The Oklahoma City Thunder are healthy again and riding a four-game winning streak coming into Monday's game against the Atlanta Hawks. The Thunder have a new coach this season and a pair of superstars performing at a record breaking level so far this season. To prepare for tonight's game, we enlisted the help of Welcome To Loud City writer Cray Allred to give us a behind the scenes look at one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Billy Donovan is in his first season as Oklahoma City's coach. What is your take on his first month with the team?
The jury is still very much out on Donavan as an NBA head coach. He doesn’t appear in over his head, and the team didn’t crater when Kevin Durant was out with his hamstring injury. His rotation is still something of a mystery, but he’s found ways to use flawed players like Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter effectively. He’s going to win a lot of games so long as the Thunder are healthy, but whether he can get them over the hump that Scott Brooks couldn’t won’t be knowable until they play more great teams and he is forced into making more adjustments to pull out tough wins against talented teams with savvy coaches.
The Thunder have won four straight and are rolling again out west yet it seems that not many people are talking about them. Are people forgetting how good this team is?
I think they’re forgetting how good the team can be, but it’s not like people have a short memory. This team hasn’t been healthy for a full playoff run since the 2012 Finals. Since Russell Westbrook got Beverley’d, they simply haven’t seen sustained success with the league’s elite teams, despite stretches of brilliance from Durant and Westbrook in that time. They’ve had a promising 17 games to open this season (they’ve been #3 in net rating most of the year), but Durant already missed some time. The wait-and-see approach is reasonable, but I think the longer the Thunder play like this, the more people will recognize their potential.
The talk used to be that there weren't enough basketballs to go around for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Westbrook is having a career-year and Durant is Durant again after last season's foot problems. How do the Thunder make it work having such two dominant scorers?
The coexistence stuff about these two has been overstated for a long time, but what they’re doing right now is unprecedented. According to Basketball Reference, no teammates have had over 27 PER for a full season, and the Thunder duo are both over 30 PER so far in 2015-16. The closest parallels are when a duo has a clear top banana and overqualified sidekick, like Shaq (29.5) and Kobe (26.2) in 2002-2003, or LeBron (30.7) and Dwyane Wade (26.3) 2011-2012.
The only silver lining to the injury woes of the last few years might be this dynamic. Both Durant and Westbrook grew into themselves while the other missed extended time. They're strengths are pretty perfect complements to each other: Durant is one of the most efficient volume scorers ever, and Westbrook is distributing the ball better than any "score-first" point guard I can think of.
What will the Atlanta Hawks need to do to slow down the Westbrook/Durant combo?
You have to push Durant as far out beyond the perimeter as possible. His handle is a little rusty, and he’s still prone to pass out or give up on getting open when being pestered far away from the basket (Tony Allen has had the most success playing Durant this way). With certain Thunder lineups, that’s a luxury the defense just can’t afford, since Westbrook is causing the rest of the defense to warp and break around P&R, drives, and kickouts to long distance threats.
There’s no blueprint for beating Westbrook. Frustrating him into making poor choices is the goal, and your best hope of that is putting a longer wing on him with the foot speed to stay between him and the hoop (easier said than done). The Pistons just saw Westbrook’s worst game of the season with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on him for chunks of the game. If Westbrook gets agitated, it could lead to a rush of steals and transition dunks, or it could lead to bad gambles on D and turning the ball over a ton on offense. Opponents can do their best to coax the latter, but a lot of things have to go right for that to happen.