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NBA Playoffs: Thunder learning lessons. The hard way.

May 24, 2011, 3:53 AM EDT

Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four Getty Images

These are hard, painful lessons for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They are the hard, painful lessons virtually every championship team has had to learn. Michael Jordan and his Bulls were knocked out three straight years by the Detroit Pistons, teaching him hard lessons. It’s true of champions since. Even the two-time, soon-to-be-dethroned Lakers had to not just lose but get crushed by the Celtics in a closeout game to understand the final steps they had to take.

Championship teams learn from these lessons and come back better for it. The Thunder started that process last season, lessons learned from the energy the Lakers responded with when challenged last season helped propel the Thunder to the Western Conference finals

This season, the Thunder are taking tougher courses. The new lessons all focus around execution. Particularly execution under pressure. About finishing off games on the biggest stages.

These are painful lessons, especially when they come on the end of a loss where you were up 15 points with less than five minutes to go.

The lessons are that to win close games in the playoffs requires you create space for your stars by having other threats the defense has to respect, having good play designs and then executing those plays. The Thunder had none of those at the end of Game 4.

“We struggled at the end with execution, and we struggled throughout the game with turnovers,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in his postgame interview, broadcast on NBA TV.

Some of the lessons the Thunder are being taught:

• With the game on the line, your best shooters have to get looks or set up other scorers. Meaning if Kevin Durant is going to see a hard double-team — and he will every time — then Thabo Sefolosha is not the guy who should be the outlet for the three. He shot 27.5 percent from three this season and is a career 30 percent shooter from deep. Yet he was the guy taking a key late three because he was open. He was open for a reason. Jordan learned the pass the ball with the game on the line but Steve Kerr was a knock down shooter (career 45 percent from three). It’s not just making the pass, it’s making the pass to the right guy.

Which brings us to another lesson…

• A team needs to have some good end of play sets. A chunk of this falls to Scott Brooks, who at one point late in the game had his team come out of a timeout to run a Westbrook isolation. There was no clever play drawn up to free him.

When things got tight late the Thunder reverted to a Durant/Westbrook pick and roll that was easy to defend, basically forcing an isolation play. Look what happened on that second-to-last play: Dallas did not respect as a threat anybody else on the court so they had three guys up and defending the pick and roll, which was really more of a handoff to Durant then Westbrook slid out of the way. So Durant tried a 30-foot shot that was still blocked by Shawn Marion. The play had no chance of working because there was no execution.

“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Durant said of the play. “I caught the ball I was at the half court line, there where three Mavericks in front of me and three seconds on the clock. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to run into their defense and had another shot.”

The play had no other good passing options, no guys moving off the ball, no getting the ball to Durant in the post or a spot he likes on the floor. It wasn’t even a good clear out play.

The way that went down brings us to another lesson…

• The front office needs to get more shooters and scorers. They rightfully love the way this team has come together in Oklahoma City. This is a good group. But once James Harden went out — once a third serious scoring option left the floor — the Thunder become predictable. They don’t pay the price for that much in the regular season because Durant and Westbrook are such serious talents, but in the playoffs against a good team it doesn’t work.

• The Thunder need to be able to defend better at the end of games. This is pretty self explanitory. It’s not just on offense, the best teams can get stops late, not make key fouls. This, however, is a little harder to pin on the Thunder at the end of Game 4 because Dirk Nowitzki is one of the great scorers the game has and sometimes you can’t stop him. Also, that foul on Nick Collison guarding Durant late could have gone either way (we’ve all seen that both called and ignored at the end of close games, it was borderline).

• Westbrook has to learn to better use his explosiveness to set guys up, Durant has to learn how to better play in traffic and get inside late in games.

The jumpshots Durant was settling for at the end of the game looked like Kobe Bryant’s pull up jumpers late. And that is not a good sign. You want to be more like Kobe circa 2001, the guy who would attack the rim late in games. Durant has to find a way to be a bigger threat in traffic and not just settle for pull-up jumpers.

Westbrook has taken a lot of heat this series, and certainly some of it is deserved. He has to find a way to strike a better balance with his teammates — like he did in Game 7 against Memphis. He is a young point guard — he didn’t play the point until the pros and he is only 22. He is learning, figuring out when he has to attack and when that attack should be to set others up. But under pressure he reverts to wanting to score because that is what he did for so long. He does not think pass first — he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet.

Which is sort of where all the Thunder are — close but not quite there yet. Another small couple of pieces used better, both by the coach in better sets and the stars as release valves. Just better execution under pressure.

The Thunder are learning hard lessons. But they are lessons champions have learned and grow from.

  1. purdueman - May 24, 2011 at 4:45 AM

    As a Bulls fan, if the Bulls were able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and find a way to beat Miami (which I’ve said all along would be a reach without a legitimate 2 guard on their roster), I’d rather see the equally playoff inexperienced Thunder advance.

    As a La Bum detractor though, I’d much rather see Dallas advance (and up 3-1 I think that that’s now a foregone conclusion). At least if the Bulls can’t remain in it, it will be fun to watch Dirk dismantle Miami’s “big two” punks. Greaser Pat Riley is easy to hate too, because of his smug, uppity attitude.

    Hey pal, ANY GM would have looked brilliant had they been able to sign La Bum and Bosh, while keeping Wade; doesn’t exactly take a lot of smarts to do that you know! I’d like to see you pull that off being the Sacramento, Cleveland or Detroit GM… now THAT would be something you would have EARNED bragging rights to!

    • dirtyassfish - May 24, 2011 at 10:39 AM

      Usual hate, Way to keep it classy Perdueman. If you had Lebron,Wade,Bosh,Riley youd be dancing in the streets. As a Bulls fan you dont have much room to talk you had 2 of the top 50 players of all time with Steve Kerr,John Paxton,Horace Grant,Dennis Rodman , Ya those scrubs right? They didnt make Phil Jackson look like a God did they? Then Phil had Kobe/Shaq , Kobe/Gasol/Kardashian Lets see him try that with Sacramento, Cleveland or Detroit. If you have great players you get all the credit, If you have crap players you lose your job.

      • purdueman - May 24, 2011 at 11:50 PM

        dirty… I’d take Wade on the Bulls in a heart beat, but even though good as he may be, you can have classless La BUM. Coffee is for closers; La BUM ain’t no closer without Wade, Bosh and Haslin carrying his bags.

        The Heat just basically eliminated the Bulls a few minutes ago, but I’m ok with that because it will put ENORMOUS pressure on Bulls management to finally bring in a legitimate 2 (shooting), guard to complement Derrick Rose.

        Rose is only 22 you know… a babe by NBA standards, and for him as well as the rest of the Bulls 10 rotation players, this is only their first experience in the pressure packed NBA semi-finals. What year is this in the NBA for La BUM? Year 7 or year 8? … and he still has no rings.

        The bottom line? Since Magic joined the Lakers way back in the ’70’s, only one team (the Pistons), has gone on to win the NBA Championship with only one star player. The Bulls obviously only have one; the real question is, what will they now do in the offseason to address their glaring and obvious weakness? (i.e., the lack of a legit 2nd scoring option).

        As for the Heat? Sure, it’s easy to be a bandwagoner, as anyone can get behind a winner. The really sad part is that if the Heat go on to win the NBA championship this year it will be a championship bought, not earned.

  2. LPad - May 24, 2011 at 11:40 AM

    Am I the only one that find stories like this funny? The only hard lesson that the Thunder need to learn is that they need better all around players. This part of the story sums it up:

    “Yet (Sefolosha)he was the guy taking a key late three because he was open. He was open for a reason. Jordan learned the pass the ball with the game on the line but Steve Kerr was a knock down shooter (career 45 percent from three). It’s not just making the pass, it’s making the pass to the right guy.”

    Durant doesn’t need to learn to pass the ball to a knockdown shooter. He needs a knockdown shooter to pass the ball to. The reason why teams like the 80s Bulls lost to the Pistons is because the Pistons were better. The only thing the Bulls learned is that they needed to get better. The only thing the Lakers learned after losing to Boston was that they needed to get better, which is why they got Artest because he could play the physical D on PP that they needed to get over the hump. But if you read sportswriters, you would come to the conclusion that teams have to have an intellectual awakening to win a title.

  3. fdjlakers1 - May 24, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    Bulls in 7. They’ll come thru and then match up against Dallas. As a die-hard Laker’s fan, although I was disappointed (disgusted, actually) at the Lakers’ lack of effort in game 4, I am glad Dirk and the gang will get another chance at the title. They are a hard working, never-give-up, group of athletes and I hope they make it this time!

    Winning when down by 15 pts with 5 minutes to go is incredible, to say the least!

  4. danvoges - May 24, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    i think the durant quote in the second bullet is wrong… he said something about not wanting to turn the ball over again.

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