The All-Star break isn’t the halfway part of the season, but it sort of serves as such. The Thunder have actually played 53 games, leaving just 29 remaining but let’s assess the “first half”: OKC traded James Harden three days before the season, went 39-14, built a top two offense and improved defensively.
But they also went 0-2 against the Heat and haven’t completely restored confidence that they’re the favorite to repeat in the Western Conference. They’re good, but how good?
These remaining 29 games will help let us know. The Thunder are once again chasing the Spurs for the top seed in the West and while their record is sterling, there are at least five games in there the Thunder completely gave away. There are questions about the bench, worries about lineup combinations and issues around late game execution.
The past week did something in illustrating all those concerns. The loss in Utah was ugly as the Thunder collapsed in the fourth quarter and the home loss to the Heat was just gross all around. Always key to remember the calendar though and keep the season in perspective. As KD said after the Heat loss, they’re 39-14 at the break, which is pretty good.
1. Kevin Durant (Last week: 2)
KD made All-Star history by becoming the first player ever to score 30 or more in three straight games, but that’s not the most impressive thing he did last week. His double comeback against the Heat was something that just stamped home even harder what a ridiculous, driven, incredible competitor.
His first comeback was that terrifying fall, only to get up as “Dirt of Your Shoulder” blared to stay in the game. His second was bouncing back from a horrific 4-14 shooting start to close the game 8-10 in the fourth and finish with 40 on 12-24 shooting. Durant might be skinny and he might be nice — or not nice, whatever — but his toughness can’t be questioned. That guy is as gritty and dug in as any player there is in the league.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last week: 1)
The worst thing Westbrook did this week wasn’t blowing off reporters after a loss to Utah, it was wearing this. Actually, that might be the best thing, on both accounts. Russell Westbrook is so confusing.
3. Nick Collison (Last week: 7)
(So I’m putting Collison third because really, who else should go here?)
I think Collison’s playing time is going to be very interesting to watch the next 29 games. Brooks has been steadily keeping him at around 20 minutes a night — Collison’s only played more than 30 once this year — which makes me wonder if he’s trying to keep the 32-year-old well rested.
Because there’s no way you can ignore his value. At times, Ibaka or Perk make more sense on the floor, but Collison impacts the game too much to see only 15 minutes, especially in games against teams like Miami. Here’s to hoping that come playoff time, Collison is getting bigger minutes.
4. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 4)
Ibaka has come so far in the few seasons he’s been with the Thunder. But he needs to go farther. It’s not that he’s been bad over the last month, it’s just that he’s been inconsistent. Ibaka’s importance against Miami is obvious, and he didn’t show up. Part of that is his role against the Heat as Miami likes to go small which forces Ibaka to cover a perimeter shooter and defend 20 feet away from the basket. Unless OKC goes small in resposne and has Ibaka at the 5, he’s essentially neutralized.
One concering thing right now is that Ibaka’s scoring average has dipped by about a point per month. He averaged 14.8 in November, then 13.5 in December, then 12.5 in January and is currently at 11.7 for February. Ibaka’s importance to OKC’s offense can’t be understated — they need that added dimension. He makes defenses key on his pick-and-pop game opening more doors for Durant, Westbrook and Kevin Martin.
Part of this could be a Westbrook and Durant problem though. For instance, against the Heat, once OKC fell behind it was obvious Westbrook and Durant were going to try and dig them out. A lot of trust disappeared. Really, Westbrook should be running at least 10 solid pick-and-rolls/pops with Ibaka a game. Maybe a half. That’s there a whole lot. The Thunder need to use it.
5. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 8)
Has he played well enough in the last couple weeks to cement his stamp on the backup guard role? I think so. At the same time, how do you feel about Jackson playing 12 minutes against the Spurrs in the Western Conference Finals?
6. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 5)
It’s amazing. Perk plays one of his best months ever in a Thunder uniform but then doesn’t impress against the Heat and the amnesty and trade him talk comes spiraling in out of control. I get that there’s a faction of people that are anti-Perk and wait for any poor performance to use as validation of their opinions. But geez, have at least some shred of perspective and objectivity about it.
With Perk, you have to separate an isolated matchup against a specific team, and how he performs otherwise. Against the Heat, he doesn’t work well. Against the Spurs, he works very well. And yes, the Thunder will likely have to go through Miami to win a title. But they also will have to get through the Western Conference first too. It’s on Scott Brooks to make sure he’s putting his assets in positions to succeed. Perk is only the player he is. You can’t put a dog in an airplane and be mad at him when can’t fly it.
7. Kevin Martin (Last week: 6)
We can give him the benefit of the doubt in that he was coming off being sick against Utah and Miami, but in those two games he scored a total of 15 points on 5-13 shooting. There’s alwyas a tinge of anxiety when it comes to Martin, I think. He’s obviously a brilliant scorer, but sometimes his comfort level in his role seems to fluctuate.
8. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 3)
From scoring 18 and 20 points against the Suns on 9-13 3-point shooting to totaling four points last week on 0-4 3-point shooting.
9. Hasheem Thabeet (Last week: 9)
I don’t have anything to say here.
10. Perry Jones III (Last week: 11)
11. Eric Maynor (Last week: 12)
12. DeAndre Liggins (Last week: 10)
13. Daniel Orton (Last week: 13)
Could this be the last week as part of the Thunder for one of these guys?
Inactives: Jeremy Lamb