OKLAHOMA CITY, OK — With the victory Thursday over the Charlotte Hornets Thursday night, the Thunder stretched their winning streak to six games. Considering, their schedule is softening up a bit, the Thunder nonetheless shown an improvement in their play since the lackadaisical showing against the Bulls on Christmas day.
Kevin Durant has regained his superstar scoring touch, Russel Westbrook has reverted back to triple-double-machine mode, and the rest of the Thunder cast are taking care of business — locking down on defense, and providing tertiary scoring as needed. Westbrook leads the league in steals per game, Serge Ibaka is 4th in blocks per game, and Durant has moved into 3rd in points per game (26 ppg), behind Steph Curry and James Harden. The potent combination of dynamic offense and opportunistic defense has taken an up-and-down OKC team and turned them red hot. All this has led winning 8 of 9, and the No. 3 seed in the West, behind the ridiculous records of Golden State and San Antonio. But are they in the same class as either of those teams?
Durant and Westbrook give the Thunder the offensive firepower to hang with Golden State and to overcome even the Spurs’ stifling defense. Their dual abilities to both get to the rim (and finish) as well as hit perimeter shots from almost everywhere on the court means either one of them can go on an absolute tear that defies normal defensive strategy, neutralizing the almost surgical efficiency of Golden State and San Antonio. Their dynamic scoring ability closes whatever gap exists between them and the starting fives of both the Warriors and Spurs.
The Thunder’s bench, while chock full of talent, is suspect. Ines Kanter can be a revelation offensively but often is a liability on defense (a flaw that will be more noticeable over the course of a best-of-seven playoff series), Dion Waiters can be similarly explosive or he can chuck aggravatingly from mid-range, and while rookie Cameron Payne injected some energy into what had been a listless Thunder team, he is still a rookie and will therefore go through the growing pains that are inevitable for first year players. If Durant and Westbrook are bottled up or having an off night, can these players both score consistently and defend at a high level? It’s questionable, but head Coach Billy Donovan has all season to try to prepare these players for such an instance. Come playoff time, the Thunder will need them to step up if they are going to knock off either of the two juggernauts at the top of the Western Conference.