OKLAHOMA CITY – So just how good are the Oklahoma City Thunder and will it be good enough?
By the numbers, OKC is producing a season for the ages. Yet there seems to be doubt as to whether the superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, minus third amigo James Harden, can get out of the West, let alone beat the Heat. Charles Barkley, for one, has already buried the Thunder in a potential Finals rematch.
There have been suggestions that the Thunder have long grown bored with the regular season, antsy to start the only season that really matters now for a franchise that’s all grown up. Others have claimed that individual selfishness has seeped into the team concept.
The Thunder, of course, aren’t buying it.
“Of course we all want the opportunity to go back and try to fight again for a championship,” Durant said. “After losing last year we wanted to get back as quick as possible. But we know throughout the year it’s a process and we want to get better each and every game. We’re going to have some games where, of course, we’re going to slip up and we’re going to have some bad games, but that’s all part of the journey. The time is almost here so we’ve got to be ready.”
Let’s start with what truly has been a jaw-dropping season for OKC yet is lost amid Miami’s 27-game winning streak and LeBron James‘ MVP brilliance.
At 55-20 after Thursday’s 100-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. With five wins in their final seven games (starting tonight at Indiana, 8 p.m. ET, League Pass) they can reach 60 for the first time since 1997-98 as the Seattle SuperSonics.
And they’re amassing those wins with incredible efficiency, tied for the league lead in scoring (106.0 ppg) while ranking second in field-goal percentage defense (42.5). Their plus-9.2 point-differential dwarfs Miami’s 7.7 while playing in the tougher conference, and it stands to be the largest point-differential since the 2007-08 champion Boston Celtics posted a plus-10.2.
In that season, the Sonics were making their swan song and opened 3-29. They finished 20-62. Every season since in OKC, the Thunder have increased their winning percentage. Currently at .733, they’re riding a better clip than last season’s .712 mark, and assuming they finish the season with a .700 or better winning percentage, they’ll join the Celtics teams from 1955-60 as the only teams to increase their winning percentage for five consecutive seasons while maintaining a .700 or better winning percentage in two of those seasons.
Then there’s the individual dominance of Durant, who is considered a distant second to James in the MVP race. If Durant can hold off Carmelo Anthony‘s late charge (and they meet at OKC on Sunday afternoon), he will win his fourth consecutive scoring title. He’s still on pace to become the sixth player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. No player has ever done both in the same season.
On top of that, Westbrook is compiling his best all-around season. Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka are posting their best offensive seasons, and new sixth man Kevin Martin, despite some lulls, is averaging 14.0 ppg and shooting a career-best 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Sounds like they might be better than last season.
“I’m not going to evaluate and say whether they’re as good, better or worse [than last season] or anything like that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’re a championship-caliber team and they’re capable of winning the championship. And that’s what’s important.”
So why is there at least some apprehension to declare the Thunder the outright favorite to defend their West crown? A lot has to do with their surprising record against the other top teams in the West. The Nuggets, suddenly hit hard by injuries to Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, took three of four from OKC. Memphis won two of three, including 90-89 Monday night.
And Thursday night a Spurs team that was without Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson, plus a gimpy Tony Parker who was finally shut down in the fourth quarter with two points due to a leg injury, trailed just 87-84 with five minutes to play after rallying from three separate double-digit deficits. OKC held on to tie the series, 2-2.
The Lakers, a very real possibility for an intriguing first-round showdown, nearly pulled off a similar comeback one month ago that would have given them the season series, 2-1. The Heat won both regular-season matchups including a wire-to-wire stomping on OKC’s home floor in February. Thursday’s win against San Antonio was OKC’s first against a current West playoff team in four tries, and they’re 4-5 in their last nine against West playoff clubs.
When OKC is at its best, playing at a frenetic pace, swarming defensively and running the floor, it seems impossible for a team like the Spurs with three high-mileage stars — two of which aren’t currently healthy — surrounded by young, talented role players, to keep up in a seven-game series. They didn’t last season, losing four straight after taking a 2-0 lead at home in the West finals. Without homecourt advantage, the Spurs’ chances would seem even more bleak.
Injuries to their two leading scorers have likely made the Nuggets, convincing winners at OKC two weeks ago, vulnerable. The Clippers have looked incoherent in recent weeks. Rugged Memphis? As good a shot as anybody.
“We’re in a good spot,” Westbrook said. “There’s always room for improvement, but we’re in a good position.”
Only the playoffs will tell us if good is good enough.