Oklahoma City Thunder Come Charging At The East’s Big Two

The Oklahoma City Thunder have led the way in the NBA’s Western Conference all season, but have been seen as operating a step below of Eastern powers Chicago and Miami. The Thunder took at least a small step toward dispelling that notion with a 92-78 beating of Chicago yesterday that was far worse than the score made it look. This followed up a win over Miami the previous Sunday. The Thunder are three games ahead of San Antonio in the West. They are 2.5 games ahead of Miami for homecourt if those two teams should meet in the NBA Finals. And Oklahoma City is now tied in the loss column with Chicago for the best record in the league overall. TheSportsNotebook dives into the Thunder to see if they can really follow in the footsteps of nearby Dallas and first make the Finals, then topple whoever’s best in the East.

On March 20 Oklahoma City dropped a game in Utah. The Thunder weren’t playing badly, but they were a little sluggish and had lost four of seven. Kevin Durant and his teammates responded to that challenge by rattling off six straight wins. Let’s take a brief run through these games…

March 21: LA Clippers (114-91): Oklahoma City owned the boards to the tune of 49-31 and in a related development, Blake Griffin was utterly silent for Los Angeles. Durant hung 32 points on the board, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins led the rebounding and Russell Westbrook chipped in 19.

March 23: Minnesota (149-140, OT): Anyone who saw this in person or on the League Pass package had to have gotten their money’s worth with this game alone. Durant had 40 points/17 rebounds, while Minnesota’s Kevin Love answered with 51/14. Russell Westbrook dropped 45. Exciting as it may have been, this was not championship-caliber basketball. The T-Wolves are a good team, but they’re missing point guard Ricky Rubio and it’s simply unacceptable for a team that aspires to win a crown to allow this kind of offensive output, including a combined 48 points from Minnesota reserves J.J. Barrea and Anthony Tolliver. Great offensive show, no question. But defense wins  championships.

March 25: Miami (103-87): Now here’s some defense. Oklahoma City forced 21 turnovers and held LeBron James to a pedestrian 17/3/7 line. This was a Sunday showcase game on ABC and by the end, Magic Johnson was in the studio talking about how he no longer felt Miami was the team to beat because of what the Thunder had done.

March 27: at Portland (109-95): From the standpoint of mental toughness, this is an impressive a win as there is in this sequence, even though the Trail Blazers are probably the worst opponent of the group. They still aren’t a bad team though, Oklahoma City was making a quick turnaround off what had to be an emotional win and they still won by old-fashioned toughness, beating Portland to the glass. Ibaka was good for 12 rebounds, while Durant and Westbrook carried the offense.

March 29: at LA Lakers (102-93): Similar to the Miami game, this was just a very consistent all-around effort from Oklahoma City. If you look at the boxscore you don’t see dominance in any one category, but you see steady edges everywhere. You see Russell Westbrook dropping 36 and completely outplaying Kobe Bryant. You don’t see Pau Gasol, effectively taken out of the game by Perkins and Ibaka.

April 1: Chicago (92-78): The Bulls outscored the Thunder by 15 in the fourth quarter, so this really was a yawner. And we have to note that Chicago is playing without Derrick Rose, although it’s getting to the point where it’s fair to wonder—as ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy did in the ensuing Boston-Miami telecast—if Rose is hurt much worse than the Bulls are willing to admit. If that’s the case, Oklahoma City beat the Chicago team we’ll see in the playoffs. If not, they still played an extremely good defensive game against an opponent that’s beaten other teams—including Miami—without it’s star.

This six-game streak is a good sample to evaluate Oklahoma City on. The schedule is home-friendly, but that will be case in the playoffs as well. The quality of opposition is high, and there’s still a key road win mixed in at the Staples Center.  One thing that jumped out on me on all six games collectively, was that Oklahoma City is not at all reliant on the three-ball to win games—in fact their opponents usually take and make a higher quantity, while the Thunder were more efficient. The Thunder usually win the rebounding battles, often by a lot. And they undeniably have a clear go-to scorer in Durant, and a just-as-clear second option in Westbrook.

That’s the upside. The cautionary flags to throw up would be that Westbrook is playing exceptionally well yesterday. He got deserves props from Magic  yesterday. My question would be what happens if Westbrook goes cold. Can he be comfortable as a traditional point guard and just distribute the ball? His assist totals were not high during this streak, and it’s tough to go the distance with a point guard as one your top scorers. (Yes, Magic did it as a lead scorer with the Lakers in 1987-88, but I trust no one thinks Westbrook is quite in that class).

Oklahoma City does have good balance overall. Ibaka and Perkins know their roles underneath, between the former’s shotblocking and the latter’s physical inside presence this is not a team that will get beaten up in the paint. James Harden provides scoring punch from the two-guard spot, and is a pretty good three-point shooter. If the Thunder really want to open up defenses, just insert Thabo Sefolosha who hits 48 percent from behind the arc. Note that we’ve just outlined a pretty good package of personnel before even mentioning Durant, and his 28/8/4 stat line.

Ideally I would like to see the Thunder be a little stronger defensively—they’re 11th in defensive efficiency (points adjusted for tempo), and while it’s not bad, it’s not at elite-levels like Chicago and Miami.  The playoffs are going to be much more physical and while having the #1 ranking in offensive efficiency is great, it’s more important to D it up. Still, Oklahoma City is respectable in this area and Ibaka and Perkins help make them the NBA’s fourth-best rebounding team.

If I was into power rankings, I’d still rank Oklahoma City third. But it’s a much closer third than it was ten days ago, and the Thunder’s current play has to really give pause to potential challengers in the West, namely San Antonio. One thing that can’t be given pause too though, is Oklahoma City’s focus. The play a good Memphis team tonight, are in Miami on Wednesday and in Indiana on Friday. I still believe the Thunder need homecourt against the Bulls or Heat if they’re to win the Finals, and that’s on the line the last 24 days of the regular season.