I had a chance to send a few questions over to our friend J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City to see if he can give us some insight on what to expect from the Thunder. Now, we certainly have some experience in matching up with them, but both teams are in a different place right now than we were back in 2010-11, when we met in the second round of the playoffs.
1. Serge Ibaka is really starting to turn it on, having a career-year on the offensive side of the ball (yes, I realize we're only two weeks into the season, but...). Is this a "new" Serge Ibaka? Are we going to see him continue to be more aggressive on the offensive side of the ball?
Serge Ibaka's emergence on the offensive end of the court this season is a function of 2 general things:
a) With the loss of James Harden, the Thunder needed additional scoring in order to maintain their top flight offensive efficiency.
One of the great things that Harden does so well is score at the rim. As you well know, OKC is predominantly a jump shooting team, and with the addition of Kevin Martin, that remains to be the case, which makes it all the more important for the Thunder to get some additional inside scoring. Fortunately I think the Thunder brass knew this and so even in the preseason we saw a very concentrated effort to get Ibaka the ball in good offensive scoring situations.
What you may not know in having watched Ibaka so far in his career is that he is one of the best mid-range big man jump shooters in the game. When he squares up and shoots in rhythm from the 12-15 foot area, his jumper is nearly as consistent as Durant's. Ibaka has even stretched his shooting range out to 3-point land. While I'm not a huge proponent of the starting power forward playing 23 feet away from the rim, it is at least good to know that the shot is there.
b) Ibaka is too talented to NOT be a good offensive player.
If you peruse some of Ibaka's stats against Memphis you will likely be underwhelmed, and this is one area in which both he and the Thunder generally must improve if they are to make noise in the playoffs. As stated above, Ibaka has unlimited potential as an offensive player, but up until this season he has struggled with consistency. All the tools are there, but he needs to be more assertive, and the Thunder need to be creating offensive game plans that feature him. Given that Ibaka's shot attempts are up almost 3 per game over a year ago and his scoring average has jumped 56%, I think the team is off to a good start in this area.
2. We at SoV complain constantly about Rudy Gay and his penchant for taking long, contested jumpers. Now, I noticed -- and I say this as someone who admittedly hasn't watched every minute of every Thunder game this season -- Russell Westbrook's FG% is hovering around 40%, while he's taking over four 3-pointers per game (the most in his career). Is this concerning to you, or are you guys OK with Westbrook stepping out and taking more long jumpers? And if you are OK with it... what's your secret? Signed, someone who watches Rudy Gay 82 times a year.
Gay is taking almost 19 shots per game, and 5 of those (26%) are coming from the 16-23 foot range, which is, statistically speaking, the worst shot a player can take. Yeah, I think I can feel your pain on that one.
I know it can be frustrating, but it is also necessary to not simply consider the raw data in a vacuum. What makes Westbrook's shot selection so maddening at times is that a number of his jumpers are good shots but are taken way too early in the shot clock, thereby making the opposing defense's job easy. That's the pattern that Westbrook has fallen into early in games, and as a result the Thunder offense has run inefficiently. To contrast though, as the game goes along Westbrook becomes more discerning in his shot selection and if it isn't falling, he knows how to work his way to the free throw line. Witness his 11-15 mark from the stripe in their win over the Pistons as evidence.
As long as Westbrook and Gay know how to produce those efficient free throw points as the game goes along, the long jumpers become a little less painful. What I'd be more concerned about is that Gay's numbers don't seem to scale well with increased minutes. Perusing his game log from last season, his point total doesn't really change regardless of whether he plays 30 minutes or 40 minutes. Hopefully the Grizz will see that and adjust his usage accordingly. I'm sure you're fully confident of that notion, right???
3. Now that you've had a few weeks to process the James Harden trade, do you feel any differently -- for better or worse -- today than you did on October 27, when the deal was made?
Speaking for both my self and my general point of view in understanding Thunder fans, I think that we're moving on, but every time we see the Thunder struggle in the 4th quarter, we get flashbacks.
To be sure, the addition of Kevin Martin has acted as a salve of sorts. In fact, Martin fits in a little bit better with what OKC should be about on offense. He offers a great alternative - a guy who can score efficiently and not dominate the ball.
With Harden, the general offensive mentality was that Westbrook was the sledgehammer, Durant was the sword, and Harden was the spear. The Thunder would just roll through their progression of these guys and the result was a not-too-terribly complex system that just sought to overwhelm the other team with pure talent. The upside of this strategy is that it was extremely rare that all 3 of these guys would have an off-night, and as a result the Thunder always had a shot to win games. The downside was that outside of the fast break, there wasn't a whole lot of team synergy; it was often an either/or proposition on how to manage the offense.
Without Harden the security blanket, the Thunder must now learn to play as a more complete team that has an offensive strategy. Westbrook and Durant must learn to make better usage of possessions and utilize the full extent of their options. Ibaka must become more prominent. One measure of the team's growth is that team assists have jumped materially over last season. In a way the loss of Harden is the removal of that security blanket so that they must grow as players. To be sure, growth also means growing pains, but I am optimistic for the long term.
4. Does this Grizzlies team "scare you" more than the 2010-11 team that took the Thunder to a 7th game in the second round of the playoffs? Why or why not?
I don't think this Grizzlies team 'scares' me any more than that 2010-11 team or even last year's team because prior editions of the Grizz scared me as much as watching the Thunder go against the Spurs or the Heat. The reason why is because Memphis has a certain ability, at least against OKC, is to be a not-as-talented team that can still be able to win. That is a frightening thing. There have been so many games over the past 2 years where OKC was substantially better on the court for most of the game, yet with the 4th quarter winding down, there the Grizzlies were, in position to win despite getting outplayed. Furthermore, those Memphis guys KNOW it too; they know that they don't need to fear more talented teams because they have a team attitude that never relents.
My guess is that attitude stems directly from the warrior spirit of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. In fact, I imagine that the pair does some sort of Haka dance before they play the Thunder, just to get their mojo going.
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