Thunder could be team to beat this year

Before the regular season began, Oklahoma City Thunder fans didn’t know what to expect from this year’s version of their beloved team.

column shots.qxdTwo months into the season the Thunder not only looks like a contender in the Western Conference, but they look like the team to beat in the entire NBA as they sit at 24-5.

So, what is the reasoning for the surging Thunder success this season? Is it the up-and-coming star caliber play from sixth man Reggie Jackson? Is it the impressive numbers put up from the question-filled bench so far this season? Those things have undoubtedly had a major impact on the team’s success, but they aren’t the main reason OKC sits where it does in the league at the moment.

For as long as they have been a part of the Thunder organization, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been the stalwarts in this proud system Oklahoma City employs. They have taken this small-market franchise from the depths of the NBA to the top of the barrel in a matter of a few short years.

Both players are filled with supreme talent unmatched by any other duo in the NBA (yes, even LeBron James and Dwayne Wade). But the one thing that has kept Oklahoma City from reaching its ultimate goal as NBA champions has been the maturity level of their two young superstars.

Last May when Oklahoma City earned the Western Conference’s No.1 seed in the regular season, there was jubilant excitement throughout Thunder Nation as we all “knew” that the Thunder would be returning to the NBA Finals for another shot at the gold ball. However, in game two in the first round of the playoffs against the Houston Rockets, those dreams came to an abrupt halt.

Houston backup point guard Patrick Beverly pulled a questionable play and cut in front of Westbrook as the Thunder PG was calling a timeout. Beverly swiped Westbrook’s knee from the side and the OKC star went to the floor in pain.

Westbrook finished the game, but that would be the last time we would see him in the playoffs as he was diagnosed with a torn meniscus and ruled out for the remainder of the postseason.

Oklahoma City went on to defeat the Rockets in six games, but in the quarterfinal round the Thunder fell in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies, sending the Western Conference’s top team to an offseason filled with questions.

At the time, things around Oklahoma City seemed a little bleaker, but May 20 changed everyone’s lives in the Sooner state as the worst tornado in state history ripped through the city of Moore and other small suburbs in the southwest corner of the metro area.

The Thunder players wasted no time in coming out to the site where the EF-5 twister had torn through neighborhoods and commercial areas. They wanted to deliver a helping hand and do anything they could to help their Oklahoma brothers and sisters get back on track.

The kind of selflessness shown by the Thunder stars changed their lives and the lives of those they affected in that time of need.

While the May 20 tornado and the Westbrook injury were negative things, they made a positive impact on this city and this team.

Entering this season, Oklahoma City had more questions surrounding their ballclub than they ever have before as no one knew what to expect from this year’s squad.

After losing James Harden the year before, the Thunder lost Kevin Martin in free agency. Who would be the man to step up off the bench and lead the way? What other star player can we add to the roster to help Durant and Westbrook? Will Serge Ibaka ever be the player we hope he can?

All of those questions were being tossed around like wildfire throughout training camp.

The answer all along was not adding another player, but within the organization. General manager Sam Presti knew his two superstars had the ability to take the next step.

The maturation of Durant and Westbrook’s games has been the biggest reason the Thunder are where they are at this point in the season.

You might ask how in the world Durant could get any better? Well, it’s simple. He didn’t get better in his scoring, he was already the best in the league at that, but he got better as a leader. He improved his overall game tremendously.

Durant is a much better passer and facilitator now than he used to be. He understands he has to get his teammates involved in the game and put them in situations where they can be successful. His defense has drastically improved. Several years ago, opposing players went by Durant like he wasn’t even on the court, but that has all changed with hard work and determination.

Westbrook’s game has had the most maturation from a passing standpoint. Westbrook is the most athletic point guard we have ever seen in the NBA. His ability to get to the rim with explosiveness is unparalleled by anyone ever seen in league history.

Westbrook’s leadership has greatly improved as well. He plays with a fire and tenacity that reminds us all of a young Kobe Bryant, but his inability to control that fire has hurt him in the past. Being out of the postseason and having to watch as his team went down in flames to the Grizzlies seems to have made him more appreciative and respectful for his talent.

Yes, we have just started 2014 and have a long way to go in the regular season and into the playoffs, but based on the way things look now, the Thunder is the favorite to win it all come June if Durant and Westbrook continue their impressive growth.

 

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