Russell Westbrook

Injuries never a good sign for NBA

Any NBA fan absolutely hates to see injuries plague the league. It gets even worse when the injury happens to a superstar.

We have already seen a devastating injury to Indiana Pacers’ star Paul George that will cause him to miss the entire season. Now reigning MVP Kevin Durant has suffered a Jones fracture on his right foot. This injury expects to sideline Durant for approximately 6-8 weeks.

A Jones fracture is a fracture to the middle of the fifth toe and one can only imagine the pain and severity of a fracture of this sort. Other NBA players have suffered this injury and their timetables have varied. C.J McCollum missed twelve weeks with this same injury without going through surgery, however all signs indicate Durant will have surgery. Brook Lopez had the surgery and required two months to recover. Jones fracture was Lopez’s first surgery, since then the big man has been one of the most injury plagued players in the league.

So here we have Kevin Durant who has only missed 16 total regular season games in his seven NBA seasons likely to miss a quarter of the season. Where does this leave the heavily favored Oklahoma City Thunder for the first 25 games?

Well they have All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook to create some offense and rising star Serge Ibaka. But honestly how can any team replace a reigning MVP? Durant was the guy OKC turned to when everything else broke loose on offense. Durant was the guy that could create a shot for not only himself but his teammates. All that pressure can be allocated to the rest of the team, but Russell Westbrook may take the initiative all by himself.

Westbrook is known to be a sort of “ball hog” when it comes to his shot selections. He takes ill advised shots, turns the ball over at a high rate, and is easily frustrated on the court. However, he can be one of the most prolific and athletic players in the entire league. So coach Scott Brooks has to find a way to find the balance to where Westbrook can efficiently sustain the Thunder’s offense.

In regards to the rest of the season, Thunder fans can only hope and pray that Durant’s injury is a one and done type of deal. Hopefully, after surgery, we never hear of another injury related to this Jones fracture. For now though, all we can do is pray Durant fully recovers and can return to his MVP caliber play.

With 80 percent of the NBA regular season complete, there is a large sample size of games from which it is possible to distinguish the contenders from the pretenders. In the first segment of a two-part analysis, let’s take a quick look across the NBA to identify the contenders.  

Miami Heat- If being the two-time defending champion and having Lebron James to lead the team doesn’t make the Heat a contender, nothing in the world could.

Indiana Pacers- Although the Pacers are stumbling just like the Thunder and Heat have, their championship caliber defense is a force to be reckoned with. With the potential of Roy Hibbert’s size and length as the kryptonite to Lebron James and the gradual rise of Paul George as a superstar, the Pacers join the Heat as the elite of the East.

San Antonio Spurs- The Spurs are always a contender. It’s best to accept that statement at face value rather than attempting to make futile attempts at disputing it. Popovich has built the ultimate model of excellence in the NBA, so impressive that plugging in any NBA player into the system would yield comparable success.

Oklahoma City Thunder- The problem with the Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals was a lack of experience. The problem in the 2013 playoffs was the absence of Russell Westbrook. As of now, neither should pose a problem for this year’s Thunder team. This year, several role players have flourished and found a niche in the Thunder lineup amidst Westbrook’s injury recovery and rehabilitation. As unfortunate as Westbrook’s injury was, it helped transform the Thunder from a superstar-centric pretender to a multidimensional championship contender.

Los Angeles Clippers- Chris Paul left New Orleans because he wanted to play for a better team. Now, he has it. Blake Griffin is playing at a near-MVP level. Deandre Jordan is starting to resemble a championship-caliber defensive anchor. JJ Reddick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Danny Granger, and Darren Collison add all the depth any contender could hope for. When playing at their best, the Clippers are as good as anyone.   

There are countless injuries to star players in the West - Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and James Harden. Obviously, injuries to players of this caliber can devastate an NBA Franchise and its fan base, especially come playoff time. However, an injury early on during the season does not necessarily have to be devastating. When approaching the obstacle the right way, a team can use injuries as learning experiences and opportunities to develop players along the depth chart. Other than Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, the three aforementioned names are all watching their teams blossom in their absence.

In Oklahoma City, Russell’s Westbrook’s injury initially caused major concerns for the franchise considering he suffered a season-ending injury just last season. Questions arose concerning his durability and his health come playoff time. Nevertheless, the Thunder didn’t shy away from this challenge. Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb stepped into the spotlight to become outstanding two-way role players. Durant now has a much more seasoned cast of players to help him defeat the West’s elite in April and May. Durant and the Thunder evidently used this as a learning experience and rose to uncharted territories.

In Los Angeles, Blake Griffin ensured the Clippers didn’t miss a beat as Chris Paul went down. Jamal Crawford stepped up as the second scorer, Deandre Jordan has become a defensive menace, and Griffin is playing with the confidence of an MVP-caliber player.

The Houston Rockets also seem to have forgotten that they don’t have their best player on the court. Without James Harden, the Rockets have a .750 record this season. Chandler Parsons and Terrance Jones, who was recently selected to the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans, have gained more experience as dynamic role players on this team.  

Every championship contender has to go through periods of adversity. Whether it be a star player going down for a part of the season or internal drama, the teams that shine during the playoffs are the ones that best overcome their obstacles during the regular season.  

Top five title contenders heading into the NBA Playoffs

Come this time of the year, only one thing matters: Who will hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June? Well, below are a few possible answers.

1. Miami Heat 

Many believe that the Heat’s success depends on the play of the best basketball player in the world, LeBron James. Others believe that it depends on his two elite sidekicks, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But what will truly define the success of the Heat is the play of its role players: Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen. As the great Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games. But … teamwork wins championships.” Michael Jordan couldn’t have won six rings without Steve Kerr’s big time shots. LeBron James can’t win his second without Ray Allen’s big time shots.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

The key to the Thunder is quite different. The Thunder’s success is largely dependent on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Arguably, Durant and Westbrook are the best 1-2 punch the NBA has to offer. Nevertheless, there is only one obstacle that lies firmly in their path to winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy: Westbrook’s understanding and acknowledgement that Durant is the best player on the team. When Wade acted likewise, James took the Heat to insurmountable heights.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Health, health, health. Unfortunately, the Spurs have very little momentum going for them. Although this is due to the injury bug, their playoff success depends on how well Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can stay up. Losing Ginobili equates to the loss of one of the best X-Factors in the NBA and the impact of Parker’s loss – does that even need to be described?

4. Indiana Pacers

Do the Pacers remind anyone of the '88-'90 Detroit Pistons teams that manhandled Michael Jordan? The way those teams played resembled street ball much more than professional basketball. The Pacers’ gritty, rough and tough, relentless defense is certainly capable of shutting down even the best offenses in the league. However, whether Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert can stand tall on the offensive side of the court is still in the air. Ultimately, I love the Pacers’ dependence on their reliable defense rather than their occasionally shaky offense in controlling the tempo of the game and winning a seven-game series.  

5. New York Knicks

Equation: 2013 New York Knicks = 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Jason Kidd helping run the point and Tyson Chandler anchoring the defense are two obvious similarities. J.R. Smith and his offensive firepower strikes a remarkable resemblance to Jason Terry. The only question though, is: Can the 2013 Carmelo Anthony lead, inspire and carry like the 2011 Dirk Nowitzki has? If Anthony can embody the electrifying beast that Nowitzki was in 2011, I like the Knicks' chance to make the NBA Finals for the first time in 14 years. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: The greatest pick-up basketball team ever Assembled

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not selling the Thunder short by any means. I realize they’re a lot more than a glorified pick-up basketball team, but they are the perfect pick-up basketball team.

Pick-up basketball is very different from organized basketball. Usually, the most talented team or the most athletic team is going to win in a pick-up basketball game. You rarely see a cohesive group of five random people, and since most people go to the gym to try to channel their Michael Jordan, there aren't many defensive schemes present.

The reason the more athletic and talented pick-up teams win is that they cause the most matchup problems. The pick-up team that gathers the best washed-up high school stars who are too big to be guarded by anyone runs the court all day. Or you’re on the positive side of the action and everyone else gets to enjoy the butt-whoopings they receive all day. 

Now think of that in comparison to the Oklahoma City Thunder. How many mismatches do they cause on a nightly basis? And those mismatches are primarily centered on former Longhorn Kevin Durant. The guy’s a ball-handling scorer playing at 6-foot-11. Think about that for a second. He’s essentially a shooting guard who can play the small forward or power forward positions in certain rotations. Durant starts at forward, but his ability to play a shooting guard-style role allows him to cause many problems for defenses. He’s too big to big to be defended by a lot of guards and small forwards, but he’s too great a scorer to be defended by most power forwards. It’s a frustrating conundrum, and whenever he gets free jump shots off screens like the Thunder love to do with him, all you can do is watch the ball go up and hope he misses.

And then there’s Russell Westbrook.

Even though Russell Westbrook takes a lot of terrible shots, with many of those being shots that Durant should be taking, the guy’s another mismatch waiting to happen. He’s only 6-foot-3, but with his speed and athleticism he finds a way to cover most of the court. And he’s got some bulk to him. He’s not a small guy. Many argue that his natural position is shooting guard and I won’t deny that, but keeping him at the point is causing a lot of problems for opposing defenses. Many point guards in the league aren’t strong enough or quick enough to stay in front of him.

Then there’s Serge Ibaka, the freakish athletic big guy who tries to swat anything in the paint and runs his mouth like he’s Charles Barkley, even though he isn’t actually carrying the team. He’s just a contributor. He does the dirty work, though, and he does it well. He barks, he scraps, he takes hard fouls and he can knock down a few long jumpers. Jump shots that space the floor enough to create space for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to attack.

And then whenever you finally account for all the above, Kevin Martin has to come and ruin it all. That little guard with an awkward shot release who knocks down those dreaded kick out three pointers after great defense is played. And it gets worse with how deep the Thunder’s bench is.

It’s no wonder the Thunder are so good when you look at it. They cause so many matchup problems with their players, and those matchup problems create opportunities for everyone else. When you have the 6-foot-11 Durant spreading the floor and Russell Westbrook able to sour to the rim with the best of them, it ends up being hard to create defense schemes to account for everyone, and unless you’re a top tier NBA team you won’t be able to match up. And to think, this team had James Harden. It’s too bad that core didn’t stay together.

They may not win the NBA Title this year, and honestly I don’t see them getting past a healthy Spurs team to even make it out of the west, but if I’m assembling my next pick-up basketball team so I can run the court at Gregory, I’m molding it after the Thunder. Mismatches win games.

The Thunder were unable to capitalize on a historic performance from Russell Westbrook in Game 4 of the NBA Finals and their championship aspirations are on the brink.

Despite Westbrook’s 43 points and Kevin Durant’s 28, the Miami Heat defeated the Thunder 104-98 on Tuesday night to go up 3-1 in the best-of-seven championship series.

No team in NBA history has rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. In 30 attempts, no team has even forced a game seven when facing the same scenario. “We’re going to keep fighting,” Durant said. “Frustrating to lose like that. But we’re going to keep fighting, man. That’s how we’ve been since I got here.”

The Thunder must rely on the type of fight that brought them back from a 0-2 deficit against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Unlike the rest of their playoff run, the Thunder’s youth and inexperience have shown in late-game situations in the Finals.

While LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Mario Chalmers were making clutch plays for the Heat in Game 4, each of the Thunder’s young stars had their share of missed shots and mental mistakes late in the game.

The biggest example of the Thunder’s inexperience came on what likely was the game’s deciding play. With Miami up by three, Westbrook fouled Chalmers after a jump ball with 17 seconds remaining in the game, although the Thunder would have received the ball back with less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock for the Heat.

“Just a miscommunication on my part,” Westbrook said. “Nothing I can do about it now.” After committing the foul, Westbrook stared up at the scoreboard and noticed his error, holding out his hand with a look of disbelief.

Chalmers made both of his free throws to put the Heat up by five, all but clinching Miami’s 3-1 strangle hold on the series.

The Thunder seem to be learning the same lesson that the Miami Heat learned in last year’s Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. In losing the final three games of last year’s championship series, LeBron James and the Heat suffered through the same kind of late-game collapses the Thunder are experiencing now.

The Thunder must learn that lesson on the fly to avoid losing their fourth straight game tonight and send this series back to Oklahoma.

“I can guarantee this,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We have fight in us.”