What We Learned About the OKC Thunder During First Half of the Season
After making a huge change to the team's core right before the start of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have persevered through the adjustments and currently sit atop the standings with the best record in the NBA (as of January 20).
The Thunder lost in five games to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals to finish last season, but considering how strong they have come out to start this season, they look prepared to make another run at a championship.
It's a a new season, and with a new season, you can start to notice some changes within a team. For Oklahoma City, those changes have been positive.
With that being said, let's break down what's been going on with the Thunder thus far and see what lessons we have learned in the first half of the season.
5. The Heat Still Have the Thunder's Number
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While the Thunder have been making fairly easy work of their Western Conference foes this year, the Christmas Day matchup against the Heat shows that there is still work to be done if OKC wants to taste championship gold.
Given that the game was in Miami and that it was just a small sample size, it seems that Oklahoma City still has problems with beating the Heat, who will most likely be the team to beat in the NBA Finals. One of the biggest problems with the most recent game against Miami was the fact that OKC was being torched by role players like Mario Chalmers instead of the bigger threats like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
If the Thunder want a chance to beat the Heat, they will have to neutralize the smaller threats and focus on shutting down the bigger guys. If LeBron or Wade are forced to create their own offense with their teammates struggling, it makes the number of offensive options smaller and becomes easier to focus on defense.
With that being said, Oklahoma City will really have to take this game into consideration and prepare for their Valentine's Day rematch against Miami to try to swing the momentum of this budding rivalry back into their favor.
4. Kevin Durant Is Still Getting Better
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For a three-time scoring champion, four-time All-Star and current MVP candidate, it would seem that there isn't much to improve.
However, Kevin Durant, who is still just 24 years young, continues to find ways to make himself more lethal on the basketball court, improving his team as a whole in the process.
After having pretty much no time off during the summer, Durant's overall game seems to have benefited from playing with the United States Olympic team and also from some offseason workout sessions with his main competitor for MVP, LeBron James.
With his numbers improving in seemingly every category from rebounding to shooting percentage to assists, the evolution of Kevin Durant seems to be never-ending, and that's a scary, scary thought for someone who is already on one of the best teams in basketball.
3. Russell Westbrook Is a Real Point Guard
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The seemingly constant flow of hatred against Russell Westbrook for being a ball hog and taking away offensive opportunities from Kevin Durant has slowed down immensely as Westbrook is growing as a point guard and becoming a better facilitator than we've seen in seasons past.
Westbrook is posting a career-high 8.3 assists per game, up almost three whole assists from his 5.5 average last season. Mentally, he seems to be more focused on a team aspect this season and has demonstrated this in late-game situations by cutting back on his own attempts to be the hero and letting Durant, OKC's best offensive option, take the shots that matter.
Seeing the signs of becoming a more mature and solid leader of the offense has to be encouraging for Oklahoma City, who will need Westbrook to continue to lead them on the floor throughout the course of the season.
2. James Harden Is Replaceable
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There was a huge shakeup in OKC with the Thunder when contract extension talks broke down with star sixth man James Harden and the Thunder dealt him to Houston.
As we've seen in previous moves from GM Sam Presti, he works hard to get good value out of his trades, especially with a special player like Harden involved. So what the Thunder got in return was solid security for the present (Kevin Martin) and the future (Jeremy Lamb and two first-round picks).
Martin has filled the bench scorer role nicely with his 14.9 points per game, and the Thunder have clearly demonstrated that their contender status has not been hurt at all with the departure of one of their core players.
Additionally, having Lamb and two-first rounders will help for the future of the team that already has Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka inked for the long term.
1. The Thunder Are Still the Best in the West
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All the talk of the Los Angeles Lakers coming into the season with their big acquisitions and taking the Western Conference by storm have faded rather quickly.
While the Lakers will have to go on a major streak to even make the postseason this year, the Thunder sit comfortably atop the Western Conference, having beaten almost every team that poses a threat to their conference crown thus far in the season.
The top Western teams like the Spurs, Clippers, Warriors and Grizzlies have all been beaten by OKC this year, showing that the Thunder are not afraid of anyone on this side of the country. The Lakers have been a joke for Oklahoma City this season, and there doesn't seem to be any way that the Thunder don't end up taking their conference.
While the Miami Heat are a challenge of their own caliber in the Eastern Conference, the Thunder seem pretty set to make a deep run in the postseason on their way back to the Finals with no one really ready to stop them.