Don’t look now, but the Oklahoma City Thunder are climbing back into the playoff picture after being derailed by injuries to start the season.
After winning six straight and eight out of their last nine, OKC now stands a mere half game behind the Phoenix Suns for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Upon the return of reigning MVP Kevin Durant who missed the first 17 games of the season with a broken right foot, and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, the Thunder wasted no time making up ground after starting the season 3-12. At times the Thunder played with as few as eight players. Take away Serge Ibaka and that eight-man lineup looked awfully similar to OKC’s summer league team.
During these early struggles they remained competitive losing eight of their first 12 losses by only single digits. They played with heart but they lacked the ability to close out games during crunch time, a job that has always fallen on the shoulders of their superstars.
Even as OKC struggled putting points on the board, they showed improvement on the defensive end from their young players. That strong defensive play is continuing to improve with the return of their stars. They currently stand as one of the best defensive teams in the NBA allowing only 94 points per game, best in the league and grabbing 45.7 rebounds per game, tied for second in the league.
The rotation of their four big men Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams is proving to be more successful than in years past with Adams now starting at center and Perkins coming off the bench.
Now with four-time scoring champion Durant back but still finding his rhythm while being on a minute’s restriction, Westbrook has made the difference on offense playing at the highest level we’ve seen from him. With their offensive woes subsiding, OKC is now coming off two of their best offensive performances of the season putting up 111 against Minnesota on Friday and 112 against Phoenix on Sunday.
In each of those two games OKC put up 70 in the first half and saw their stars resting on the bench in the fourth quarter.
In the eight games Westbrook has played since his return he’s averaged 27.3 points per game, 6.9 rebounds and 7.3 assists on 50.3 percent shooting from the field while averaging 1.7 steals. His PER (player efficiency rating) for the season stands at 33.15.
His speed, athleticism and strength have made him one of the best point guards in the league and arguably the most difficult to guard. Even after the knee injury that kept him sidelined 26 games last season and the injury to his hand suffered in-game two of this season, Westbrook continues to play as aggressively and explosive as ever.
Known for playing erratic at times in the past, he is now showing more poise and playing with more control. Also criticized in the past for being selfish, he’s assisted on 52.1 percent of teammate field goals when he’s been on the floor this season. If he continues to play at this level and make the players around him better, Westbrook may find himself in the MVP discussion come end of the season.
After OKC’s early struggles many asked whether the Thunder would even be in the playoffs, now the question has become what seed will they finish in.
To move above the eighth spot there is still a lot of ground to make up as they stay five and half games back behind the seventh seed Mavericks but the Thunder have shown they can make up a lot of ground fast and as long as they make the playoffs they are a threat. They are no stranger to the big stage and know how to win big games on the road.
The keys for them moving forward will be to stay healthy and continue playing hard on the defensive end. The points will come as Durant will see his 30-minute restriction lifted. In the seven games since his return, Durant is averaging 20.9 ppg, far below what we’re used to seeing him produce but still shooting with great efficiency at 51.1 percent from the field. With his minutes about to increase you should expect his point production to do the same.
Everything is starting to click again for a Thunder team with championship aspirations. They face the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night.
They will follow that up with a big match-up against a red-hot Golden State Warriors featuring two of the hottest point guards in the league on Thursday.