Jan 12, 2013, 9:30 AM EST
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.
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.
Mar 6, 2015, 8:30 PM EST
Lakers are desperately trying to get back to the level of title contenders.
Mar 6, 2015, 7:30 PM EST
Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but is more than likely to remain with the Grizzlies.
Mar 6, 2015, 6:30 PM EST
Indeed it is.
Mar 6, 2015, 5:39 PM EST
He was even hitting his free throws.
Mar 6, 2015, 4:50 PM EST
It’s starting to feel like the playoffs are coming, play is getting chippy.
Mar 6, 2015, 4:02 PM EST
It was worth a shot.
Mar 6, 2015, 3:12 PM EST
It would be a long road back for White, but there is a road.
Mar 6, 2015, 2:37 PM EST
Raptors need their All-Star point guard to get on track
Mar 6, 2015, 1:38 PM EST
Pacers great tells fantastic tale of trash-talking gone awry
Mar 6, 2015, 12:54 PM EST
Do the Lakers have a chance?
Blindfolded attempt in Philippines Basketball Association dunk contest goes very, very poorly (video)
Mar 6, 2015, 12:16 PM EST
Mar 6, 2015, 11:39 AM EST
Orlando should do better
Mar 6, 2015, 10:34 AM EST
Portland can overcome loss of shooting guard, but it won’t be easy
Mar 6, 2015, 9:43 AM EST
It was a big win, but still
Mar 6, 2015, 9:07 AM EST
Former Celtics star continues what he began Wilkins’ rookie year
Mar 6, 2015, 8:30 AM EST
He said his Achilles has been bothering him.
Mar 6, 2015, 8:00 AM EST
The form wasn’t pretty but the result was.
Mar 6, 2015, 3:10 AM EST
Westbrook is still a machine
Mar 6, 2015, 12:53 AM EST
This hurts the Blazers guard depth.
LeBron James after receiving two flagrant fouls in his last three games: ‘Maybe I got to protect myself a little bit more’
Mar 6, 2015, 12:00 AM EST
James hints at retaliation.
- Wesley Matthews’ injury will test Trail Blazers’ spacing 3
- Five Things We Learned in NBA Thursday: Nobody can stop E’Twaun Moore; Westbrook’s pretty good, too 11
- Training like the Pros: Recapping a month-long Nike Basketball workout experience 4
- Report: JaVale McGee can’t reach deal with Celtics 11
- Craig Sager makes long-awaited return to TNT after 11-month battle with leukemia 7
- Five Things We Learned in NBA Wednesday: Masked Russell Westbrook just needs a cape 20
- George Karl: Knicks could use a strong point guard next to Carmelo Anthony 14
- Ray Allen announces he will not play this season 14