Thunder dominate, snap Nuggets' win streak
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Let's face it, when Russell Westbrook plays like this, the Thunder just aren't going to lose. Throw in a little bit of Kevin Durant and it makes you think this team is on its way back to the NBA Finals.
Long way to go until June, but it's January, so we're allowed to look ahead, project and predict, right? Because it's hard to believe things could have looked much better for Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. Hard to believe anyone can really stop these guys, either.
Denver didn't, and they were the hottest team in the league, winners of six in a row coming in, but 117-97 losers on the way out of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
In the only home game of a 10-game stretch, the Thunder started fast, cruised throughout and showed off Westbrook and Durant as the best combination in the NBA.
"We're just trying to play up to our level," Durant said. "It's defense first and moving the ball. And you know, guys are buying in, and anything can happen."
What's happening is pretty simple. The Thunder are playing their best basketball of the season because their two top players are playing their best basketball of the season.
Westbrook followed up his season-best 36-point effort at Phoenix with a 32-point, no-turnover showing against Denver and Durant chipped in 20, but more importantly, neither played 30 minutes and both sat out the entire fourth quarter, watching the Thunder reserves mop up the Nuggets.
So, the takeaway from Wednesday is simple: When Westbrook is good, like he was against Denver, and when Durant is, too, this team is pretty close to unbeatable.
"That's good players who compete," coach Scott Brooks said. "Russell and Kevin were on fire last game, and I thought they did the same thing tonight."
The two combined to shoot 19-of-32 for 52 points a game after they went off for 47 of the team's 51-second-half points in a win at Phoenix on Monday. Wednesday, they scored 24 of Oklahoma City's first 26 points and they weren't even needed in the fourth quarter, which is good because the Thunder are on the road for their next six games.
By now, the Thunder have learned to live with Westbrook's erratic shooting behavior, because even when he's off, Westbrook is still good enough. He went 5-of-21 two games ago against Portland and Oklahoma City held on for a win. He shot 50 percent or better in just 2 of 13 games in December, but he's also scoring 22.2 points per game, which is good for sixth in the league. He's averaging 8.4 assists per game (fifth in the league) and so when his shooting percentage dips (41.6 percent), it's numbers the Thunder can live with. In his past five games, Westbrook has 39 assists and 10 turnovers.
But, man, Wednesday when Westbrook went off, making six of his first eight shots – finishing 12-of-20, and as Durant differed to him, the Thunder were pretty close to perfect. The team shot 54 percent in the first and 52 percent for the game, never trailed and led by as much as 28.
"It's like what can you do?" Durant said of Westbrook. "If you pressure him, he goes to the rim. A nightmare. Hopefully he can continue to make them. This game, last game, the Laker game. He was terrible in Portland, but really he's been really good scoring and taking care of the basketball."
Of course, Durant was teasing about Portland, but Westbrook has been playing well. He's 26-of-44 the past two games for 68 points and one turnover.
Meanwhile, Durant is averaging 29.5 points per game on 56.3 percent shooting in nine January games.
And overall the result means the Thunder have won five games in a row, are atop the Western Conference standings at 31-8 and also have the best record in the NBA.
"We feel good," Brooks said. "We like having the best record in the NBA. It's not about what we want to become, it's what we do today."
But what the Thunder will become is a championship team if Westbrook and Durant keep playing the way they do.