Thunder's championship aspirations still intact despite latest painful lesson
Saturday night marked the end of the Western Conference finals and, within them, the end of the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was, without equivocation, a team capable of winning it all this season. That the Thunder ultimately didn't do so was more a matter of probability than ability -- a cold turn of the numbers for a contender that faced off against its third straight high-quality opponent.
To escape a Game 7 against Memphis, push past the L.A. Clippers and force overtime against San Antonio in the final game of their season wasn't enough. Oklahoma City fell victim to the long odds that had already claimed 13 playoff teams and 14 others, if at even greater cost given the Thunder's proximity to the title. With a few more breaks, OKC could very well have been the last team standing. Instead, a third straight playoff run for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (omitting 2013, in which Westbrook was sidelined by a meniscus tear) ended in a bittersweet push to the conference finals or beyond.
Disappointment on the part of players, coaches, team personnel and fans is as understandable as it is inevitable. After all, the Thunder's ousting doesn't only carry the weight of a championship opportunity lost, but the collective magnitude of all those opportunities that came before. As much as teams like Oklahoma City benefit from the continuity of their long-term process, coming up painfully short year after year does take its toll. Every season the Thunder stars improve and every season some other contending team manages to get in their way.
In spite of this most recent trial, the Thunder remain on a winning course. So long as Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are in Oklahoma City, championship-level basketball will be within reach. What stands to be improved, however, is the precise mix of talent around those core stars. The defining characteristic of OKC's supporting cast is limitation: Thabo Sefolosha was once a vital perimeter defender but saw his offensive game collapse on itself in the 2014 playoffs; Kendrick Perkins remains a brutal non-threat and clogs the Thunder's spacing as a result; Caron Butler and Derek Fisher were only valuable insofar as they were left completely undisturbed in the corners; Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones have yet to round into stable, rotation-caliber players; even Collison and Steven Adams, helpful though they may be, are wholly dependent scorers without the slightest creative touch.
It was telling that when Scott Brooks replaced Sefolosha in the starting lineup with the more dynamic Reggie Jackson it left a correspondingly problematic hole in the Thunder bench. The deficit in lower-end talent and versatility makes even patchwork adjustments difficult.
Most of those regulars in Oklahoma City's rotation were useful all the same in some capacity or another. Collectively, however, they were arranged in a way that called on Durant and Westbrook to initiate most every productive action. That lack of alternatives left precious little room for decoy or misdirection. Even when the Thunder executed clever plays capable of putting pressure on an opposing defense, those non-stars screening and cutting and spotting up on the perimeter were at times so harmless as to undercut that play's effectiveness. A recipe is only as good as its ingredients.
Situational blame for the occasional Thunder rut could be placed on Westbrook for battering his way into tough shots, on Durant for settling into passivity or on Scott Brooks for failing to give his team the necessary schematic help. Those criticisms, however, are only valid to a point. There is a limit to what can be accomplished offensively when so few players can be trusted to do anything more than catch and shoot. It's to Durant and Westbrook's great credit that they're able to anchor a highly efficient offense around those constraints, though the limits of OKC's approach tend to be amplified in playoff series against the league's very best teams. The postseason has a way of bringing a contender's every weakness to the forefront, and in the case of the Thunder those shortcomings have been problematic enough to cede ground to other elite teams.
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These are not crippling issues. We're talking about the factors that lead to an overtime loss in Game 6 relative to a potential win in Game 7 -- a fine line that may have been irrelevant had Ibaka never missed the first two games of the West finals. It is impossible to harp on this team's weaknesses outside the context of their contention, as this team's greatest flaws are in themselves the luxury of competing at so high a level. The stars are set. The core is stable. All that remains are the finishing touches that would make the Thunder even more formidable and pave the road to a title.