So you’re telling me the Thunder, at 12-2, have the NBA’s best record and are on a seven-game winning streak? And the next five games would be major upsets if Oklahoma City doesn’t win?
What exactly are we dealing with here?
Let’s be real. The Thunder can’t keep winning at this rate for 66 games, especially a 17-2 clip or better if it turns into that. We aren’t dealing with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won an NBA-record 72 games. Those Bulls had a .878 win percentage, which is slightly higher than the .857 win percentage that the Thunder owns now. Oklahoma City will far exceed that if it can win the next five games, which it should considering those games are at Washington, at New Jersey, Detroit, New Orleans and at Golden State. But it ain’t happening over the course of an entire season — not this team, not this season for any team and maybe not ever.
And ripping off a lengthy winning streak, especially this early in the season, is not necessarily a sign of a team that’s going to make a similar dominating run through the playoffs. Things can happen. The Houston Rockets won 22 straight games five years ago and flamed out in the first round, for example.
But just like the Thunder aren’t those record-setting Bulls, they aren’t the Houston Rockets of 2006-07 who won 22 straight at one point before flaming out in the first round. This team has staying power this season and beyond, and it sure looks like all of the preseason love Oklahoma City enjoyed by being labeled the West’s favorite to reach the Finals was well-deserved.
The hot start is going to pay dividends throughout the season, even when the Thunder inevitably slows down. If the Thunder can put some serious distance between themselves and the rest of the West, some of the older teams might stop caring about gunning for the No. 1 seed. If the mountain is too steep, teams like the Mavs and Lakers might be content just to tread water as long as they have home court in the first round against some potentially dangerous lower seeds. The No. 1 seed will be easier for the Thunder to defend if guys like Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki play more limited minutes in March and April, which they might not if their teams were only a couple of games behind Oklahoma City in the standings. The blitz to start the season is a sign the stars could be aligning for, at the very least, a best-case scenario for the Thunder once the postseason begins. Every playoff series could begin with a Game 1 in Oklahoma City.
There are still some frustrating issues the Thunder have to deal with. The defensive intensity and sound rotations on that end of the floor aren’t where most people would like to see them. Oklahoma City can’t count on Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook bailing out the team with lights-out 3-point shooting in the last few minutes of every game. There are still some boneheaded turnovers and gratingly mundane offensive sets. Westbrook is only recently heating up, Serge Ibaka isn’t quite living up to his potential so far and the Thunder can get punished on the glass.
Despite all that, the Thunder look like world-beaters at the moment. They win pretty and they win ugly. When it’s time for a big shot, someone knocks it down. When it’s time for a stop, Oklahoma City gets one. The players often look so eager to make that extra pass that sometimes it’s one too many, or a little too ambitious. The players and coaching staff deserves credit for following through on their promises of incremental improvement, hard work and competitiveness.
I don’t mean to go all Tim Tebow on you, but these guys know how to win. They know how to strangle bad teams and outlast good ones, and they remain one of this year’s only playoff-bound teams that can continue to get better each offseason for the next several years without adding a single player. Not only can all of the players continue to hone their skills, but most of the current and future core rotation players aren’t even within five years of reaching their physical peak.
The game against the Celtics, while ugly for long stretches, was a revelation. A knowledgeable and great crowd rose to their feet and got loud as a veteran team made plays to keep the game within reach. The Thunder kept grinding and won going away. Kendrick Perkins put an exclamation point on it with a hard foul with about six seconds left, refusing to allow a meaningless layup on his watch.
Is that the first time the Thunder won under such circumstances, or is this the first column to point out that these guys are good and will be for awhile? No, and hell no. But it really is starting to feel different. Next week, barring something crazy, the Thunder logo will be next to the No. 1 spot in the various power rankings. When Oklahoma City takes the floor at home against Detroit on Monday, it will do so as the no-doubt best team in the league at that moment. The crowd might be a little more amped up than it normally would for a weeknight game against an Eastern Conference doormat.
All offseason, I worried that the Thunder could have inflated expectations for this year to an unreasonable level. Ultimately, the Thunder proved to be paper tigers from a mental standpoint last year when the Mavericks made them wilt despite huge leads in critical games, and I fretted the team was more like two years away from truly being a threat to take the title. Maybe the precocious Thunder were a little fortunate to be within three games of the Finals to begin with and needed at least one more year of seasoning before I truly thought they could be the West’s best.
Now I worry no longer. The toughness the team has displayed by dealing with the (most likely manufactured) Kevin Durant-Westbrook storyline, the emotional loss of Eric Maynor to injury and a grueling early-season schedule has erased any doubt that Oklahoma City has what it takes from a physical and mental standpoint to stand up to anyone in the NBA.
Yeah, the Celtics of this year aren’t the Celtics of old. And hardly anyone expects Sefolosha to be anywhere close to the No. 1 spot in 3-point shooting like he is now (No. 2). There will also come a game when Westbrook shoots the Thunder right out of the lead in the 4th quarter as opposed to dropping repeated daggers on a team determined to not go quietly. But do you want to tell either of those guys they shouldn’t be confident when taking critical shots? They’ll be able to subconsciously draw on that confidence down the line when more big shots are necessary, and that’s a good thing.
What I can’t help but thinking is that every season the Thunder has been in Oklahoma City, they’ve been better than I thought they’d be. The first season ended with an essentially .500 run over the last couple of months. The second season started with a playoff spot being the highest of high hopes, and they pushed the Lakers harder than anyone other than the Celtics in the Finals. Last year started with the feeling that a decent playoff run was possible, and it ended up more than decent, despite the disappointing finish. This year, I still thought the Finals would be a little bit of a stretch. Now, at least through these first 14 games, it’s clear that anything less than a Finals run will be a disappointment.
There’s just no more shred of a doubt that the championship window in Oklahoma City is open, and wide open at that. The team may be flawed, but there’s not a contender without a flaw right now. The West’s other primary contenders are old and slow, and upstarts like Denver and Portland still don’t have the superstar power that Oklahoma City does which proves so crucial in tight playoff games. In the East, a so-far injury-prone Heat team is a load to deal with, but the depth, interior defense issues and LeBron’s mental fragility show the Thunder shouldn’t be scared of them, especially with home court. The Bulls are deep and nasty, but half-court offense isn’t exactly their strength either and they would likely need more than defensive intensity and a virtuoso Derrick Rose performance to beat Oklahoma City if that’s what it comes down to.
Issues remain. But the Thunder will be a better team in April, May and (hopefully) June than they are now. Championship quality basketball has arrived in Oklahoma City.