Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. World Cup Day 1 roundup: Brazil with big win, Andray Blatche puts on a show

    Aug 31, 2014, 12:45 AM EDT

    Raul Togni Neto, Nicolas Batum Raul Togni Neto, Nicolas Batum

    Andray Blatche had 28 points and 12 rebounds for the Philippines, and they still lost.

  2. Manu Ginobili gets statue of himself in Argentina

    Aug 30, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT

    Detroit Pistons v San Antonio Spurs Getty Images

    The statue is in Buenos Aires, in case you were looking to travel to get your picture with it.

  3. Brook Lopez confident he’ll be better than ever

    Aug 30, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT

    That’s a higher bar than most realize

  4. USA cruises past Finland in World Cup opener, 114-55

    Aug 30, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

    Anthony Davis, Teemu Rannikko Anthony Davis, Teemu Rannikko

    Klay Thompson scored 18 points and Anthony Davis had 17 points on the night. Finland had great fans, though.

  5. Nik Stauskas makes 15 consecutive 3-pointers in 47 seconds (video)

    Aug 30, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT

    2014 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Getty Images

    Kings rookie rookie honing his 3-point Shootout skills

  6. John Calipari on Anthony Davis: “In five years, he could be the best player in the NBA”

    Aug 30, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT

    Fa14_BB_WBF_Images_Ash_ANTHONY_DAVIS_2_32057

    Will Davis be better than LeBron and Durant in five years? I’ll say this — he’ll be on that level.

  7. 76ers second rounder Jordan McRae signs in Australia

    Aug 30, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    Jordan McRae Jordan McRae

    Former Tennessee guard, drafted No. 58, will help Philadelphia tank from afar

  8. Goran Dragic’s brother, Zoran, getting interest from Pacers

    Aug 30, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

    BASKET-EURO-2013-SLO-FRA BASKET-EURO-2013-SLO-FRA

    Other NBA teams also watching Slovenia closely in World Cup to assess Zoran

  9. World Cup Preview: USA vs. Finland, what to expect

    Aug 30, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Finland isn’t as good as the teams the USA was destroying in tune ups.

  10. Reports: Spurs making run at Ray Allen, who remains undecided if he will play anywhere

    Aug 30, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT

    2014 NBA Finals - Practice Day And Media Availability Getty Images

    He can decide this summer, or he can wait and join a team mid-season. There is no rush.

  11. James Harden on Kobe Bryant return: “He’s 20-year-old Kobe”

    Aug 30, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

    Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers

    “We talk and he’s ready. He’s 20-year-old Kobe. It’s going to be a crazy environment.” — James Harden on Kobe Bryant

  12. Record 45 current NBA players to compete in FIBA World Cup

    Aug 29, 2014, 11:15 PM EDT

    Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol (R) watch as th Getty Images

    Tournament features a record 75 players who have played in the NBA at some point, and we have the complete list.

  13. Chris Paul discusses his signature shoe, hoops with media at launch of his Jordan Brand CP3 VIII (VIDEO)

    Aug 29, 2014, 9:45 PM EDT

    101_Chris Paul Unveils Jordan CP3.VIII

    Chris Paul is way more into sneakers than you are, and articulated it well at the launch of his latest signature shoe in New York earlier this week.

  14. Report: Spurs interested in Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon

    Aug 29, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT

    ayon bucks Getty Images

    Ayon has played for four teams in three NBA seasons, and currently only has offers to play overseas next year.

  15. Iman Shumpert scares people (video)

    Aug 29, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT

    Iman Shumpert, Trevor Ariza Iman Shumpert, Trevor Ariza

    Knicks wing acts as security guard in prank

  16. 67RIEFNS No. 1: Tom Thibodeau managing his bigs

    Aug 29, 2014, 3:33 PM EDT

    Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Lakers Getty Images

    Bulls have Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic

Featured video

Will LeBron get booed Christmas Day in Miami?
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. D. Rose (2854)
  2. K. Love (2754)
  3. K. Bryant (2378)
  4. L. James (2268)
  5. C. Delfino (2145)
  1. T. Mozgov (2021)
  2. R. Allen (2004)
  3. K. Irving (1841)
  4. D. Waiters (1792)
  5. S. Brown (1753)