OKLAHOMA CITY — There was a moment Sunday night in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 104-93 win over the Indiana Pacers that drilled right past the noise and clutter and hit at the very center of why this team has emerged as perhaps the best in the league.
With 5:39 left in the first quarter of what would be a grinding but well-executed game for both teams, Russell Westbrook exploded from the right side toward the hoop. The speed of his attack, as always, was remarkable, but his layup rolled off the rim. As Pacers bodies swarmed for the rebound, Kendrick Perkins muscled his way into the play, pulled down one of his nine rebounds of the night and shot the ball to Kevin Durant, who was back behind the three-point line. Durant exploded, too, weaving between two bodies with unreal athleticism and putting up an acrobatic, spin-heavy layup of his own that slipped in.
The play lasted six seconds, produced two points and delivered a single thought that, while perhaps a cliché, was also rooted in a remarkable truth: Harden who?
The fact is that a quarter of the way through this regular season — and six weeks after trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets — the Thunder have melded quickly into a team that so far is better without him.
Don’t believe it?
Last season, the Thunder had the second-best offensive rating in the league with 109.8 points scored for every 100 possessions. Entering Sunday night’s game against the Pacers, the Thunder were more than six points better: 113.6 points per 100 possessions.
That’s remarkable, and the reasons for what has been even by Thunder standards an incredible fast post-Harden learning curve can be found in moments like the one in which Westbrook, Perkins and Durant worked that three-man attack. Each has raised his game to compensate for Harden’s absence, and to watch them play together with that kind of rhythm, talent and focus leaves little room to wonder about a former player, no matter how talented he happens to be.
Serge Ibaka, as well, has raised his play in Harden’s absence. This has been a team effort, doing the little and big things needed to let Harden’s sudden departure fade into a past that no longer feels like the most important thing that’s ever happened to this organization.
To make up for The Beard’s playmaking prowess, Westbrook has raised his assists per game from 5.5 last season to 8.7 so far this season. His turnovers are slightly down, and he had only two Sunday.
Durant has done the same. His assists per game have jumped from 3.5 last season to 4.3 this season, and his turnovers are down, too. Ibaka has filled that hole with his own still-blossoming talent as well. He is scoring 14.4 points per game this season, up from 9.1 last season, and his usage rate is up substantially from last season. He had 12 points and nine rebounds Sunday, and his physicality was a force against a determined and well-coached Pacers team.
That’s a lot of numbers that spell out the fact that, somehow, this team under Scott Brooks has erased the need for Harden by piecing together a little more from just about everyone else.
And then there’s Kevin Martin.
Martin, who along with Jeremy Lamb and draft picks arrived in the trade, has been excellent. He’s subsumed his need to shoot — he’s a shooter, after all, and that instinct is part of his basketball DNA, so surely you can still see him physically override it every time he gets the ball. Instead, he’s focused on being an efficient scorer, with the side benefit that when he does shoot he’s often wide open. His field-goal percentage of 46.5 percent is his highest since the 2006-07 season.
That’s meant Martin has almost exactly filled the loss offensively that came with the Harden trade. Last season with the Thunder, Harden averaged 19.3 points per 36 minutes on 11.6 field-goal attempts. Martin has scored 18.9 points on 12.1 field goals per 36-minutes so far this season.
Nor have the Thunder lost out defensively. They’ve allowed almost the exact same number of points per 100 possessions as they did last season, good for the 10th-best defensive rating in the league entering Sunday’s game. That’s been true despite the fact the team has yet to rebound as effectively as they should. Rebound better and more consistently and they could evolve into a top-5 defense.
All of this was on display Sunday night. In the first half, Martin put on his James Harden suit and kept the Thunder in the game despite first-half shooting by Westbrook and Durant that was downright ugly: A combined 18 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
So Martin, efficient and knowing his role, took over. He scored 22 of his 24 points in the first half on 6-of-7 shooting and by draining seven of his eight free throws.
“It’s very valuable,” Westbrook said afterward. “K-Mart can score the ball with the best of them. Eric (Maynor) did a great job of running the team — Nick (Collison), Hash (Thabeet), all of them did a great job.”
That’s the thing about this Thunder team. While the world was saying they’d given away the Western Conference by dealing The Beard, they went quickly and quietly about figuring out how to hold mastery over it.
Right now, at 17-4, they look a lot like the best team in basketball.
By the fourth quarter Sunday, Durant and Westbrook were ready to take over.
The duo combined for 16 of the team’s 20 fourth-quarter points, with Durant and Westbrook igniting a final five minutes of offense matched only by the team’s defensive energy. That, too, used to be something The Beard would be asked to do. Instead Durant and Westbrook did the scoring and the Thunder worked together to hold the Pacers to two points and no baskets over the final five minutes, turning a 3-point game into a rout.
This is the new-look Thunder: Westbrook and Durant learning to close out games, Martin lifting his team when those other two cant, Ibaka continuing to round into a star and the cast of role players general manager Sam Presti has built around them each understanding and executing their specific roles.
So like I said: Harden who?
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.