The Oklahoma City Thunder went into the offseason coming off a disappointing series loss to the Miami Heat looking to make another Championship run. However, after offering a reported 4 year, $52-$54 million extension to James Harden in anticipation of his impending restricted free agency and having it turned down, the Thunder quickly traded him to the Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks.
To some, it signaled a step back for the Western Conference champions in their quest for a ring, with the Lakers adding stars, the Clippers bringing in bench pieces and the Spurs retooling in a brutally competitive Western Conference. However, through the first quarter of the season, the Thunder have the best record in the league at 20-4, and flew into Atlanta on an 11 game win streak.
How have they remained as competitive as ever, despite trading their third best player just days before their first game of the season? Most importantly, Kevin Martin has done his best James Harden impression so far this season. A quick glance comparing Harden’s last year in Oklahoma City and Martin’s current season shows that K-Mart has scored at essentially the same rate and efficiency as the reigning 6th man of the year. The only difference has been a significant drop off in assists and rebounds as Martin has been able to thrive getting open shots next to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Which brings us to Durant, who is currently averaging career highs in all the major shooting percentages, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and pretty much any other major rate or metric that could be cited. Put plainly, he is having a phenomenal year that numbers cannot even begin to explain and has lead his team like no player this side of LeBron James has in the past decade.
His righthand man, Russell Westbrook, has seen a drop in his shooting but seems to have taken a step toward being a more pure point guard, averaging more assists and less turnovers than ever. Another revolution has been Serge Ibaka, fresh off signing a 4 year, $49 million extension last season, has shown great range and ability in his shooting, marking a Dirk Nowitzki-like 55% shooting from midrange this year per NBA.com’s advanced stats. The combined improvement of Ibaka, Westbrook, Durant, and the arrival of Kevin Martin have more than made up for Harden’s playmaking, not to mention the young promising player in Jeremy Lamb and two future 1st round picks they received in return.
As a team, the Thunder have the most efficient offensively, coming in at 111.3 points per 100 possessions per Hoopdata.com. This is boosted by their ability to get to the free throw line more times than any non-Laker team as a percentage of their field goal attempts. Beyond this, the combination of Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and even former bust candidate Hasheem Thabeet have made the Thunder a top 10 rebounding team.
There are numerous superlatives that could describe what General Manager Sam Presti and Coach Scott Brooks have concocted, but what are the chances the Hawks could pull of a huge upset for the third time in three games in the last two seasons? The Hawks will have DeShawn Stevenson matchup with Kevin Durant, after sitting out most of the first game of the back-to-back. Stevenson has held Durant to 46.6% shooting, including 22.2% from three, in their 11 times facing each other in the regular season (42.8% and 23.3% respectively in 5 postseason games), per Basketball-Reference. Josh Smith may also see time guarding the 6’9” phenom.
The perimeter defense must also tighten up without fouling. Jordan Crawford had a career night yesterday, but the Thunder possess sharper shooters and craftier backcourt members. Teague has had some problem guarding the pick and roll this season, but with Devin Harris questionable he and Lou Williams must cut off penetration by Westbrook, Martin and even Eric Maynor. The offense has shown glimpses of showing a fluid and potent output, but turnovers and settling for longer two pointers have disrupted that fluidity. The best answer is to work inside out by letting Josh Smith and Al Horford go to work on good but beatable defenders in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
Similarly, Smoove and Stevenson have to force Durant into an off shooting night, along with praying for an erratic Westbrook which is sometimes the case, and Horford, Zaza, and Ivan have to neutralize Perkins, Collison, and Thabeet on the boards and in protecting the paint against the very explosive guards and wings on the Thunder. Hang on to your socks, this will be an exciting game in the Highlight Factory.
Tip off will be just after 7:30 PM and the game can be seen at Fox SportsSouth locally.