Rest or rust? Thunder near end of playoff wait
By JEFF LATZKE
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) There's finally an end in sight to this layoff.
The Oklahoma City Thunder practiced Friday for the first time since learning their next game will be Monday night at home against Denver or the Los Angeles Lakers for the start of the Western Conference semifinals.
By then, Oklahoma City will have had eight days off since completing a first-round sweep of defending champion Dallas. But is that for better or for worse?
"I guess we'll see when Game 1 comes," All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook said. "I don't really know if it helps us or hurts us, but hopefully it's for the good."
In NBA history, teams with exactly eight days off between playoff rounds have won their next series eight of 14 times, according to STATS LLC. Those teams had lost five out of seven before the Mavericks came off an eight-day break to beat Oklahoma City in last year's West finals. In Game 1 of the next series, the more rested team is 7-7 and 4-7 over the last 35 years.
So there's an argument to be made that such long breaks can allow teams to rest or rust.
"I think both of those perspectives can be right, depending on the two teams," veteran guard Derek Fisher said. "I think a team that has played seven games and had to not just physically play at a certain level but emotionally get to a certain high point to compete that hard, two days later they're going to still be there. So they could easily come into the next series playing at a completely different level than the teams that's been off."
On the other hand, he said, there can be a letdown after a Game 7 victory. The Nuggets and Lakers will play their deciding game Saturday night, 47 hours before the winner will start the next round in Oklahoma City.
"Regardless of who our opponent is," Fisher said, "we have staples and a foundation that we have to play with. And if we stick to those things, who cares about the opponent and how many games they played before they got to us?"
Coach Scott Brooks has filled the break by alternating between exhausting, training camp-style workouts and days off. There was a strenuous practice Wednesday, an optional session Thursday when James Harden was honored as the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year and then another long workout Friday. A light session was planned for Saturday.
The plus side has been extra time for everyone to get healthier, notably center Kendrick Perkins. He has not practiced this week because of a strained muscle in his right hip. The say he's day to day.
The potential down side, of course, is that a team loses its edge.
"It's always in the back of your mind," Brooks said. "We did have a good rhythm playing against Dallas. But you can't worry about. You have to focus on what you're up against."
Brooks described the workouts as "sharp" and "crisp." He says his players' enthusiasm - keeping score in practice - has kept them at the top of their game.
"What's fun about this team is there's still a certain intensity and a competitiveness between the guys that exists that's really fun," said Fisher, who joined the team in late March. "Being on veteran (Lakers) teams the last couple years, that's something that practice wasn't always the most energetic. ...
"As close as these guys are, they don't necessarily like each other a lot of times during practice. It gets pretty tense out there. That's part has been good, and that's what you need to keep everybody at a certain level."
Still, the five-time NBA champion added: "There's nothing like a game."
"I'm definitely anxious to play," Westbrook said. "I get tired of sitting at home watching everybody else play every day and we ain't playing no time soon."
The end is finally near.
"Sometimes it gets tough with this many days without a competitive game. You start to lose that edge and that drive that you develop when you're playing game," Fisher said. "As soon as we start on Monday, regardless of who it is, we're going to have to get right back to work."
Updated May 11, 2012