With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder was designed for the playoffs
Berry Tramel writes that with the offseason additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, GM Sam Presti has a team built for this time of the year.
Way back on Oct. 21, the Thunder lost 96-87 in
Salt Lake City. Carmelo Anthony took 26 shots; 13 of them were the dreaded mid-range jumpers.
In November, the Thunder went 4-9, blowing leads of 18 points to Boston and 23 to San Antonio.
In December, the Thunder lost to the Knickerbockers in New York, the Nets in Mexico City and the Mavericks and Hornets in Loud City.
Only one thing kept Thunderland sane. The belief that this team was not built for October or November or December.
This Thunder team was built for the playoffs.
“Is that right?” Carmelo Anthony asked with a mixture of charm and curiosity.
We soon find out. The Thunder plays the Jazz at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Game 1 of the NBA’s most interesting first-round series.
And the Thunder indeed seems a team built more for playoff, not regular-season success.
•Veterans galore, who don’t always get up for cold winter games against Milwaukee but know the stakes when April arrives.
•Defensive flexibility that can adjust to all kinds of offenses and guard all kinds of stars.
•Individual talent that can create shots when defenses tighten up in the playoffs, which is always the case.
•A coach who hasn’t always gotten the most out of his team in the regular season but has proven to be quite adept at playoff maximization.
“I think we are built for the playoffs,” Carmelo said. “I think this is part of why we wanted to all come together, because we saw an opportunity. This is the journey to be able to accomplish what we came together to accomplish.”
The off-season trades for Carmelo and Paul George turned the Thunder from a young team with promising talent to an experienced team with elite talent. OKC entered the Houston series a year ago with 219 combined playoff games by its rotational players. This year, the number is 387. Plus, two perennial all-stars joined Russell Westbrook, even though Carmelo is past his prime.
“You look at our team, we have a bunch of young guys added with a couple veteran guys who aren’t old … but have a lot of years under their belt within the season,” said backup point guard Raymond Felton, added in July from the free-agent ranks. “We have the experience, we have the knowledge. We have the talent and it’s all about getting out there and doing it.”
The Thunder’s defensive flexibility took a
major hit with Andre Roberson’s January injury. And the defense, too. Roberson could guard multiple positions well, and coupled with George — and an engaged Westbrook — the Thunder perimeter was hard to breach. The March addition of Corey Brewer has helped some, but the Thunder is not the defensive force it was earlier in the season.
The Jazz remains the defensive monster it has been since 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert blossomed into one of the NBA’s most valuable players. Utah placed second in NBA defensive efficiency, a smidge behind Boston, and was third last season.
But every team tends to bolster its defense for the playoffs. Offensive cohesion wanes. Systems slow. Individual talent occasionally is needed. That’s where this Thunder roster could shine.
With Westbrook, George and Carmelo, the Thunder has three highlevel players that can create their own shot in the late moments of the shot clock. Heck, count Felton in that group, too.
“As the playoffs go, the game slows down some, teams are really conscientious of getting back in transition,” Billy Donovan said. “You’re always trying to find ways to carve out a way to get some easy baskets, whether it’s offensive rebounds, free throws, backdoor cuts. But sometimes up against the clock, you need guys that can generate offense for your team, or who can make a play, make a shot or make a play for somebody else.
“Carmelo’s done that for a long time in his career, Russell is a great attacking guard and Paul’s really good off the dribble, and I think Raymond in the second unit has done a really great job.”
And finally, what some perceive as a Thunder weakness — coaching — becomes a strength in the playoffs. Two years ago, the Thunder took out the 67-win Spurs and dang near did the same to the 73-win Warriors, with Donovan pushing all the right buttons. Strategy is his forte; what Sam Presti calls “tactical competency.” Heck, last April, the outmanned Thunder played well against the heavily-favored Rockets.
Donovan experiments in the regular season. He seems less concerned about winning than learning. That changes come April.
“The staff here is great as far as getting us prepared mentally and physically through the season,” Felton said. “Now it’s time to go out there and take care of business.”
It’s been a long season. A difficult season at times. A frustrating season. But now it’s a new season. The season for which this Thunder team was built.
With established stars in Carmelo Anthony, left, and Paul George joining Russell Westbrook, the Thunder now has 387 combined playoff games by its rotational players.
Thunder GM Sam Presti