By Joseph Domenic Cruz
Recently it was February the 29th, leap day—an occurrence that happens only every four years. Last time there was a leap day was of course in 2012; Obama was re-elected, the iPhone was still on its 4th installment, Derrick Rose was the reigning MVP, and the Thunder made it into the Finals against the Miami Heat. It’s 2016, time for another leap day, and well, a lot has changed since then; Barack Obama’s presidency is up, the iPhone 7 is coming, Derrick Rose was not even in the All-Star game, and for the Thunder? This year could take the biggest leap in franchise history.
It’s safe to say that anyone who was watching Saturday’s Thunder-Warriors game was amazed with Stephen Curry and his Warriors. It was late in the 4th quarter, OKC was ahead by 9 with 4 minutes remaining in the fourth. Russell Westbrook went by Klay Thompson, drove baseline, and made a tough athletic shot over Draymond Green. And just like that the Thunder were leading by 11 with all the momentum in the world in their home floor. OKC’s ball movement was good, Billy Donovan was coaching his eyebrows off, and Kevin Durant was firing from all cylinders. Unfortunately for them, they were facing the best player in the league, Stephen “inferno” Curry, who resoundingly took exception to what was happening. To summarize the damage he was about to inflict in the next sequences and in overtime, here’s a photo:
photo from SB Nation
Granted, Durant fouled out early in overtime, but Curry and the Warriors wanted the game too much to just hand it to the Thunder.
The win would’ve gave the Warriors their mind-melting 53rd win, a game closer to the ’96 Bulls’ 72 win record. The Warriors wanted that win, they want to dominate the decade, be historic.
“I thought we took a step to the right direction defensively. I thought there were a lot of positive things to take from the game. And hopefully, we can continue to grow and develop from this.” Coach Donovan after the 118-121 loss to the Warriors.
“Unfortunately, you can’t take moral victories. It’s good for us to be in a game like that. Hopefully, we can learn from it. “Russell Westbrook said of the game.
“You always want to win. No moral victories. Get better from it and worry about the next game.” Kevin Durant echoes his backcourt mate, Westbrook.
The message seems to be clear from these Thunder, learn from the shortcomings and play on. But how much more disappointments can this team absorb and “play on”? In the year 2012, they had ample time. 4 years later, not so much. Free agency is looming and ironic enough, KD’s name is being associated with those same Warriors (Yikes!). That’s in July, it’s still February. What now? As they said, they need to regroup.
In the NBA, there isn’t a duo as intimidating as Durant and Westbrook. The two combine for 52.3 points per game, 2nd among duos, behind Curry and Thompson by a measly 0.2 PPG. And a 58.4 player efficiency between the two, edging the Splash Brothers. Durant and Westbrook are clearly not the problem in OKC. Their starting lineup of Adams-Durant-Ibaka-Roberson-Westbrook rank highest in the NBA Player Impact Estimate, virtually stating that their starting 5 is arguably the best in the league. That might not be as apparent in the eye test, it’s still a starting lineup competitive enough to make a conference finals push.
The team averages a 110 points per game (2nd in the league) and has an offensive rating of 112.9 (2nd in the league too). Both behind Golden State. The Thunder don’t seem to lack in that department as well. So why is OKC third fiddle to the Warriors and Spurs? Defense. The Thunder only force opponents 12.9 turnovers per game, that’s 5th worst in the league. They allow 102.8 PPG (18th), and has a defensive rating of 105.5 (14th). Looking at those statistics, the Thunder are fairly average defensively. Note that the league is now offense-centered (Just look at the Warriors), teams like the Thunder who rely so much on two people should pressure their opponents into more forced turnovers and convert them into easier baskets. If by the post-season, they can take their defense into elite territory then maybe they can make a strong push into the West Finals and upset the Warriors (Yes, Golden State will beat the 4th or the 5th seed).
Time is running out for the once young Thunder. There is a team in Oakland whose championship window is looking more ominous than the Thunder’s. The Warriors have become the 2012 Thunder—young, dynamic, and lethal– only better. The time is now for OKC, they’re healthy, and Russ and KD are ready to win. It’s time to take the leap!