The Oklahoma City Thunder don't play by the same rules as everyone else.
This is a win-now roster with a superstar-laden win-now trio. Yet, it's one of the few franchises playing without a defined ceiling, a youthful group beaming with upside.
This isn't the same wide-eyed bunch dispatched by the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. It's more experienced, better poised and even more productive than the group that stumbled at the championship door.
With a tightened defensive grip, a fully loaded offensive arsenal and a second team bearing a striking resemblance to its star-studded starting five, the Thunder are doing far more than just picking up the pieces.
The trail feels familiar, but this team is carving its own path to the podium. A path that features a certain brand of dominance and the promise for an even brighter future than OKC fans have ever seen.
It's easy to think of the Thunder as an offensive power. By all measures, that's exactly what they are.
OKC has the best scorer on the planet in Kevin Durant. KD has more than a two-point edge (28.6 points per game, next closest is Carmelo Anthony with 26.3) in the race for the fourth scoring crown of his seven-year career.
The Thunder also employ the best one-two punch in the business. Between Durant and his superstar sidekick, Russell Westbrook, OKC is getting a staggering 49.6 points a night from that pair alone, the most among any NBA duos this season.
But this isn't a two-man show. Far from it.
OKC's 0.94 points per possession stands as the eighth-best mark in the league, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
This team understands its strengths and attacks accordingly. Its pick-and-roll attack is lethal, no matter if the ball-handler (0.83 points per possession, sixth) or the roll man (1.03, 10th) finishes the play. With next-level athleticism all over the roster, OKC has a potent transition game (1.16, sixth).
Yet the Thunder aren't offensive specialists. Again, far from it.
OKC has managed to paint one of the Association's hardest-to-solve defensive puzzles. For all of the offensive firepower they possess, this team has built its 20-4 record at the opposite end.
After years of stressing the importance of defense, the Thunder are finally practicing what they preach.
Name the metric, and OKC grades out as a defensive juggernaut.
Traditionalists point to the Thunder's 42.0 field-goal percentage allowed, second only to the Indiana Pacers' 41.2. The analytical crowd highlights the club's ability to generate stops (97.9 points allowed per 100 trips, fifth), guard the three-point line (33.2 percent allowed, tied for fourth) and finish possessions (75.2 defensive rebounding percentage, 10th overall).
This is the NBA's anti-Reese's defense. There's no right way to attack it.
The Thunder hold top-10 defensive ranks for isolation plays (0.71, first), pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.74, 10th), pick-and-roll roll men (0.94, eighth), spot-up shots (0.9, second), off-ball cuts (1.1, fourth), points off offensive rebounds (0.88, first) and out in transition (1.07, eighth).
There are certain ebbs and flows that should be expected from a young team. A moment of brilliance is followed by a head-scratching mistake.
But OKC is finding consistency at both ends of the floor, thanks in part to an unwavering focus set in by coach Scott Brooks.
"The first possession is just as important as the last possession,” Brooks said, via Thunder.com's Nick Gallo. “If you have that mentality, you don’t have the ups and downs of the game.”
This roster might be loaded with young guns, but don't expect this team to act its age.
Nothing but a Number
Championship contenders aren't supposed to look like this.
Of Brooks' top nine rotation players, six are under the age of 26. Five of those six—Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb—claim the team's top-five usage rates.
But you can't call this roster inexperienced. Not with so many key contributors back from that NBA finalist. While they didn't find any championship rings in that series, they may have unearthed something of equal importance.
"Maturity," Westbrook said, via ESPN.com's J.A. Adande. "We're older now. We know we've got to take care of business regardless of what the score is, go out and play the game and play our brand of basketball."
That brand of basketball is maturing right along with the roster.
Durant's still a tactical offensive machine, but he's never filled stat sheets quite like this. He's rebounding (8.2), distributing (4.8 assists) and thieving (1.5) like never before, all while cutting his turnovers for the second straight season (3.4).
Westbrook's still finding his offensive rhythm (.411/.300/.776 slash) after undergoing a pair of knee procedures this year, but he's turning heads with his defense.
"He can cause a lot of problems at that position," Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Westbrook, via Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. "He can pressure the ball. He's hard to go by. He creates steals. So yeah, I would put him in that [elite defender] category."
Ibaka hasn't made the dramatic leap some hoped he would, but the 24-year-old continues to improve setting career marks in scoring (14.6) and rebounding (9.5).
But that three-headed monster hasn't made this Thunder squad better than the others on its own. A lot of the credit falls on the shoulders of a supporting cast that's beyond its years.
Jackson has been a force off OKC's bench. A fearless, supercharged combo guard, he's almost Westbrook-lite, with that "lite" tag resulting more from a lack of minutes than a lack of talent.
Stretch out his stats across 36 minutes (17.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.3 steals per 36), and tell me there isn't a resemblance between him and the man holding him out of the starting five.
Still, Jackson's not impressed by what he's done.
"I'm not satisfied with being a rotation player. I'm not satisfied with being a starter" he said, via The Gazette's Paul Klee. "Every day I wake up, I want to be the greatest...I want to be the best, point-blank."
If Jackson's the Westbrook of the reserve unit, than Lamb takes on the KD duties. He's freakishly long, deceptively athletic and buttery smooth—sound familiar? He doesn't get enough shots to approach KD's numbers, but his eye-popping slash line (.485/.397/1.000) suggests he might be up for the challenge, or at least on his way to getting there.
"He's still developing, still evolving into the player we want him to become," Brooks said of Lamb, via Slater. "But I think he's got a chance to be a really good player in this league because of his work ethic."
Rookie Steven Adams is a mesh of his frontcourt mates. He brings Ibaka's rim protection (2.1 blocks per 36 minutes), Nick Collison's lunch pail and Kendrick Perkins' special brand of nasty:
Add Jordan Hamilton to Steven Adams' list. Thunder rookie just got under his skin, too. Made him throw a (weak) punch.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) December 18, 2013
How many teams at the top hold the possibility of upward mobility? I'm not sure that luxury exists outside the Big Friendly's city limits.
Every time a team plays ahead of its years and makes a surprise playoff run with a youthful roster, the reaction is the same—it's too young to know any better.
OKC doesn't fit under that umbrella. It appreciates the commitment a championship pursuit requires and the pitfalls that come from a wasted opportunity.
The Thunder know exactly what they're getting into, where they want to go and how they plan on getting there.
Who will come out of the loaded Western Conference?
"We just want to play our best brand of basketball at the right time," Durant said, via Adande. "Whether we get the 1-seed or however that falls, we just want to play our best basketball coming down the stretch."
Spoken like a battle-scarred veteran, a man who understands that there are no guarantees on the NBA stage. A 25-year-old who shouldn't know any better but does and uses that knowledge to fuel his ascent to greatness.
This is an elite NBA team doing it what it always does—constantly improving.
The offense remains lethal, and the defense holds knockout power of its own. A superstar pairing still leads the charge, but that duo is evolving as are the players behind it.
There's a familiar feel to this roster, but OKC fans have never seen anything like this before.
When championship opportunity knocks this time around, these Thunder will be ready to be pounce.