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Game 7 carries new (and different) weight for Thunder

Oklahoma City is keeping the big picture in mind -- yes, even as it pertains to Kevin Durant -- as this grand moment nears

POSTED: May 30, 2016 10:16 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Practice: Kevin Durant

Thunder forward Kevin Durant talks with the media prior to flying to Oakland for Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

Can you see the improvement forest for the potentially bitter playoff disappointment trees?

This is the time when franchises can splinter.

This morning, the morning of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder has to contemplate that it may have given away its best chance ever to once again reach the NBA Finals.

It may have played its way out of a chance to make history, having given up a 3-1 series lead to the Golden State Warriors. It may have witnessed Kevin Durant's final game at Chesapeake Energy Arena Saturday night, in as tough a postseason loss as any team has to endure, blowing an eight-point, fourth-quarter lead.

Or, not.

The Thunder could well win Game 7 tonight at Oracle Arena (9 ET, TNT), and have its faith and credit restored. It may well keep the potential date with the Cavaliers in The Finals that looked so certain just a few days ago. When you have two superstars in Durant and Russell Westbrook, each capable of scoring 40 on any night, you always have a chance in every game.

If not ... Goodness.

But the Thunder franchise has always, always seen the big picture, the need to not compete for a season, but for seasons. No matter the result Monday, the likelihood is that the organization knows and understands the positive steps the team has taken this year under first-year Coach Billy Donovan. Overwhelming a 67-win San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals and dominating large stretches of its series with the Warriors are testimony to the strides made the second half of the season.

There is no doubting that center Steven Adams has become a two-way force for the Thunder. Dion Waiters, thought out of control and unable to discern a good shot from a bad one in Cleveland, has gotten much, much better at making decisions on offense and making an effort on defense. And Andre Roberson has overcome much of his self-doubt to become an important contributor on offense.

I think we have another level we have to get to in order to finish this team off. We're excited where we are, but we're not satisfied.

– Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant

"It's great, man," forward Serge Ibaka said last week. "It just gives you a great, positive vibe on the team. Everybody's touching the ball. Exciting. And it gives everybody confidence, especially both of them, when they need us, because we get our confidence from them."

What Durant -- famously, an unrestricted free agent at season's end -- and his camp think of what's happened, and what's to come, is something they've kept to themselves all year. (There is no sign that that will change any time soon.)

But the smart money is on OKC remaining whole after this season, no matter the result tonight. That means Durant staying at least one more season -- if for no other reason to set himself up for a massive payday in the summer of 2017, when he'd become eligible for 35 percent of the Thunder's salary cap as a player with 10 years in the league.

If Durant signed a two-year deal with a one-year out with Oklahoma City this summer, he'd be eligible to get 35 percent of the projected cap for 2017-18, which is currently $107 million. That cut would start at $37.5 million. With annual 7.5 percent raises, Durant would be looking at a potential five-year deal worth more than $215 million.

He could take less to play elsewhere, which is the dream of teams that have pined for him for years. But, why would he?

One of the main reasons the Thunder was determined to move on from coach Scott Brooks after last season was that OKC didn't want to wait another year to decide if Brooks was the long-term solution. If the Thunder had kept Brooks and fired him after this year, they'd be bringing a new coach in at the exact moment Durant was deciding what to do with the rest of his career.

Now, Durant has had a year to see what Donovan does, how he thinks and how he adjusts.

The Thunder's evolution went in fits and starts the first half of the season, and looked like it came to a full stop right after the All-Star break. OKC had a daunting schedule through late February and March -- two games with the Warriors, two games with the Clippers, single games with the Cavaliers and Spurs -- and the Thunder didn't look very good, going 4-8 in its first dozen post-All-Star break games.

"We just knew what kind of group we had," Durant said last week. "We knew who we had. We had a really good coach and a lot of good players on this team. And a lot of stuff was going on. We'd lose two or three in a row, and it was the end of the world. And we knew we couldn't panic. It's a marathon, it's a long season. And we just tried to keep grinding every single day. That's why, that's all we came into shootarounds and practice and games with, just keep improving, keep getting better. And we're kind of staying with that. I think we have another level we have to get to in order to finish this team off. We're excited where we are, but we're not satisfied."

OKC's improvement on defense starts with Durant, who has learned how to use his seven feet of arms and legs to great effect at the rim. He doesn't reach -- he just stands tall, and he doesn't initiate contact, making the path to the basket for opposing wings increasingly difficult.

Durant says the only reason people are noticing his defense these days is because "we're on TNT" -- i.e., the only game on nationally when the season gets down to the NBA's final four. But that's not the universal view. "I've never seen Kevin bending his knees before," one coach who worked with Durant in past years said the other day.

Donovan has used the season as a grand experiment, trying different lineups, emphasizing different priorities, always empowering Durant and Westbrook to recommend changes when they saw something. He simplified OKC's defensive coverages when players complained they had too much to process on every possession, depending on where the ball was at a given time.

"I always believe that sometimes people think progress is just this steady incline that goes up and up, with no adversity," Donovan said. "What ends up happening is you take a step up, and then you go back, and then back up. And a lot of times when you look at, if you were to draw a line of this team's progress, you'd see a lot of up, down, up, down, up, down. And I just think that's the way it is in life. It's never ever just a smooth incline. So there's things that we were doing over the course of the season that, even in some losses, I thought we had taken a step in the right direction and moved in the right direction, and wanted to urge our guys to continue the path that we were on."

After that 4-8 post-All Star patch, the Thunder won eight in a row, including convincing wins over San Antonio, Toronto, Portland and Indiana. OKC won the eight games by an average of 17 points per game.

From the outside, OKC's regular season was defined by all the fourth-quarter leads it blew. But the playoffs -- at least, until last Saturday -- had seen the Thunder learn how to put quality opponents away, by moving the ball and letting guys other than Westbrook and Durant take ownership.

"We're trusting the pass," Ibaka said. "It's not easy. You're playing with two of the best scoring (players) in the game. It's not easy. Because, the fact (is), they can score so easy. They get the basket whenever they want. It's not easy. But we're getting better. We're working on it. And that's why we're here today."

Adams, Ibaka and Roberson were front and center as the Thunder dismantled the Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semifinals as much as Durant and Westbrook were.

"I think whenever there's change for these guys, with me coming in and some new staff coming in, even when the first game happens, it's like, okay, let's see what's new," Donovan said. "It doesn't change like that. It takes time to continue to change and evolve and develop, and I give these guys a lot of credit for putting their best forward to continually try to get better. And I think that's what you want to do as a coach, is you want to see, is our team better than they were a week ago, or a month ago."

There is no doubt that the 23-year-old Adams has become a force in his fourth season.

Adams is by far the best result of the James Harden deal in 2013 -- the first-round pick that OKC got from Houston as part of the trade. (Guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, also acquired from the Rockets, are both long gone.)

Adams' toughness was obvious from his rookie season, when he split minutes in the middle with veteran Kendrick Perkins.

More than one member of the Warriors' organization has said during this series, without prompting, that Adams is already the best center in the league.

"It's just being around us when we're going through tough times," Adams said. "Whenever you go through crappy times with anyone, you just fight those same battles. And you automatically have that trust, anyway. It just grows along with it. And then obviously the more games you play, the more stuff you go through and overcome with them, that's obviously where the trust comes from."

When Waiters came from Cleveland, Durant and Westbrook made it clear -- we're going to win with you, or without you. But we'd prefer to do it with you.

Waiters has bought in, completely, becoming the Thunder's latest buy low success story.

"When we traded for him last year, I'm the first person who texted him," Durant said. "I was the first person that hung out with him when he came. We were out on the road in Sacramento. We hung out the night before the game, the night after the game, and ever since then we've been boys. We talk to each other. I talk to him like I would talk to my little brother. He's one of those guys that, he always has something to say back. But it's just a great relationship, and it's something that's always going to be there."

Finding a backup point guard for Westbrook over the years has proven difficult for Oklahoma City. Many capable people -- D.J. Augustin, Derek Fisher, Eric Maynor -- have had the position. But Westbrook's game is so dynamic and powerful, it's proven very hard for anyone else to feel he wasn't just marking time until Westbrook checked back in.

In some ways, point guard makes sense for Waiters -- "Dion just loves to have the ball in his hands," Durant said.

"So it took him, just knowing where everybody is on the floor, knowing the sets to run. It took him a couple of games just to try to figure that out. Figuring out the pace of the game at the point guard position is a little different. So he's learning. He's learning. He'll tell you himself that he wants to get better at it as well."

There is no doubt that tonight matters for this franchise. You only get so many chances where everything comes together for you, and you have a legitimate shot to win a title. There is no telling how long this group could stay together if it beats the Warriors -- or how devastating a loss would be, both short term and long term. But the Thunder has gotten better as the season goes on, and that means something.

"I think what's happened in the playoffs for us is, we've continued to play really good teams, and it's enabled us to get better," Donovan said. "Just like when we came out of the All-Star break, and we got hit with that span, I don't know what it was, we played against real good teams. That made us better. That helped us. And even though you didn't get wins and losses in the column like you'd like to have them, it still forced us to confront things in our team that we needed to get better at."

...AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Changing of the Guards? Or, forwards? From Cameron Christie:

Fact: Toronto has 4 first round draft picks over the next two years.

Fact: We have (like everyone) an abundance of cap room.

I am really hoping that learned fans of the Raptors can see (DeMar) DeRozan's limitations and don't explode, Jurassic Park style.

I think Nicolas Batum is a perfect fit for everything Toronto, and ideally with Jonas Valanciunas getting more action down low, he can take some of DeRozan's offensive possessions. One can hope, right?

Part of the reason I have no trouble mentally getting past DeRozan leaving is that I, like many friends, are simply tired of watching him clank long twos...

Well, Batum's a small forward, Cameron; you'd have to do something with DeMarre Carroll, who the Raptors just gave $60 million -- unless you played Batum at the four, which I suppose you could do at least part of the time. As for DeRozan, I don't know; who's out there that's better? I'll be stunned if Bradley Beal ever really gets on the open market. None of the first-rounders under Toronto's control this June or next are likely to find a player out of college as good as DeRozan already is. Plus, he said all the right things after the Raptors' season-ending loss to the Cavs about how much he loves Toronto and wants to finish the job there. Unless there's a significant upgrade out there, I think I'd stick with the incumbent backcourt for a while.

All in the Family. From Hamish Alexander:

Correct me if I'm wrong but the Thunder starting 5 were all drafted by the Thunder/Sonics. Clearly a sign of a great organization.

How many other teams in the league sport a starting five all drafted by that team and has any franchise one the title with such a set up?

With regard to OKC's starting five, technically, no. Russell Westbrook (first round, fourth overall, 2008), Kevin Durant (first round, second overall, 2007), Serge Ibaka (first round, 24th pick, 2008) and Steven Adams (first round, 12th pick, 2013) were all drafted by the Thunder/Sonics, but Andre Roberson (first round, 26th overall, 2013) was acquired by the Thunder as part of a three-team Draft night trade involving the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves. But as to the spirit of your statement, yes, they are all homegrown players.

And it is indeed hard to find a championship team where all five starters were drafted by that team. Not the 2014 Spurs (Danny Green was drafted in the second round by Cleveland in 2009). Not the Heat in 2012 or '13 (LeBron, of course, was drafted by Cleveland in 2003, the same year Chris Bosh was drafted by Toronto). Not Dallas in 2011 (Jason Kidd, Dallas, 1994; Tyson Chandler, Chicago, 2001; Shawn Marion, Phoenix, 1999). Not the Lakers in 2009 or '10 (Pau Gasol, Memphis, 2001; Trevor Ariza, New York, 2004; Metta World Peace, Chicago, 1999). Not the Celtics in 2008 (Kevin Garnett, Minnesota, 1995). And on and on, back through the '90s and '80s.

The Celtics' title team in 1976 featured four homegrown starters (JoJo White, Charlie Scott, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens); only Paul Silas (St. Louis, 1964) wasn't drafted by Boston. And all of the 11 Boston teams that won titles during the Bill Russell era technically had at least one player that wasn't drafted by Boston -- Bill Russell, who was acquired by the Celtics on Draft night 1956 in a prearranged deal with the St. Louis Hawks, who sent the second pick overall to Boston for the seventh pick in the first round, along with Cliff Hagan and Ed McCauley. (Boston famously -- or infamously, depending on your point of view -- convinced the Rochester Royals, which had the first pick in the Draft that year, to pass on Russell. In exchange, Celtics owner Walter Brown, who ran the very successful Ice Capades show at the time, agreed to send the Ice Capades to Rochester for a week of performances. Rochester took Sihugo Green with the first pick. I have no further comment.)

You could argue that Russell was barely a Hawk and that, even though he wasn't technically drafted by Boston, he never played for anybody but Boston. If so, I give you the 1964-65 Celtics, featuring starting guards K.C. Jones (Boston, 1956, second round) and Sam Jones (Boston, 1957, first round), starting forwards Tom Heinsohn (Boston, 1956, territorial selection) and Tom "Satch" Sanders (Boston, 1960, first round) and Russell.

Fill this form out in quintuplicate. From Toby Francis:

Long time reader from Australia.

I've been pondering this for a while now, when I try to construct the ultimate "all-time team", all I wanna do is build a team where position means little. For instance a team of five LeBrons could beat anything anyone else one could construct of 1-5 positioned players. Although this week I'm starting to rethink maybe 3 x KD and 2 x LBJ for better spacing.

If your could build a team of one player would you? Which player would rule them all?

GameTime: LeBron's 6th Straight Finals

Steve and Dennis on LeBron James' return to the NBA Finals.

Interesting question, Toby. For the intellectual purposes of this exercise, I guess I can't just say five Bill Russells because he won 11 championships. A Bill backcourt probably would not do very much for the defensive-dominant Bill frontcourt. Five LeBrons would certainly provide mismatches at just about every position, especially at the point -- can you imagine, say, Boston's Isaiah Thomas trying to deny point guard LeBron position every possession? (The same would go for Five Magic Johnsons.)

But I'm not sure Two Guard LeBron would hold up his end. I'm tempted to go with five Scottie PIppens, given his incredible versatility as a defender and his ability to get to the basket on offense. But, in the end, I have to go with Five Michael Jordans. The ability to score from everywhere on the floor (even Power Forward/Center Jordan could get it done in the post, with that fadeaway he developed later in his career), and the havoc Defensive Jordan could establish out front, would compensate for the problems Power Forward/Center Jordan would have against bigger and stronger fours and fives.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and recipes for equanimity and calm (given that we're all doomed) to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(last week's averages in parentheses)

1) LeBron James (28.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.7 apg, .618 FG, .688 FT): Became the first player in 50 years -- 50 years!! -- to reach six straight Finals. (Okay, LBJ's Heat/Cavs teammate, James Jones, has also made six Finals in a row. You know what I mean.)

2) Russell Westbrook (31.7 ppg, 9 rpg, 10 apg, .402 FG, .815 FT): Has had a sensational couple of weeks since saying he "shot too much" in Game 3 of the Thunder's series with the Spurs.

3) Kevin Durant (31.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, .349 FG, .909 FT): Game 6 will haunt KD for a long time -- unless he comes up with a Game 7 performance that makes us all forget and propels the Thunder back to the Finals. Those are the stakes.

4) Stephen Curry (26.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.7 apg, .365 FG, .846 FT): Hasn't been the biggest or best series for him, but he's hung in and found ways to contribute.

5) Kawhi Leonard: Season complete.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Game Seven Game Seven Game Seven Game Seven Game Seven Game Seven Game Seven Game Seven. I hope I've made my position on this matter clear.

2) My ears are still ringing from the noise the Thunder's fans generated at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Games 3, 4 and 6 of the Warriors series. Look, I miss Seattle. The NBA needs a team back in the Emerald City, for those fans were loud and passionate and loyal for almost four decades. But OKC's fan base is second to none. The civic pride everyone has there for the team is a rare thing in this league.

3) David Fizdale's hiring by Memphis means there will be eight African-American head coaches in the league next season. Five of the 14 permanent jobs that have come open since the end of the 2014-15 season have been filled by black coaches -- Fizdale, Tyronn Lue (Cleveland), New Orleans (Alvin Gentry), Phoenix (Earl Watson) and Indiana (Nate McMillan).

4) On Memorial Day, let us all pause and thank those who died so that we could live our lives with at least some freedom and dignity, as well as those who survived and can bear witness to their comrades' sacrifices.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) The details of the tragic shooting and death of Pelicans guard Bryce Dejean-Jones over the weekend are still coming out, and it would be horrible to speculate about what happened until we know for sure. All you can process right now is that a 23-year-old kid who worked his way into the NBA last season is dead, and his family and friends need our support.

In Memoriam: Bryce Dejean-Jones

Highlights from Bryce Dejean-Jones career.

2) Very sad to hear of the passing of Ricky Rubio's mother, Tona Vives, last week. It is a fraternity no one wants to join, but as a fellow member I empathize with Ricky and his entire family.

3) Unfortunate to hear that family reasons will keep P.J. Carlesimo from joining Brett Brown's bench as assistant coach in Philly, replacing Mike D'Antoni, who took the Rockets' coaching job. Both sides wanted this to happen, badly. Hopefully all is well is CarlesimoWorld.

4) Directly behind him in the security line: Shawn Carter, area resident.

BY THE NUMBERS

$24,000,000 -- Money lost by Pelicans forward Anthony Davis after he did not make any of the three All-NBA teams as voted on by sportswriters and broadcasters at the end of the regular season. The first, second and third All-NBA teams were announced last week, and Davis was beaten out at the forward spots by LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul George. By not making any of the All-NBA teams and not being voted in as an All-Star starter this season (Davis was named to the West team as a reserve by the conference's coaches), Davis did not meet the criteria for the so-called "5th year 30 percent max" contract, given to players on their first contracts who achieve significant milestones early in their careers -- in other words, outperforming their contract. Instead of a contract that takes up 30 percent of the Pelicans' cap going forward, Davis' salary will only be 25 percent of New Orleans' total cap.

GameTime: All NBA Team

The NBA announced the All NBA Teams today and the GameTime crew reviews the selections.

7 Players -- LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Bob Cousy, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Bob Pettit and Jerry West -- that were 10-time All-NBA First Team selections. James made his 10th first team last week, putting him one behind record-holders Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone, each of whom made the first team 11 times.

57 -- Early Entry candidates for the Draft that officially withdrew last week by the deadline, allowing them to return to college next season. Among those who pulled out were NCAA championship game hero Kris Jenkins from Villanova, Kentucky's Marcus Lee, North Carolina's Justin Jackson, Maryland's Melo Trimble and Xavier's Trevon Bluiett.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

-- Miami center Hassan Whiteside (@youngwhiteside), Tuesday, 9:17 p.m., explaining to general managers that people like he, Hassan Whiteside, are tremendously important to the success of contending teams. Left unsaid is that he, center Hassan Whiteside, is an unrestricted free agent in July.

THEY SAID IT

"Listen, there is no animosity and regret between the three of us. Because you probably heard me say that Larry, Kevin, and I are not friends. We're not. But there's respect and admiration between us. And I say we are not friends because we didn't hang out and go to dinner. We didn't do that. But we are respectful and courteous towards each other, and what more can I ask for? And besides, I'm not an easy guy to get to know, anyway. I'd be the first to say that I'm a distant individual. I have a tendency to come across as being aloof and dismissive. I think the best way to describe me is that I'm a loner. I prefer to be by myself."

-- Hall of Famer Robert Parish, to the Boston Globe, on his decisions over the years not to take part in reunions and other get-togethers with those championship Celtics teams of the 1980s.

"If you watch Curry play -- or, just as revealing, warm up before the game -- you notice his relationship with the ball. It's like his body and mind are always on the same wavelength with el balón. I try to have that connection in my sport too."

-- Soccer superstar Lionel Messi, talking about his Stephen Curry love in his first-person account of his trip with his Argentina team to Copa America, to Sports Illustrated last week.

"I'm going to get your sister next."

-- Cavs guard J.R. Smith, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, "speaking" to the Eastern Conference championship trophy that was in his locker after Cleveland's series-clinching victory over the Raptors Friday night in Toronto.

MORE MORNING TIP: Plenty of heart in Warriors' playoff run | DA's Weekly Top 15 Rankings

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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