Before the season started, the Oklahoma City Thunder were relegated by many to a tier just below the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs for supremacy in the Western Conference. Even though they defeated the mighty Borg that is San Antonio to come out of the Western Conference in last season’s playoffs, the offseason was generally considered unkind to the young upstarts from Oklahoma City. But things certainly changed over the season’s first quarter, and the Thunder are playing superb basketball right now.
Over the summer, the Lakers re-tooled with a couple of Hall of Famers by acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (not to mention keeping Pau Gasol, unless they now panic trade him), and the Spurs were still the Spurs, a consistently deep and dangerous squad. The Thunder also traded away possibly their best ballhandler, and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, James Harden.
Things seemed to get worse after they started the season losing two of their first three games to the Atlanta Hawks and the same Spurs team they beat less than a year earlier. The Thunder were on the precipice of losing the momentum they’d built up by steadily progressing in the playoffs over the last three years, culminating in last season’s trip to the Finals. But after overtime wins against the Clippers and Sixers sandwiched around a loss to Boston in November, they’ve rattled off eight consecutive victories, and appear in the driver’s seat for a return trip to the Finals and a possible rematch of last year’s epic showdown with LeBron and the Heat. So, what’s happened?
First, they’ve discovered that they can go small, although head coach Scott Brooks has been reluctant to do so in any meaningful capacity. Jared Dubin, at Hardwood Paroxysm, explains:
But as amazing as those two lineups are, there are three Oklahoma City lineups in those top eight most-used 5-man unit combinations that blow those two out of the water. That’s because when the Thunder play their two shooting guards, Sefolosha and Martin, together with Westbrook, Durant and any of their three most-used bigs (Ibaka, Perkins or backup Nick Collison), the Thunder score a ridiculous 128.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league in any season in its history. For some reason, those three lineups (the previously mentioned 4-man combo along with any of the three bigs) rank 6th, 7th and 8th in minutes played of the eight most-used 5-man combinations the Thunder have used thus far.
I’d probably guess Brooks is avoiding going small in the long term because he wants to keep Durant fresh over the grind of an 82-game season. Banging down low against an opposing team’s power forward could wear Durant out, and having two frontcourt players on the floor protects Durant from that abuse on the defensive end. But they can, and have, gone small to the effect of deliriously high offensive numbers, and it’s just another weapon in their growing arsenal.
But it’s not just their ability to play different styles of basketball and trot out different five-man units that’s been so productive. Russell Westbrook seems to have discovered his lost passing point guard gene. Last season saw Westbrook regress a bit at dishing the ball to teammates. After averaging over eight dimes a game in his sophomore and junior seasons in the league, he fell back to his rookie levels last season when he averaged only 5.6 assists a game. But this year, he’s at a career-high 8.6 assists per game as he’s assumed more of the playmaking mantle from the departed Harden. It’s not just offense where Westbrook has thrived, either. He’s averaging over two steals a game, and according to 82games.com, the Thunder allow six points less per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the floor while scoring 7.7 more points more per 100 possessions. But it’s not just Russ that’s upped his game in Harden’s absence. Kevin Durant is also becoming a more all-around player, playing a role similar to the one LeBron plays for the Heat.