State of the Thunder: Tough road ahead

OKLAHOMA CITY – When you go 18-4, you don’t pick apart the schedule and question your worth.

When you go 18-4 it means you’re pretty good, and there’s not a lot of folks lining up suggesting Oklahoma City isn’t one of the best in the league.

However, things are going to start getting a bit tougher in the immediate future. The Thunder wrap up a five-game homestand Monday against San Antonio and then go on the road for four of their next five – at Atlanta, Minnesota, Miami and Houston. That stretch will be a better indicator of how this team has evolved from last year’s team that also started 18-4.

The Thunder are playing their best ball of the season with nine straight wins, but who have they really beaten during the streak? None of the league’s elite, that’s for sure. The combined record of their opposition during the win streak is just 89-94 and that includes New Orleans twice at 5-16.

Meanwhile, if you take the Thunder’s record against the top-two teams in the standings from each of the divisions, it’s 5-3 and that doesn’t count a loss to Boston. Oklahoma City is 3-2 combined against Utah, the Clippers, Golden State, San Antonio and Memphis.

The schedule has set up well for the Thunder as they have dealt with a starter (Kevin Martin) and turned him into a bench player in the wake of the James Harden trade. It’s been a perfect adjustment period and one where Oklahoma City has had the opportunity to tinker.

Now the schedule turns tougher, highlighted by a Christmas Day game against Miami. So far the best win of the season has been against the Clippers at home.

Can’t wait to see what this team does against big competition on the road.

Who’s Hot


Kevin Durant, who else? The Thunder have won nine in a row and in the last 10 games Durant has been on fire. He’s averaging more than 29 points in that stretch, but more importantly is what he’s done late in games. Wednesday against the Hornets, Durant had 13 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter. Against Indianapolis, he had 10 of his 27 in the fourth quarter. In the last 10 games, Durant has scored more than 30 five times. He did it only twice in the previous 12 games.

Who’s Not

Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was pretty invisible Wednesday against the Hornets, finishing with just seven points and six rebounds. He has had more than six rebounds only once in the past five games. Coach Scott Brooks went with the small lineup Wednesday and Ibaka didn’t even play in the fourth quarter. 


Three Thoughts


1. Super-easy to get worked up and excited about Reggie Jackson because of his high-energy 11 minutes of action Wednesday where he seemingly saved the game for the Thunder against the Hornets, but might wanna dial it back a bit.

Eric Maynor is still the backup point guard, despite a sluggish season, and there’s a reason Jackson isn’t the answer – at least not yet. He has 11 games this season where he didn’t play at all. He’s also been on the turnpike from Oklahoma City to D-League Tulsa and back. The Hornets were a perfect spot for the Thunder to tinker around, and give Jackson credit for showing up. He came in late in the third quarter and hit his first 3-point attempt, finishing with five points, two rebounds and a block. But it was the Hornets. Chances are Scott Brooks doesn’t search for a spark from Jackson against Miami or the Clippers. Look for Maynor to continue to be the backup. Don’t be surprised if Jackson doesn’t resurface for awhile.

2. Can’t help but think of the similarities between Daniel Orton and Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet is on his fourth team in four seasons and Orton is on his second team in two seasons. Both have had injuries, both were signed to fill the backup center position behind Kendrick Perkins and both have been more potential than progress.

Safe to say Orton has never really gotten a shot in Oklahoma City. He’s appeared in just one game and has also spent some time in the D-League. Thabeet has improved on his career numbers. He’s averaging just less than 13 minutes per game and is scoring an average of three points per game. Not exactly All-Star kind of numbers.

Maybe it will take a third team for Orton to get going and get noticed. Maybe the best is ahead for Thabeet.

3. Don’t look now, but Oklahoma City seems like it’s taking care of the ball. Yeah. Crazy, I know. The Thunder led the league in turnovers last season but now they have played two games in a row where they have had only 10 and are averaging only 13 in the past five.

Even a bad shot from Durant or Westbrook is a better alternative for Oklahoma City. The point being, the Thunder are the highest-scoring team in the league. Get the ball toward the basket and they’ll be fine.


News and Notes

• Anyone else tired of the Hornets? Even New Orleans coach Monty Williams mentioned it, saying, “It’s been like we’ve been scrimmaging these guys all season.” The Thunder and Hornets have already played three times. They have one more meeting on Feb. 27 in Oklahoma City.

• Not taking a poll, but is there anyone out there who got a good look at the Lakers this week that thinks the purple-and-gold Los Angeles team is a threat to the Thunder? Didn’t think so. The Thunder have won nine in a row, the Lakers look lost and inserting Steve Nash into the lineup isn’t going to fix it all.

• Kevin Durant was a bit fired up at the Hornets’ bench Wednesday night. Not sure why, either. After a big steal and dunk, Durant stared down the New Orleans bench and started barking, directing his attention toward assistant Randy Ayers.

• Nothing like a Twitter feud. Spurs forward Stephen Jackson chimed in on the Serge Ibaka-Metta World Peace tussle last Friday saying via his feed, “Somebody tell serg Abaka. He aint bout dis life. Next time he run on me im goin in his mouth. That’s a promise.” The Spurs come to Oklahoma City on Monday. Oh, and Jackson was fined $25,000. Pretty sure nothing will happen between the two on the court, now that they are on watch.

• Neither San Antonio nor Memphis is in the Northwest Division with the Thunder. That means the Thunder are going to have virtually no worries about winning the division. They are already 5.5 games ahead of 13-10 Utah. The Spurs are two games up on Memphis in the Southwest Division and the Clippers lead Golden State by a game in the Pacific.

Quotable

“I think I was just too excited after my Redskins won today. I wasn’t too focused on the game, I guess.” – Kevin Durant on his early game struggles Sunday against Indiana. Durant finished 9-of-24 with 27 points.

“We have 14 guys that can play NBA basketball but you can’t play all 14. You can’t play everyone on the team but everyone has to be ready.” – Scott Brooks on Reggie Jackson’s contribution Wednesday against the Hornets.

What’s Next?

Friday at home against Sacramento, then a Monday home game against the Spurs before starting a three-game road trip in Atlanta on Wednesday and then at Minnesota on Thursday. The Thunder have not played Sacramento or Minnesota this year and are a combined 0-2 against San Antonio and Atlanta.

Tower of Power?


You decide. The Thunder have the longest winning streak in the league at nine games in a row heading into Friday’s game against Sacramento. They are playing their best basketball of the season, easily making them one of the best teams in the league.


Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter at @theandrewgilman