I get parking tickets. Serge Ibaka and Jones simply aren't big enough, and OKC's not risking Kevin Durant on any big man like that consistently.
With Westbrook's injury now in the past, OKC now has eight weeks to determine what its set of rotations really look like. The good thing is that Brooks can put strong lineups that are both big and small and strong defensively. But the ultimate challenge is keeping all of this going while allowing Durant to play at peak levels like he did sans Westbrook and getting Westbrook back at peak levels too.
The loss on Thursday night was not a sign of impending doom. It was a trial by fire. If OKC can figure its lineups out in time, this season might end in a blaze of championship glory.
Happy Hour drink recommendation: King Cole - I love Old Fashioneds. This is an Old Fashioned with pineapple and Fernet Branca. You'll thank me later, especially after you have two of these. Like Dom Kennedy says, "Get Home Safely."