The NBL finals begin this Thursday night with four genuine championship contenders, but three of the four contending teams have coaches out of contract.
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Oklahoma City Thunder are tied third in the Western Conference and only 4.5 games behind the Warriors.
They have potentially three all-stars on their roster – Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams, with George making his case for MVP bigger with each game.
So far this season Westbrook has been averaging a triple-double – 21 points per game, 10.6 rebounds per game and 10.5 assists per game – and may make this year the third time he’s done it for a full season; however, it’s not through Westbrook that OKC are finding success.
Paul George has been lethal on the offence – 26.7 points per game, 8 rebounds per game and 4 assists per game – and somehow even better on the defensive end, elevating his game to a level that we haven’t seen before from the forward.
Steven Adams is providing on both ends of the court, averaging 15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Individually all three players are providing an edge for the Thunder, but their selflessness and killer instinct are placing the franchise as one of the top teams in the west.
The additions of Dennis Schroder from Atlanta and Nerlens Noel from Dallas have proved to be absolute steals for the franchise, which is exactly what the Thunder needed. Abdel Nader, formerly a Celtic, has also proved useful for the Thunder cause after his 18-point game against the Suns in December. The development of younger players, such as Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo have the young bloods also carrying their share, and if they continue to develop, they will only get better as the season unravels.
It appears as though all the pieces are coming together for the Thunder, but their closing out of games is their downfall. Their 18 January match-up against the Lakers was the latest example of Oklahoma’s inability to close games. Many might link this inability to Westbrook’s poor decision-making in the final plays – attempting shots from the perimeter or mid-range pull-ups have hurt the Thunder of late.
Their recent clash with the 76ers in Philadelphia shows that coach Billy Donovan thinks this might be the case. Benching Westbrook in the final play of the game saw that the ball was put into the hands of George, coming off a screen from Adams, drawing a foul and sinking the three, winning the game 117-115.
Benching Westbrook might not be the ideal way to close games, as the team can gain considerable benefit from him driving to the basket and dishing out the ball, but for Thunder to really prove a threat to the Warriors’ dominance in the west, Russell needs to tweak his close-out and place his faith in his teammates to take care of the ball.