The Thunder reach the halfway point of the 66-game season this week, heading into the All-Star break with 32 games to go once the Lakers leave town on Thursday. It’s incredible how fast this season is going.
So with half the games already in the rear view mirror, it’s time to hand out some midseason awards and take stock of things in Oklahoma City.
Game of the Year: Thunder 124, Nuggets 118 (OT), Sunday.
Is there any doubt? Setting aside the amazing individual statistical performances, it was the first time Denver came to OKC since the hard-fought five-game playoff series last spring, ESPN was in town, there were wild momentum swings, and the Thunder won a game in which it was down by 5 with 43 seconds to play. It might have been the game of the year even without the box score that came attached to it.
No Thunder fan is going to forget Sunday’s game for a long, long time. Kevin Durant had 51 points, 8 rebounds and 4 steals. Russell Westbrook had 40 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds. Serge Ibaka added 14 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocks. This was the kind of game where, as I walked to my car from the arena and asked questions like “When was the last time two teammates had 40 points each, or that happened plus a teammate had a triple-double?” and got answers like “Jordan and Pippen and never.”
Before Sunday, this spot was probably taken by Durant’s buzzer beater at home against Dallas or a big road win like Boston or Portland. But Sunday takes the cake. That might have been the best home game, all things considered, since the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, much less since the start of this season.
Best Statistical Performance (Cumulative): This goes to Serge Ibaka and his three games of at least 10 blocks. Berry Tramel did a nice job putting Ibaka’s huge games in perspective. When Tramel wrote the blog post last week, he found a 10-block game had occurred just 12 times in 10 years. At that rate, it was the equivalent of a 56-point game, a 26-rebound game or a 21-assist game. And since then, Ibaka struck again.
So in the last 10 years, someone has had 10 blocks in a single game 13 times. And Ibaka has three of those, all in the last month. If something else could wrestle away this award by the end of the season, we’re in for something truly special.
Best Statistical Performance (Single Game): Durant’s 51 points on 28 shots Sunday against Denver has to take it. The lines by Westbrook and Ibaka in the same game are right there too. Have I mentioned that was a fun game yet?
Best Performance Under Pressure (Cumulative): Westbrook. No one on the entire team has faced as much pressure this season as Westbrook, but he’s having another monster year. His improvement in shooting percentage (44 percent to 47 percent) would be the biggest single-season jump of his career if he keeps it up, and he’s scoring at a career-best clip. His assists are down, but everything else stats-wise is holding steady or close to it. You could argue this is the best year in a career that keeps getting lumped into statistical comparisons with guys like LeBron James and Oscar Robertson.
All of it comes with more attention and scrutiny than he’s ever had. Some of it came as extension negotiations weighed on him. Some of it has come since then when some guys would reflexively take a sigh of relief and coast a little bit. But Westbrook has kept hitting big shots, playing hard — and playing some pretty stout defense as well. He deserves credit for continuing to improve and work hard despite the noise, and he’s as big a reason as anyone that the Thunder are in the pole position for home court advantage at least through the West playoffs.
Best Performance Under Pressure (Single Game): With a nod to Westbrook’s clutch performance down the stretch in the game Durant won at the buzzer against Dallas, a more interesting pick here is Reggie Jackson’s debut as Westbrook’s primary backup in a win against San Antonio on Jan. 8. Jackson, after having plenty of time to get nervous and over-think his first game as an NBA rotation player, had what is still his best statistical performance with 11 points, 4 assists and 2 turnovers. Since then, there have been the ups and downs we all expected. But Jackson has held his own, and has hardly been a real weak link or anything troubling like that. At best, Jackson provides meaningful minutes, and at worst he’s simply a non-factor as opposed to damaging. But it’s obvious his best days are ahead of him, and there’s no sign he could be the kind of guy to cost the Thunder a playoff game.
Best Photo: I don’t know where to start.
Best Dunk: Gotta go with Westbrook’s flush against the Kings for this one. But I feel like this category might see its winner in the second half of the season. Really, it doesn’t seem like we’ve seen the definitive Thunder dunk of the year yet. Those from the last two years came in the playoffs.
Most Improved Player: Harden. He needed to blossom into a night-in, night-out, top-level scoring threat, and he has. Minutes, points, rebounds, assists FG%, FGA, FTA, FT% all up. Solid defense that you feel like will be turned up another notch in the playoffs. And the bench role appears more suited to him than ever, at least for now, after experimenting with him in the starting lineup when Thabo Sefolosha first went down. The guy is comfortable and has been in a good rhythm all year other than the occasional off night that will get anyone. He will be as key as anyone in May and maybe even June this year.
Best Shot: This one comes to mind.
Best Screen: How is it that, as far as I can tell, no one put Kendrick Perkins’ soul crushing screen on Devin Harris from the other night on YouTube yet? Someone smarter than me needs to do that. And then Perk and Nick Collison need to get into a competition to see who can top it.
Best Performance by Someone Who Wants an Extension: Scott Brooks. Westbrook already has his. Harden is definitely making a case for his as well, and Ibaka earns more money every time he has another monster game blocking shots. But, team issues aside, Brooks deserves more credit than he’s getting for his coaching moves. The half court offense is still not quite what anyone would like it to be, and coaching has to come into play with the recurring turnover and offensive rebounding problems. But Brooks has the Thunder on top of the NBA, see-sawing with the Bulls for the No. 1 overall seed. And some shrewd coaching moves have helped. More of a willingness to go with KD at the four stands out, along with quickly realizing Harden needs to keep coming off the bench for now and having the guts to keep one of your best scorers on the bench even when the guy ahead of him goes down. Then when you throw in subtler moves like finding minutes for Royal Ivey to provide a defensive spark and a different look, it shows that Brooks is growing as a coach while the team itself grows. People point to how young the Thunder’s players are and how the potential still hasn’t been reached, but that’s true with Brooks too. More work needs to be done, but you can’t deny that Brooks is a better coach this year than he was before.