The Oklahoma City Thunder have remained atop of the Western Conference standings all season long. The Thunder are sustaining high-level success which is acknowledged by major media outlets.
Last Week's Outcomes
The Thunder dropped a close one in Sac Town on Thursday night in what was a dual of the Kentucky guards. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 43 points, and De'Aaron Fox dropped in 41 for the Kings in their five-point victory over the Thunder.
Despite strong offensive outputs from Josh Giddey and Luguentz Dort respectively, OKC wasn't able to overcome Jalen Williams' worst offensive game of the year. Oklahoma City's second-leading scorer on the season shot 2-14 and scored a mere five points in the loss. If a few more of J Dub's shots fall, the Thunder could very well have swept this week's slate of games.
Getting swept on a brief road trip against the Kings and the Nuggets is nothing for the league's second-youngest team to be ashamed of.
In Denver against the defending champions with 5:15 left in the 4th quarter, this looked to be the case. The Thunder trailed by 10 points and were unable to string any stops together on the defensive end.
Remember the second game of the season against the Cavaliers in Cleveland, where the Thunder trailed by ten points in the waning minutes and suddenly barraged the Cavaliers with four straight three-pointers and stole a road game?
That was far from the case on Saturday night in Denver. Oklahoma City slowly and methodically climbed its way back into the contest.
Jamal Murray buried what appeared to be a dagger of a mid-range jumper with 43.1 seconds remaining in the contest. The Thunder executed a quick 2-for-1 out of their timeout in which J-Dub elegantly sunk a layup over four (!) Denver defenders.
On the other end, the Thunder's defense pushed Denver deep into the shot clock, which forced Nikola Jokic to misfire on a tough, contested three-pointer.
Trailing by one with ten seconds on the clock, Gilgeous-Alexander secured the rebound, and Mark Daigneault opted to leave the game in his superstar's hands and not call a timeout. With the game on the line, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander calmly did what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander does. Sit back and enjoy Chris Fisher's fantastic call of this iconic OKC Thunder moment.
The Thunder disrupted Denver's last-second attempt and stole the game in Denver. This felt like a defining win for this young Thunder squad. Beating the defending champs on their home court in that fashion matters. This win will be remembered for a long time by Thunder fans.
Oklahoma City returned home to close their week against the depleted Memphis Grizzlies. To no one's surprise, the Thunder handled business from beginning to end of the match and discarded the Grizz 116-97.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 30 points yet again, and Chet Holmgren followed his dominant eight-block game in Denver up with a lesser seven-block game. That seems like a pretty good "down" game.
The Thunder continue to solidify their position as a top team in the NBA. The respect the Thunder are garnering extends past fans of the Association.
Major media outlets are continuously ranking OKC towards the top of the league in their power rankings. We'll take a look at where the Thunder stand following week nine of NBA action.
ESPN Power Ranking:
The Thunder fell out of the top 5 to #6 in this week's ESPN power rankings list. Tim MacMahon's excerpt on the Thunder is solely focused on Chet Holmgren's historic rim protection to this point in his rookie season.
"Rookie of the Year candidate Chet Holmgren, the anchor of the league's sixth-ranked defense, has been on a remarkable run as a rim protector and ranks third in the league with 2.8 blocks per game. Holmgren has multiple blocks in all seven of the Thunder's games this month. That includes eight- and seven-block outings in the Thunder's past two games, making him the first rookie with at least seven blocks in consecutive games since Tim Duncan in 1997-98."- Tim MacMahon
Holmgren's block numbers have been stellar, especially as of late. Chet's "block percentage" is #1 in the league to this point in the year.
Chet's rim protection and deterrence of shots at the rim are equally if not more valuable than the blocks. For a Thunder team that lacked a vertical threat on both sides of the floor last season, Chet Holmgren has completely changed the way Oklahoma City can defend its opponents.
As Mark Daigneault said after the Memphis game, Holmgren is learning more and getting better with each passing experience.
The rest of the ESPN power rankings can be read here.
NBA.com Power Ranking:
A 2-1 record week for the Thunder keeps them steady at #4 on this week's NBA.com power ranking. John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes that the Thunder shot a poor 18-57 (32%) from the 3-point line during their two-game road trip in Sacramento and Denver.
Uncharacteristically, some of the team's best shooters were the ones who struggled most in those contests. Isaiah Joe, Chet Holmgren, and Jalen Williams shot a combined 3-20 (15%) from three in the two games. While cold nights happen over the course of a long season, opponents can't bet on all three of those guys to be off during the same night too often.
Schuhmann later discusses how the Thunder have mastered the concept of transition basketball.
"The Thunder rank first in transition points per game (27.2) and second in opponent transition points per game (17.5), with their differential (+9.7) being the league’s largest by a wide margin."- John Schuhmann
The ability to run the offensive break at a high level is important, but being able to simultaneously limit your opponents in transition is so valuable in today's game.
Many skeptics might point to the fact that in the playoffs, the game speed slows down significantly, and transition points are not as easy to come by. No problem.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder rank 3rd in the league in both half-court offense and half-court defense. They remain efficient and effective even when the game slows down.
A young team ranking so favorably in metrics like these showcases the Thunder's potential to do something special come April.
Schuhmann's thoughts on the rest of the league can be read here.
The Athletic Power Ranking:
Let's switch things up this week and take a look at The Athletic's weekly power rankings. Zach Harper of The Athletic breaks his power rankings into seven tiers. The Thunder land at #5 overall and rank in the highest tier possible "Tier 1- The Contenders".
Harper praises the Thunder's front office and their patience over the last few years during the rebuild. The unhurried approach of the front office is largely responsible for the talented, well-put-together team we all see now. Harper says the only true shortcoming for the Thunder is their lack of size.
"They’ll need bulk to go at a team like the Nuggets in a seven-game series, but everything else is in place."- Zach Harper
While Harper is correct to an extent, some people may take that excerpt the wrong way. No, the Thunder don't need to move Holmgren to power forward and get a heavier center. The Thunder need bigger-bodied wings that would provide versatility and allow for unique lineups against unique match-ups such as Denver.
The way OKC utilized J-Will against Denver this past match-up is the perfect example of this. A game plan like this allows for Chet to be more effective as a rim protector because he's not being buried under the rim by Jokic in a 1-on-1 post-up (just like anyone else would be).
Chet Holmgren has more defensive freedom in this scenario, and we saw the results it yielded on Saturday night with eight (!) blocks.
The Athletic's full power rankings article can be read here.
The Week Ahead
The Thunder will welcome the red-hot Clippers into Paycom Center on Thursday night, which will be a homecoming for Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and James Harden.
The Clippers have really turned it on after a rough start to the James Harden era, winning eight consecutive games. The Clippers will be on the second night of a road back-to-back, something the Thunder will look to capitalize on.
The gauntlet of LA will continue on Saturday night when the Lakers enter OKC for the second time this season.
The Thunder dominated the Lakers in late November. After falling behind early in the contest, OKC cruised to a 133-110 victory. The Thunder will attempt to improve to 2-0 on the season against the Lakers, who have been on a bit of a skid since their In-Season Tournament Championship win.
The battle of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Western Conference will be held in Oklahoma City the day after Christmas when the Minnesota Timberwolves come to town.
The Thunder dropped a close one to the Wolves in Minneapolis earlier this season and will look to return the favor at home.
Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams shot a combined 8-30 from the field against Minnesota in the three-point loss. An improved performance from the young duo could be the difference for OKC next Tuesday.