Man­u­fac­tured suc­cess

With Paul Ge­orge and Carmelo An­thony, the Thun­der was de­signed for the playoffs

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NBA PALYOFFS -

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.

[PHOTO BY BRYAN TERRY, THE OKLAHOMAN]

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.

[PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN]

Thun­der GM Sam Presti

Berry Tramel btramel@ oklahoman.com

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