OKLAHOMA CITY – That 1-2 start by the Thunder seems like it was a lifetime ago.
Remember when Oklahoma City lost at home to the Atlanta Hawks? Yeah, me neither. Just had to look it up to make sure.
Sure, we knew the 1-2 start wasn’t who the Thunder were, but now that Oklahoma City has won 14 of 16, we can say this is who they are:
One of the best teams in the league.
The Thunder are playing their best basketball of the year and doing it with an improved defense, yes. But it’s their offense that defines this team heading into the new year.
Winners of six in a row, Oklahoma City is 15-4 heading into a Friday night game at home against the Los Angeles Lakers and you need to go back no further than the Thunder’s last game, against Brooklyn, to exactly what type of team Oklahoma City is.
The Thunder scored 117 points, shot 60 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3-pointers. Absurd numbers no matter how you look at it, but it very well could be the norm as the season continues. Here’s why:
The Thunder have scored 100 or more points 10 games in a row, they average a league-best 105.7 points per game and feature the most-dynamic scorer in the game in Kevin Durant, whose scoring average is down this year from last year’s 28.0 points per game. Gotta figure Durant is going to get really hot soon and when he does, figure the scoring will only increase for the Thunder.
Everyone knows about Russell Westbrook’s offense as well as Kevin Martin’s ability to score off the bench, but Serge Ibaka has impressed so far, changing from a one-dimensional defensive player to an offensive force. In addition to playing more minutes than his career average (nearly seven per game, from 24 to 31), he is scoring more (nearly six per game, from 8.9 to 14.5), rebounding more and shooting better (59 percent this year; 54 percent for his career). Not scared to go inside, Ibaka has also developed a nice mid-range jumper.
And that last game against Brooklyn? Another perfect example. Ibaka went 8-for-12 in 35 minutes and scored 18 points. Durant had 32 points, Westbrook had 25 points and Thabo Sefolosha had 14.
The Thunder have their issues with turnovers and have shown some disinterest in playing defense, at times, but if they can continue to get production from Ibaka and get standard performances from Durant and Westbrook, another 14 out of 16 stretch isn’t out of the question. Who’s Hot:
Russell Westbrook is always impressive, even on a bad night. But on a good night, he’s even better. Westbrook has improved his shooting the past two games, going 17-for-35. More impressively, he has 19 assists, bumping up to a team-best 8.7 per game.
I don’t know if Perry Jones is eligible for the “Who’s Not” category, but the Thunder’s first-round pick from the draft hasn’t been able to bust into the rotation. Jones has played in just 10 games and hasn’t scored more than four points in a game. Jones was sent down to the Thunder’s D-League team in Tulsa this week. The 6-foot-11 Jones looks like he could be another Durant, but so far he’s been able to get any real minutes.
1) One of the signs of a mature team is the ability to play well in all situations. As we know, the NBA schedule is loaded with games that matter a bit more to the players – like the one at Brooklyn against the Nets – and ones that don’t register the same – like the one a few days before at New Orleans.
The Thunder seems to have settled into a nice pattern. Not only did they play well against the Nets, but they beat a hapless New Orleans team by 21 and, one game after an emotional win over the Rockets, the Thunder didn’t stumble against the Jazz.
2) For a guy struggling to shoot this season, Russell Westbrook may be fighting his way out of his slump. Over the past 10 games, Westbrook is shooting 44.5 percent. He’s shooting just 42 percent on the year. He’s also averaging 9.2 assists per game and scoring 21.1 per game, both above his season averages.
You get what you get with Westbrook, sometimes wild, sometimes wonderful, but he does seem to be in a pretty good groove right now.
3) How loud is it going to be in Oklahoma City on Friday night? The Lakers are always a big draw, and the Thunder always seem to be pretty inspired to face Los Angeles. Oklahoma City beat the Lakers last year in the second round of the playoffs and Metta World Peace was made to be the villain after serving a suspension for elbowing James Harden.
And while the Lakers are just 8-9 and struggling with a new coach, you just know Kobe Bryant will make it a point to try and go hero-mode against Durant. The two are facing each other for the first time this season after spending the summer as teammates in the London Olympics. Kobe is also tops in the league in scoring at 28 points per game. Durant is No. 2, getting 26.5. However, Durant has won the past three scoring titles.
By the Numbers
22.6 – The number of assists the Thunder are averaging per game, that’s good for seventh in the league. A year ago, the Thunder were last in the league in assists with 18.5 per game.
5.5 – The amount of games the Thunder is up in the Northwest Division. No other team more than a two-game lead in any division. The Thunder is .5 games behind Memphis for the top seed in the Western Conference, tied with San Antonio. However, OKC is 0-2 combined against the Grizzlies and the Spurs this year.
News and Notes
• Five-game homestand coming up for the Thunder and if the Thunder win all five, including the finale against San Antonio, they will be 20-5. Hard to imagine after Harden trade that many folks thought the Thunder would be this good. What’s even more wild is the Thunder blew a home game against Atlanta and lost another on a buzzer shot against San Antonio. That would have been a 17-3 record heading into this homestand.
• Maybe Eric Maynor is rallying. I’ve been tough on him here over the past few weeks, but he was good against Brooklyn, scoring nine points and making all four of his free throws in the 117-111 win. It was his best game since Nov. 9 when he made five-of-six shots against Detroit and finished with 13 points. Still, Maynor hasn’t been consistent. He’s just 6-of-21 combined in the last five games.
“It feels good to get out there and impact the game,” Maynor told The Oklahoman after the win over Brooklyn.
• LeBron James had an interesting take on Kevin Durant, telling Sports Illustrated “I know there is someone, somewhere, trying to take my spot. And I know where he is, too. He’s in Oklahoma. He’s my inspiration because I see the direction he’s headed, and it’s the same direction I’m headed. I know his mind-set, and he knows mine. It’s a collision course. We’re driving one another.”
• Kendrick Perkins goes invisible a lot of the time, thanks to an offensive game that’s, well, sometimes non-existent. However, he’s not in there to score. We know that. Give him credit for what he did last week against Utah. Perkins was part of a defense that held Al Jefferson to 7-of-18 shooting and 16 points.
Five games in a row at home starting Friday night against the Lakers. After that, it’s Indiana on Sunday, New Orleans on Wednesday, Sacramento on Friday and San Antonio on Monday.
Tower of Power?
You’d have to say so now. The Thunder are winners of six in a row heading into a long homestand and hey are playing their best basketball of the season and scoring easily.
The first and last game of this stand will be interesting as the Lakers start things and the Spurs are the last game. The Thunder are right at the top of the Western Conference standings, but a pair of wins over those two, would go a long way.