In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 105-89 victory over the New Jersey Nets, the Thunder showed the inexperience that has them hovering around postseason eligibility and the talent that will see them burst through the postseason door sooner, rather than later.
Let’s examine which Thunder will be around when the lightning strikes.
Kevin Durant —15-22 FG, 0-2 3FG, 10-12 FT, 5 REB, 2 AST, 5 TO, 40 PTS
There’s no player in the league, not Carmelo Anthony, not Kobe Bryant, that gets his jump shot off as effortlessly as Kevin Durant. With his towering length and graceful athleticism, Durant simply towered above any Nets defender. With his flawless shooting mechanics, it was a mild shock when one of his jumpers didn’t connect.
Oklahoma City varied their methods of getting the ball in Durant’s hands. They positioned him in the mid-post some of the time, where he’d look to turn and shoot, ran him off a few down screens. They also used various baseline curls and fades, as well as having him start stationary at the top of the key.
Durant also executed several nifty backdoor cuts, and was unstoppable with the ball in his hands in early in the offense.
If Durant had any major flaw, it was that his high dribble was easily knocked away by smaller players when he drove through congested areas, particularly with his left hand. His defense was also below average, and he had trouble with Trenton Hassell’s long-range jumper and assortment of drives.
Offensively though, the sky is the limit for Durant so long as he’s aware of his surroundings with his dribble and keeps building up his frame to finish near the basket. It’s a matter of when, not if, Durant becomes the game’s next scoring leader.
Jeff Green —2-5 FG, 0-2 3FG, 2 REB, 0 AST, 2 TO, 6 PTS
Green was a disaster. He was broken down defensively by Yi Jianlian and suffered by getting into early foul trouble. When he returned, he couldn’t establish any rhythm and wound up air-balling a jumper, missing rotations, and being generally useless.
Green’s jump shot is still a work in progress, and he struggles when he gets down early. Because he’s frail, he can be posted up, and he doesn’t put his quickness to use defensively. Offensively, he thrives by being longer than shorter forwards and faster than bigger ones. Against the Nets, he faced a similar player in Yi and didn’t have any mismatch advantage.
Because Green doesn’t have a primary move he uses against all defenders, he’s limited to scoring only against select opponents and on broken plays.
Green needs to work on some kind of automatic, fail-safe, go-to move. A right hook in the post, a pull-up jumper going right, or something that he has confidence in no matter the defender or situation. He also needs to stay involved in the game when things aren’t going his way.
Russell Westbrook —4-12 FG, 0-2 3FG, 8-10 FT, 10 AST, 2 TO, 16 PTS
Westbrook’s prime directive is to colonize the paint, whether it’s open for the taking or not. While Westbrook forced several drives and shots at the rim, he always charged the lane and looked to collapse New Jersey’s defense. While he didn’t have much individual success, he was able to draw and dish on isolation's and screen/fades with Nenad Kristic, Westbrook was also able to earn 10 free throw attempts by assaulting the rim.
However, Westbrook doesn’t have three-point range and needs to be a better finisher. It was nice to see him show off a reliable mid-range jumper.
Defensively, Westbrook is a tough-minded, yet clumsy defender. His over-aggression lands him in perpetual foul trouble, but he’s long and willing to draw charges.
Give him time to continue to learn the point guard position and to refine his defense and he’ll be a two-way star.
Nenad Kristic —7-12 FG, 5-6 FT, 7 REB, 0 AST, 2 BLK, 1 STL, 1 TO, 19 PTS
Kristic has a reliable 20-foot jump shot which makes him an ideal candidate to screen and fade, or to be a safety valve against collapsing defenses.
Defensively, Kristic offered little resistance and doesn’t have the size or strength to be an adequate defender.
When the Thunder become a playoff team, Kristic will be a backup.
Thabo Sefolosha —0-2 FG, 1 REB, 6 AST, 1 TO, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 0 PTS
While Sefolosha missed a layup and didn’t score a single point, he showed his athleticism by soaring to swat a Brook Lopez layup, and he moved the ball, finishing with six assists. Sefolosha has the tools to be a very good defensive player. If he can keep improving his three-point shooting, he’ll be the unassuming role player on a team of stars.
James Harden —0-10 FG, 0-4 3FG, 3-4 FT, 6 REB, 1 AST, 2 TO, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 3 PTS
Harden believed in the mantra, if at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again. Harden repeatedly forced bad shots in the hopes that he’d lose the goose egg in his stat line. While Harden is talented, he still needs to learn discretion and shot selection.
Nick Collison —5-7 FG, 1-1 FT, 10 REB, 1 BLK, 11 PTS
Collison’s hustle in the second half was a huge factor in Oklahoma City pulling away late in the third. In fact, of all the players who played, Collison had the best plus/minus ratio, an impressive plus 25 in 29 minutes. His presence on the offensive glass leaves him a valuable rotation player.
Eric Maynor —1-3 FG, 0-1 3FG, 2-2 FT, 1 REB, 1 AST, 4 PTS
Maynor over-handles the ball and has difficulty running pro offenses, a reason why he was traded from Utah.
Serge Ibaka —2-3 FG, 2-3 FT, 9 REB, 1 AST, 6 PTS
Ibaka has awful hands, is totally ball-oriented on defense, and missed an all-alone put-back. But he’s a project and is fluid enough to take a flier on.
What do the Thunder need to take the next step?
-A space eating center
-A go-to move for Green
-Improved jump shooting for Green and Westbrook
-A veteran backup point guard
Most importantly, the Thunder need time to learn what they can, can’t, and must do. Give them two years and they’ll be a real handful.