How Star-Studded OKC Thunder Are Evolving to Become 'Ideal Team'

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeJanuary 4, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- DECEMBER 25:  Russell Westbrook #0, Paul George #13 talk while Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots a free throw against the Houston Rockets on December 25, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Terrance Ferguson didn't win the lottery, but he came close. Whatever the sports equivalent of hitting the Powerball is must look something like Wednesday night's 133-96 Thunder demolition of the Lakers.

In his first career NBA start, the rookie swingman dropped 24 points on L.A.'s hallowed home court. He punctuated the milestone with a windmill dunk that the OKC bench is still recovering from.

"When I dunked the ball, that's when I looked over to the bench and saw them go crazy," he told reporters afterward.

What was once a solo act is now a full ensemble. After Russell Westbrook spent the 2016-17 season emphatically proving he could carry a team by himself, Oklahoma City feels like a cohesive unit now. Having guys like Ferguson who can make an impact when called upon is a sign of that evolution.

Steven Adams has been around this Thunder team through all the turmoil and turnover. He didn't panic when things looked rough early this season.

"You have to mess up," he told B/R. "It's all the mistakes. You have to fail first. Once you get all that down, you understand a player a lot more and your team a lot more."

OKC trading for Paul George this offseason was a seismic shift. Adding Carmelo Anthony on top of that was outrageous. Any team would struggle gelling with such a top-heavy starting five of alpha dogs. Ferguson couldn't believe it when he found out Melo was coming to Oklahoma.

"I'm like, there's no way this happens," he said. "You can't make a team like that. I got to the training facility and everybody's there. I'm like, this is crazy."

That reaction was what we all felt at the time. How could this happen? How could it even work? That old cliche about there being only one ball applied in this case. Plus, how would a young supporting cast handle being asked to team up with a veritable Justice League of basketball?

After Wednesday's blowout victory, Ferguson revealed he was such a big Melo fan growing up that he got braids in his honor, but he hadn't yet taken the opportunity to tell his idol. Anthony knows now.

To get this team to where it wants to be—prior to the game, Westbrook boldly stated his belief that the Thunder could win a title this year to keep George in town—the vets will have to continue lifting up the young guys.

"Russ told me, I don't care if you miss 10 shots in a row, just keep shooting," Ferguson said of his big game. That's quite a statement from the guy critics accused of grandstanding throughout his entire 2016-17 MVP season.

The Thunder aren't quite rolling yet, not when one considers the significant expectations imposed on their newly formed Big Three of Anthony, George and Westbrook. But they're finding their way and are gelling after the sort of early-season growing pains that have become cliche for teams with an uneasy mix of high-wattage superstars and blue-collar role players. In the crowded Western Conference, their elbows have to be sharp to get to the front of the line.

The way the Thunder beat the Lakers is indicative of what they do so well. They strike quickly, slicing through defenders thanks to some of the best penetrators in the game. Their defense forced the Lakers into untenable transitions over and over again, collecting 12 steals out of the total 17 turnovers Los Angeles coughed up.

OKC Thunder center Steven Adams attempts a hook shot in the lane vs. the L.A. Lakers. Adams says the wins will come easier “the more we understand the transition from our defense.”
OKC Thunder center Steven Adams attempts a hook shot in the lane vs. the L.A. Lakers. Adams says the wins will come easier “the more we understand the transition from our defense.”Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

Adams thinks the OKC defense is the key to unlocking this team's full potential, telling B/R the wins will come easier "the more we understand the transition from our defense."

The Thunder lead the league in opponent turnovers per game and rank third in points allowed, but they'll need to take advantage of those strengths more. Despite L.A.'s 17 turnovers Wednesday, the Thunder only scored 10 points from those giveaways.

"Those make the game a thousand percent easier," Adams says. "More deflections, steals. Capitalize on those."

The addition of George, an elite wing stopper, helped transform the Thunder from a middle-of-the-pack defensive squad into a stifling unit.

"They have a lot of really good individual defenders on that team," Lakers head coach Luke Walton told reporters after Wednesday's game. "If you try to overpenetrate, they do exactly what they did tonight."

The Lakers, the worst three-point shooting team in the league, tried their best to get to the hole for lack of something better to do, but OKC stymied them repeatedly.

As the All-Star break approaches, the Thunder are not getting complacent. The upper echelon of the Western Conference awaits. This team can get better.

The Thunder will need far more from their bench to beat the West's top dogs. The 28-year-old Patrick Patterson is playing 14.3 minutes per game. Andre Roberson needs to contribute more on offense. 

Before crushing L.A., OKC lost back-to-back close games to Dallas and Milwaukee at home.

"We've still got a long way to go to be the ideal team," Adams told B/R.

When that ideal team includes three perennial All-Stars and two likely Hall of Famers, the rest of the NBA should be concerned.

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