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With 10 games under their belt going into Tuesday’s game in Memphis, there’s enough of a sample size to have gotten a pretty good feel for how the Thunder has evolved as a team. The unfolding process of replacing Eric Maynor is obviously still mostly an unknown, but there has been enough time to see some trends, good and bad.
It’s too early to tell for sure whether the good trends will happily keep going or the disappointing ones will sadly continue. But there’s nothing wrong with being excited or annoyed with how things are shaking out. Let’s take a look.
– It may be far from a finished product, but the Thunder’s half court offense has really shown some promise. In particular, Sunday’s beat down of the Manu Ginobli-less Spurs featured ball movement that was as good or better than any game the Thunder has played. It’s strange that it came in the first game without Maynor, and against a savvy, veteran team that routinely seems to out-execute Oklahoma City, but it was incredibly encouraging. Nick Collison scored in double figures, and when that happens, you know the Thunder is moving the ball. He scores when someone makes the extra pass in response to an extra cut or a defensive mistake — except perhaps for his nice spin to the rim and kinda-soaring dunk on Sunday I SEE YOU NICK — so that’s a good barometer. Kendrick Perkins boasted about the combinations he’s been working on with Serge Ibaka. Maybe it’s contagious, because the most notable part of the Thunder’s new-found half court consistent competence is…
– Kevin Durant has really sharpened his passing and ball handling skills. And it has been beautiful to watch. The two most glaring things separating Durant and the guy who is undoubtedly the game’s best all-around player, LeBron James, is that last percentile of freak athleticism and passing. LeBron is simply the most fearsome specimen of combined size, athleticism and skill that sports has ever seen, period. You can talk about whatever rock-solid speed demon in the NFL or wherever else you want — none of them are 6-freaking-9. Durant is never going to be the runaway locomotive that LeBron is. But he could improve his passing, and he’s done that. The extra high-quality street ball he played over the summer and fall surely helped, but as much as anything it’s the hard work he puts in and being a basketball junkie who is always playing that means you knew he was going to develop his passing. And he has. It’s how you know that things like his post game and defense is going to continue to get better over time, too.
– Thabo Sefolosha is hitting the three. OK, so right now he only shoots about three 3-pointers over two games. But he’s hitting them at a 46 percent clip. Could this really, finally be the season when he consistently knocks down his open looks? If he finishes the season around 40 percent, that’s fantastic for the Thunder. That seems like it would probably be a stretch since he’s a career 31 percent shooter from behind the arc and shot worse last year, but it’s possible. Maybe playing as a go-to scoring option in Europe over the summer really helped his confidence as much as anything else. All I know is that for now, Sefolosha is knocking them down, and the Thunder is a more dangerous team when he does that.
– The team looks as close, invested and involved as they’ve ever been. Perkins was out of his seat more than once coaching up Jackson during his debut as Russell Westbrook’s full-time backup Sunday. Jackson ran over to the bench during a Harden free throw to check on something with Scott Brooks. Durant was out of his seat too, calling over Lazar Hayward to give pointers late in the same blowout. The pregame rituals are as complicated and enthusiastic as ever, and the genuine care everyone seems to show for one another is as apparent as ever. The young Thunder was one of the only teams in the league that could get better without big roster changes over the offseason, and that’s what happened. What’s going on with Oklahoma City’s team has managed to stay organic and authentic while the team’s standing only gets better. And that, amid the probably overstated storylines of internal strife before and during the season, is always good to see.
– KD still falls in love with the 3-pointer even when it’s not falling a little too much for me. Especially with his fine-tuned passing skills and ability to get into the lane, it seems like a waste when Durant settles for the long jumpers when they aren’t working. Durant is a scorer, not a shooter, so it’s not necessary to keep chucking if the first three don’t fall like it is for a guy like Daequan Cook. Durant has too many arrows in his quiver to stick with jumpers that aren’t going in. To Durant’s credit, that has only been an issue twice so far. He’s shooting 39 percent so far on 3-pointers, slightly better than his career average. But though he’s only shot more than five 3-pointers three times in 10 games, he went 1-8 in a closer-than-it-needed-to-be win at Houston and 2-7 in the home loss to Portland. When it’s not falling, it’s frustrating to see him keep shooting instead of trying one of the many other things he’s good at.
– Westbrook hasn’t been able to play complete games on a consistent basis. But I just can’t see it being a season-long trend. He was too good the last two years to think that he won’t play to the level he’s shown he can as the season unfolds. I think the key is getting back into that mode where he spends the whole first quarter setting up his teammates. Some of his better games are the ones where you check the stats after the first quarter and see he had six assists. He may only finish with nine or 10, but that good start opens things up for him later in the game and takes pressure off his shoulders. It’s easier to pick his spots. Westbrook’s best sequences, in particular the spurts against Dallas at home and at Houston, have been fantastic. But he’s just pressing a little too much. Maybe it’s the contract negotiations, maybe it’s just taking awhile to get his rhythm. It will change.
– There are enough defensive lapses and brain cramps to make you worry just a little bit. A play Sunday night where no one bothered to man up Tim Duncan in the half court comes to mind — you might want to keep a body on the first-ballot Hall of Famer at all times. By the best single raw defensive team statistic there is — points allowed per game — Oklahoma City, at 97 points per game, is a disappointing 26th in the NBA. I swear, every time somebody has a wide open look, or a Thunder player gets caught needlessly cheating to help on a well-covered player while leaving his own man open, I die a little inside. It’s the single most annoying thing to watch in my mind. And it’s still happening just a little too often. Let’s hope that ends before spring.