NEW YORK – Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are the league’s two leading scorers. Any comparison between the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks ends there. And with Anthony sidelined with a sprained ankle, their Christmas Day matchup was not a fair fight. The Thunder rolled 123-94. Durant scored 29 points, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double, and neither needed to play the fourth quarter.
The Thunder are a machine right now. They’ve won 18 of their last 20 games, with the league’s second-best defense in that time. At 23-5, they are tied for the league’s best record with Portland and Indiana. They rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and, given their matchup advantages over the San Antonio Spurs, are the favorite to get back to The Finals.
Go back two months and we were wondering if they’d be able to stay near the top of the Western Conference with Westbrook recovering from knee surgery and their bench going through more changes. Well, Westbrook is just fine. He shot poorly on Wednesday, but finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in just 29 minutes.
“He had a triple-double in three quarters,” Durant said. “I think that speaks for itself.”
Health has obviously been a much bigger concern for the Knicks, but with or without Anthony, they’re a mess. The loss dropped them to 9-19 overall and 4-11 at Madison Square Garden. As if to introduce the national TV audience to their atrocious defense, they sent two guys to double-team Durant in the low post on the Thunder’s second possession of the afternoon, leaving Serge Ibaka wide open for a short jumper.
Getting into the paint relatively easily, Westbrook found more wide-open teammates throughout the afternoon. The Thunder recorded 32 assists on their 45 field goals.
“Our offense was probably the best we played all season,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said afterward. “Our ball movement, our ability to make the extra pass for shots was outstanding tonight.”
While the Knicks can’t seem to find any answers to their long list of problems, the Thunder seem to have everything figured out. They lost James Harden and then his replacement, Kevin Martin, over the last two offseasons. Yet they only broke stride when Westbrook went down with a knee injury in the 2013 playoffs.
Without Martin this season, the OKC bench has been the best in the league. While their starters had been outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions before Wednesday, all other OKC lineups were a plus-12.2 per 100. Their best per-possession plus-minus (NetRtg) marks all belong to their reserves. Reggie Jackson taken his experience from the postseason and turned into a serious playmaker, while Jeremy Lamb has replaced Martin’s perimeter shooting.
“They’re just buying in to what we need them to do, and they’ve been helping us a lot,” Durant said of the young reserves. “We’re just growing together.”
“I thought everybody came back focused and understanding we have to get better as a group,” Brooks added, “and not one guy needs to step up for the guys that we lost.”
And really, the Thunder depth is a perfect representation of the contrast between the two franchises. OKC is thriving because of the young players it has developed. Of its top nine guys in minutes played, only two — Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — have played for another franchise.
The Knicks have imported most of their roster, haven’t had any kind of continuity over the last several years, and have paid the price. The latest square peg is Andrea Bargnani and the only guy they’ve had a chance to develop — Iman Shumpert — is the guy most mentioned in trade rumors.
There should be no more doubting the Thunder’s decision-making. Within the confines of a much stricter budget than New York’s, GM Sam Presti has made the right picks and his coaches have made the most of them.
“I take pride in guys getting better every year and I think it’s a reflection of our staff,” Brooks said, noting that the development of the team’s younger players is also a product of its stars’ work ethic. “We have great leaders in our locker room. They understand that how they perform and how they work trickles down to the rest of the team. And Kevin and Russell have done a great job of that.”
The Thunder continue to roll, game to game, season to season. They lose big-name players, move younger guys into bigger roles, and remain at the top of the Western Conference.