Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder's Keys To An NBA Championship

A couple of days ago I typed and published an article in regards to the NBA 2K15 cover, and how it could end up being prophetic once all is said and done. Needless to say there were a few who disagreed with me in the comments section, which was to be expected. There were people who thought that I was simply disregarding the Spurs. These are the same people, of course, who didn’t take into account that the Spurs were swept by the Thunder during the regular season last year, and that those same Spurs looked completely lost in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, but I digress.

To address anyone who thinks I’m simply writing off the Spurs, I’m not that stupid. To be honest, anyone who appreciates solid, fundamental basketball cheered when the Spurs knocked out the Heat for the 2014 NBA Championship. But, to sit here and act like the last two teams they beat didn’t have them outmatched from an athletic standpoint is deluding yourself. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs didn’t outmuscle or outpace their opponents to an NBA Championship, they outsmarted and outplayed them.

If you ask me, there isn’t a better coach in the NBA today than Gregg Popovich. I swear, that man’s basketball IQ is at super-genius levels. This man’s basketball knowledge is so thorough, you could give him a Pop Warner football team to coach for the NBA season, and he’d still find a way into the NBA Playoffs. While the last two teams his Spurs went against had them outmatched from an athletic standpoint, he knew full well that he could out-coach both Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra in his sleep if push came to shove.

At the end of the day, the Spurs are the 2014 NBA Champions because they played the 5-man team basketball that both the Thunder and the Heat shied away from when it mattered most. I honestly hope Brooks and the Thunder were taking notes during the 2014 NBA Finals, because Popovich and the Spurs showed them everything they need to do if they want to hold the crown one day themselves. The Thunder and the Heat fell short in the end because their coaches decided to use their biggest superstars as crutches once they ran out of answers, while it seems like a guy like Popovich always has an answer.

Superior coaching, and good old-fashioned experience are what earned the Spurs the 2014 NBA Championship. That’s why even the Thunder and Heat fans that appreciate the game itself had no choice but to tip their hats to the Spurs. They are an organization that did everything the right way, proving that you don’t need superior athleticism to win NBA Championships if you just stick to the fundamentals and play the game the right way, as a team. This is why I hope the Thunder took notes, because they need to realize that they got beat by a team whose players either left their selfish attitudes in the locker room, or didn’t even bother to bring them to the arena at all. (I’m looking at you now, Mr. Westbrook!)

I’m standing by my original assessment that the Thunder are the team to beat for the 2015 NBA Championship. Now, that doesn’t mean that all they have to do is show up to games, and the Larry O’Brien Trophy falls right into their laps. It’s never that easy, as the 2014 Spurs showed everyone who thought otherwise. (I’m looking at you now, LeBron!) Every team has a certain checklist of criteria to meet if they expect to be holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy once that last buzzer signals the end of the NBA season. The Spurs are the defending champions because they were the only team that could check off every box on their list once it was all said and done, whereas both the Thunder and the Heat left the “Reliable Scorer Outside Of Your Superstars Role” box unchecked.

Here is my checklist for the Thunder if they hope to be standing alone at the top of the NBA mountain after the 2014-2015 NBA season concludes. They fail to check off even one of these boxes by then, and they’ll find themselves asking this exact same question again when it’s over.

1) Never forget about your teammates! And this is where Russell Westbrook needs to focus his attention. Games start coming down to the wire, and it seems like he completely forgets he even has teammates at all. It’s like no one wants to tell Westbrook that if he travels the length of the court and jacks up a shot with 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock that he’s doing it wrong. The thing is, someone has to man up and say it to him, because I’m not sure if he’ll ever figure it out on his own. Basically, if you’re on the Thunder, and you want to see the ball every now and again, you’d better let Westbrook know you’re there, because he won’t be looking for you on the court once the pressure gets turned up.

2) Stay healthy! This is probably the biggest one for the Thunder right here. If either Westbrook, Kevin Durant, or Serge Ibaka blow an ACL, it’s over for the Thunder whether any of us care to admit it or not. If one of our current “Big 3″ players goes down for an extended period, it might simply be asking to much to overcome that scenario.

3) Develop some low-post beasts! One of the Thunder’s biggest drawbacks as a team is that they don’t really have many players that can move bodies down low. As a result, they get outmuscled in the low post on a regular basis. And if you haven’t noticed, teams with the most dominant low-post game usually claim the crown in the end. The Thunder’s lack of a low-post game is one of the biggest reasons they haven’t been able to cross the finish line. And to be honest, they never will until they can establish dominance in the low post on a regular basis. The development of both Steven Adams and Mitch McGary will be the key to checking this box off.

4) It’s time to end your love affair with the 3-pointer! This is easily one of the most frustrating aspects of being a Thunder fan. My biggest problem with the Thunder as a team, and an organization, is their complete willingness to live and die by the 3-point shot. They’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, and I’m not disputing that. The problem with teams that like to live and die by the 3-pointer is that the philosophy itself has yet to prove itself as a winning strategy. And to be honest, I will never really understand teams that like to utilize strategies that are known losers. How can anyone ever expect to win while employing a strategy that has yet to win? Even the question itself, while valid, is still rather nonsensical.

5) Employ a strategist at Head Coach! While Scott Brooks is one hell of a motivator, I’m not sure I can give him the same credit as a strategist. During timeouts, unlike Popovich, I almost never see the whiteboard in his hand. In contrast, during Spurs games, I see that whiteboard in Popovich’s hand during every timeout, and he’s putting the marker to it repeatedly, drawing up plays. Thunder players seem to have an ability to self-motivate, so a motivator in the Head Coach position just seems to create redundancy at this point, and doesn’t help them where they need it. While I can tell Brooks’ strategization is involved in the line-ups he decides to employ, he needs to brush up on basketball plays. An ability to draw up plays on the spot is what the Thunder are lacking from their coach. If Brooks doesn’t figure out how to draw up plays on the spot this upcoming season, I just have this feeling his time will run out in OKC altogether.

And finally…

6) Do not let the opposition ever get inside your head! This was Popovich’s lesson for the Spurs after Games 3 and 4, when Ibaka’s presence inside the Spurs’ collective head was costing them big in games. They found a way to shake his presence from their head, and then utilized Kawhi Leonard in the same way we utilized Ibaka. Leonard got inside the Thunder’s collective head for the remainder of the series, and we all know how it ended. That’s the lesson the Thunder need to take from that series.

The Thunder know what they need to do in order to grab the brass ring. Now it’s just about getting out there and doing what needs to be done.

Tags: Oklahoma City Thunder

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