OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s funny how much a simple phone call can help.
“Right when the trade happened, when you’ve got players like Kevin Durant and [Kendrick] Perkins give you a call and welcome you; they didn’t wait for the next day, did it right then and I think that takes a lot of the stress off the whole process,” Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kevin Martin said. “If those guys are going to welcome you in, then anybody on the team is. I’ve been respecting those guys for years. They welcomed me in with open arms. They know what kind of player I am. I’ve played against them in the past, so they knew what they were getting.”
One helluva shooter.
Six weeks removed from the stunning trade that sent James Harden, a uniquely skilled penetrator and facilitator and a revered piece of the Thunder’s youthful core, to the Houston Rockets for the catch-and-shoot Martin, concerns of chemistry and crunch-time execution have been quelled by a red-hot club that just might be more lethal than the one that won the West. On Friday night, OKC welcomes the confounding Los Angeles Lakers, the preseason pick as greatest threat to dethrone the Thunder. L.A. drags a 9-10 record into the game amid an astonishing array of complications.
Oklahoma City, by contrast, remains a virtual picture of contentment. At 15-4 and winners of six in a row, the Thunder are the hottest thing in high-tops, scoring at a mesmerizing 105.7 points a game, sharing the ball like never before and shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, led by Martin’s quick-release, 47.7 percent.
“We made a big trade before the season and we’re going to stick with this for a while until people get over it,” Durant said. “But we know we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve got a group of guys that are willing to come and work hard every single day and guys are sacrificing. We’re also having fun on the court.”
None more so than Martin, a low-key, nine-year veteran of mostly lottery teams in Sacramento and Houston who has been in one playoff series, seven seasons ago.
Still, the trade didn’t come without some apprehension on Martin’s part.
What if the Thunder players harbored hard feelings? What if they resented Martin, or resented management for breaking up the city’s beloved Big Three after their arm-locked vow in Miami to come back and beat the Heat in the 2013 Finals?
Durant’s calming voice at the other end of the phone eased all that before Martin ever stepped on Oklahoma soil.
“I’m past it,” Durant said a week ago when Harden and the Rockets visited Oklahoma City for the first time. “Just seeing James and Daequan [Cook] of course brought back memories of these last few years, but we move past it.”
Harden said in his return that he didn’t like how hastily the trade went down as the two sides negotiated against the league’s approaching deadline. Maybe Harden never really wanted to leave. Maybe his financial demands forced the team’s hand. Maybe management only had in mind the harsher luxury tax penalties coming, including the “repeater” tax in the new collective bargaining agreement, and were intent on making a deal.
In the end, Harden will make $80 million over the next five seasons to be the Rockets’ star, some $25 million more than the Thunder’s top offer to defend his Sixth Man of the Year crown.
Doesn’t matter now
“I really enjoy having K-Mart and Jeremy [Lamb] here,” Durant said. “I’m never going to be upset that [Harden’s] playing well or that he left. Of course, it was a little different, it was difficult to deal with at first, but he’s in Houston. He’s over there playing well, he’s got his own team, he’s leading those guys in the right direction. You’re happy for one of your brothers that you’ve grown up with in this league, so no hard feelings.”
Martin, who will turn 30 in February, certainly has none. For him, the trade offered opportunity. A starter in virtually every game he’s played over the last six seasons, Martin has embraced the reserve role, of accepting less than 30 minutes a game for the first time since his second season, to be a cog in the machine instead of the all-or-nothing engine for teams on an uphill climb.
“There’s a lot of stress that goes with that — having to score to give your team a chance to win,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, an assistant with Martin’s Kings in 2006-07. “Well, he doesn’t have to do that here. We want him to score, he has to be able to play with his skills at a high level, but he could have 10 points and we can win the game. I’m not so sure that was the case in years past.”
The Thunder’s last two wins serve as prime examples. Martin scored 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting against the Hornets. Two nights later at Brooklyn, he had seven points on 2-for-4 shooting. OKC won both games.
To transition from Harden’s ability to initiate the offense with the second unit, Brooks has altered his rotations to allow for either Durant or Russell Westbrook, if not both, to be on the floor with Martin.
“We know defenses are just going to have to pick their poison with big-time scorers like Durant and Russ and myself, and every night is going to be different,” Martin said. “I guess that’s the beauty of it, I don’t have to go out and kill my body and get 30 every night to try and be in a game. Now it’s just easy pickings.”
Offense on fire
Martin is smiling all the way to averaging a modest 15.6 points a game, well below what he’s accustomed to, on 46.3 percent shooting.
OKC easily tops the league in scoring, bettering by more than two points last season’s per-game average of 103.1. Its point-differential is an off-the-charts, plus-9.6, more than three points higher than last season. Martin’s ability to spread the floor and bury 3-pointers is a definite boost, but the Thunder’s offense is experiencing surges in other areas, too.
Serge Ibaka‘s evolution has him averaging 14.5 points on nearly 60 percent shooting. It’s the first time in his four seasons he’s averaging in double digits, giving the Thunder a legitimate post scoring threat. In August, Thunder general manager Sam Presti essentially bet on the emerging Ibaka, already an elite shot blocker, by giving him a $48 million extension that ultimately priced out Harden.
Westbrook ranks among the league’s assist leaders at 8.7, up more than three a game from last season, to complement his 20.9 points a game. The ball is moving more and the Thunder’s significant jump in assists, from 30th last season to seventh, is direct proof.
And, of course, there’s the amazingly mature Durant. The three-time scoring champ is averaging 26.5 points a game while shooting career-high percentages from the floor, behind the 3-point arc and at the free-throw line. His 4.4 assists are a career-best, up nearly one a game, and his 8.5 rebounds a game also represents a carer high mark.
Worries that the Thunder would buckle after the trade, that the offense would flatten, that the mighty, All-Star-laden Lakers would overrun them, have taken a back seat.
“I think that shows the growth of Russell and KD,” Martin said. “Going to the Finals, going to the Olympics last year, now more is in their hands of dishing out to players because they get a lot of attention. I’m a traditional shooting guard, I come off screens and I let my point guard run the show. I’m not like Harden, I’m 6-7 and he’s 6-4, and he’s more of a shooting point guard and I’m more of a shooting shooting guard, so that’s the difference between us.
“But I think we’re in the situation we’re in right now because of Kevin and Russ, just their ability to grow in the last year, the last six months.”
So now, with Martin settled in and the team playing well, there’s a more relevant question about the Thunder: Just how good can this version be?