By RICK SOLEM
Here’s what happened today at noonball (or, pickup basketball played at noon for those who have no idea).
First, we have a pretty steady group of guys who all know each other. We’ve been playing together for years.
Today, however, a new kid showed up. He was tall. Looked like he’d be OK at basketball. First possession, he takes a contested 12-footer and makes it. Hmmm.
It wasn’t a good shot in a basketball sense and, form wise, it didn’t look like a good shot, but it went in and you can’t complain much about that (though I kind of just did, didn’t I?).
Next possession, he jacks up another contested shot and misses hard off the glass. Next possession, he hoists a 3-pointer from the corner – nothing. Not nothing but net. He hit nothing. It went three feet over the rim. Air ball. A lot of air.
I don’t understand people sometimes. You’re the new guy, so maybe you’re trying to prove yourself, but obviously, you are terrible from beyond three feet. If you’re trying to win us over, pass and screen. Pass and screen.
Instead, you shot the first three times you touched the ball, which were also the first three possessions of the day and you didn’t even thinking about passing.
You’re not Russell Westbrook, though you sure are acting like it. A really poor version of it. Really poor.
And therein lies the problem when it comes to the Clippers-Thunder series: Russell Westbrook.
I’ve said this – as has just about everyone – every year the Thunder get into the playoffs: Westbrook is a look-at-me point guard who thinks he and Durant should be next to each other on a billboard outside Chesapeake Arena – if there were such a thing.
And nobody would agree with the notion that Westbrook means just as much to the Thunder as Durant. Not even Westbrook’s mom, I would guess.
The Clippers and Thunder split their four games this season. Chris Paul averaged 18.5 points (44% FGs), 12 assists and 2.5 turnovers. Westbrook scored 18.5 as well, but shot 40% with just 6.8 assists and 3 turnovers.
The assists stick out as much as the fact that Westbrook needed four more shots to get the same amount of points. As for the assists, one could argue that the teams are made up different, but Paul doesn’t have Durant to pass to or take the attention of the defense.
It’s hard to place blame on something that hasn’t quite failed, but at what point do you call the Thunder a failure? Call Westbrook a failure?
A sweep by the Clippers? Losing the series? Losing in seven? Losing the next series?
It’s kind of like this guy at noonball who made his first shot. He then felt justified shooting the rest of the day to the detriment of the team (we still won 2 out of 3, despite him).
The Thunder are better with Westbrook, but how much better could he be if he actually got, if not his team, Durant involved in the offense, instead of this “your turn, my turn” offense?
In the seven-game series with Memphis, Mr. Unreliable scored 29.9 points a game, averaging 23.7 shots (44% FGs). Westbrook averaged 25.6 points, jacking 23.6 shots (38%).
Only in Westbrook’s world does he feel justified taking as many shots as Durant. Remember, Durant had a streak of 25 points or more in 41 consecutive games and had 40 or more 14 times this year.
But the Westbrook-chucking problem never gets solved because Durant is the best scorer in the league and Westbrook is no spring chicken (whatever that means), so the team continues to be successful despite his faults. Despite their coach just rolling the ball out and saying, “Have at it.” Despite the fact that Ibaka and Reggie Jackson are very capable offensive threats that could more efficiently capitalize on shots if Westbrook gave them the opportunity. He hasn’t much needed to. But this series may determine things need to change.
The Clippers are a better team with a better point guard. Oddly enough, however, they’re not going to win. Durant’s too good and is now playing with an even bigger chip on his shoulder after getting semi-shut down by Memphis (he scored 15 that one game … wait, they won that game).
The Clippers are nice, but their owner is a racist. Karma alone won’t allow them to win. There’s also the fact that Blake Griffin takes 2-3 seconds to decide what button-combo to use when making his next face-up post move from seven feet away from the basket.
Ibaka can guard Griffin. All you have to do to render DeAndre Jordan useless is stay between him and the basket (on both sides of the court), or foul him. J.J. Reddick is no threat with Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson chasing him around.
And Matt Barnes is not Tony Allen. Durant will go off – if Westbrook lets him.
Thunder in six.
PACERS vs. WIZARDS
After beating the Bulls and watching the Pacers limp by the Hawks, the popular consensus will be to take the Wizards, who are now rolling along.
But Roy Hibbert doesn’t have to chase 3-point shooting bigs in this matchup. John Wall likes to get to the basket … where Hibbert will be waiting. Bradley Beal is nice, but Paul George is nicer. And Trevor Ariza’s resurrection this season comes right in stride with Lance Stephenson’s emergence.
The Wizards’ best asset is Wall and, not just his ability to drive and distribute on offense, but his ability to shut down his opponent’s point guards. The Pacers don’t run their offense through their point guard, therefore rendering Wall a bit useless.
It’s hard to pick against the team that’s rolling vs. the team that’s imploding, but that’s what I’m doing. And it’s hard to pick the team that takes a team photo like this.
But I am.
Pacers in six.
Spurs vs. Trailblazers
The Trailblazers go from playing against one of the worst “teams” in the playoffs to the undoubted best. By team, I mean basketball team … players who play basketball, not isolate one of two players and have three other guys stand and watch, like Houston.
The Spurs had the best record in the NBA by playing team ball. The Mavs gave them trouble, because the Mavs were pretty good at doing that same thing.
The Trailblazers also play well as a team – passing, movement. Their detriment: They chuck a lot of 3-pointers. They settle for 3s. They also don’t have Terrance Jones and Omer Asik guarding LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Damion Lillard-Tony Parker matchup is intriguing.
Duncan-Aldridge is, as well. Portland has the advantage with the long-bodied Batum, but Wesley Matthews continuance to want to get his negates a lot of what the Blazers do as a collective. San Antonio has no such problems.
This should be the most exciting series of Round 2.
Spurs in seven.
Heat vs. Nets
Oooh, the Nets swept the Heat in the regular season (4-0). On paper, this all looks interesting … if it were 2005. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnet, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirlenko were all great players. Now, they’re all guardable chuckers.
This is a big-name series that will produce little excitement. The Nets aren’t beating LeBron James.
Heat in five.