Twice this season, the Thunder have been the best team in the NBA.
The first time was Christmas Day when OKC routed the Knicks as Russell Westbrook had a triple-double. The Thunder improved to 23-5.
The second came sometime during a January run where Kevin Durant was in the middle of one the best runs of his career and the Thunder ran to wins over San Antonio, Houston, Portland, Golden State and others.
Now, heading into a Friday night game at Orlando and as the first team in the NBA with 40 wins, where do the Thunder stand? They’ve lost just once since Jan. 14 — last Saturday at Washington — and have won 12 of 13 overall, but they struggled a bit with a depleted Minnesota team Wednesday.
The past month has shown the Thunder can win without Westbrook, but the past year’s playoff result showed they really don’t want to be in that position again. So, while OKC has been both great at times and average at other times since Westbrook went out after that Christmas Day game,
Oklahoma City is at a horrible Orlando team tonight and then home against a nearly as bad New York team Sunday before a pair of road games, at Portland and then at the Los Angeles Lakers. And Westbrook is due back maybe as soon as the Thunder’s first game after the All-Star Break â Feb. 20 against the Heat. It would be easy to coast, especially starting tonight knowing Westbrook could be back in only four more games.
These last four games before the All-Star Break will show one more thing:
Are they still the best team in the NBA or are they just waiting around until Westbrook returns?
Evaluate these three things tonight to get your answer:
1. Watch Kevin Durant
Like you could anything else. No, don’t watch his stats or his scoring or anything that might make the highlight shows. Watch his demeanor.
Is he engaged? Is he enraged? Both, and it’s a good sign. If he’s arguing with the refs or upset with Reggie Jackson, like he was on both accounts Wednesday against Minnesota, it’s a good thing. Durant doesn’t have to score 30 points to have a good game, but a game where he has a half-dozen rebounds and assists means even a February game against a hapless Orlando matters.
2. Watch Reggie Jackson
Wednesday, Jackson had his best game in the past eight. He shot better than 50 percent from field for the first time since that 27-point showing against San Antonio.
Jackson is not polished offensively, and he needs work defensively, too, but tonight will be the first time in seemingly forever, Jackson won’t be scrambling defensively at the point guard position. Whether it be Victor Oladipo or Jameer Nelson, it will be a break from the run of point guards â Tony Parker, John Wall, Steph Curry, Damien Lillard, etc. Tonight should be a release for Jackson. He should have more energy and should be better offensively.
3. Watch Serge Ibaka
Ibaka had 14 points and seven rebounds the last time out against Minnesota, a good game, but his least-effective game in the last 13. Ibaka has shot better than 61 percent and is getting more than eight rebounds per game in that span.
This season, Ibaka is going for a career-best 15 points and 8.8 rebounds. Wednesday Ibaka didn’t have to face either Kevin Love or Nikola Pekovic, so maybe his attention to detail was lacking. Check him out tonight against Orlando which doesn’t have much firepower. Struggle or disinterest against Magic, and maybe Ibaka isn’t the consistent force.
His continued development has definitely shown this season, becoming a consistent offensive option â something the Thunder have been lacking beyond Westbrook and Durant – scoring 20 or more points in three-consecutive January games. Will he have that same drive that helped him dominate January where Ibaka shot 57 percent, average more than 16 points and get nearly nine rebounds per game?