The first quarter of the NBA season has been a blur, especially for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The young team has blistered the rest of the NBA with a 17-4 start, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs in winning percentage.
Kevin Durant and his teammates are growing up, but the biggest reason for their early season success is the athleticism they possess. Luckily for us, that athleticism allows for some pretty awesome highlights.
Few would argue against the idea that the Thunder are the NBA’s most athletic team. They epitomize just how exciting and unbelievably graceful the NBA game can be.
On offense or defense, no matter the opponent, the Thunder have given us some great highlights through the first quarter of the 2012-13 NBA season.
In case you were wondering, this is why Kevin Martin was brought to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade.
Martin is a player who can shoot, draw contact and still make the bucket, as you can see in this clip. As amazing as this shot is, it narrowly missed making the Top 10 because of the luck factor.
Unlike many of the other highlights that are coming up, Martin did not make this play because of his own skill or athletic ability. He got lucky, and the fact that he did it in a meaningless game against Detroit does not help.
It does take some skill to even get close to fling it up there this randomly, so he does get some credit for that. It was mostly luck though.
When you watch Kevin Durant on a nightly basis, plays like this can get lost in the shuffle. This is not a clutch three-pointer or a monstrous dunk, but it is an incredibly difficult play.
Leaving the defender in the dust with the roll move is the part that first gets your attention, but the finger roll into the hoop is what is really more impressive.
No other NBA player can do what Durant does there, and there are a few factors that make it such a difficult attempt. First, he is moving to his left and not toward the hoop. Second, even when he does reach out and roll the ball in, he is still a solid four feet away from the rim.
The ball-handling capability and the length required to pull off that shot are not just rare. It does not exist anywhere else.
At first glance, this play does not seem worthy to be on this list. It appears to be a routine block by the league’s best shot-blocker, who has a significant height advantage.
However, at second glance, one realizes just how incredible this defensive play is.
Serge Ibaka often erases Thunder defensive mishaps, but there are a couple of reasons why this play is special. The fact that he blocked the ball with two hands is insane. It is hard enough to have the timing and athletic ability to get one hand up there; getting two hands up there is ridiculous.
Then there is the amount of space Ibaka keeps between his opponent’s body and himself. He is not even close to bumping the driving player, which takes a great amount of body control and athleticism.
Serge Ibaka is not the only Thunder player who enjoys blocking shots. Star point guard Russell Westbrook has also shown the ability to get into the defensive fray, and he does so in a big way here.
The great thing about this play is that it appears at first that Westbrook has mistimed his jump and will be on the ground before he has a chance to contest Roy Hibbert’s open dunk.
Westbrook’s elite leaping ability allows him enough hang time to block the shot, and if he had not jumped a little early, Hibbert’s height advantage probably would have made the dunk unblockable.
When you consider how Hibbert is forced to the ground by the block, you are given a window into just how strong Westbrook is. Many players have similar jumping capabilities, but that strength is what really separates him from other NBA point guards.
Throughout his career, Kevin Durant has cultivated the reputation of a “nice, young man.” He lives up to that reputation in this clip.
After an errant pass hits an elderly woman in courtside seats, Durant makes his way across the court to make sure she is alright. He caps it off by giving her a kiss.
Some may say this is not that big of a deal, or that it really cannot be used as evidence that Durant is a genuinely good person. I disagree.
Thabo Sefolosha and Jamal Crawford were in the vicinity to make sure she was alright. No one would have blamed Durant for letting it be, especially since he was on the other side of the court and a Thunder player was already over there. But he walked over to check on her anyway. To channel Stephen A. Smith, that is “class personified.”
Missing a big dunk is normally pretty embarrassing for the player attempting the dunk, which is why this dunk is so impressive. Few players can miss a dunk so skillfully and athletically as Kevin Durant can.
Sure, if he had made the dunk this play would be higher on the list and maybe even No. 1. However, I have to give him credit despite the miss.
The amount of air he gets and the distance from which he takes off are impressive. It may appear that he takes off too far back, but if Andray Blatche is not standing in the way, Durant throws that one home.
As much as I love watching Kevin Durant soar through the air, that really is not his game most of the time. Russell Westbrook is a different story.
If given an open lane to the hoop, Westbrook will have dunked the ball and be halfway back down the court before you have a chance to blink. Dwight Howard learned that on this play.
This highlight also gives insight into what Kendrick Perkins offers this team. He shows great awareness by temporarily pinning Howard at the top of the key, giving Westbrook the lane he needs to get to the basket.
What was it that Madonna sang? “Strike a pose.”
Serge Ibaka certainly does that here after banking in a buzzer-beating three-pointer against the Los Angeles Clippers.
You might be arguing in your head that this play was lucky, just like Kevin Martin’s Honorable Mention play, so why should it be this high on the list?
I do not think this play is lucky. Although it is not a big part of his game, we have seen Ibaka shoot from three successfully in his career. This season he has shot great on long-range twos, so why couldn’t he hit a shot that is really just a few feet farther from the basket?
Ibaka catches the pass, dribbles, gets his feet under him and shoots a pretty fundamentally sound shot. That does not seem lucky to me.
Then again, the pose at the end could mean something. I’m just going to enjoy it for what it is.
Stephen Curry is in this play for awhile, until he miraculously disappears when Russell Westbrook begins to take off for the rim.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the best fast-break teams in the NBA, and Westbrook’s ability to finish is a big part of why that is so. Granted, Curry is really not physically equipped to challenge Westbrook at all in this play.
However, it is still an impressive play, even if it is on air. Westbrook slams it down so hard that it makes you worry a little for the safety and well-being of the rim.
Despite the recent struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers, their matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City was still a big game. This play is not the most physically impressive on this list, but it is a big moment where Russell Westbrook comes up huge.
With the height he gets on his jump shot, it really does not take much room for Westbrook to get off a shot. When Chris Duhon begins to back off to deal with the coming screen from Kendrick Perkins, Westbrook seizes his chance.
He makes the three, and, unfortunately for the Lakers, Duhon overcorrects and hits him after the play to get him the rare-but-lovely four-point play.
This is technically two plays, but together they really encapsulate the day James Harden had when he returned as a visitor to Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Russell Westbrook blocks his shot from behind on the first play in this clip. Then, Serge Ibaka blocks his fast-break layup attempt in the second play. What makes Ibaka’s block so impressive is that he blocks it to the side so his teammate can nab it.
The Thunder can really focus on individual scorers, especially when those stars have as little offensive firepower around them as Harden does. The Houston Rockets star made just 3-of-16 shot attempts that night, with just three assists, two rebounds and a plus/minus rating of minus-17.
The Harden trade was the big news before the season, which is why the No. 1 highlight of the season was his return to Oklahoma City.