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Despite being without the services of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for extended time, the Oklahoma City Thunder have overcome a 3-11 start to surge past the Phoenix Suns for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff position.
As of Saturday night, with 27 games remaining on their schedule the 30-25 Oklahoma City Thunder have a 1.5 game lead over the slumping Suns.
The Thunder are not only getting healthy and performing better at the right time, but they fortified their roster just before the trade deadline. In a three-team deal with Detroit and Utah, the Thunder acquired centre Enes Kanter, small forward Kyle Singler, point guard D.J. Augustin and small forward Steve Novak while only giving up disgruntled reserve guard Reggie Jackson, declining centre Kendrick Perkins and seldom-used power forward Grant Jerrett.
Kanter is a talented scorer who was selected third overall in the 2011 draft. He is just 22 years old and he is steadily improving.
Augustin, an excellent penetrator who finishes very well in the paint, will replace Jackson as Westbrook’s backup and could also play alongside Westbrook when the Thunder use a small line-up.
Singler is an excellent three-point shooter who can provide depth behind Durant. Novak is a three-point specialist who ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy has called the world’s best pure shooter.
These moves stayed true to the Thunder’s consistent policy of not overpaying players and not keeping players around who are not satisfied with their roles. In recent years, they have discarded talented players James Harden, Jeff Green and now Reggie Jackson while actually improving their overall roster in terms of balance and depth.
Durant is thrilled with his new teammates: “They brought in some great players. Kanter is a 22-year-old centre, young piece that can really play. DJ is my brother, I played with him at Texas. [Plus] Novak and Kyle Singler, so I love the pickup of those guys. And me as a leader, I’ve got to make them feel comfortable the second they walk through the door.”
Oklahoma City was trending upward even before making roster fortifications. The Thunder beat the Memphis Grizzlies 105-89 on February 11. Durant (26 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Westbrook (24 points, nine assists, nine rebounds) dominated, while Memphis shot just .372 from the field, including .167 (2-12) from three point range.
Memphis Coach Dave Joerger lamented, “They just put five guys in the paint, and we didn’t make a shot. We couldn’t get in the paint, couldn’t make a shot, couldn’t make a play. It’s one of those things.”
Oklahoma City’s crisp execution of that plan against Memphis is no one game fluke. In The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face, I predicted Memphis’ first round demise last year and correctly identified the reasons for that impending demise.
Memphis shot .417 from the field against Oklahoma City in the 2014 playoffs, including .290 from three point range. Durant averaged 29.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 1.6 bpg in that series, while Westbrook added 25.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 8.0 apg.
Newly crowned All-Star Game MVP Westbrook came out firing in Oklahoma City’s first game after the All-Star break. He delivered 34 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and two steals as the Thunder pounded the Dallas Mavericks 104-89. The Thunder rolled even though Durant had a pedestrian performance (12 points, six rebounds, five assists) and despite the fact that their new players had not yet arrived.
The Thunder extended their winning streak to five in a row with their 110-103 win at Charlotte on Saturday night. Durant sat out due to a nagging foot injury and Westbrook again stole the show, this time producing 33 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
There is often discussion right before the playoffs about “the team nobody wants to face.” I have found that the team given that label, like Memphis last year, usually loses in the first round. But this season figures to be different.
Oklahoma City are legitimately a team that nobody wants to face and if they can stay healthy I seriously doubt that they will lose in the first round. Look out Golden State!