The Oklahoma City Thunder were pretty much everybody's pick as the best team in the Western Conference at the start of the season. After all, the Thunder had taken a trip to the Conference Finals last May and were the one team among the West favorites that was young and improving as opposed to old and, well, getting older. When Lamar Odom managed to single-handedly wreck the chemistry of the last two NBA Champions (not an easy thing to do, but Lamar has always been a versatile guy), the path to the NBA Finals seemed pretty well cleared for the Thunder.
Indeed, OKC maintained the best record in the conference for most of the season. Then those pesky San Antonio Spurs got hot, and the Thunder wound up relinquishing the top seed out west. But as impressive as the Spurs great closing run was (they won 21 of their final 23 regular season games), the top seed was still there for the Thunder. Instead, they went 8-7 in April, their worst month of the season.
Of course, the playoffs are a new season, and talent is still the coin of the realm in the NBA. With a pair of All-NBA performers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the highest-scoring tandem in the league, the Thunder are still primed for a playoff run. The bulk of the rotation from last season's conference finalist is still there, and a year better. James Harden has blossomed into a star in his own right, and is the odds-on favorite to win the Sixth Man Award. Serge Ibaka is a defensive terror who led the NBA in blocked shots. Thabo Sefolosha is that classic "3 and D" guy in the mold of Bruce Bowen, playing excellent perimeter defense while making almost 44 percent of his three-point shots. Kendrick Perkins brings championship experience and unparalleled low post defense. And the trade deadline addition of Derek Fisher gives them even more playoff savvy.
So how are the playoffs going for the Thunder so far?
Well, they are up 2-0 on the defending NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, so that's not nothing. They managed to do something that they couldn't do in two tries in last season's playoffs, and that's beat the Mavericks in Oklahoma City. But this is a 2 versus 7 playoff matchup, and frankly, the 2 seed playing at home is supposed to beat the 7 seed. Look at the 2-7 matchup in the East: Miami is up 2-0, with a total point differential of +43. That's what the 2 seed is supposed to do to the 7 seed.
I know, I know, Dallas is not New York. These are the defending champs we're talking about, with a veteran roster that knows how to win playoff games, as we saw last year. And yes, Oklahoma City is up 2-0, which is all that really matters at the end of the day. But last-second wins of one point and three points? Color me unimpressed. I find the Thunder underwhelming. They're Thunderwhelming.
It's not as if those were the Mavericks of May 2011 we saw in Chesapeake Energy Arena Monday night. Forget the fact that Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea aren't there. Dallas did a lot of good things during its run to the championship last season, but what it did more than anything else was make shots. Dallas made lots and lots of shots.
Monday night the Mavericks shot 42 percent from the field. They were 5-23 from behind the three-point line. Would Dallas have won a single playoff game last year shooting 5-23 from deep? (In Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Dallas shot 39 percent from the floor and went 4-19 from long-range, but Miami was even worse offensively.) You can credit Oklahoma City with great defense, or you can admit what actually happened -- Dallas missed shots. Heck, with 73 seconds remaining and the Mavs up one, Dirk Nowitzki had a wide open three-pointer that he simply missed. On the subsequent possession, he missed his patented wrong foot stepback jumper. It happens, guys miss shots, but if he doesn't miss those shots, this series is going back to Dallas tied 1-1. And if Durant's crazy last second jumper on Saturday doesn't get the friendliest roll this side of Inga in Young Frankenstein then Dallas could be up 2-0.
So what's wrong with the Thunder?
Maybe nothing. Wins are wins, and learning how to win close playoff games is an important skill for a young team. Maybe these first two games will be good for them in the long run.
And if we're going to point out the atypical shooting woes of the Mavericks in Game 2, we should be fair and mention that Kevin Durant was just 5-17, and getting a win when Durant shoots under 30 percent is a good thing. After all, he's not going to shoot that poorly often.
Or is he? Maybe it's the fatigue of a condensed NBA season, maybe it's NBA defenses forcing him into tough shots, maybe he's just in a slump, but Durant shot under 40 percent from the field in half of Oklahoma City's final 10 games, and has done so in the first two games of this series. The Thunder offense is incredibly dependent on scoring from Durant and Westbrook. The other three starters on the team combined take about 15 shots per game, while Durant and Westbrook each take more than 19. Which means that when one of the big two is off, there aren't a lot of options for taking up the slack. Of course there's always Harden, but when one of OKC's big guns struggles, the team is definitely vulnerable.
And defenses have figured this out. Defensive schemes are loading up to stop Durant and Westbrook, willing to take their chances with leaving Perkins and Ibaka et al open. And nobody designs defensive schemes quite like Rick Carlisle. As this series moves on, look for it to be more and more difficult for Durant to get open looks. Part of that is Shawn Marion -- and part of it is Carlisle figuring out clever ways to stop the guy.
The other issue with the Thunder is that Durant and Westbrook, while each great in his own right, are not particularly synergistic. With them, the whole is pretty much equal to the sum of the parts and no more. On offense, Oklahoma City tends either to give the ball to Durant or give the ball to Westbrook -- and in either case everyone else becomes a spectator. It's still a luxury to have two such supremely talented guys on the same team to choose from, and advantageous to pick the more favorable matchup on a given night. But the Thunder won't reach their full potential until those two become better at working off each other. Which is why the Thunder are often so much more dangerous when the ball is in Harden's hands, as he's easily the best of the three at making plays for others.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Thunder will sweep the Mavericks and march on to the NBA Finals as so many thought they would when the season began. But I'm not seeing it based on these two wins.