Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"I'm Kind of Freaking Out" - Keys to an OKC Victory in the NBA Finals

Along with The CDP doing aces on the Miami Heat keys to victory in the Finals, we've dispatched our main man Thunderstolt to look at the OKC side and determine what the keys to victory are. Keep in mind that this has been edited, as he's barely slept, can't eat and quite frankly, is barely a human being right now. This is him at his most serene, probably the result of some sort of placebo. As the title of the post says, earlier today his first message to me was "I'm kind of freaking out." Peace be with you, brother. Let's get to it!

He saw this coming.  From the moment he told Clay Bennett he would be his GM, Sam Presti saw this as his vision.  His vision has brought them to within four wins of raising a banner. 

Presti has done his job.  Now its time for Scott Brooks and his staff to finish theirs for this 2011-2012 season.  The good news is the Thunder doesn't have to change much from the previous three series to be successful in the Finals.

It seems fitting the first championship foe ever for this Thunder squad is against the Heat - after the next two weeks either KD or LeBron will have a ring and a banner to raise this fall.  Soak that one in.

Other than that quick little hit, I going to stay away from the obvious KD vs LBJ narrative because I'm pretty sure 99% of the blogosphere is writing about that (My thoughts on that matchup: The two best players in the league going at it for their first title and we're in for a hell of a series. That cover it? Okay, good). So let's stick to basketball, shall we? Presenting the Thunder's keys to victory.

Russell Westbrook vs The World

As I mentioned in my last post for MAMBINO,  Westbrook has evolved as a player not only throughout this lockout shortened regular season but over the last 15 playoff games as well.  He has kept his foot on the gas pedal when need be, but surprsingly has pulled back to get other guys involved as well.  His defense in the playoffs has been underrated, relentless and most importantly, he is finding ways to contribute to wins other than the stat sheet. 

This could be a big, BIG series for Russ.  Westbook has been a sponge in these playoffs not only from what his coaching staff is telling him but from opponents as well.  In my four years of watching the Thunder play, I don't think I have ever seen Russ use a screener more than once in a set.  Against the Spurs, they ran him ragged through screen after screen as Tony Parker used the same big man to find a crease in the defense.  You know what happened?  Russ threw it back right at 'em and started using his big men to use a screen two or three times until he saw daylight to drive to ball and either find a slashing big man or shooter in the corner.

More than likely Chalmers will start on Westbrook to start the series but that could have disasterous ramifications if they stick with Mario too long.  Westbook will see Chalmers, Wade, LeBron, Battier and anyone else who Coach Spoelstra thinks can slow him down for stretches.  Russ must keep doing what he has been doing and playing with poise and composure.  He has been fantastic at picking his spots thus far and they need him to continue that for the Thunder to make the final step.  Plus, the idea of Westbrook having more shot attempts in the Finals and Thunder winning would make Skip Bayless' head explode (so America wins, as well as OKC!). Depending on what the Heat defense gives him, that could be a reality. 

Like A Bosh 

Chris Bosh is the key cog on both ends of the floor for the Heat, Thus, Serge Ibaka must do what he did to Pau Gasol (sorry KOBEsh) and neutralize him.  Bosh is the floor spacer and weakside help defender the Heat lacked when they struggled against the Pacers and first five games of the ECF.  The third in Miami's Big Three certainly looks like he is back to pre-injury form as he had 18 points on 10 shots in Game 7 against Boston. He MUST hit outside shots to keep the Thunder shot blockers from sinking in the lane and clogging the driving lane (I hardly expect Bosh to go 3-4 from 3 again this season as he did against the Celtics).  If the Thunder can make him uncomfortable and force him to be merely average during the series, it will go a long way in beating a very talented Heat squad. After all, I don't see the Heat winning the series unless Chris Bosh goes off. 

Role Playing

It's a long-standing playoff tradition for role players to step up on runs to a championship.  The Thunder are getting fantastic play from their role guys so far and need it in the Finals.  Nick Collison is the Thunder's best PNR defender and has taken 1,098,756 charges (roughly) in the playoffs so far.  Derek Fisher has given them solid minutes and clutch shooting (tow HUGE shots in the closeout Game 6 against the Spurs inside four minutes to go - a corner three to go up five and a runner to do the same a minute later. As if you weren't prepared for that) and Daequan Cook came off the bench in game four against the Spurs to give them 8 points in three minutes on 3-3 shooting.  Game three of the WCF series belonged to Thabo as he racked up 19 points and pestered Tony Parker all night while Ibaka had his perfect 11-11 in game four as well as playing tremendous weakside defense. 

It's a funny thing with these Thunder because you know someone will step up, but you don't know who it will be.  More importantly, you get the feeling they feel it too.  KD, Russ and Harden will all get theirs, but when the role players are involved early and often in the game it opens up so many more avenues and sets for the Thunder to run late in games. They all know that if the ball is swung to them, there's absolute trust and confidence within themselves and within their teammates to knock down huge shots.  The Thunder seem to have the advantage when it comes to the bench and if they keep getting production level on par with what has happend the last 15 games it will make a daunting task a bit easier. 

Fear the Beard

When you're up two on the road, series tied 2-2 in the WCF, and the ball in your hands inside 30 seconds with the shot clock running down, what do you do? 


Well, if you are James Harden, you hit a step-back three to go up five and completely let the air out of the building as the opposing fans shake their head walking out the door. Time and time again in these playoffs Harden has come up roses in crunch time and I fully expect that trend to continue in the Finals.

For the next four to seven games, if it's a close contest, it is James Harden running the show.  The Heat will have to pick their poison on defense.  With LeBron presumably guarding KD and Wade on Westbrook, who guards Harden?  It will be intersting because the Thunder can use their ever-evolving crunch time set (wonderfully written about here on Grantland) to get either James, Kevin, or Russ in good spots on the floor to get buckets.  The Thunder have an answer for the Heat's Big Three but the Heat have no answer for Harden without sacrificing elsewhere on the court.  It is pivotal for Brooks to continue to evolve as a head coach this series and get the best of Spo.

I would say the tone of most Thunder fans is Cautiously Optimistic.  This Thunder team is damn good, but it's a title or bust now in OKC for years to come.  At the start of the season, the ideal situation would be have home court advantage in the Finals, while playing good basketball. Sweet. Thats exactly where the Thunder are positioned.  Chesapeake Energy Arena will reach decibels unheard of in the NBA in some time and if the Thunder can harness that energy and play their game, good things will happen.  Having vets like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher in the ears of their teammates will prove invaluable to guys like Russ, KD, and James as these final two weeks of the season conclude.  Calm, cool, and collected have been these Thunder in the playoffs.  There was no dancing in the locker room after the Thunder closed out the Spurs, just some really strong hat game

They took away the Western Conference champion trophy by going through the past 13 winners. Now all that remains is the Final Exam against the Heat.  We're in for a doozy.  Thunder Up.

Official Prediction: Thunder in 6

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