Sort of witty, a little harsh, and most than a little deserved in light of what became of the Thunder in these Western Conference Finals when the going got rough. Their collapse in Game 4 ranks up there with Portland in game 7 of 2000 and Sacramento in Game 4 of 2002 as the three worst Western Conference Finals choke jobs in recent memory, with the Thunder more or less falling apart like a soggy taco.
Part of the process of winning, some would say. You have to learn how to become a champion in this game of basketball, inch by inch, point by point, mistake by mistake, until the turnovers turn into buckets and the bad shots morph into good ones. Talent-wise, Oklahoma looked like the better team for the majority of the series, or at least until the fourth quarter arrived and the Thunder showed their youth in every way while the Mavericks (oldest team in the league, by the way) showed their, well, age. In a good way, that is. They executed. They took good shots. They gave the ball to the right guy in crunch time, and he delivered.
Sounds easy I know, but it isn’t. It’s part of the learning curve, so much so that even the best players in the world have to take their lumps figuring it out. What causes Russell Westbrook to continually force the action when James Harden has been steadily dissecting the Mavs D all game? What causes your back-up point guard to wave off the star players in the waning moments of a must-win game, only to launch a misbegotten shot? What of all the wasted possessions late in Games 4 and 5, where they failed to even get shots off?
Youth and inexperience appears to be the easy answer, and it may be. Definitely appears to be at least part of the problem for the Bulls as well, though they’ve got bigger problems (more on that in a minute). Bad news is, Oklahoma City have have a bigger problem. One that could stunt the team enough to prevent them from taking those last couple of steps to the top.
Russell Westbrook has yet to turn 23 years old, and he’s just finished his third season as a pro. Plenty of time, say the optimists, for him to mature and “figure it out”. Of course, the graveyards are filled with the careers of talented guards who were supposed to figure it out but never did. Iverson. Marbury. Francis. No shortage of those guys if you scan the pages of history (or Basketball-reference.com).
Point is, just because you should mature doesn’t mean you will. Westbrook is a full speed, 5th gear player at all times. He’s got three moves, and they aren’t exactly sophisticated. He shot 36% from the field in Dallas series and turned the ball over 24 times in 5 games. That’s not even the worst of it. The fact that he attempted about as many shots (100) as Durant did (105) in the series says nothing good about Westbrook’s understanding of the teams’ pecking order and his place in it. I mean, I can understand the idea of a guy maturing and learning how to play at different speeds or learn how to involve his teammates more, but the prospect of a guy learning to deal with the fact that he’s not as good as he thinks he is? I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
Then again, Zach Randolph went and turned himself into genuine leader and community pillar and whatnot, totally fucking up everyone’s notions of how long it takes for guys to come around.
Make no mistake about it though, the key to this teams’ future is Westbrook. The talent is in place for this team to get it done. So is the management. What becomes of Westbrook will tell the story, good or bad.
From day one of this season, I wasn’t terribly impressed by this teams chances, at least not on the Championship scale. Slowly but surely they kept improving, far beyond what I expected, winning 62 games and generating serious playoff expectations from everybody, even though it was clear to me that they weren’t quite ready to make such a giant leap. Almost no team ever is in this sport, after all.
As it turns out, they weren’t ready, indeed. In fact, it stands to reason that this team might have already plateaued, or at least as presently constituted.
Hey, things could be worse. This seasons’ run was at least a year or two ahead of schedule, and was mostly the product of Tom Thibodeau’s remarkable transformation of the defense and the teams overall levels of focus and intensity, with an assist from Rose’s continued rise to prominence. Every Bulls fan should be absolutely ecstatic about their new coach and the teams prospects moving forward.
That said, it wasn’t going to be enough to win it all. In the end, this is still a talent league, and the Bulls had just enough to win 62 games and a couple of playoff series against mediocre teams, but were in over their heads against Miami. The fact that they hung as tough as they did is a testament to their effort and grit, but that stuff only gets you so far. Bless em, but the fact that second unit of Omer Asik, CJ Watson, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver was so feared and respected is the ultimate testament to the job Thibs has done.
Fact is, Derrick Rose shot 35% in this series. An ugly number for sure, but it says more to me about what he is lacking around him than it does about the man himself. He simply felt he needed to will his team to victory all on his own, and unlike Westbrook, Rose wasn’t unwise to draw that conclusion. His failure to do so is simply validation of a tight Heat defense that wasnt going to let one man beat them. After Rose did just that in game one, Miami adjusted and never looked back. Trust me, there might come a day that Rose is great enough to do it by himself. It just wasn’t today.
As for the future, it’s not a sure thing for this team. Plain and simple, Rose is in the same situation LeBron faced in Cleveland. The guy needs help, and it’s not going to come from Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah or Luol Deng, who are the very definition of “nice little players”, but nothing more.
Some would say the Bulls simply need a legiitmate shooting guard, and that would appear to be an attainable goal for them, as there are no shortage of those. Guys like Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, and OJ Mayo can all likely be had for a reasonable price . Others would suggest they need a second bonafide scorer, which would be significantly trickier to pull off given the Bulls’ existing financial commitments. Rumors of Boozer’s eminent departure have already sprung up, but finding a taker for that contract isn’t a job I’d want.
Point is, they need something, or the next few seasons are likely to end just like this one.
Until then, we can all sit back and watch the two teams that were ready for this moment. Should be a helluva series, and when it’s over either Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron James will have gotten the biggest of all Monkeys off his back.
Looking forward to writing the “Lebron has earned his respect” piece.
I didn’t mean that, I swear.
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