Jan 12, 2013, 9:30 AM EDT
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.
Patrick Beverley goes at Russell Westbrook just as he did on the play that caused injury in 2013 playoffs (VIDEO)
Mar 11, 2014, 8:44 PM EDT
Patrick Beverley gives Russell Westbrook a not-so-subtle reminder of the play that caused Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury in the 2013 playoffs.
Mar 11, 2014, 8:13 PM EDT
George Karl says that Carmelo Anthony, whom he coached in Denver, isn’t a Phil Jackson type of player. Which means?
Mar 11, 2014, 7:10 PM EDT
You knew this was coming right after the incident Monday night — the Suns Tucker got a game for a forearm to Griffin’s head. As he should have.
Mar 11, 2014, 4:43 PM EDT
It’s been clear for a while that Kobe Bryant was done for the season. The Lakers would not say that publicly for the same reason the Bulls would not say Derrick Rose would not come back last playoffs when we all knew he wouldn’t. They don’t want to anger their star player, and if fans…
Mar 11, 2014, 3:44 PM EDT
If Andrea Bargnani is out the rest of the season, Knicks fans will be good with that.
Mar 11, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
Why to the Boston Celtics need a St. Patrick’s Day uniform? Good question. But they have one now, with sleeves.
Mar 11, 2014, 1:56 PM EDT
The last time LeBron went back-to-back games without a trip to the free throw line he was a rookie.
Mar 11, 2014, 1:10 PM EDT
To be fair to the ball boy, nobody expects Tyler Hansbrough to make a steal on the perimeter then race out on the fast break by himself.
Mar 11, 2014, 12:25 PM EDT
Don’t use cotton swabs, kids.
Mar 11, 2014, 11:47 AM EDT
With backup center Ian Mahinmi out for the night, the Andrew Bynum era in Indiana will begin Tuesday against Boston.
Mar 11, 2014, 11:25 AM EDT
Conflicts with yesterday’s prominent report
Mar 11, 2014, 11:11 AM EDT
All the way to playoffs?
Mar 11, 2014, 10:43 AM EDT
Also compares his phone to bell bottoms, which might be pretty ironic, but I’m not a fasion expert.
Mar 11, 2014, 10:03 AM EDT
Yannick Noah would rather do more of the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag
Mar 11, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
This seems like more than a coincidence.
Mar 11, 2014, 8:44 AM EDT
Griffin should have gone for the full tear, though.
Mar 11, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
“There’s no better preparation than going straight to the NBA… I think the NBA is the best teacher.”
Mar 11, 2014, 3:20 AM EDT
Blake Griffin is good at basketball. Also: Kyle Korver can still shoot.
Mar 11, 2014, 3:05 AM EDT
Los Angeles learned an important less on Monday — don’t let up against the Suns.
- Suns’ P.J. Tucker suspended one game for blow to head of Blake Griffin 5
- Vogel: Andrew Bynum to play for Indiana Pacers Tuesday night 14
- Report: Phil Jackson expected to finalize contract with Knicks by end of week 32
- The Extra Pass: Gerald Green doesn’t regret moment of his winding journey to NBA stardom 11
- Monday NBA grades: Blake Griffin shows off his jumper (and yes, he can still dunk) 10