DALLAS — A few nights ago as his team prepared to play the team with the best record in basketball, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl was asked if he thought the Oklahoma City Thunder’s transition from James Harden to Kevin Martin was complete.
Yes, yes he did, Karl said.
And then the game happened. At halftime, the Nuggets had a six-point lead — well, that is if they only had to outscore Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
“They wanted to kick our butts,” Karl would say after the 20-point beat down, “and they did.”
Two nights later the most efficient offensive machine in basketball directed the buzz saw at the improving Dallas Mavericks. The Thunder loosened their grip on the throttle Saturday night after a couple of 14-point leads and would need overtime to pick up a 32nd win in 40 games this season.
Give full credit to the Mavs, who put an OT scare into OKC for the second time in less than a month. But the Thunder, getting 52 points from Durant on a night he would shoot just 13-for-31 from the floor, and 31 points from Westbrook, answered every Dallas rally for their sixth consecutive win and 11th in 13 games.
Transition? What transition?
“I don’t know if transition is the right word,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “I just know that we’re always going to be focused on improving.”
And that’s what the Thunder continue to do with quiet precision as they hit the halfway point of the season Sunday night at Denver. Harden’s a terrific talent, a sure-fire All-Star reserve with the Houston Rockets. But with Martin, his ability to shoot long-range BBs in addition to getting to the hole and the free-throw line — not quite at Harden levels — just might make OKC more complete.
In his first five minutes off the bench in Saturday’s game at Dallas, Martin scored seven points on a 3-pointer, a driving layup and a pair of free throws. The Thunder’s lead grew from 17-14 to 32-22. He would go on to finish with just 11 points and have a poor shooting night, but on the season, Martin is averaging 14.9 points and shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc and 91.4 percent from the free-throw line — all highly comparable to Harden’s production last season.
Without the playmaking Harden, Westbrook is handling the ball much more and especially at crunch time when Harden was so effective. Westbrook’s response: He’s averaging 8.3 assists, up nearly three a game from last season.
“He’s just doing a better job running our team, but he’s handling the ball more without James,” Brooks said. “He has more of a role to be the facilitator. Russ is a terrific scorer but he can also help his teammates score and that’s what he’s done. It wasn’t because he all of a sudden started passing the ball more. He has it in his hands more.”
As for worries at the defensive end? Only the grinding Indiana Pacers hold opponents to a lower shooting percentage.
Add it all up and the Thunder aren’t just skating by opponents on most nights, unlike their close call Saturday night at Dallas. They lead the league with a point-differential of plus-9.3. OKC is No. 1 in scoring at 105.7 points a game and 11th in points allowed at 96.4.
The Los Angeles Clippers are right behind OKC in point-differential at plus-9.0 and the San Antonio Spurs are plus-8.4. The Miami Heat own the best mark in the East at plus-5.4, a significant drop-off from its West counterparts.
To illustrate OKC’s improvement, two years ago when they were eliminated by the Mavs in the West finals, it finished the regular season with a point-differential of plus-3.8 and won 55 games. Last season’s run to The Finals, the Thunder’s point-differential ballooned to plus-6.1 as they won 47 games in the 66-game schedule, or the equivalent of about 59 games in normal 82-game season.
If the Thunder can maintain their current pace, they would eclipse 60 wins with a point-differential that would be the highest since the 2007-08 Boston Celtics with a plus-10.3.
That team won 66 games and the championship.