Despite Oklahoma City’s brief presence in the NBA, they have established themselves as an elite competitor in both the battle hardened Western Conference and the NBA as a whole. Although the Thunder have come up short the last couple of years, they have still managed to remain a force to be reckoned especially with Kevin Durant on the court. While the playoffs may still be a few months off, the Thunder have proven that even without their star point guard Russell Westbrook, that they can still thrive in even the most hostile of environments.
Although the Thunder have become known for their tenaciously driven offense thanks to 3-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, their overlooked defensive capabilities are just as vital to this teams consistent success. So far, the Thunder have only allowed 98.2 points per game (7th in the NBA), which is due largely in part to the athletic versatility of Serge Ibaka. What makes Ibaka such a critical piece to the Thunder’s defensive success is his ability to garner rebounds (he averages 9.1 rebounds per game) while using his immense stature to make crucial defensive plays (he averages 2.4 blocked shots per game). In last night’s shootout victory against the Golden State Warriors, Ibaka displayed a level of consistency and poise on both sides of the court as shot 72.7% from the field and scored 21 points. Even if Ibaka has an off night in terms of his scoring capabilities, he almost always stands out as an aggressive rebounder who knows how to play the boards effectively.
It’s because of the ample contributions from the Thunder’s gifted forwards that this team doesn’t have to rely on effective ball movement from the their point guards to win big games. Although the Thunder only average 21.5 assists per game (16th in the NBA), they are still able to explode offensively because of how accurate their go-to shooters are. However, without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are still missing the crux of what makes this team nearly invincible and provides them with one of the most fast paced and talented offensive attacks in the NBA. While stand in Reggie Jackson has done an adequate job at moving the ball, his accuracy from the field leaves something to be desired (he averages 45.5% from the field). Despite having two other point guards on the roster, the Thunder have yet to gain consistent production from either one of them which forces a youthful Jackson to carry the load.
Yet, even with the Thunder’s inconsistent point guard play, they have a weapon that cannot only pick up the slack for these inexperienced guards, but who can almost single handedly turn the tide of a game just by his scoring abilities alone. Because of Kevin Durant’s uncanny ability to score in a multitude of ways, it makes it an arduous task for the even the most soundly and gifted defenses to consistently stop him. Although Durant has issues with his accuracy from the field in certain moments, he makes up this ailment by being a supremely consistent free throw shooter (he has made 88.4% of his free throws this season). It’s because of Durant’s size and unprecedented swiftness that he is able to drive to the basket to either get an easy lay up or garner a hard foul for two easy points. While Durant has always been known as an unstoppable scoring machine, he is always a vigilant, on the court strategist who can make cunning decisions in a split second. Although Durant’s scoring accolades may suggest that he is a conceded ball hog, he is in fact one of the more unselfish team players that divvies out the ball to any teammate who has a chance. If you ever watch the Thunder in a contested matchup, it’s easy to see that Durant is one of the most versatile and instinctual athletes in the NBA as he puts up one miraculous shot after another.
When all is said and done, the Thunder have proven empathically that they can win confidently even when their star point guard is out of commission. The cohesion this team as developed along with their well balanced team dynamics has allowed the Thunder to excel where they have come up just short in years past without the presence of Westbrook. If Durant can continue to be the distinguished leader for this surging Thunder squad and if Westbrook can come back healthy after the All-star break, it’s hard to imagine any team defeating this supremely confident franchise in a seven game series.