Based off of what the Thunder had done the previous two seasons and in the draft, not to mention how well their rebuilding schematic fit with the Blazers’ path a few years earlier, my expectation (along with the data suggested) was that the Thunder would be considered to be on schedule for their rebuilding effort if they could win between 34-35 games this season. Anything more, even 38-40 wins would have signaled a monumental leap forward.
Wait, Hollinger predicts the Thunder to win 51 games this year?
Needless to say, 33 wins by February 21st was not even a possibility because, well, there was absolutely no reason to think that this team could make such a huge leap from one year to the next. In short, no one saw this coming (and those who claim that they saw the Thunder sitting ALONE as the 5th seed in the Western Conference are either lying or exaggerating the “improvement” they expected to see from the team).
So what happened? And what are we supposed to think?
Well, the what happened part is easy: The Thunder went from being one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year (27th in Opponent’s FG%, 23rd in Opponent’s Points, 21st in Defensive Efficiency, 22nd in Blocks, etc) to being ranked 2nd in Opponent’s FG%, 2nd in Opponent’s 3 PT%, 3rd in Total Points Allowed, tied for 3rd in Defensive Efficiency, 6th in Blocks and 7th in Opponent’s Points Per Game.
I can PROMISE you, there isn’t an NBA or basketball expert in the world who saw that kind of improvement coming. Why? Because it almost never happens from one year to the next, especially when you factor in the reality that there were no significant additions to this roster through free agency that have impacted the defensive end (same five starters that finished the season last year and unlike the Celtics, the Thunder didn’t acquire one of arguably the league’s Top 5 defensive players in the last 20 years) and also the fact that this is one of the youngest teams in the entire league.
Those two things are why Scott Brooks is now the leading candidate for Coach of the Year. You almost never see a young team who was statistically one of the worst defensive teams in the league turn around and in six months come out as one of the best defensive teams from the get-go. Yes, the off-season is only six months long (for teams who don’t make the playoffs, shorter for those who do obviously).
But as Brooks will tell you, he is not the only person worthy of praise in this chain of events. The players have absolutely thrown themselves into the commitment to wear opponents down and make every opponent’s offensive trip down the floor a nightmare of close-outs, active hands and solid help-side rotations. That can not be undervalued or under-appreciated because what that requires is the one thing that so few young, professional athletes seem to be willing to endure: pure, exhausting, unending hard work.
Defensive intensity, the kind that tires out your opponent and frustrates any and all who know they have to play against you in an upcoming game is all about cementing it into your head that you will not be outworked, you will not accept lapses in concentration on the defensive end and that you will trust that the four other guys on the floor with you are willing to give of themselves the exact same way.
And that brings us to the other thing that happened, this team came together and gelled. They had an off-season of getting to know you’s with the coaching staff (new), the additional players and the defensive philosophy. But more importantly than the time aspect, was the attitude aspect. This team has checked their collective egos at the door because, and here’s the kicker for a team so young, they know that they can’t win playing as individuals trying to accumulate gaudy stats and huge contracts.
Obviously, this starts from the top of the roster on down and I credit Presti and Co. for selecting the right kind of players to fit this mold, continuing down to Brooks, Durant, Green, etc, etc.
Now Royce has already touched on how individual players have improved to make this possible so I’m not going to focus on that because he made a clear-cut case that this team would not, could not be where it is without Durant’s rise to MVP discussions, Westbrook’s spectacular play at the point in his second year, Thabo’s lock-down status, Harden, Serge, so on and so forth, but I also think it’s important to realize that when it comes down to it, the Thunder have just been pretty lucky this year, too.
Clearly I’m not taking anything away from this team’s performance because you have to take advantage of your circumstances if you want to be a good team and, to their enormous credit, the Thunder have done just that. However I’d be remiss and a bit narrow minded if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that the Thunder keep catching teams at just the right time (wrong time for the opponents) throughout this year. From star players missing due to injury to teams having just made a huge trade and having no time to practice to haunted hotels acting as the Thunder’s very own insomnia inducer, the Thunder have had their share of good luck.
(And no, I’m not going to discuss how they haven’t had any core players suffer an _______ either because, as we all know, the second you point that stuff out is the second someone goes down with an ______)
But luck doesn’t get you to the fifth seed in the west and a nine game winning streak. This team has made leaps and bounds and I genuinely hope that we can all just sit back every so often and appreciate what we’re experiencing. Sure our expectations have been raised, sure we want that missing piece added (all eyes on the summer, right?) and absolutely, I can’t wait to see what a playoff atmosphere inside the Ford Center will most likely look like come April (can’t believe I get to write that now), but please, let us not forget that the highlight this time last year, was going to the NBA page on ESPN.com and playing the Lottery Generator 31 times until the Thunder won the Blake Griffin sweepstakes.
Forgot about that, didn’t you?