Scott Brooks is a very good coach. He is taking a page from Pop's!
It is still too early in the season with only one quarter is gone. But I still Like Pop over all NBA Teams in any 7 game series....Granted my Spurs stay healthy!!!!
First we need to beat OKC at their home come Monday the 17th!
________________________________________ EVEN WITHOUT HARDEN, OKC LOOKS LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN THE WEST
BY SPENCER LUND
Before the season started, the Oklahoma City Thunder were relegated by many to a tier just below the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs for supremacy in the Western Conference. Even though they defeated the mighty Borg that is San Antonio to come out of the Western Conference in last season’s playoffs, the offseason was generally considered unkind to the young upstarts from Oklahoma City. But things certainly changed over the season’s first quarter, and the Thunder are playing superb basketball right now.
Over the summer, the Lakers re-tooled with a couple of Hall of Famers by acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (not to mention keeping Pau Gasol, unless they now panic trade him), and the Spurs were still the Spurs, a consistently deep and dangerous squad. The Thunder also traded away possibly their best ballhandler, and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, James Harden.
Things seemed to get worse after they started the season losing two of their first three games to the Atlanta Hawks and the same Spurs team they beat less than a year earlier. The Thunder were on the precipice of losing the momentum they’d built up by steadily progressing in the playoffs over the last three years, culminating in last season’s trip to the Finals. But after overtime wins against the Clippers and Sixers sandwiched around a loss to Boston in November, they’ve rattled off eight consecutive victories, and appear in the driver’s seat for a return trip to the Finals and a possible rematch of last year’s epic showdown with LeBron and the Heat. So, what’s happened? First, they’ve discovered that they can go small, although head coach Scott Brooks has been reluctant to do so in any meaningful capacity. Jared Dubin, at Hardwood Paroxysm, explains:
I’d probably guess Brooks is avoiding going small in the long term because he wants to keep Durant fresh over the grind of an 82-game season. Banging down low against an opposing team’s power forward could wear Durant out, and having two frontcourt players on the floor protects Durant from that abuse on the defensive end. But they can, and have, gone small to the effect of deliriously high offensive numbers, and it’s just another weapon in their growing arsenal. But it’s not just their ability to play different styles of basketball and trot out different five-man units that’s been so productive. Russell Westbrook seems to have discovered his lost passing point guard gene.
But as amazing as those two lineups are, there are three Oklahoma City lineups in those top eight most-used 5-man unit combinations that blow those two out of the water. That’s because when the Thunder play their two shooting guards, Sefolosha and Martin, together with Westbrook, Durant and any of their three most-used bigs (Ibaka, Perkins or backup Nick Collison), the Thunder score a ridiculous 128.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league in any season in its history. For some reason, those three lineups (the previously mentioned 4-man combo along with any of the three bigs) rank 6th, 7th and 8th in minutes played of the eight most-used 5-man combinations the Thunder have used thus far.
Last season saw Westbrook regress a bit at dishing the ball to teammates. After averaging over eight dimes a game in his sophomore and junior seasons in the league, he fell back to his rookie levels last season when he averaged only 5.6 assists a game. But this year, he’s at a career-high 8.6 assists per game as he’s assumed more of the playmaking mantle from the departed Harden. It’s not just offense where Westbrook has thrived, either. He’s averaging over two steals a game, and according to 82games.com, the Thunder allow six points less per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the floor while scoring 7.7 more points more per 100 possessions. But it’s not just Russ that’s upped his game in Harden’s absence. Kevin Durant is also becoming a more all-around player, playing a role similar to the one LeBron plays for the Heat. Durant is on course to finish this season and join the the heralded club of players who averaged a 50/40/90 in the season (50 percent shooting from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range, and 90 percent from the free throw line). This has only been accomplished by seven guys in NBA history who also played over 1000 minutes (Steve Nash is the only player to accomplish this feat four times in his career, and Larry Bird did it twice in back-to-back seasons in 1987 and 1988).
So far this season he’s shooting 50 percent from the floor, 44 percent from long range and 89.5 percent from the free throw line. That’s a stunning bit of percentages for a guy that’s second on the team in usage rate this season (per Basketball-reference). Not only that, but Durant is second to only LeBron James in PER (player efficiency rating) this season, and leads the league in offensive win shares and overall win shares, per Basketball-reference.
But what about the player the Thunder acquired from Houston in exchange for James Harden? Kevin Martin has been pretty stellar himself this season, especially when you consider how hard it is to replace a talent like Harden.
Martin only trails Durant and Westbrook in the team’s simple rating at 82games.com. They’re scoring more as he stretches defenses with his 48 percent three-point shooting (sixth in the league), and he’s also proved to be a pretty wily defender: the team’s giving up two points less per 100 possessions with him on the court, per 82games.com. Plus, he’s averaging over a steal a game. But it’s not just Martin, Westbrook and Durant who have led to the Thunder’s resurgence. The player the Thunder ostensibly chose over Harden this summer by re-signing to a four-year, $48 million contract, Serge Ibaka, has also continued to progress even after his first big pay day as an NBA player.
While not averaging quite as many blocks as last season’s league-leading 3.7 per game, Ibaka is still blocking over three shots a game, and making it difficult for any driving guards to get easy buckets in the paint. But while Ibaka has continued to be the defensive presence the Thunder need from him, he’s also unveiled a more efficient offensive game as his touches have increased in Harden’s absence. His jumper is close to automatic off pick-n-pop screens, and he’s third in the league in field goal percentage at just under 60 percent, while also being just behind teammates Martin and Durant in true shooting percentage.
He’s also averaging a career high 14.3 points per game, and shooting a career high 87 percent from the free throw line. While Ibaka’s plus/minus numbers have the Thunder slightly underperforming with him on the court, that’s primarily because he’s been teamed with Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison. When he’s teamed with Durant at the four, they’re scoring at incredible levels, as mentioned by Dubin earlier.
All told, the Thunder just surpassed the Knicks for the most points scored per 100 possessions in the league, now averaging 111.3 (via Hoopdata), but they’re also ninth in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, at 100.3. They’re firing on all cylinders and the acquisition of Kevin Martin hasn’t set them back at all through the season’s first quarter. Yes, it would be nice if they still had Harden to initiate the second team’s offense and provide them a third ballhandler at the end of games, but Martin has fit in nicely with this squad. Getting Eric Maynor back has also helped with the ballhandling duties (though he’ll probably be gone when his contract expires at the end of this season, and he’s not getting a lot of late game minutes). They have Kendrick Perkins at the 5, who has played Dwight Howard really well over the years should they again face the Lakers in the playoffs, and if they want to dump his contract they can still amnesty him before next season. The Thunder’s superstars, Westbrook and Durant, not to mention their defensive stalwart down low, Serge Ibaka, combined with the addition of Kevin Martin and the continued play of Perk, Sefolosha (a defensive specialist that can match up against the best wing players in the league) and Nick Collison has them not only as the frontrunners to secure a No. 1 seed in the West, but also in the entire NBA as Miami continues to struggle on defense.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are sitting pretty through the season’s first quarter, so maybe now fans can stop giving GM Sam Presti such a hard time about that Harden trade. It’s turned out pretty good so far.