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Be warned: This year’s Thunder are better than last year’s

Jan 12, 2013, 9:30 AM EDT

Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook Getty Images

Kevin Durant is a better player today than he was when the Thunder lost Game 5 of the NBA finals last season. His ball handling has improved allowing him to take on more playmaking. His defense is better. He is rebounding more.

Russell Westbrook is more of a floor general. His play seems crisper, more confident. And he’s still one of the most athletic players in the NBA.

Serge Ibaka might win the NBA’s most improved player award this year — he has developed a very reliable midrange catch-and-shoot jumper and is shooting 57.1 percent on the season. He used to play only for his defense, now he starts because you have to guard him.

When the Thunder traded James Harden for Kevin Martin before the season the team took a small step back. They will miss Harden’s playmaking off the bench. His defense. His beard.

But the Thunder today are a better team, a hungrier team than the one the Heat beat in the finals last season. Their defense is about the same but their offense is 3.5 points per 100 possessions better this season — it is the best offense in the NBA.

That growth is because Durant and Westbrook are just 24 years old and still on a steep improvement curve. Ibaka is 23. With every new experience — like losing in the finals — they learn. They get better.

“When we made the (Harden) trade, we knew that we were still going to be a good team…” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Our players are better. They came back better this summer. I thought the Olympic experience for all of them, even Serge with Spain, I thought everyone came back a little better.”

All of that showed in a rout of the Lakers Friday night. The Thunder defended and got out on the break to get some easy buckets. They moved the ball, made the extra pass, got good looks and then their shooters knocked them down.

Kevin Durant showed a mean streak, scoring 42 points and seeming at points to really enjoy taking it out on the Lakers. At one point he drove baseline and dunked over Antawn Jamison, then glared with a fire he rarely makes so public. Westbrook had 27 points but also 10 assists. The Thunder role players get their jobs and execute them.

And they are not tolerating lapses — up more than 20 with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers scored back-to-back buckets on lazy defense by the Thunder. Brooks called time out and chewed out his team. He put the starters back in for a few minutes to fully seal the game. And to send a message about effort and building good habits.

The Miami Heat are not building good habits, they are coasting through this season. Which is still enough to lead the Eastern Conference. It’s not easy to imagine a scenario where another team comes out of the conference. The Heat are the defending champs, if you want a ring you have to go through them.

Oklahoma City might just be a team that can do that. Because their stars are better than they have ever been.

  1. infectorman - Jan 12, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    would love to see a rematch of last years finals.
    Last year during the Finals we played “drink whine”.

    Everybody drank a shot or chugged a beer every time Baby Wade whined about some kind of p*ssy BS.
    God! We were sh*tfaced by halftime

    • thenmoveback - Jan 12, 2013 at 1:33 PM

      Yeah because wade is the only player in the NBA to whine? Im a heat fan since the early 90’s and i understand wade does this but come on KG, Paul pierce, rondo, Kobe, Dwight, westbrooke, Carmelo, Varejao, Ginobili, Scola, harden’s beard. Open ur eyes guy 90% of the NBA are cry babies and floppers. Last years finals had westbrooke crying and flopping just as much as wade. They even made a new flopping rule because SO many players do it. Stop complaining and enjoy the great plays the flippers and whiners make.

      • philadelphiafan - Jan 12, 2013 at 6:19 PM

        *Westbrook

    • bigmeechy74 - Jan 12, 2013 at 8:23 PM

      I did the same thing during the finals every time Scott Brooks made a moronic decision. I drank so much I’m on a liver transplant list.

  2. nycalldayz - Jan 12, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    The Thunder get better each year, but still think they’re missing a piece or 2 as far as their becnh.

  3. mungman69 - Jan 12, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    The Thunder can’t be better than last year, can they. They are going to need a better bench for the long haul. They can be had by a good team (Miami) (San Antonio).

  4. dabceb - Jan 12, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Saying that Harden plays defense is a stretch….

    • letangusespertplus - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:25 AM

      yeah this always confused me when people said he played good d.

  5. rodge1 - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    @infectorman
    You’re lucky you didn’t drink every time Harden disappeared, Westbrook took bad shots, or every time Miami shut OKC down… You would’ve had alcohol poisoning.

    • letangusespertplus - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:26 AM

      i think there were more flops and whines than that. actually i’m pretty certain.

  6. jerdogthompson - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    So let me get this straight, by virtue of OKC beating a severely handicapped Laker team (injuries) that constitutes them being better than last year? They are good but don’t know if they are markedly improved over last year. Sorry still have Westbrook turning the ball over too much and that’s against a terrible Laker defense.

    • eventhorizon04 - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:21 PM

      …..Most of Kurt’s arguments were based on the team’s whole-season stats. He just picked a couple of examples from the most recent game to illustrate the point he was making about their entire season so far.

  7. drunkenjunk - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    the only thing that will be change about this year is maybe miami will take 6 games to beat them. Miami is still better than everyone and they’ll still complain the whole time.

  8. themagicfanguy - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    @Jerdog No, that’s not it at all. It’s not just this one game. If you have watched a good amount of Thunder games, you’d see that they are much improved. They are passing the ball more, scoring more efficiently, playing defense with more intensity, and making less mistakes than last year. They’re hungry, and you can see it.

  9. edwardsro - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    I have been a laker fan for 25 years and always will be a laker fan. However, OKC will win the title this year and could win more then a couple in the coming years

  10. themagicfanguy - Jan 12, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    @drunken You better hope that the Heat get the #1 seed then, seeing as how they are 7-8 on the road…

  11. rallen69 - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    Kevin durant=best player in the league

    • misterchainbluelightning - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      Chris Paul is the best player in the league.

      • letangusespertplus - Jan 12, 2013 at 2:35 PM

        bahahahahahaahahaha this dude has the muscle definition of a scallop.

      • misterchainbluelightning - Jan 12, 2013 at 3:27 PM

        Best PG in the league, best defender in the league, does whatever the team needs night to night to help put up wins. He can hurt you 3 different ways, as great as KD is, he only hurts you one way.

        But you keep thinking whatever foolishness you choose

    • thenmoveback - Jan 12, 2013 at 2:02 PM

      LBJ is the beat all around player . Scoring assisting rebounding playing D, Durant and Carmilo are the best pure scorers in the NBA but neither can play close to the D LBJ does.

    • bigmeechy74 - Jan 12, 2013 at 8:05 PM

      Let’s all quit trying to be interesting and clever and state the obvious. The best players in the league are 1) Lebron James 2) Kevin Durant 3) Chris Paul in that order.

  12. isujames - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    The only team that could give the Heat problems in this years playoffs in the east or west are the Amareless Knicks.Sign Kenyon and trade Amare, Heat all day!!!!

  13. isujames - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    The only team that will pose as any real opposition to this years Heat squad in either East or West are a Amareless Knicks squad, trade Amare and sign K Mart.Heat all day!

  14. fanofthegame79 - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    Hold up, I know that everyone wants to crown the Thunder – just like last year – but the Thunder might not even be the best team in the west. Look out for the Clippers. Remember, the regular season is not a good indicator of the post season. When you play different teams every night, too many factors play a part. First of all, you’re not really game planning for the teams during the season – you play your game and hope it turns into a win. However, during the playoffs you’re game planning and making constant adjustments. With that said, to beat a team over a 7-game series you have be a very good team. Think of the regular season like checkers and the post season like chess. Similar, but more goes into chess. As for the Heat. I know they don’t look great right now. But even with them playing complacent – they have the best record in the East. They have a couple of big losses, but when you look at the losses to the Bulls (7 points), Clippers (10 points), they don’t seem so bad. When you look at the big losses (Knicks by 20 x2) there are ways to explain that away, too. Look at the Knicks right now – not hitting 3’s at the pace they established in the 1st month of the season – I knew they wouldn’t keep that up so they don’t look to be as much of a threat. There are 4 teams to watch in the east: Heat, Knicks, Celtics (trust me) and the Bulls. The Pacers are knocking on that door, too (Granger is a major factor in this). The west: Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies and Thunder. Injuries will continue to be a part of this very long NBA season. So let’s see where we’re at come All-Star break and we’ll continue our conversation then. But don’t say that the Thunder are better than last season….yet. And don’t bet all of your money on them with the Clippers being as deep as they are.

    • scalfor3 - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      I love watching the Clips play, but I don’t trust their half court offense enough to take them seriously as a threat to OKC. Its still between OKC and San Antonio in the West with Memphis having a punchers chance if they get hot at the right time.

  15. rajbais - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    Yep!!!

    I see them facing Miami or Atlanta for the title.

    I think they can win it this time!!

    A big key for their success, serge ibaka’s 14 ppg and 8-9 boards/game.

  16. rodge1 - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:46 PM

    @letangusespertplus

    Obviously not or OKC would have won more than one game… What a genius you are!

  17. misterchainbluelightning - Jan 12, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    They better be, because the Clippers are much better than last year as well

  18. davidly - Jan 12, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    They’re gonna miss Harden against the Clippers in a seven-gamer. Jamal Crawford will be one of the names repeated on nightly recaps during that series. Kind of like Harden’s name last year.

  19. raysfan1 - Jan 12, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    Let’s hope so. I’ll save the trash talk though until after the rings have been earned.

  20. themagicfanguy - Jan 12, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    Well, he’s NOT the best defender in the league. Not even the best defensive PG in the league. So I guess YOU go in with whatever foolishness you want, while we all keep knowing that you’re completely incorrect :)

  21. lakerluver - Jan 12, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    Had “the beard” not pooped his pants last season, OKC would be champions. They were the better team last season but one of their best players played poorly. As for who’s better out of KD and LeBron…LeBron is the better all around player but KD is the best scorer in the league. If OKC and Miami meet this year in the Finals, OKC will win in no more than six games.

    • thenmoveback - Jan 12, 2013 at 7:06 PM

      Harden “pooped his pants” because the miami heat D shut him down. It’s hilarious how u find such petty reason y the heat shouldn’t have won. That’s like saying the lakers only won a championship because fisher hit a few lucky shots. The heat won the series 4-1 that’s domination son get it straight. Oh and enjoy watching a laker-less playoffs this post season.

    • davidly - Jan 12, 2013 at 9:40 PM

      I guess that would mean that when your namesake met the Thunder in the playoffs last year that they pooped their Huggies?

  22. bigmeechy74 - Jan 12, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    I live in Tulsa and I was so excited to finally have a pro team near me to root for. They had the most exciting young nucleus in the league. Then they traded my favorite player. A 23 year old that is basically unstoppable and already one of the 10 best players in the league. So basically they took all the fun and joy out rooting for them imo so they could save money. I’m still pissed about that trade. They could’ve been a dynasty. They may still win a couple rings but now they are just a contender instead of the favorite for YEARS.

  23. JP Mc Loughlin - Jan 12, 2013 at 8:57 PM

    Completely agree, they look like a more mature team this year too and is playing with a confident expectation of themselves. They seem to revel in the elite team role and will be very close this year. Clippers and OKC would be a great series.

  24. loungefly74 - Jan 12, 2013 at 10:13 PM

    a testament to great drafting…OKC. good for them.

  25. jimsjam33 - Jan 14, 2013 at 1:14 AM

    OKC is basically the same team as last year . Martin for Harden is a net minus for the Thunder . The Clippers on the other hand add Matt Barnes , Lamar Odom , Jamal Crawford , and Chauncey Billups . Major advantage for the Clippers .
    In the West finals Clippers in 6 .

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