NBA @ 2: Are Thunder the Elite Team in the West?
Despite losing 112-100 to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night and making the highlight reels for the wrong reasons after Blake Griffin’s incredible dunk over Kendrick Perkins, the Oklahoma City Thunder still have the best overall record in the NBA at 16-4.
They’ve won eight of nine games at home and eight of 11 on the road. Oklahoma City is also one of three teams in the league scoring over 100 points a night, by a hair at 100.4.
The Thunder have improved year after year, improving from a lottery team to a contender that went all the way to the Western Conference Finals in very short order. While it’s too early to guess who will come out of the Western Conference, Oklahoma City has true championship aspirations.
Yet, like their head coach Scott Brooks and star player Kevin Durant, the Thunder remain humble.
“We definitely have not arrived and we’re not looking at ourselves as the best team, we’re looking at ourselves as a good team that has to work on some areas of the game to get better,” Brooks said.
Oklahoma City is a small market and the Thunder represent their town well. Before the game, interviews are cut short a few minutes so a large contingent of players can get to chapel.
Durant is one of the unique “superstars” of the league. How many multimillionaires will attend a local pickup flag football game on a whim with fans over Twitter?
“I give the guys credit, Kevin is a special player off the floor. Obviously, we all see what he does on the floor, but I have the luxury to see him behind the scenes and he’s not changing. It’s who he is,” Brooks said. “He’s had plenty of opportunities to change in the last five years with all the success he’s had, but he doesn’t change. He is humble and thankful for the opportunity that he is given. He plays good basketball and he plays the right way and he’s only going to get better.”
The team’s second star is Russell Westbrook, who recently signed a five-year extension.
“I haven’t notice any change with Russell or the team but I didn’t think that would take place just when Kevin signed his extension,” Brooks said. “You just know that they both make a lot of money and they both understand that it’s not about that and you’ve got to keep playing and producing and keep getting better. They both should for a lot of years. They have six, seven, eight more years for improvement and a lot more years after that.”
The Thunder lost guard Eric Maynor (knee) for the season. On Monday night, they played the Clippers without starter Thabo Sefolosha.
The team’s third option is James Harden, a 16.9 point-per-game scorer who typically comes off the bench. The rest of the squad is filled with quality role players but the burden of the team’s offense lies in the trio of Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Against the Clippers, both Durant (36 points) and Westbrook (31 points) had big offensive nights, but Harden scored just seven. Reserve Daequan Cook hit double-figures with 12 points, but 67 percent of the team’s points came from their dynamic duo.
“I’ve got to get off the ball a little bit more,” Durant said. “I think I shot too many times tonight. There were times I could have thrown the ball out but I didn’t. I was just trying to be aggressive for our team but it backfired a little bit on me. I got to watch film to see where I can better.”
Perkins was frustrated by his team’s performance after the game.
“If we don’t learn to play team ball and move the ball, we can beat the bad teams but we can’t beat good teams like this,” Perkins said. “This is one of our first games we played an elite team in the league. I think, to be honest, we had the number one easiest record to start the NBA. This was our first real test.”
That may be a simplistic view of the Thunder’s schedule given they’ve played the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks (twice), Houston Rockets (twice), Boston Celtics, and San Antonio Spurs but then again, Oklahoma City has gotten their fair share of so-called bottom-feeders like the New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and the like.
“You can get away with it for beating the teams that are not above .500 but when you have to face the same type of team that has the same type of talent as you?” asked Perkins.
Kendrick has a championship ring, earned as a key component in the recent Celtic run. That gives him a bigger voice in the locker room, even if he’s one of the least demonstrative verbally, except perhaps when angry.
“I wouldn’t mess with him. He is a tough guy. He means business,” Brooks said. “He’s not looking to make friends with his opponent. I think the NBA needs more of that, ‘It’s about us against them mentality,’ and that’s what he bring to the table every day, even at practice. Sometimes it’s blue team against the white team and I have to tell him, ‘Perk, we’re all together now.’”
“I know one thing, if we’ve got plans on winning the title, it’s because of sacrificing,” said Perkins. “I just came off a team that had three Hall-of-Famers that didn’t mind sacrificing and mind taking a back seat. In order to win, sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice. You can win games, but in order to get a win you’ve got to sacrifice.”
The Thunder are still searching for offensive balance. Often it can be a juggling act when the team’s primary distributor is scoring 20.8 points per game but dishing just 5.8 assists (after tallying 8.2 a year ago).
“(Westbrook’s) taken a lot of heat in a lot of areas. One things is he doesn’t take from me or the team,” Brooks said. “With Russell we knew that all point guards it’s going to be a learning curve and he understands that if he works (and he has the skill set), he is going to get better. Does he shoot? Yeah, but I need him to shoot. I need him to attack the basket and get some points.”
Does this team have that ability to truly play team-first without ego? Without Harden scoring or other teammates stepping up, the Thunder offense relies too much on the individual brilliance of their two stars.
That means defense has to be the fallback when the offense just isn’t working.
“I like our guys – I like how they compete, I like how they play and they’re only going to get better because they work extremely hard in practice and shootarounds and they know what’s at stake,” Brooks said. “They have to continue to improve for our team to get better.”
Can the Thunder find the balance they need to surpass last year’s Western Conference Finals appearance?
“I don’t know, we’ll keep going and see where it goes from here,” Perkins said. “I know we’ve been talking about defense but at the end of the day, I mean, I don’t know where we stand at right now.”
The West is packed with quality teams, perhaps 11 trying to get one of the top-eight spots but the Thunder, imperfect as they are, may still be the favorite to come out of the conference this postseason.
Thunder Respect Clippers
The Thunder were well-aware coming into STAPLES Center that the Los Angeles Clippers would be a formidable opponent.
“You knew they were good. You’ve got to think they’ve got great leadership,” Perkins said. “They’ve got a great coach. Chris Paul is running the team really, really well. You’ve got to think they’ve got a great team.”
Before the game, Durant admitted that he was impressed by the Clippers and what Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey accomplished in the offseason.
“What’s the award at the end of the year, Executive of the Year? That guy should get it,” Durant said. “Just bringing in CP, keeping DeAndre [Jordan] and Caron [Butler]. He should be Executive of the Year for the moves he made. They also bring in Chauncey [Billups], I forgot about him. They’re playing pretty well right now.”
He can’t help but admit he’s noticed their ability to dunk (He said this pregame – the response afterward was, well, different).
“I enjoy [their] game, I’ll give you that. I enjoy watching [their] game,” Durant said. “They’re fun. Hopefully they don’t throw many lobs tonight.”
Griffin’s dunk over Perkins wasn’t a lob but it may end up being the top dunk of the season and one of Griffin’s career highlights.
After the game, Durant said curtly, “I don’t care about that dunk.”
In fact, later in the game a play was being set up for Griffin to throw down directly on Durant but the Thunder star quickly scooted out of range.
“I was going to go up there and try to contest but Reggie Evans grabbed me,” Durant said.
While there was contact from Evans, by the naked eye it certainly looked like Durant was doing his best to avoid being on a poster.
“They’re a good team. They’re the best team we played all year,” Brooks said. “They have everything. They have a talented team. The bench is really good.”
Bledsoe Makes Debut
Los Angeles Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe made his season debut on Monday night as the team improved to 12-6.
Bledsoe had offseason knee surgery, missing over a month. He played just a single minute, wearing a sleeve on his knee and missing the lone shot attempt he took.
The Clippers are overloaded at guard with Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Bledsoe but given the uncertain contract status of Billups (a free agent after the season) and Williams (he can opt-out after the season), Los Angeles is reluctant to include Bledsoe in any potential trades.
It’s going to take some time for the team to work Bledsoe back into game-shape but clearly guard is a position of strength for L.A.
Considering Williams is shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 48.0 percent from three, the Clippers want that efficient 14.5 points per game on their roster. Williams has had a hard time emotionally dealing with the acquisitions of Paul and Billups after he helped recruit Caron Butler and arranged lockout workouts.
The Clippers believe they have the Sixth Man of the Year in Williams and the team’s success may gradually be winning him over.
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