For the Thunder, 2012 was pretty good.
A whole lot happened. An NBA Finals appearance, the heartbreak that came with losing that, three players winning Olympic gold, one of them being traded, the emergence of Kevin Martin, the development of Kevin Durant and a 12-game win streak. That’s just the quick and dirty.
Question is, will 2013 be better? That’s very much up in the air, especially with the Western Conference revving up. The Clippers look absolutely unstoppable. The Spurs are of course good. The Lakers seem to be putting some things together. The Grizzlies, Wolves and Warriors are all improved from a year ago. The race to the Finals this time around could be quite the challenge.
Looking back just at last week though, not last week, the Thunder went 2-1 with a crushing loss in Miami to the Heat. They were competitive to the bitter end, but like the Finals, came up short where it mattered. (Aside: You know what the Heat have done since? Beat the Bobcats and then lost to the Pistons by 10, then the Bucks by 19. Could you imagine the harumphing and panic that would set off around the Thunder fanbase? But for the Heat, it’s a blip on the radar, an small speedbump in a long season.)
The Thunder bounced back from Miami, rescuing themselves from a late December disaster against the Mavs, and then crushed their old friend in Houston. Heading into the 2012 finale tonight against the Suns, the Thunder are 22-6 and sitting pretty in the West. Not bad for a team that traded their third best player four days before the season started.
1. Kevin Durant (Last week: 1)
Outside of a horrific shooting night tonight, KD is going to shoot 50-40-90 through the first two months of the season. Also: Durant’s taking almost two shots fewer per game this season, but averaging 0.4 points more a game.
I mentioned this after the Heat game, but going against LeBron, who is probably the best wing defender in the game, Durant completely got what he wanted. LeBron couldn’t stop Durant in the Finals, and he can’t stop him now. I just find that incredible. Durant is that good.
2. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 3)
For the month of December, Serge Ibaka almost is averaging a double-double (13.3 points, 9.8 rebounds). If he could pull down 12 rebounds against the Suns tonight, that would be the first month in his career he’s done that.
3. Russell Westbrook (Last week: 2)
At shootaround Monday morning, Durant had some interesting comments about Westbrook’s shooting struggles.
“Because he’s terrible,” Kevin Durant said, obviously joking, when asked what’s going on with Westbrook. “I mean, you know what, I think, to be honest, Russ goes to the lane so fast and sometimes he doesn’t expect himself to be wide open. And he goes so fast and sometimes he misses.”
But Durant couldn’t resist pointing out something.
“Last game he was very efficient shooting shots. He missed a few. But he shot all good shots,” KD said. “Me and him always talk about cutting down on that fast break pull-up jump shot. And I think last game he had a couple of opportunities where he could have shot that one and it would have been a great shot. So he’s looking to pass that shot up a little bit more.”
Interesting. The patented Westbrook pull-up isn’t smiled upon by Durant. I always figured the rest of the team saw that shot as “Ah, that’s Russell.” Wonderful if it went it, but it better go in.
I’m honestly a fan of the shot in the right circumstances. When the Thunder have a lead, are on a run or are building big momentum, it’s not the worst. But when the possession is valuable, a 1-on-3 pull-up jumper with no rebounders is essentially a turnover with 20 on the shot clock if you miss.
Westbrook’s shooting struggles often relate directly to his mechanics. When he gets sideaways or is leaning, he doesn’t shoot the ball as well. And that stop-on-a-dime pull-up is tough to maintain mechanics with. Westbrook is often leaning forward quite a lot and finding a consistent release point like that isn’t easy. He’s better at it than most. But it’s about picking spots.
4. Kevin Martin (Last week: 4)
You know what I find interesting? That Kevin Martin is using almost the same number of possessions as a third or fourth option with the Thunder as he was when he was the primary scorer in Houston. I don’t know what the lesson is from that, but I think it’s something.
5. Nick Collison (Last week: 5)
Against the Rockets, Nick Collison picked up his first double-double in over a year. #NBABallot
Check this though: Look at Collison’s stats the last three years. They are almost identical across the board. You know what you’re gonna get from Collison.
6. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 6)
Thabo tied his season-high with 15 points against the Rockets. And he seems to have gotten his 3-point stroke back a bit. He went through a stretch hitting only 1-of-10 from deep, but after drilling two against the Mavs late, he’s now hit three of his last six.
More on this will manifest later, but for real, Thabo deserves some First Team All-Defense consideration. He’s consistently locking down top notch scorers and his versatility to move between guarding guys like Kobe, LeBron, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and James Harden is incredible. How many guys in the league could aptly shift between guarding that group of players?
7. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 9)
Reggie Jackson has been freed. He’s officially the Thunder’s full-time backup point guard (for now) and the early returns are very positive. I think with Jackson it’s going to be a matter of building confidence. The more comfort he feels to be himself in his role, the better he’s going to play.
8. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 7)
I mentioned it in my lineups/Perk thing from Friday, but I genuinely believe Scott Brooks is going to slowly trim down Perk’s minutes the rest of the season, while leaning more on Collison and Ibaka. There are specific situations where the Thunder very much need Perk, and so Brooks needs to keep him in shape, and keep him happy.
But look at this last week: 26 minutes, 23 minutes, 21 minutes. Perk hasn’t played 30 minutes since Dec. 9 against the Pacers. Brooks has kept Perk’s minutes down around 25 a night for most games, but it’ll be interesting to see what the load looks like in April.
9. Jeremy Lamb (Last week: 8)
Garbage time Jeremy Lamb 3-pointers are my favorite 3-pointers.
10. Hasheem Thabeet (Last week: 11)
Thabeet just seems to react about 0.001 seconds too late on everything. When he’s jumping to block a shot, when he’s jumping for a rebound, when he’s catching a pass to dunk. I’m sure it’s not easy to get that giant 7-3 frame moving.
11. Eric Maynor (Last week: 10)
Maynor’s fall has been unfortunate and pretty sad, but I’ll say one thing: His spirit hasn’t dropped. Pregame in the locker room, he’s still got his same great attitude about him. He’s still popping off the bench to give high fives and shout encouragement. You know this can’t be easy for Maynor knowing what he was two seasons ago. Especially with this being a contract year for him. But he’s taking it in stride as a professional, and I think that’s a major credit to his character.
Inactives: Perry Jones III, Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins