The Thunder started January with a lackluster home loss to the Nets. Then came two wins, which included foreshadowing of the Slim Reaper with Kevin Durant’s 48-point takeover against the Timberwolves, then a beatdown of the Celtics. Consecutive losses to the Jazz and Nuggets then threw things into a bit of a tailspin, spiking concerns about the Thunder’s viability without Russell Westbrook, and launching questions about the roster, Scott Brooks and everything in between.
The Thunder then beat the Bucks, like everyone else does, then lost a close game tot he Grizzlies, one in which they played relatively well, though it still invoked nightmare flashbacks of the postseason.
The Thunder had a game in Houston next, against a surging Rockets team, and it appeared that things were going to get worse before they started getting better. OKC had a stretch of games including matchups against the Rockets, Warriors, Blazers, Spurs and Heat coming, and with them already just 3-4 in the month, the possibility of going something like 7-10 for January and watching the West’s top seed slip away was becoming very real.
But that game against the Rockets might just have been the most important of the season. After giving up 73 in the first half, the Thunder put on an unprecedented lockdown in the second, holding Houston to just 19 points. That game was the first of 10 oncoming wins, a run that would give the Thunder back the top spot in the Western Conference, and even open up a bit of space among the contenders.
Everyone kept asking: What was the big difference for the Thunder? What changed? Where did that all come from?
The easy answer was simply by saying “Kevin Durant” and then walking away, but it was more than that. Serge Ibaka found his rhythm as a great secondary option. The bench — Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison primarily — played huge roles in securing a few wins. The defense was particularly inspired in a few different stretches. The ball movement was spectacular (21.0 assists a game in January) and there was a rebuilt chemistry on the floor. Durant didn’t just play terrific basketball, he controlled the game. He was the complete focus of the offense, and he found his touch within it, and he found the balance between doing everything and fitting in.
It’s hard to really pinpoint what clicked for the Thunder. They just… played better. Durant was awesome, but he also took his teammates to a higher place, raising the levels of basically everyone on the roster.
Good month, everyone.
1. Kevin Durant (last week: 1)
KD’s January in review:
- 16 games, 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 54.9 percent shooting, 43.6 from 3, 89.0 free throws.
- An eFG% of 61.3, true shooting of 68.5.
- Thirteen games of at least 30 points
- Five games of at least 40 points
- 344 shot attempts. 575 points. 1.67 points per shot.
- In the Thunder’s 12 wins Durant played in, he averaged 36.3 points on 58-53-89.
- A PER of 36.6.
- The Thunder scored 111.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
- Durant by quarter: 10.0 points (56.8 percent, 31.3 percent from 3), 9.1 (61.0, 47.8), 9.6 (51.0, 42.4), 8.9 (50.7, 48.3)
- By half: 19.1 points on 58.8 and 41.0 in the first, 16.8 on 50.9 and 45.2 in the second
- 33.9 percent of Durant’s buckets were assisted, 66.1 percent unassisted. With Westbrook this season, that was 60.3 percent assisted, 39.7 percent unassisted.
- KD’s shot chart:
- He’s the first player to average 35-6-6 in a full month since MJ in Nov. 1988.
- He might’ve just won the MVP.
It was an unbelievable month for Durant. But it was also the first extended amount of basketball we saw from him playing without Russell Westbrook. For good reason, there was a whole lot of freaking out and drooling over the way KD played. But he’s kind of been playing at this level for the last five years.
Durant played so well though, and put up so much statistical eye candy that people actually thought it was a good idea to use words like “Westbrook” and “trade” in the same sentence. KD may be individually better without Westbrook. But the Thunder, as a team, are most definitely not. It’s similar to how dominant LeBron was as a lone wolf superstar in Cleveland from 2003-2010. Without any other player borrowing much usage, LeBron was able to control the bulk of the offense and see everything run almost exclusively through him.
But what happened in the postseason? We know the story. Teams loaded up entirely on him and without the help of a secondary superstar to provide support, LeBron couldn’t carry the load. Over the history of the NBA, that formula has mostly been proven true. So while Westbrook may hold Durant back some statistically, the two together operating in full cohesion makes for a much stronger and more dangerous Thunder. You don’t play for stats in the regular season. You play for wins in the postseason.
2. Serge Ibaka (last week: 2)
Ibaka’s January: 16.4 points on 57.2 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. He had six games of 20+ points, and had five double-doubles. Easily Ibaka’s best month of his career.
There was so much assumption that Westbrook was what made Ibaka go, but after Serge figured out how to play with Durant, and vice versa, he became an extremely effective offensive weapon. And that one-two punch was something opposing defenses couldn’t find a good answer for.
So the question is, when Russ returns, how does he manage his own offense with making sure he’s getting that out of Ibaka, and that out of Durant? Don’t misunderstand: I’m not talking about just stats. Because there’s only so much room in a 48-minute game for numbers. Unless the Thunder play a whole lot faster and create a whole lot more possessions, there’s really not enough within a game for KD to average 35, Westbrook to average 24 and Ibaka to average 17. But you do want the same kind of overall effectiveness. Next few games, I hope to see Westbrook on the bench with a legal pad taking notes.
3. Jeremy Lamb (last week: 5)
The big question centering on Lamb this season has mainly been, “Yeah this is nice, but can he do it in the playoffs?” Obviously we still don’t know, and won’t have that answer for another few months, but if the game against the Heat was any indication of how Lamb performs on the big state, the signs are positive.
Also, remember: Lamb was a featured player on a team that won a national championship. I think people forget that. The guy isn’t unaccustomed to big moments and big shots.
4. Derek Fisher (last week: 8)
Go 5-5 against the Heat?
That moves you up big time in my book.
5. Reggie Jackson (last week: 3)
His inconsistency is starting to become a bit of a A Thing. It also reminds me a lot of Harden’s frustrating inconsistency in 2010-11. He’d have an incredibly efficient night, and then follow it up with a 2-8 performance for six points. Jackson’s gone six straight games shooting below 50 percent from the floor (his last good game was against the Spurs), though he has found a bit more of a distributing touch.
He’s had at least four assists in each of his last 11 games, which is good. If your shot isn’t falling, at least do something else.
But the reason for Jackson’s struggles are pretty obviously located within his issue in finishing. The first two months, he shot 56.5 percent in the restricted area, but since he became a starter, that dipped to 49.6 percent. Pretty drastic difference there when you’re talking about finishing.
6. Perry Jones III (last week: 10)
I’ve often felt like the top thing always missing from Jones’ game was his lack of force. His personality is extremely laid back, and he’s always taken than on to the floor with him. It’s not even that he’s missing aggressiveness, because I don’t think he shies from shots, or doesn’t want to go after rebounds. It’s just that when it comes to playing with a physicality, with a real gusto for the lack of a better word, Jones seems to sort of drift.
But again LeBron, he found some competitive spirit. He pushed back, he accepted the challenge in front of him, and he played. I realize that when you’re in his kind of position of only getting 6-10 minutes, and you don’t know which games it’ll come in, that it gets tough.
If I could, I’d send Jones to a week long all expenses paid trip to the Russell Westbrook Competitive Spirit Basketball Camp. If he could grab just even a sliver of that, he could be special.
7. Thabo Sefolosha (last week: 7)
Thabo hasn’t played all that great this season, but it hit me the other night watching him guard LeBron — I respect the hell out of that guy. As much as anybody in the NBA, he knows his job, and he tries to do it. He might not finish in transition, and he might miss open 3s. But he brings his fancy lunchpail to every game, and he puts in a shift. Ask him to guard whoever, and he’s ready to give it a shot.
8. Nick Collison (last week: 6)
At what point do we get to start calling him The White Reaper? I’m ready when you are.
9. Kendrick Perkins (last week: 4)
His “benching” against the Heat was an excellent lesson to everyone, and hopefully we all took away the right thing. It’s not necessarily that Perk needs to cease existing, it’s just that he needs to be deployed properly. We all know Scott Brooks is going to hang on to his starting lineup for dear life, but at least there’s an understanding that when flexibility is needed, change is acceptable.
I don’t think Perk liked it, but then again, why would he? He’s got a ton of pride, and he thinks he can do whatevers required. Especially because he probably still thinks of himself as this guy, not the one that’s a full-time castmember on Shaqtin’ A Fool.
10. Steven Adams (last week: 9)
Since Adams recorded a double-double against the Pistons in his fifth game of his career, he’s only been in double-digits for either just once (10 points against the Wolves). Not really because of his doing, because he only sees somewhere between 10-20 minutes each night.
11. Hasheem Thabeet (last week: 12)
Among the many reasons I want the Thunder to win a championship is the thought of Thabeet, and the possibilities of his Instagram account with either the trophy, or his title ring. Plus, “NBA Champion, Hasheem Thabeet” just sounds awesome.
Inactive: Andre Roberson