Slump over? Slump over.
I’m not even sure I’d call what the Thunder went through the past three weeks qualifies as a “slump,” seeing as they’ve gone 9-5 since the All-Star break. But the reality was that they weren’t playing their best ball. Losing game at home they shouldn’t, playing inconsistently and relying on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to save them from would-be losses.
They were close to blowing one against the Wolves, but they didn’t, which means the Thunder have strung together three straight wins over the Clippers, Wolves and Heat. The loss in Utah was rough, but OKC’s won four of five and started to look like themselves again. It’s what you hope to see as the Thunder gear up for a grueling two weeks of play and then the playoffs after that. You want them keyed in for these games, not necessarily the ones against the Cavs or Jazz. No excuse for losing games you should win, but it happens. And when you handle business like the Thunder have in the last three, it almost magically excuses those.
Now to the rankings:
1. Kevin Durant (Last week: 2)
Public service announcement: Kevin Durant is a much better defender than you think. KD is holding opponents to 37 percent from the floor when he’s guarding them, the best such percentage in the NBA. He’s improved six percentage points from last season. Is he an elite defender? By no means. But he’s certainly becoming a good one, which with his ability on the other end, easily places him among the two or three best players in basketball. I asked KD the other night if he didn’t feel he was getting enough respect as a defender and he just said he wasn’t really thinking about it. In a classic Durant move, he actually said he’s “lucky” guys are missing shots when he’s guarding them. Yeah, “lucky.”
Add in the fact he’s passing, creating and of course, scoring, Durant is becoming the fully operational Death Star of a basketball player we all know he can be.
With an offensive game like he’s got and the kind of performance he put up Sunday against Miami, Durant has placed his name firmly in the MVP discussion. Which didn’t really seem possible two weeks ago. Now, he’s right there. A strong finish to the season and another beatdown of LeBron in a couple weeks and KD might slip in and steal it.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last week: 1)
Last week, I said Westbrook was incredibly consistent. So what does he do? He follows up the best scoring night of his career with the worst shooting night he’s had in two months. Thanks, Russ.
3. James Harden (Last week: 3)
Scott Brooks loves calling Harden a “guard.” But he means it in a way to illustrate his versatility between the point and shooting guard spots. As in, he’s not confined to either slot. It fits too because Harden isn’t your conventional shooting guard. He doesn’t curl off screens into a fading jumper. He doesn’t look to chuck 15 shots a night. He plays completely within the flow and rhythm of a game, assisting, shooting when open and attacking wisely. Harden’s 19 points Sunday night against the Heat came on 6-of-7 shooting, and he added six assists to go with it. How many players do that sort of thing on a consistent basis?
4. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 4)
Have a look at Serge Ibaka’s shooting stats: At the rim, he’s shooting almost 70 percent. From 3-9 feet, just 39.6. From 10-15 feet, 25.8 percent. But 16 to 23 feet? He’s shooting 45.0 percent. Compare him from that distance to other big men that are considered good from mid-range. Chris Bosh: 41.0 percent. David West: 47.0 percent. Pau Gasol: 45.0 percent. LaMarcus Aldridge: 42.5 percent.
It’s time to just accept it: Ibaka’s a really solid mid-range shooter. And that aspect of his game makes the Thunder’s offense 20 percent better. (Note: I just made that last stat up.) The ability to space the floor, pick-and-pop with Ibaka and have that pressure release there opens up a whole lot for OKC. And really makes me wonder if Ibaka’s mid-range game is good enough to have him on the floor at all times in crunch time.
5. Nick Collison (Last week: 7)
Collison’s work against Kevin Love in that marathon double-overtime game almost was enough for him to earn the top spot this week. But then I figured I already did enough giving him this.
6. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 9)
A season high of 12 points against the Wolves Friday and then another new season high of 16 against the Heat. Which included a number of awesome dunks, like the one where he dropkicked Dwyane Wade in the face. Perk had a new look to his new look in that Heat game. He was as intense as we’ve seen him, almost angry. If he’s just been saving a little of that for the postseason, the Thunder could be in good shape.
(An aside: I love the way Perk dunks when he’s all alone. He does it Shaq-style, spreading his legs out wide, and then swing himself on the rim. I think kicking Wade in the fact was probably an accident, but as Brian Davis would say, I think it was the good kind of accident.)
7. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 5)
His minutes are about to start increasing. Scott Brooks had wanted to keep him under 20 a game and then slowly bring them up. He got 20 against the Heat Sunday and will likely start fitting back into his normal game, which fluctuate anywhere between 20 and 30, depending on matchups. Sefolosha was terrific Sunday guarding Wade and LeBron. He’s so disruptive in passing lanes that he can throw off an offensive possession all on his own.
8. Derek Fisher: (Last week: N/A)
In three games with the Thunder, Fisher is 3-of-16 from the field and 2-of-9 from 3. I don’t have a lot of confidence when he puts one up right now. But here’s the benefit of Fisher: Take Sunday where Westbrook picked up three quick fouls. Big game, against the Heat and Westbrook has to sit. Do you think the Thunder would’ve been fine sitting Westbrook for the final eight minutes of the half if Reggie Jackson were the backup? This is precisely why having Fisher is nice. He gives the Thunder a luxury behind Westbrook, a confidence.
Can he defend? Nope. Is he shooting well? Double nope. But I think in the long run he’s going to pay off. Assuming he remains a backup point guard that’s playing between 12 and 18 minutes a night, and not 36.
9. Lazar Hayward (Last week: 12)
With Cook injured, Hayward’s gotten some real rotation minutes the last few games and done about as well as he could. Well, except for that three minute stretch to start the fourth quarter against the Wolves. Two fouls and a horrible turnover and he was out of the game immediately. But he’s knocked down some corner 3s, played adequate defense and added a little extra depth to the team. All while keeping his headband extraordinarily straight.
10. Daequan Cook (Last week: 8)
Cook is out another week or two, and I’m curious to see how the rotation fits together when he’s back. Less minutes for Fisher, I’d assume and obviously Hayward goes back to the bench.
11. Royal Ivey (Last week: 6)
Ivey is back to being an end-of-the-bench guy waiting on an injury or for some foul trouble to get his number called. Which is fine. Because he’s shown that he’s an excellent piece to have. I think Ivey’s nickname should be “In Case of Emergency Break Glass.” Because that’s kind of what he is.
12. Nazr Mohammed (Last week: 11)
I don’t have anything to say about Mohammed. That should summarize his week relatively well.
13. Cole Aldrich (Last week: 8)
Aldrich has adopted Ivey’s pregame routine of the underhand halfcourt shot. Against the Wolves, Aldrich went 0-for-3, which included throwing one completely over the goal. Like over the backboard, shot clock, everything.
14. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 10)
Not that Jackson should be all that devastated from the recent turn of events that took him from rotation player to the end of the bench to the D-League within a week, but I’m sure it’s disappointing. It’s probably what’s best for him though. He filled in admirably for Eric Maynor and was never a major issue. Clearly, the Thunder were perfectly fine having him as their backup point guard for the rest of the season and the playoffs as they didn’t make a move at the deadline. If Fisher hadn’t been bought out by the Rockets, Jackson would be in his role. So it’s not necessarily a slam against him and his development that this has happened. It’s just that he has room to grow and fortunately, time to do it.
Inactives: Eric Maynor