Contending in the Western Conference

Damn, I bet that Thunder-Pelicans matchup last night looked a lot better on the schedule during the offseason. But, with Ernie Johnson christening the only other matchup on television last night “The Disappointment Bowl”, I decided to check back in on KD, Russ, and the boys. Might be nice to see some real basketball heading into a weekend of mindless media hype, not-even-comically terrible defense, and the much touted Drake v. Reggie Miller ping-pong extravaganza. For the record, here’s a quick clip of Drake “whooping” someone at ping-pong. Wouldn’t mind challenging the winner of that contest…

Oklahoma City kept their lead at pretty much a solid 10 points for most of the first three quarters before going supernova towards the end of the 3rd and going up by as many as 27. It led to a 4th quarter that Golden State has become all-too familiar with – the entirety of the team’s key players on the bench as the scrubs get the task of simple cruise control with a 25 point cushion. That 4th quarter also got me thinking, instead of writing about this avalanche of a game, why not use it to think bigger picture about the Thunder? We’ve said for years that any team with two top-10 players (and a strong argument for top-5 this year) and a killer complementary guy in Serge Ibaka should be able to challenge the league’s best when all three are healthy. But with Golden State and San Antonio throwing down truly historic seasons, will the Thunder simply be a tough second round win for one of these behemoths? Let’s break it down.

Are the Thunder Championship Contenders? 

If you’re going to start on offense, the answer is absolutely. When I turned on TNT last night, the second quarter had gotten underway and head coach Billy Donovan had subbed in Westbrook to carry a second unit without a ton of scoring. To compensate, Westbrook pushed the ball up at a manic pace, finding open looks for Collison and Enes Kanter in transition and bulling his way to the rim when nothing was there. While the game got a little sloppy, the Thunder took their lead from 2 to 10 during that period and looked a lot like how the Warriors play; crazy pace with little regard to the odd turnover that happens now and then (the Thunder did finish with 18 on the night, but Surprise! they average almost exactly as many as the Warriors, which is a ton compared to the rest of the league).

When KD and Russell played together, the game was over. Critics often point to the Cleveland-style of “My turn, Your turn” offense that keeps the Thunder predictable, but it sure is hard to stop. The two of them combined for 46 points on 18-31 shooting, which is with both of them sitting for the entire 4th quarter, while Russell finished one rebound short of a triple double. I’d also like to throw out that an isolation game can also have its benefits. Cleveland played out of their depth in the finals last year with Lebron just pounding the rock into the floor, and while Andre Igoudala had an enormous defensive performance in that series I would doubt his ability to replicate it against the taller and shiftier Durant. Simply put, the Warriors don’t have an elite wing-stopper; they rely on their amazing, precision-switching defense to keep up with teams, which isn’t going to do anything against a clear-the-floor out ISO. It’s ugly, but it can get the job done if you have the talent.

As for playing that premier lock-down man Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs? After last night, the Thunder should be praying that they hold onto that 3 seed and pull this matchup in the second round. No one wants to play Popovich, but the Thunder are well-equipped to simply pour in buckets and outscore the Spurs.

I wouldn’t be as confident that these guys have enough on both ends of the floor to compete with Golden State, though. Because, holy crap, the Thunder defense has a ton of holes.

As unbelievably athletic as Westbrook is, and watching the game last night I’d challenge you to find a better rebounding or drive-to-the basket guard in the league (maybe Wall??), he’s kind of a lousy individual defender. Westbrook goes for the highlight plays; leaving his man while playing off-ball to gamble in passing lanes, giving up that first step to try for a Sports Center chase-down block. There’s a difference between moving your feet and staying in front of your man consistently and the occasional steal that leads to a massive tomahawk dunk in transition, but trying to explain this to my roommates was greeted by a reaction very similar to Charles Barkeley’s “Analytics are for Nerds”. Oh well..

Simply put, whether it be Westbrook getting beaten by his man or just the Thunder style of defense, these guys like to collapse in and protect the paint. In that regard, they looked amazing last night. We’ve all known forever about Ibaka’s elite interior presence, but third year center Steven Adams has also blossomed defensively this season and when you throw Durant’s long-arms into the mix, it’s really tough for teams to score inside or hit the offensive glass. The Thunder absolutely bottled up Anthony Davis and any Pelicans’ attempts at a Ryan Anderson post-up down low, and this is a style very similar to what the Spurs run on defense; force the other team to make the extra passes and beat you with outside jump shots before their guys can close out.

Well, the Pelicans got a million open three pointers last night. I know they only took 16 attempts, which is well below their season average of 24, but these guys were playing in transition for a lot of the night and had an open look pretty much whenever Jrue Holiday or Norris Cole decided to kick it out (again, these are not elite point guards beating Westbrook off the dribble). The team shot miserably from there, which was crucial in the Thunder controlling the game, but that style simply won’t work against a strong 3 point shooting team like Golden State or San Antonio. I mean even to think that they let the Pelicans put up 95 on them without Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, AND Ryan Anderson shooting 2-12 is not a calling card to take pride in.

It’s true that this is just one game in a great big sample size, but regardless of metric, the Thunder just haven’t been a great team on defense this season, and certainly nowhere near the top-5 on both sides of the floor caliber that most championship teams reach. I still believe they’re miles ahead of Los Angeles and everyone below in the West playoff picture and maybe a little bit closer to the Spurs than people give them credit for but with the way Steph and Co. are burning down the entire league it may be a little premature to call them true-blue contenders. Look to the week of February 27th where they will be playing the Dubs twice to give us all some more clarity.

And of course, Enjoy All-Star Weekend!



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