The Oklahoma City went into the All Star break with a league best 43-12 record and looking forward to the return of the all star point guard Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant was tearing the league apart with some next-level, MVP worthy performances and things were looking pretty rosy for the Thunder.
What a difference a week makes.
Since the All Star break, the Thunder have not only lost three straight games, they have also lost these games at Chesapeake Arena (usually a fortress and a very daunting task for opposing teams) and they have also lost starting center Kendrick Perkins for at least the next six weeks. 0-3 since the return of Russell Westbrook, losses at home, poor defensive efforts – it is not the ideal picture for the Thunder. High scoring losses to the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers AND now the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers has fans tearing their hair out.
So here are five things that we have learned over the past week.
1. The Thunder are still a better team with Russell Westbrook
Although the record will show three losses since Russ has been inserted back into the lineup, the Thunder are still a better team when Westbrook is on the floor. He is a little rusty at the moment which is to be expected when you have missed two months of basketball and have had three knee surgeries in 12 months, but he is still a top 10 player in this league. The game against Cleveland saw Russ start to get back to his best, hitting from the outside and mid-range and handling the basketball. It was a promising performance from someone who is still on managed minutes which is clearly affecting his play. He co-exists with Durant and Ibaka and you just need to look at last year’s playoff series to know what he brings to this team. While the Thunder have gotten better as well – this team still needs Russ if it wants to win a ring and Westbrook will be back to his best in the next 3 or 4 weeks.
2. Kendrick Perkins is a reliable if unspectacular center.
If you think 0-3 since Russ’ return is bad, the Thunder are 0-4 this season without Perk. Yes – that is a true stat. While many are quick to take a swipe at Perkins (and truthfully sometimes it is certainly warranted) they neglect the fact that he is a solid defender if nothing else. He anchors the entire Thunder defense and his absence is glaring. While Steve Adams and others have tried to fill the role, they have been unable to do it as effectively as Perk. This will come over time though and the more mature Adams becomes and the more game time he receives can only improve his game – but for now, it is a little bit of a problem and yet another adjustment that the Thunder have had to make. Even down to the screens he sets for the likes of Durant are just slightly off right now and it is impacting the squad. A great team like Oklahoma City will overcome this in time – but it has to be noted. Their next game against the Memphis Grizzlies will see just how much they have learned.
3. Reggie Jackson is not Russell Westbrook.
Reggie Jackson is no doubt one of the best back-up point guards in the league. Similar to the situation with the Los Angeles Clippers last season where Eric Bledsoe backed up Chris Paul and had a limited role before being traded and breaking out, Jackson is now relegated to the bench again. He will take a little time to adjust to that role again, but expect that to be sooner rather than later and Reggie back to delivering offensive and defensive performances that changes games. He was largely ineffective against the Cavs (the whole bench was) but the change in rotations and minutes is partially to blame for this. Jackson is still young and still learning the game as well. He may some day be a Russell Westbrook-lite but for now he is just Reggie Jackson and Thunder fans need to realise that.
4. Kevin Durant is super efficient with Westbrook on the floor.
When Westbrook was slated to return, many thought this was going to be the end of the “Kevin Durant Show” – but that is looking less likely. He is still the best player and best scorer on this team and everyone knows it. Since Westbrook has been back, KD has had 28, 42 and 28 respectively. He shot poorly against the Heat but other than that, he has been just as good as he was prior to the All Star break. He was 1 assist shy of a triple double against the Cavs. Once the dynamic duo work out the kinks and get back to business as usual, expect Durant to still be effective and efficient as well as closing in on triple doubles nightly. He might just win another scoring title and an MVP award – all while Westbrook works alongside him. The leagues most dynamic duo will rise again.
5. There are still 20+ games until the playoffs begin and the Thunder have time to get it together.
Even on a good day, games against the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers were going to be tough and you can find yourself on the wrong side of the boxscore pretty easily. Even the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers was one out of the bag as new recruit Spencer Hawes and All Star game MVP Kyrie Irving caught fire to stun the Thunder who looked lethargic. These are still outliers and not the norm. Even with Westbrook back prior to Christmas, this Thunder team was flying, and they will again. There are 20 odd games left in the regular season for OKC to get their act together, make the adjustments and get back to playing Thunder basketball. They will need to renew their focus on the defensive side of the ball and identify key areas like turnovers as “areas of improvement” and once they do that, they will be hitting the playoffs in good stead. Half their games are at home, half on the road and there is a mix of playoff bound opponents and lottery bound foes. The Thunder are still good enough to finish the year with the best record in the NBA and the top seed out West, they just have to go out and do it.