By John Schmeelk
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There’s a stigma in sports about saying things like “just wait until next year.” It’s a phrase Mets fans dread to utter, and Knicks and Rangers fans have become far too comfortable with.
However, with the Thunder, it couldn’t be truer. Their season is effectively over, but Thunder fans shouldn’t be too dismayed. Watching them play the Mavericks, I get the feeling that just one more year of age and maturity will make all the difference for this team.
You see Kevin Durant improving as this series has progressed, being more assertive, demanding the ball and playing with a mean streak I haven’t seen before. He dips in and out of this mindset, but he’s learning how important it is in every moment of every game. You can also see him beginning to figure out how important something small like catching the ball in the correct spot is. Once his mental focus and determination gets to the same level as his physical ability, he will truly become the best scorer in the NBA.
Russell Westbrook is on the verge of being a top tier NBA point guard, but he isn’t there yet. His decision-making still lacks something to be desired. He doesn’t quite understand what a good shot is, nor does he understand when he should pass and when he should shoot. After Durant went ballistic in the first quarter of Game 4, he went way too long without getting a touch or a shot. That’s on the point guard. This is Westbrook’s third year in the NBA, but it would be his rookie season if he stayed at UCLA for four years. One more year of practice and study could allow him to turn the corner.
Then there are younger players like James Harden and Serge Ibaka, who seem primed to bring their games to All-Star or near All-Star levels. This playoff run and their success during it can only help their maturation process and give them more confidence. Add to all that, Kendrick Perkins’ improved health next season and improvements from Eric Maynor, the Thunder will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. The Western Conference should be very, very afraid.
For the Mavericks, on the other hand, the time is now. They have played great basketball from the outset of the playoffs, and have shown how you don’t have to be flying through the air with a 38-inch vertical or sprinting down the court with ridiculous speed to be a good basketball team. They exemplify teamwork, decision making and unselfishness.
With superstar Dirk Nowitzki playing the best basketball of his career, the Mavericks might finally get over the hump and win their first NBA title. Right now they look like the best team. I’ll have more on the Mavericks after they wrap up the series in Game 5 on Wednesday night.
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The Bulls fight for their playoff lives tonight, but it’s as much about scheme as it is effort. They need to try something different offensively to get some more points. Yes, the Bulls’ defense betrayed them in Game 3, allowing the Heat to shoot better than 50% with most of their possessions coming in the halfcourt. But realistically, the Bulls aren’t going to beat the Heat scoring 85 points. They have to get into the 90’s.
Miami has scored fewer than 85 points just three times in thirteen games so far in the playoffs, all losses. They have too much talent and too many stars to be held back.
I expect an all-time defensive effort from the Bulls tonight, resembling what they did in Game 1 in Chicago, but they have to score. The Bulls have to score and Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau both have to find a way to do it. The spotlight is on them, and they have to prove their MVP and Coach of the Year awards were well deserved. The great ones make adjustments in the playoffs, and both have failed to so far in this series. If the Bulls run the same offensive sets they did in Games 1 and 2, they will lose.
Finally, someone should give some credit to Chris Bosh. He has been a perpetual whipping boy for all the Heat haters out there (like me), but now it’s time to tip that hat.
Against Joakim Noah, one of the best defenders in the league, he has averaged 26 points per game and shot about 66% from the field. He has been the best player on the Heat so far this series. Does he get a lot of open looks because of the attention paid to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Sure. Has he gotten a lot of his points on jump shots? Sure, but it doesn’t matter. The production has been there.
For this series, at least, he has truly made the Miami a “Big Three.” If he continues to play this way, the Heat will be virtually unbeatable.
You can follow me on twitter throughout the NBA playoffs at: http://twitter.com/#!/Schmeelk