Happy New Year’s, Serge Ibaka.
Happy New Year’s, Serge Ibaka.
Two thoughts about this dunk, neither of which mentions Serge Ibaka’s role (mostly because that was pretty self-explanatory).
First, Eric Maynor. I’m in love with his game. He’s not a great point guard, or even a starter. His stats don’t scream “star,” nor do they even scream “average.” But Maynor plays with a certain pace to his game that makes him the envy of my adolescent fantasies. And no, not like that you sickos. I wanted to learn to play like him. I wanted to somehow learn to lull my defender to sleep, then burst by. I wanted to dribble one way, slowly, and then cross over and — BAM! — be gone on my way to the hoop.
Will Maynor ever develop into a star? Or even a starter? Probably not. But his style still pleases me. Aesthetically, there aren’t too many other players I’d rather watch.
Second, the Thunder have been a disappointing 5-4 to start the season. But is that really disappointing? Kelly Dwyer examined the problems today for Ball Don’t Lie, terming the Thunder’s start a “self-induced holding pattern.” In other words, they made no additions this offseason. They shouldn’t have really been expected to take the proverbial leap.
I wrote the following words in an email to a few of my buddies, before the Celtics played the Thunder the first time.
“In regards to the Thunder being underrated or overrated, they’re the classic ‘underrated until overrated’ team. They were the 8th seed last year, people! They signed nobody of importance this summer! That does not mean they will be title contenders!
“I suspect they will be a little better than last year, mostly due to their youth improving. But people jumped on the bandwagon too early. This isn’t a contending team, yet.”
I stand by my statement. The Thunder shouldn’t be expected to contend this year. While most of the NBA contenders reloaded this offseason, the Thunder stayed pat. And maybe that’s the right move for the long haul (in Sam Presti We Trust), but for this year alone it doesn’t bode well. This is a young team, still, even if it’s also a very talented one. They will suffer speed bumps along the way to greatness, especially since the roster as presently constructed is inherently flawed.
Yesterday, Glen Davis was asked what strategy the Boston Celtics will use against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His response was simple:
“Stop Kevin Durant.”
Easier said than done. Durant has quickly become as feared a scorer as anyone in the NBA. He can score outside, or drive by you. He has a guard’s handles, and a center’s height and length. He can kill you softly or he can do it loudly but, as Durant’s 29-game stretch of 25 or more points earlier this season can attest to, he always seems to kill you.
But beating the Thunder would still be easy if Durant was a one-man wrecking crew. Sadly, for the Celtics at least, he has help.
Help to the tune of Russell Westbrook, perhaps the NBA’s best-kept secret, as well as a herd of other talented youngin’s. I don’t know why nobody talks about Westbrook being an elite, rising point guard, but the man is averaging 16.1 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.9 boards. If those stats aren’t enough to get you to believe in Westbrook, the following statement might be: HE’S 21 YEARS OLD! AND HE’S STILL RAW! AND HE HAS A LOT OF IMPROVEMENT LEFT!
Besides Westbrook, the Thunder’s embarrassment of young riches continues. There’s Jeff Green, the young man out of Georgetown pouring in 14.9 points and 6.0 boards. James Harden, only a rookie, who has repeatedly shown the ability to score. Thabo Sefolosha, an athletic wing who — even though he can’t score a lick — embraces his role as a defensive stopper. Serge Ibaka, a physical freak who caused Tim Duncan all kinds of problems a week ago. Eric Maynor, a backup point guard acquired midseason for next to nothing, who has proven himself to be a keeper. Not to take away from the rest of their stable of young horses, but there’s also B.J. Mullens. And he sucks.
Besides Mullens — nobody’s perfect, even Sam Presti — the Thunder are in good hands for the future. The present, even. Nobody would have ever expected the Thunder to progress so quickly, but there they are, only three and a half games out of the Western Conference’s second seed.
Their ascent has been breath-taking, especially for NBA aficionados who understand that young players aren’t supposed to contend so quickly.
“They interviewed Jeff Green after the game [recently] and he surprised me because he was like, ‘We’re a hard-working team, trying to win a championship,’” Kendrick Perkins recalled after Tuesday’s practice. “Well, no one picked Oklahoma City to even make the playoffs this year, but just the vibe in that locker room, to have one goal and that’s to win a championship as a young team, I found that kind of crazy.”
It isn’t the Thunder’s talent that’s so rare. Rather, it’s that so many young players with skills to burn have decided to put individual accolades aside to focus on nothing but winning. Players aren’t supposed to start that winning mentality until later in their careers. It often takes years of lump-taking before players decide nothing matters but a ring. But not in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder skipped a few levels in their development, straight from basement-dwellers to being within view of the penthouse, and I’m not quite sure how they did it so quickly. Maybe it’s because they have a group of competitive players with their heads on straight. Maybe a lot of the credit should fall on Scott Brooks, the coach who leads the way, or Sam Presti, the astute general manager who assembled the roster. It might just be a testament to Durant’s greatness, or Westbrook’s underrated impact. Perhaps it’s just something in the Oklahoma City air. Probably a combination of all the above.
Whatever the reason for it may be, the Thunder will be a playoff problem for some unlucky team this year, and are poised to pose issues for the rest of the NBA for quite some time. As good as they are now, it’s scary to think how devastating they’ll become with age.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Thunder visit Boston tonight, not down the road. And tonight, even before age makes them even more formidable, the Thunder are a more than competent opponent capable of striking the Celtics down on their own court. Especially if Paul Pierce sits out, and especially if the Celtics play passionless basketball like they did Sunday night against the Spurs.
The Celtics could use a return to winning ways, but to do that, they’re going to have to really earn it. And I can guarantee it won’t be as easy as “Stop Kevin Durant.”