Perhaps no week has better encapsulated this season’s Thunder team than the last one in terms of highlighting the surprising strengths and woeful weaknesses that plague a playoff bound basketball team who seems capable of beating anyone when firing on all cylinders and then capable of being destroyed by anyone when only a few of those cylinders show up ready to go.
First things first, the up-and-down nature of this team is by no means a surprise. After all, this is one of the youngest teams in the NBA who have three members of their starting five with only three or fewer seasons under their belts and three of their four reserve members being rookies. When you have a group as young and relatively inexperienced as that, consistency is going to be an issue and inconsistency should not come as any real surprise.
Just look at how they played Friday night against the Lakers and then watch the Blazers game on Sunday night; the Thunder were almost two entirely different teams except for a few bright spots here and there (namely Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka).
But their youth is also a reason to be tremendously impressed and hopeful for the future of the franchise because, well, young teams don’t perform this well over an 82 game season and almost never defend and play as a cohesive unit enough to even sniff the playoffs, let alone have a shot at a sixth, seventh or eighth seed at this point in the schedule.
So the Thunder are ahead of the curve in development. But the next 10 games (and hopefully beyond) are not about what the Thunder will develop into next season or the seasons after that. The next two and a half weeks is about where the Thunder are at right now and what, if any, damage they can do once they reach the playoffs.
So who is the Thunder this year and what five traits best define them, for the good and the bad?
If you really wanted to, you could stop reading after this one because this sucker right here pretty much determines if the Thunder will have a shot in the next ten games and in the playoffs or not.
When they’re consistently defending like they’ve shown they can, this team is a Top 5 Defensive team in the entire league (I believe they’re even #5 in Defensive Efficiency as I write this) and are capable of holding anyone not only under 100 points, but sometimes holding even the most potent offensive team under 80 points (Hello, Lakers!).
Furthermore, their offense tends to feed off of the defensive stops and fastbreak points created when they get steals, blocks or forced bad shots late in the shot clock and so one aspect of the Thunder’s game benefits from the other. And that’s really good because we all know how the Thunder’s half-court game can kind of grind to a halt.
But at their worst, when the Thunder is employing their Swiss cheese defense and failing to rotate properly, failing to fight through screens and box out opponents for rebounds, this team is just not good enough on the offensive end of the court to beat most teams in the NBA. They might be able to beat a cellar dweller, but even Indiana proved that “might” doesn’t mean “definitely will”.
Conclusion: If the Thunder defense isn’t at the Top 5 level it can be, expect a bumpy finish and a quick exit out of the playoffs. If they are locking teams down, this team can honestly hang with anyone and maybe even spring an upset if…
2. Kevin Durant scores buckets
I alluded to this in the recap of the Lakers’ game, but it’s getting to the point now that we might be taking for granted just how consistent Kevin Durant is at imposing his offensive will on opponents and scoring his points.
And that’s a good thing, too, because if the #2 scorer in the league is getting near his scoring average in a game, the Thunder don’t have much of a chance of competing because they just don’t have the offense to compensate for that lack of production.
In 72 games so far this season, I want you to guess how many times Kevin Durant has not been the Thunder’s leading scorer, either outright or tied (and even that only happened once). Off the top of your head, just throw out a number…
If you guessed 7 times, you’d be right. Yes, that’s correct, Kevin Durant has been the Thunder’s leading scorer 90% of the games this season. Not only is that ridiculous, but it’s kind of a little scary. Only Westbrook (four), Green (twice) and Harden (once) have garnered more points than Kevin Durant in a single game this year.
And of those seven games where Durant wasn’t the leading scorer, the Thunder only came out victoriously–once. That’s right, six of the seven were big fat L’s on the schedule.
Which tells you two things: 1) Kevin Durant is really good at scoring and is the major offensive force for the Thunder when it comes to scoring points; 2) No one else on the Thunder is nearly as good at scoring points and no one else on the team is near as potent of a threat or capable scorer to carry the offense when things grow stagnant without Durant contributing in some way.
Conclusion: If he has an off night or if a team can somehow slow down Kevin Durant’s scoring, the Thunder will find it almost impossible to win. But if he is scoring like he has for 65 out of these past 72 games, he can and has single-handedly carried the Thunder to some pretty eye-opening victories.
3. Russell Westbrook 2.0
When Westbrook has registered double-digit assists, the Thunder has only lost five games. FIVE, people. Two of those were overtime games, two were by 3 points or fewer and the last one was the meltdown at MJ’s Bobcats a week and a half ago.
How many have they won? 19 games. The Thunder are 19-5 when Russell Westbrook gets 10 or more assists in a game. I like those odds.
The emergence of Russell Westbrook as a Top 10 PG has been one of the more surprising components to the Thunder’s success this year. I’m sure we all expected improvement and were thrilled about his rookie season. But this? I think only Royce had an inkling and if I could find the article I would link it here. But now Westbrook’s game has to continue to be at a 16-8-5 level for the Thunder to remain versatile enough offensively to keep other defenses honest and punish teams for doubling Durant because Westbrook causes problems and opens up the entire floor for this team.
From his court vision, to his willingness to pass and his improved finishing at the rim, Westbrook has dramatically improved his game and is the engine that makes this team go when they’re at their best.
But boy is Westbrook’s defense awful when he’s off. I’m sorry, but I’m calling it like I see it because his man-to-man and rotation blunders hurt the Thunder immensely more often than not this year. To quote Brian Davis, “Your honor, I give you Exhibit A: Andre Miller from last night.” Anytime Westbrook gets his rhythm disrupted and can’t get back into a flow, there’s a reason the Thunder acquired Eric Maynor.
And when he’s forcing things offensively or spontaneously just losing the ball while dribbling without any pressure on him, it’s difficult to watch.
Fortunately, Westbrook 2.0 is far more prevalent this year than the Mr. Hyde Westbrook, but as of late he’s kind of been in a slump and the Thunder desperately need him to be the player he’s been almost all year going into these last 10 games and the first round.
Conclusion: Ask Derek Fisher about what Westbrook brings to the table…then remember Andre Miller. The Thunder need the former more than the latter because with Westbrook 2.0 is at full tilt, they’re just plain good on both ends.
4. Bench Spark Plugs
Not a lot to say here that wasn’t said last week in the Harden piece but just look at what happened when he had a big game against Houston. Look at what Ibaka brings almost every night and more recently, look at how hard he’s hitting the boards and slamming it home instead of settling for lay-ins. Look at what Maynor was able to do against Houston with Westbrook sitting the bench (shoot, look at Maynor’s assist-turnover-ratio in general). And I haven’t even talked about the blue-collar soul of the Thunder in Nick Collison, who makes taking a charge an actual X-factor when he’s on the court.
But subtract just one of those guys from a game and what happens? The Thunder struggles. Why? Because their strength is in their collective composition than in their individual contributions. Harden’s scoring, Maynor’s playmaking, Collison’s rebounds and bodying up of opponents and Ibaka’s shot-blocking, rim rocking intensity–it’s called team basketball at its finest.
When you lose one of those components, the reserves lose their potency and can’t score or defend efficiently enough to swing the game in a positive direction. If Harden isn’t hitting his jumpers or slashing, who is the bench’s go to scorer. If Ibaka isn’t protecting the rim, who is the high-flying enforcer? So on and so forth.
Conclusion: When the entire group is contributing, the Thunder have a uniquely effective bench with the right components to wreak havoc on another team’s reserves (and three of them are still rookies!). But when they act their age and experience and become inconsistent, Nick Collison isn’t enough to stem the opposing team’s tide. The Thunder’s bench has to bring it from here on out because they’ll get more rest in the playoffs as the starters get more minutes.
They’re really good on one end…and not so good on the other. Honestly, that’s about it. Sooner or later, it bites them. If you keep giving other team’s possessions and opportunities to score, thereby removing an opportunity that you could have had to get a stop and give yourself another look at the basket at the other end, it’s going to come back to haunt you.
I don’t think I need to tell how bad the Thunder have done when they’ve been out-rebounded, right? I think the imprint of Dejuan Blair’s 20-20 game is still somewhere on each of our minds and hearts.
That being said, they have improved in this area lately and now is the time to hit your stride, gentlemen. Act like that missed shot is a million dollar ball and the opposing guy is trying to steal it from you! Hmmm, that actually might be more of an accurate analogy than I originally thought…
Conclusion: No second chances. In fact, that could pretty much be the mantra for these last ten games and the first round of the playoffs.
This is the only shot you get, guys.
Make it count.