The final stop in the Connect Four Tour journeys to America’s Heartland, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Led by Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder carved their way into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Finishing the regular season 50-32, the Thunder earned the eighth seed, advancing to the Western Conference playoff picture.
You might be wondering to yourself how in the world a can team win 50 games and yet draw the bottom spot in the playoffs. First off, the depth of the Western Conference from top to bottom leaves little to no room for error when teams set their sights on postseason basketball.
Kevin Durant and the Thunder gave the Los Angeles Lakers all they could handle, and then some throughout the first round of the playoffs. A Pau Gasol tip-in with 0.02 seconds left stunned the capacity crowd of 18,342 in attendance at the Ford Center.
Prior to the put back, the game certainly appeared to be heading for a game seven back in Los Angeles. However, there would be no game seven for the Thunder.
At least not this year. Talk about a debilitating punch to the gut.
You don’t forget moments like that, and you can be sure Kevin Durant would be inclined to agree.
Oklahoma City knew a series of moves had to be made. Returning starters Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, Thabo Sefolosha, and scrappy Russell Westbrook by far eases the pressure to shop around for help during the offseason.
Aiding the solid starting five, Eric Maynor, James Harden, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka can spring off the bench, ready and willing to contribute on both sides of the ball.
Averaging slightly over 21 points per contest between the four benchmates, the Thunder bench beefed up by adding lefty veteran Morris Peterson (7.1 ppg) from New Orleans, and valuable three-point commodity Daequan Cook (5.0 ppg), who came over from the Miami Heat.
On draft night, Christmas came early when the New Orleans Hornets thought it was wise to trade 6'11" rookie shot-blocker Cole Aldrich to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What a steal.
Former Texas Longhorn great Royal Ivey adds a lockdown defensive presence, matching beautifully in connection with a team loaded in size.
If they are to revisit the playoff scene, the Thunder must use every single weapon at their disposal. That shouldn’t be too terribly difficult.
Over the last few seasons, the structure of the Oklahoma City Thunder organization was built around the phenomenal talent of Kevin Durant. As he goes, so does the rest of the team.
Averaging 6'7" in height when taking the entire roster into account, Oklahoma City can stretch out the opposing offense without surrendering the dribble-drive on a consistent basis.
Because of the length, Oklahoma City held opponents to 98 points per game (11th in the NBA) last year, averaging nearly six block shots along the way (1st in the NBA).
Cole Aldrich should feel right at home with this type of defense.
As well as out-rebounding their opponents, the Thunder perform like the on-court version of Robin Hood, ripping off eight steals per game, which is sixth overall.
Offensively, Kevin Durant possesses capability to score at will almost nightly.
Unyielding point guard play from rock solid Russell Westbrook forces the defense to avoid double teams as much as possible. His slashing style triggers the defense to close in, opening easy scoring chances around the basket.
The free throw line had been kind to the Thunder all season long as they shot 80 percent as a team (2nd in the NBA) and 46 percent from the field.
With the good come the bad.
Turnovers troubled the Thunder over the course of the season as they coughed the ball up 15 times each game (although they forced 15 turnovers per game), ranking them near the bottom half of the league.
Knocking down shots at a clip of 46 percent on the season, the Thunder struggled particularly from long range, managing a meek 34 percent as a team.
Poor shooting from deep indicates just how essential scoring from the free throw line and around the rim are; especially to a team expected to make another run at the playoffs.
Head coach Scott Brooks has to be psyched about the upcoming season. If he’s not, there is something seriously wrong with the hard wiring in his brain.
Although no longer considered the dark horse in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder have created team chemistry in a team full of youth, mixed with veteran leadership.
Oh yeah, there is also a guy named Kevin Durant.
Last season was not a fluke.
You can bet the nasty taste from the disheartening loss at the hands of the Lakers lingers all too close for comfort. Getting back to the playoffs isn’t enough.
Now that this team has been exposed to the playoffs, nothing will satisfy the Thunder unless the take home the NBA Finals trophy.
Is it crazy to think Oklahoma City can win it all?
Maybe to some.
Of all the teams capable of knocking off the Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder can.