Will the Oklahoma City Thunder Be Ready for Brutal Western Conference Playoffs?

John WilmesContributor IMarch 19, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) dunks between Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) and Joakim Noah (13) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 17, 2014, in Chicago.  The Thunder won the game 97-85. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)
Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder are ready to chase a title.

Much is said about championship culture in the NBA, but in the Thunder’s locker room, that concept becomes palpable.

This is as true as ever in their visit to Chicago on March 16. Upon the room’s doors opening to media, a team employee pointedly says exactly how many minutes before tipoff it will be (67) when MVP front-runner Kevin Durant will be available to the press. Durant himself has his endless legs strapped into a polygonal machine that assists his blood circulation, and he politely shoos away any reporters who amble in front of the projector showing Chicago Bulls game footage, blocking his view.

Durant’s focus on the Bulls’ defensive schemes at this moment becomes clear later, when he carves them up for 35 points on 11-of-21 shooting despite Jimmy Butler—perhaps the best wing defender in basketball this season—being draped over him through it all.

Durant's cold dominance and warm humanity (everything you’ve heard about his friendliness is true) make him seem unearthly, extraplanetary—made from unknown substance. In his high-tech leg machine, Durant looks superhuman, like the Dr. Manhattan of the NBA.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

And his complement, Russell Westbrook, is unamused by doubts about his game. Asked if he would be back to his best form in time for the playoffs, Westbrook retorted: “You don’t think I’m back already?” Told he’s shown some rust, Westbrook asked: “Where?” His question is hard and rhetorical; he moves on to the next reporter.

And despite a bad 5-of-14 shooting night against the Bulls, Westbrook does look like his ferocious, furious self, quicker than just about anyone else in the league, making tough decisions on a dime and generally overwhelming the opposition.

Another team employee cuts off questions shortly after, as he does with Durant next. The media scurry off, because there is nothing to see here. The levity and hijinks you might catch in other locker rooms are absent in this room. The Thunder are hunters, silently waiting to stake their prey.

On the court, Westbrook and Durant’s chemistry together is perhaps as good as it’s been since Russ’ return. When they leave Chicago’s defense (easily the best in the league since the All-Star break) in the dust with their pick-and-rolls, it’s hard to imagine any tandem in basketball doing it better.

And a closer look at the play—executed almost exactly the same, twice—shows that the Bulls hardly did anything wrong. Had Joakim Noah gotten into the lane sooner to contest Durant, the ball would have easily made its way to Serge Ibaka’s hands for an open corner three—and Ibaka is a career-best 39 percent from the arc this season.

This is the sight of two of the best athletes in the world working together with a familiarity that’s been forged over half a decade, surrounded by an organization smart enough to capitalize on it.

When the Thunder last challenged LeBron James and the Miami Heat for the NBA title two years ago, their dual superstars were just 23 years old. Their loss has clearly hardened them—as has fate’s cruel tearing of Westbrook’s meniscus in the first round of last year’s playoffs—and it seems that a rematch between the two teams would be a much different tale in 2014.

Despite losing James Harden to the Houston Rockets since then, Durant’s game has elevated to stratospheric levels and Westbrook’s skills have also matured considerably. Ibaka (who was a barely alive 22 in those finals) has also become an overlooked near-superstar-level talent and the linchpin to the Thunder’s much-improved defense.

Above all, the team is even hungrier now. After chipping away against the Bulls’ indomitable D and winning 97-85, Westbrook says the team “played tough.” And he’s right: Despite their hip, cool ease elsewhere, the Thunder have as much impassioned edge and intensity as anyone in basketball. They're not mere athletes—they're fighters. Battle-tested and ever-driven, the Thunder are willing and able for any challenge.

And they’ll have an easier time than you think, in the Western Conference playoffs.