The Thunder’s progression of the first quarter of the season year over year:
- After 21 games in 2008-09: 2-19
- After 21 games in 2009-10: 12-9
- After 21 games in 2010-11: 14-7
- After 21 games in 2011-12: 17-4
- After 21 games this season: 17-4
And here’s what looms this week: Home games against the Hornets and Kings. There’s a very good chance the Thunder are headed for their best start in Oklahoma City history.
The schedule this year hasn’t been exceedingly difficult, but there’s nothing you can do about that. You play the games in front of you. And on the surface, this week was supposed to be validation material for the Thunder. A road game in Brooklyn, a home game against the Lakers and a follow-up against the Pacers. A tight win against the Nets, a pretty convincing win over LA and a gritty win over Indiana.
Any time you win eight straight games, you’re doing something right. And the Thunder have that look about them that not only are they rolling, but there’s still more to come. Remember those games early in the season where they were winning but it felt like they weren’t playing all that well? Well, they’re definitely playing better now — they’ve scored at least 100 points in 12 straight games for crying out loud — but they aren’t playing great.
At least not to that standard that Sam Presti has said was set against the Spurs last postseason. That’s the goal, and it definitely seems they’re trending in a direction where they’ll hit it at some point again.
1. Kevin Durant (Last week: 2)
The Lakers game was an incredible example of the wonderful difference between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Westbrook completely exploded in the first half, lighting up arena with one of those jaw-dropping bursts of scoring. Durant unassumingly did his thing, scoring quietly and taking what the defense gave him.
In the end, Westbrook scored a loud 33. Durant had a quiet 36, on seven fewer shots. That’s the thing. Westbrook scores with a clatter, a whole bunch of noise. Durant’s like a thief in the night. You wake up and your whole living room is cleared out, and it only took him three trips to the car to do it.
Side thing: KD hasn’t had a double-double in 10 games. Last one he had was the triple-double against the Warriors. Coincidental, or is there something to it?
2. Russell Westbrook (Last week 1)
I find myself saying a lot, “THAT play was so Russell Westbrook.” The and-1 3 against the Lakers, the block on Hibbert, the steal one possession later. Down the line you go, week to week, there are plays that you just say, “That was so Russ.”
I came to the conclusion watching his 27-point first half outburst against the Lakers that Westbrook might be the single most entertaining player in the league. In terms of watchability, Westbrook is just fun. Durant is pure, LeBron is unreal, Blake Griffin can dunk, Kobe is cold-blooded and on and on. But Westbrook just has a look to him, a certain undefinable swagger in his game that makes him so fun to watch.
3. Nick Collison (Last week: 5)
I have this dream. In English soccer, when a player plays with a team for 10 seasons they do this thing called a “testimonial” where they play an exhibition game in the player’s honor. Essentially, the game is all about that player. A Player Appreciation Night, if you will.
Collison is in his ninth year with the Thunder. You can see where I’m going with this. My dream would be that sometime late in the season, maybe a meaningless game in April after seeding and all that is pretty much sorted, to let Collison be the alpha. Run everything through him, give him the most touches, try to get him to 30 points. He does the thankless dirty work job every night of setting screens, taking charges and tipping rebounds. Let’s give Nick Collison a testimonial.
An aside: Collison’s averaging the fewest number of minutes since his rookie year. The Thunder are better when he’s playing than when he’s not. So… why?
4. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 4)
Ibaka had what felt to be a rather ho-hum week. His numbers: 14.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game on 60 percent shooting. That’s ho-hum now for Ibaka. Think about that one.
I mentioned after the Laker game how it seems Ibaka wants to face up every time he gets a touch in the post. I asked Scott Brooks about that last night and he said it’s simply because Ibaka’s such a threat facing up. He can take that hard dribble to the paint, he can hit the jumper or he can go baseline. Brooks said he thinks the shooting percentage of a player posting up with his back to the basket is only about 40 percent. And from what I gathered, it doesn’t seem like the Thunder are all that interesting in trying to use Ibaka with his back to the goal much.
5. Kevin Martin (Last week: 3)
Sometimes when I’m watching Martin, I think, “How did this guy score 50?” He just seems so easy to guard. With that slow release he needs space to shoot. He doesn’t really just pull up much off the dribble and shoot over people. And he doesn’t get to the rim a ton.
But he just scores.
He bounced back Sunday with a big game against the Pacers, bailing the Thunder out from a terrible first half. Without Martin’s 24, OKC probably loses to Indiana. That game might’ve been the most important of the season for Martin. What he did is the thing we got used to seeing Harden do. First unit is lacking, so let the second group bail them out. The top two scorers aren’t scoring, so here’s the third guy. Martin has been great at complementing Durant and Westbrook, but hasn’t had many games where he supplanted them.
Granted, he only did it for a half on Sunday, but that’s what it took. Durant and Westbrook needed time to warm up, time to forget about the Redskins game, time to get going. Martin bought them that time and because of it, OKC’s still riding a win streak.
Also, I want to follow up on what I wrote about Martin in clutch time last week: His usage rate drops dramatically in clutch time (down from 20.9 to 8.5 percent) and probably more than anyone, I’ve written about the concern over not having Harden late in games. Well, did you know Harden’s clutch time usage rate was only 6.5 percent last season (down from 21.6)? In the postseason, it was 17.5, so that’s most likely what we’re all thinking about, but it’s not like Harden was some super closer that took the game away from Westbrook or Durant. Winning time has always been Westbrook and Durant’s time, even with Harden.
6. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 6)
OKC’s starting five has come a long way over the past couple weeks. It’s still not one of the Thunder’s best lineups, but it’s definitely acceptable. When I wrote this thing, the Thunder’s starting five was their worst lineup, with an offensive rating of just 93.0. Now it’s up to 109.0.
A lot of that has to do with Perk, who obviously is rounding into better shape after his two offseason surgeries. He’s rebounding better, contributing a little more to the offense and is making more and more plays on the defensive end. The block on Deron Williams is one of those plays that sticks in your mind that Perk just seems to make.
He wasn’t as good against Dwight Howard as advertised, but he didn’t especially need to be. It wasn’t really Perk’s defense on him that was the problem, but more about the rebounding. And that’s not exclusively a Perk problem — that’s a team problem.
It must be noted though: The Thunder are still better, statistically, with Perk on the bench. With him on the floor, they score 113.0 points per 100. With him off, 116.9. They allow 104.0 with him on, 104.2 with him off.
7. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 7)
It’s very obvious that Kobe absolutely despises Thabo. I think that says it all.
8. Eric Maynor (Last week: 9)
Maynor played two of his better games of the season this week, as well as his worst. Against Brooklyn, he kind of resembled that creator/scorer that he was two seasons ago and against the Pacers, he got back to being a bit more aggressive. The Laker game though, heavens me.
Some stats: With Maynor on the floor, OKC’s scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions. With him off, 115.8. On the court, allowing 106.9 points per 100. Off, 103.0. With Maynor on the floor, OKC’s been fine scoring a net 5.4 points per 100. But they’re just better with him on the bench scoring a net 12.9.
9. Hasheem Thabeet (Last week: 8)
All that early excitement over Thabeet not being a complete disaster seems to have cooled just a bit lately. Of OKC’s regular rotation guys, Thabeet has the worst raw plus/minus (+9) and well as the worst net/48 (+1.8).
OKC’s offense has been outstanding this season, but it’s at its worst when Thabeet is in the game (108.9/100 on, 116.7/100 off).
Thabeet’s still been a very pleasant surprise, if only for the fact he’s successfully run up and down the court without falling for like 13 straight games. But let’s pump those brakes about him being a potential starter or needing more minutes than he’s getting. He’s doing a decent job in a backup center role, getting about 10 minutes a game. The Thunder don’t need much more than that right now.
10. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 11)
11. DeAndre Liggins (Last week: 13)
12. Jeremy Lamb (Last week: 12)
13. Perry Jones III (Last week: 10)
14. Daniel Orton (Last week: N/A)
The Tulsa Five. None of them played a minute this week, except for in the D-League. That’s right, every non-rotation guy for the Thunder spent time in the D-League this week. You don’t think the Thunder are serious about development?