CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The disclaimer is clear: It’s the Bobcats, a team enduring perhaps the worst two-year stretch in NBA history.
But is it really that far-fetched to think that the Thunder we saw in Charlotte Friday night is the best team in the league and the playoffs favorite?
The Thunder have won their last four road games and seven of the last eight after dropping three straight in mid-February. They are rounding into form. Friday night’s 116-94 win over the Bobcats means nothing. But road wins at the Clippers, Lakers and the Knicks in three out of four nights prior do mean something.
“I like the way we’re playing [right now],” center Kendrick Perkins said. “Twenty-one or 22 games left, we’re just trying to get better each game.”
The starters came out sluggishly, trailing by one after a quarter.
But the bench sparked them and an onslaught ensued — 21 straight unanswered points — 14 of them came with Durant and Westbrook on the bench.
“The second unit played well,” Durant said. “The first unit started out slow but after our second unit came in, we wanted to play up to their level.”
Not many Thunder games have Durant trying to play up to the level of Hasheem Thabeet. But as Thabeet walked by Durant’s locker, flocked with reporters, he yelled, “Kevin, give me a shout out,” and it was deserved.
Thabeet was that rim protector on Friday night that many thought he’d be when he was picked second overall. He scored eight points, had eight rebounds and three blocks in 22 minutes and spurred a stingy bench defense that recharged the Thunder, who arrived to Charlotte at 4 a.m. Friday from New York.
“Well, I think the way (the bench has) been playing defense recently is starting to develop a real team chemistry with their unit,” Perkins said. “They’re aggressive in the backcourt. Nick (Collison) taking charges, (Thabeet) getting his hands on the ball, blocking shots, being active, so they’re doing a great job.”
Durant and his starters fed off what the bench had done in the third, pushing a 14-point halftime lead as high as 29 midway through the fourth, allowing them to watch from the sidelines for the entire fourth on another miserable night for the Bobcats.
“At one point in the second quarter we looked up and we were down 18. We just couldn’t stop them from scoring,” Gerald Henderson said. “That’s a well-oiled machine right there. They have two really good scorers with Westbrook and Durant, and Ibaka has obviously come along this year. We just couldn’t keep them from putting the ball in the basket.”
Not many can. The Bobcats were able to keep pace early thanks to a 13-point first-quarter effort from Henderson. That run proved short-lived.
“He did a good job staying aggressive,” Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap said. “That’s a tough thing to do against (Thabo) Sefolosha and also their team defense. Coming out of that first quarter it was good basketball for us. Unfortunately we were hitting a desert as far as the scoring goes and we let it bleed in a little into our aggressiveness with our defense.”
But it wasn’t Sefolosha that started that desert. Instead it was the man that has been “in the league 100 years,” according to Durant — Derek Fisher — in only his fourth game back. His defense slowed Henderson down and in turn the Bobcats. Not bad for a man who’s been away from the game three months. Neither were the 13 points, 3 assists in just 14 minutes.
“I think it starts with the character of the guys we’re talking about,” Fisher said. “Coming in at this point in the season — I think last year it was probably easier than it would have been on any other team in the league — but having spent three months with this team last year, this year has been seamless. Kevin Martin is a great basketball player, Reggie Jackson is continuing to improve and develop, so we’re finding our way.”
The whole team is. Ibaka’s become the post scorer the Thunder needed a season ago, and the Westbrook-Durant two-headed monster remains stronger than any in the league. If the bench continues to come along, the team could be playoff favorite.
“I think we know we have a good team. We’re trying not to get too caught up in the trends of the season and just trying to play each night,” Collison said. “And I think that’s a good mindset for us.”