Time for the Thunder to make a stand

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s been four years since the Oklahoma City Thunder have had a chance to close out a series to get the NBA Finals, so they may have forgotten just how tough it is. It may have slipped their mind just how much.

If so, Game 5’s 120-111 loss Wednesday was a reminder. The Thunder played hard, but not hard enough to knock off the defending champion on the road in a hostile environment.

“We’re playing against a terrific team and we have great respect for them,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “This series has made us better. It’s helped us improve. It’s helped us grow and get better. We’re in a series right now, and it’s on to the next game. We’ll have to go back and regroup, and really prepare as well as we can (Saturday) at shootaround and try to get ready to play again.”

Before Game 5 even tipped off, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told everyone the frame of mind his team was going to be in the rest of the series.

“They are determined, and they want what we have,” Kerr said. “We have a banner hanging up in here and we take great pride in that. It’s a hard thing to accomplish, and they’ve been close, but they haven’t done it, and they’re coming after us. They’re really getting after it and playing well and competing. We’ve got to stand up to that. We’ve got to match-up to that intensity.”

And that’s what Golden State did. While they didn’t look like the 73 win squad that rolled through the regular season, the Warriors played hard and with grit. They are not ready to stop being NBA champions.

“I kind of knew after the game in OKC,” Golden State’s Draymond Green said. “The way everybody reacted to losing, the way everybody talked and felt, and going into film this morning you could just see everybody was up, everybody’s spirits were high after the film, after the walkthrough. Everybody’s spirits were high. I knew then that everybody was ready to go and was going to bring that dog to the game.”

That dog Green spoke of showed up in the hustles points and at the free throw line, where they held a 34-24 advantage in attempts. They also tied the Thunder with 45 rebounds, which is a loss Oklahoma City, the top rebounding team in the league.

Despite the loss Oklahoma City still lead the series 3-2 heading into Game 6 Saturday at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. They are still one home victory away from a second appearance in the NBA Finals since 2012.

Even though the Thunder dismantled the Warriors in games 3 and 4 at the Peake, Kevin Durant doesn’t want his squad to fall into the trap of just believing because they are at home, they have an easy win in store.

“We know we’re going back home. But we can’t relax,” Durant said. “We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas, and we’ve got to play much better. I thought we played extremely hard tonight. They didn’t outplay us, they didn’t outwork us. I thought both teams were in a slugfest (Thursday). So we’ve got to bring that energy back home. It was a matter of us making a few shots and playing a little more solid defense on them. We’ll see what happens.”

Four players with the most pressure going into Game 5 of WCF

Thunder guard Andre Roberson drives toward the basket during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. (Photo By Sam Murch)

 By Michael Kinney

1. Steph Curry: The reigning MVP has been anything but MVP worthy in the Western Conference Finals. By his own admission, Curry has not played well in three of the four games. But what puts the pressure on Curry is how fans and media have started to use an injury excuse to explain his less than stellar performance. When you are supposed to be the trans-formative player Curry has been made out to be, excuses can never be part of your game. If he doesn’t put up a fight in Game 5, the Warriors will stay home.

“So this is a tough situation to be in, but the series isn’t over,” Curry said. “In our locker room it’s obviously frustration, trying to figure out how we can get back to being ourselves, and we have an opportunity to do that on Thursday. So excited about that.”

2. Andre Roberson: The Oklahoma City shooting guard has proven critics wrong who claimed he would be a liability in this series. In Game 3 he buried three 3-pointers. He followed that up with a 7 of 13 outing from the field in Game 4. When the Warriors choose to sag off him to protect against Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, he has made them pay. Part of that has to do with coach Billy Donovan finding ways to keep Roberson dangerous.

“Well, it’s funny. Like after Game 2 people are saying to me, is this guy going to even play anymore?,” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think sometimes the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There’s a lot of things he can do. He offensive rebounds. He slashes to the basket. I have confidence in him shooting the basketball. He’s a great worker.”

3. Draymond Green: The Warriors heart and inspirational leader has been anything but that since his now infamous kick to the groin of Thunder center Steven Adams. His plus/minus the last two games is an outstanding (-) 73. He says the groin incident hasn’t gotten into his head, but there is a noticeable difference in his play. But, much of that may be from the size and versatility of the Thunder. Against most team, Green, an All-Defensive team member, can shut down players. Against OKC he is at a disadvantage, so far.

Draymond always blames himself every time we lose,” Steve Kerr said. “He goes over the top. It’s not his fault. He didn’t play a good game last night, but nobody did. I like that he’s accountable and other guys, Steph, same thing, everybody wants to take blame. But it’s us. It’s all of us. It’s coaches, it’s players, we have to do better, and we’re confident that we will. We’ve got a day here to kind of clear our heads and get back to work (today).”

4. Kevin Durant: It’s a close out game on the road. That’s when superstars earn their paychecks. The Thunder have the Warriors on respirators and just need to pull the plug in Game 5. If they allow the series to get back to a Game 6, anything can happen. A huge game from Durant can go a long way in making sure there is no game Saturday. But the former MVP isn’t trying to put any added pressure on him self.

“I think I’m going out there and playing extremely hard for my team,” Durant said. “I’m going out there and providing some leadership. That stuff is for everybody on the outside who doesn’t know what goes into every possession in the basketball game which you don’t see on the stat sheet. I think that’s one thing I try to bring. Signature game, I think me just being out there helping my team get wins.”

Michael Kinney is a freelance writer and can be reached at Eyeamtruth@gmail.com

Mountaineers blank Sooners in Big 12 tourney

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – Coach Randy Mazey admits to having nightmares. The night before the Big 12 Baseball Tournament began, the West Virginia skipper had a dream about the hottest pitcher on the conference not making it out of the first inning.

Mazey won’t say he had superpowers, but when Michael Grove went down in the first inning with an apparent injury against No. 5 seed Oklahoma, it looked like his nightmare had come true. However, hos Mountaineers were able to overcome the setback and blanked the Sooners 6-0 Wednesday at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.

The fourth-seeded WVU has now won 15 of its last 18 games and will face No. 1 Texas Tech at 4 p.m. Thursday.

‘We have all the confidence in the world in guys,” KC Huth said. “We’re just having fun now. Everybody is going out there and playing a big role in the game. Everybody is having fun and the confidence level is really high right now.”

The first inning couldn’t have started any worse for the Mountaineers. After Grove gave up a double to start the game, he collapsed to the ground tagging out Oklahoma’s Ben Hollis up the first base line.

“You won’t believe this, but when I went to bed last night I thought please, Michael Grove get through the first inning,” Mazey said. “I was worried about anything that could possibly happen. All that stuff went through my mind and when it happened, it was like, are you kidding me.”

After staying on the ground holding his right knee for a couple of minutes, Grove walked back to the mound to test out the injury. After a few test throws and sprints, the team decided to pull Grove and replace him with Ross Vance.

“AS soon as he went down, I heard my name,” Vance said. “First thing I thought about was that 9Grove) came in the first inning the last time we played them and ran it and how cool would it be if I could do that for him to.”

Vance quickly found himself in a jam with runners on first and third with two outs. But the senior lefty got Cody Thomas to ground out to end the inning scoreless.

The Mountaineers got something going in bottom of the second inning when they loaded the bases on the Sooners Jake Irvin. However, Irvin battled his way out of the situation by striking out both Jimmy Galusky and Kyle Davis.

Cole Austin finally got WVU on the board with a RBI single up the middle in the bottom of the third. Ray Guerrini tried to added to the score a few pitches later by stealing home. But Irvin was able to snuff out the attempt and Guerrini was tagged out to end the inning.

The Mountaineers offense kept applying pressure. Forcing Irving to go deep in the pitching count, stealing bases and being unpredictable at the plate allowed WVU to keep putting runners on base.

In the bottom of the fourth, Davis was at the plate with runners on first and second. The sophomore clubbed a 3-run homer the centerfield fence to put WVU up 4-0. It was the ninth homer of the year for the Ohio native.

“I saw the centerfielder just stop running,” Davis said. “I saw it land and I was like, ‘wow, that will work.’ It was a great momentum boost for us.”

Vance was nearly unhittable from the time he jumped into the game. In his 8.2 innings of work, he allowed one hit, no runs and kept the Sooners off balance.

Vance got help from a stellar defense that made plays to keep Oklahoma from gaining any momentum. That included a diving catch by centerfielder Huth in the top of the fourth inning.

“I feel like I was able to keep my pitches down,” Vance said. “The ones I left up they hit it right at somebody. So it was a little bit of luck today, a little bit of good pitching and a lot of good defense.”

Note: Mazey didn’t know how severe Grove’s injury to hos knee was at the end of the game. The freshman was taken for test, but Mazey wouldn’t speculate on the severity.

“His knee was acting up when I went out there,” Mazey said. “Ofcoure with a knee, you think the worst. ACL or meniscus or something like that. He’s a super talented kid who is just a freshman. Whether there was any damage in there or not, I wasn’t going to take that chance.”

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