Saturday, April 14, 2012

14/3 - Kings at Thunder

Between watching this game and sitting down to write this post I was asked to take down a wall by my father. Which, now that I think about it, was a great way to reinforce what this game was - a demolition. Plain and simple, the Oklahoma City Thunder tore down the Kings roster to their very roots, and exposed each player for what they were - the good and the bad.

Tyreke Evans had a tough time of it today, but the blame can fall squarely on the shoulders of Coach Smart, who resolutely stuck with his three guard starting lineup, which had Tyreke matched up with Durant. Whilst Tyreke has great size for a SG, and can play some SF, Smart needed to recognise that he simply didn't have the length to guard Durant. Instead, Evans picked up two quick fouls and by the time he returned to the game, the outcome was no longer in doubt. Offensively, Durant's length really bothered Evans, and the Kings needs to decide on a firm position for the poor kid so he can settle into a defined role next season.

I think it might be time to let all the Isaiah Thomas hype die down, as he's continued to log heavy minutes he's started to lose his vigour, and for a player of his stature that's a critical element of his game. He had a nice stretch mid-season, but it was more a result of having fresh legs than some hidden talent which made him worthy of starting in the NBA. Hopefully the Kings figure out he's more effective playing no more than 20 minutes a game and using that energy to change the pace. Thornton has no impact defensively, and while he can hit tough, contested shots, he seems unwilling or unable to get easy looks, and he needs to learn to crawl before he balls.

Cousins was taken completely out of his comfort zone by the Perkins/Ibaka combination, and even Collison's savvy D gave him fits. His body language was awful out there, and his energy waxes and wanes at a frenetic pace, he has brief spurts of energy, but for the most part is slow to move his feet unless the ball is in his hands. One thing Cousins deserves credit for is his ability to play the passing lanes and disrupt or deflect incoming passes; there were several instances where Cousins either stole or denied to the entry pass over the course of the game, and a nice interception as the split-line defender. However, conditioning needs to be addressed this summer, as it's the biggest thing holding Cousins back from challenging Bynum and Howard for top spot at the C position.

Thompson was simply overmatched by Ibaka, which is to be expected. Donte Greene looked lost when he did play, and had no impact defensively. Chuck Hayes was steady, but it meant little in this game. Tyler Honeycutt got some burn with the injuries to Garcia and Salmons, and looked very uncomfortable out there. He hit a jumper or two, and ran hard, but he needs a bit of direction before he's ready to contribute in the NBA, another victim of the short training camp. Jimmer was even worse than he was against the Hornets, his jumpers were coming out flat, and he is playing with no confidence, which is somewhat unsettling for a guy who earned his place by taking on all comers with reckless abandon. He looks really slow out there, his handle is below average for an NBA PG, and he can't defend to save his life. It's become immediately apparent that he's a situational player who needs to be in the right situation, but until he improves his conditioning and regains his confidence in his jumper he won't even be that. Terrence Williams' performance was one of the positives to take from this game, and he's doing a great job running the point for the second unit. He wasn't forcing too many shots up, and the jumpers he took were usually necessary.

The Kings have been amassing young prospects for the past few years, but it's time to clean house and fill the team with more veterans if they ever want to improve. Thornton needs to go while he still has value or be restricted to a 6th man role, Greene needs to be shipped off, and they need to find a starting calibre PF to enable Thompson to come off the bench. Evans needs to show some serious growth over the summer, or he could be on the way out too. You can play the SG spot without being an amazing shooter, but he needs to model his game after Wade and work on getting easy buckets in the post, hitting his mid-range more consistently, and finishing through contact. If they can find a way to nab either Harrison Barnes or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the upcoming draft they'll be a lot better positioned for the future, because SF is a gaping hole in their roster right now.

I hadn't intended to say that much about the Kings, so I'll try to be concise about the Thunder. Durant was beasting, he had a few nice assists (including one which nearly broke Perkins' finger), threw down some dunks and did a great job rebounding his own misses, which helped him spend most of the game at the FT line. Westbrook showed off his newfound ability to change speeds (and not just from slow to fast), which allowed him to finish at the rim a bit easier and avoid being called for charges. That said, he still doesn't have natural PG instincts, and Durant is already a better playmaker. Harden was out with a knee injury, but Derek Fisher turned back the clock to find his groove and put up some numbers off the bench, he has a bounce in his step I haven't seen in a while, and the change of scenery is doing him wonders. He's going to be a key part of their post-season run, with his leadership in the locker room and ability to hit clutch shots. OKC seems to be feeding Perkins in the post a bit more to see if he can recapture the scoring instincts he had in high school, but it's still very much a work in progress.

I haven't paid much attention to the DPOY race since Howard won his first because it seemed he'd have it locked up for the near future, but Serge Ibaka should be the winner this season, hands down. He was an absolute menace defensively, after blocking two of Cousins' shots early (including a dunk attempt), Demarcus was afraid to come into the paint, and it took the whole Kings offense out of synch. Kings player who made it into the paint were always looking over their shoulder for Ibaka to deny them a shot, and that fear was justified. Ibaka's biggest flaw defensively was his tendency to foul, but his timing has improved immensely on his weakside help, and any team without a scoring threat at the 4 to keep Ibaka attached is going to suffer. If Ibaka doesn't win DPOY this season I'll be stunned.

Nothing else to say about this game, except that the Thunder are going to be real tough to beat in a seven game series this season. Who knows what the rest of the NBA is going to do in a couple of years if the Thunder can keep their core together by the time these guys hit their prime.

Tomorrow's game should hopefully be a bit closer after two straight blowouts, with Washington taking on Cleveland. Irving being out is unfortunate, but there are still plenty of young prospects to look out for on both sides.

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