The Oklahoma City Thunder's loudest and most legendary critic still isn't sold on the team being able to win it all.
Not this year, anyway.
Charles Barkley on Thursday credited the Thunder for its improvement and its terrific cast of players but also expressed concern over whether OKC can defeat Miami in a potential NBA Finals rematch.
“It'd be a very good rematch, and those are the two favorites to me right now,” Barkley said during a national conference call with reporters in which TNT and NBA TV analysts previewed the NBA All-Star weekend.
Barkley and fellow studio analysts Kenny Smith and Steve Smith raised questions about everything from the state of the Thunder's backup point guard position to whether the departure of James Harden eventually will prove costly.
The one concern shared by all three was whether the Thunder has enough inside scoring and rebounding to make Miami pay for playing small.
“To me, the key to that team is going to be (Serge) Ibaka,” Barkley said. “(Russell) Westbrook and Ibaka are the keys. Westbrook has to get better at making people around him better. He has not done that. He's already an All-Star. Now comes the point where he (needs to be) like, ‘Oh, I've got to make the guys around me better.'
“But Ibaka to me is the guy. The only way to beat the Miami Heat is down low. And Ibaka shoots a lot of jumpers. He's got to post up and punish Chris Bosh down low.”
In last year's 4-1 series loss to the Heat, the Thunder often tried to dictate the matchups by sticking with a big lineup that included both Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. But that strategy backfired, as at least one of the Thunder's frontcourt players frequently found himself stuck covering a perimeter player. Their minutes also came at the expense of stopper Thabo Sefolosha.
“I look at Scott Brooks,” said Steve Smith. “You can't keep playing Perkins if you're playing the Heat, who plays small ball, and he can't take advantage.”
“No disrespect to Kendrick Perkins, but I think that they should play more small-ball,” Barkley said. “I totally agree with that. (Miami) doesn't have a center on the floor. (Perkins) is not scoring and there's no dominant big man for him to lock down. So if he's not going to dominate on the boards or score down low he's just ineffective.”
Although the Thunder currently owns the league's second best record, Kenny Smith said his biggest question is still how OKC will overcome the loss of Harden, who was traded to Houston in October. The Thunder, Smith said, might struggle not having a secondary playmaker to complement Kevin Durant.
“Will Westbrook be that guy? Because (Harden) was the playmaker,” Smith said. “That's going to be difficult, because the value of James Harden doesn't show in the regular season. It's only going to show in the playoffs. And he's a big-time scorer, a big-time player, as we see.”
Steve and Kenny agreed that the Thunder should look for help before the trading deadline passes in two weeks.
“I love the future of Eric Maynor if he's not hurt; even Reggie Jackson,” Steve Smith said. “But I don't think both of those guys are ready right now. So if you can make some kind of move that you don't give up your core and you can add a point guard, maybe a veteran point guard coming off the bench, that's the only move I'd be expecting.”
As we know, so much is riding on the eventual choices, big and small, that are made.
“For Oklahoma City,” said Kenny Smith, “anything less than getting back to the Finals is not going to be a successful season.”
Barkley, of course, got the last word.
“Nah,” he said, “they got to win it.”
Thunder vs. Suns
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 679, Dish 448, U-Verse 754/HD 1754)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* The Thunder is 2-0 against Phoenix this season, winning those two games by an average margin of 15 points.
* Phoenix has lost 18 of its last 24 games. The Suns are 5-21 on the road, tied with Sacramento for the worst road record among Western Conference teams.
* These two teams will play again Sunday at Phoenix. It will be the fourth and final meeting of the season.