To get the pleasantries out of the way first, the Thunder are a terrible team. Their big men are Chris Wilcox (okay, we can work with this...), Nick Collison (reasonable, I guess...), and Joe Smith (sure, sure...). That's a lot of reasonable-but-uninspiring. Russell Westbrook is a perfectly reasonable point guard, I guess, but I didn't see the supposedly awesome defense that prompted OKC to pick him ahead of Kevin Love or Joe Alexander or, if they had to have a PG, DJ Augustin. Kevin Durant looked like he coasted through the game, but that was the most effortless 24 points I've ever seen, if that's the case. I sense he's still uncomfortable with the pro game's physicality. Once he bulks up just a bit and gets comfortable fighting with the likes of Gerald Wallace, he'll be an unholy scoring monster.
Before getting to the idea that I've been chewing on the past few days, it bears mentioning that Sean May had a double-double, at 10 points and 11 rebounds, in 27 minutes. None of his rebounds were hustle boards--I specifically remember thinking that he'd gotten an inordinate number of uncontested bounces straight to him--but he looks like he's in better shape than he was three weeks ago. Here's hoping he's no longer an embarrassment on the court. Once he gets his legs under him and can jump for boards, there's no reason we can't expect him to be Troy Murphy Lite.
Emeka had another tremendous night, with a 25 and 13 against the Thunder's mediocre front court. Can we, once and for all, dispense with the fiction that he has to be an offensive force in order to be worth his contract? Nights like this are fun and get everyone excited, but if he's the same 14/11 guy he's always been, with the same elite defense, then he's worth every penny the team pays him. Basketball is 50% offense and 50% defense. It all has to add up, somehow. Maybe the best offensive player is something like 60% of his team's offense when he's on the floor and the best defensive player is only 40% of his team's defense when he's out there (note: numbers pulled out of my ass), but that's still value over the average player at the same position that few fans and few media commentators will acknowledge. Antawn Jamison can't play defense, anymore. At all. If he ever did. Just because his value comes from offense means he'll be more highly regarded than Okafor, even though 'Mek might bring more value to the game, depending on how you measure such things. Respect the D.
Interestingly, Larry Brown doesn't seem to respect defense at all. I mean, he obviously teaches it, and he knows what a sound defensive system is supposed to do, but his substitution patterns indicate that he doesn't understand how defense is undermined by inadequate player matchups. That's the crux of my crusade against the double point guard lineup.
Last night, Brown deployed the double point lineup in crunch time, and that's what kept the Thunder in the game. The lineup was Augustin, Felton, Richardson, Wallace, and Okafor. They entered with about seven minutes to go and a seven point lead. From that point on, only the Thunder's unique ability to shoot themselves in the foot prevented us from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Traveling violations. Dribbles slapped out of bounds. We got lucky they didn't come back, because they were unable to take advantage of our woeful defense in the double point configuration. Consider: Augustin is undersized for most points (Westbrook). Felton is undersized for most shooting guards (Durant, Desmond Mason), Richardson is slighter than most small forwards, and about an inch or two shorter (Durant or Mason). Wallace fights well against power forwards, but he's also undersized against many of them and is better served harassing swing men (Jeff Green). And Okafor is a great defender, but undeniably small for a center. This time, he was playing against another undersized center (Wilcox).
It's not that Augustin, Felton, and Richardson don't try and don't do the correct things on defense. It's that they simply can't compete physically with those guys. Few guys in the league can stop Durant's jumper, but at least they can obstruct him. Why put 6-1 Felton out on him?
In crunch time, there's something to be said for outscoring the opponent, but that's if you're behind. While you can concede baskets and trust that you'll outscore them point for point, that actually gives them a chance. If you concentrate on defense and put your best defensive lineup on the floor, the actual act of coming back, scoring points, is harder for them to do. Again, respect the D.