The Thunder season is over, courtesy of the Dallas Mavericks in a five-game Western Conference Finals. But the Thunder learned much about itself. Here is a little the Thunder learned:
1. Nick Collison is an elite defender. I know, Dirk Nowitzki had a series for the ages. But the Thunder refused to double-team Dirk, while the Mavericks double-teamed Kevin Durant the majority of the time (and Russell Westbrook some). The Thunder made the decision that it would live with whatever Nowitzki produced, and in the end Nowitzki hurt the Thunder.
But Collison’s defense still was excellent. He made Nowitzki work for his shots, even to the point that Dallas coach Rick Carlisle questioned whether Collison was playing fair. With Collison, Serge Ibaka’s shot-blocking and Kendrick Perkins’ post defense, the Thunder is set in the middle defensively.
2. James Harden has to play a bunch. Harden averaged 26.7 minutes per game during the regular season. He averaged 29:54 per game in the Denver playoff series, then 32:17 in the Memphis series and 32:15 in the Dallas series. Harden’s days of playing less than 30 minutes per game are over.
3. In small doses, Russell Westbrook and Harden can swap positions, with Harden initiating the offense and Westbrook playing on the wing. Harden is not a full-time point guard; heck, he’s not a part-time point guard. But in the right circumstance, Harden is very effective at getting the offense started. He’s an excellent passer and penetrater, and Westbrook cutting in from the wing is dynamite.
4. Eric Maynor is not a starting point guard, at least not on a contending team. Maynor has been a superb two-year backup to Westbrook, and in Game 5 Wednesday night, Maynor and Westbrook played together, to some acclaim. But Maynor’s defensive deficiencies were exposed by J.J. Barea. The Thunder can spot Maynor in certain situations, but he can’t handle the defensive load on a regular basis.
5. Daequan Cook is valuable even when not shooting. Cook scored six points in Game 1 against Dallas and eight points in Game 2. But he went scoreless the final three games and didn’t even shoot the final two games. But Scotty Brooks kept using Cook, in limited doses, because he spreads the floor. With Durant getting double-teamed by the Mavs, the Thunder had to have a lineup that could keep the Dallas defenders spread out, and Cook provided that.
6. Durant played a whale of a series against the Mavericks. His shooting wasn’t always on; Durant made just 42.9 percent of his shots (Nowitzki made 55.7 percent). But Durant was excellent in other areas. He averaged 28.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocked shots and 4.0 assists. All of those numbers were up from his averages in the regular season, in the Denver series and in the Memphis series, with the exception of scoring against the Nuggets (32.4). Look at it this way; Durant scored almost as much as Nowitzki (32.2) and rebounded almost as much as Tyson Chandler (10.6).
7. Scotty Brooks will roll the dice. I know we think of him as consistent and maybe even stubborn. But three times in five games Brooks did something he hadn’t done in months. A) Game 1, Brooks turned to Nate Robinson for a spark. It didn’t work, and no one ever should have believed it would, but this was a sign that Brooks wasn’t going to go with status quo. B) In Game 2, Brooks rode a hot lineup consisting of Durant and four reserves (Collison, Maynor, Harden and Cook) the entire fourth quarter, until foul-outs in the final seconds. And C) In Game 5, Brooks played Maynor and Westbrook together, which he had done a little early in the season but not at all in recent months.