The Oklahoma City Thunder are playing some of the best defense in the NBA and overcoming opponents with a fast-paced offense. With a record of 23-13, they’re currently third in the West, behind only the Nuggets and the Warriors. They’re looking deeper than recent seasons, and as they climb the ranks of the Western Conference, the Thunder look like a real contender as we start looking ahead the NBA Finals.
One of their specialties? The Thunder are possibly the best team in the league when it comes to forcing and scoring off of turnovers, recently setting a franchise record of 29 forced turnovers against the Dallas Mavericks on New Year’s Eve. Their opponents average 18.6 turnovers per game and the Thunder are able to capitalize on those better than any other team, averaging a league-high 21.3 points scored off of turnovers.
The Thunder’s two big stars… and their troubles
The heart of the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is a man of routine. The point guard eats the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sliced diagonally, before each game, among other game-time rituals. Recently, this has taken a toll on his performance, particularly when it comes to free throws.
Westbrook’s free throw percentage dropped after the NBA rule enacted a rule to stop time-wasting between shots. It barred Westbrook from taking his usual between-shot walk to half court after his first free throw. While he used to shoot 82%, he’s now shooting 62% from the stripe for the season. Sports gurus have been concerned about his overall shooting ability too, saying it looks like he’s struggling to find his rhythm. December hasn’t been kind to Westbrook, who averages 19.1 points per game at 38.6% accuracy, down from 21 points and 42.6% during the regular season. And he’s only shooting 24.1% from the three-point line.
After a loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week in which Westbrook went 4 for 22, the 10-year veteran commented, “It’s really on me. I’ve been sh*t the last month or so. I’ve just got to get focused in and locked back in on what I need to do.”
We gave you the bad news first. Westbrook is still a team leader for the Thunder and he also leads the NBA in steals with 2.8 on average per game (and 3.4 in December). Despite his frustrations with the game lately, the former MVP been staying late to work on shooting and still feels confident that he’s a solid rebounder, passer, and defender even when he isn’t shooting well. In fact, he may just be playing the best defense of his NBA career right now. Westbrook is definitely up and down as he finds his flow, racking up technical fouls one day and scoring 40 points against the Suns the next. Either way though, the Thunder is figuring out ways to win whether he performs or not.
Paul George is another star that’s ascending the Thunder’s roster. Amidst rumors that the 28-year-old forward snubbed the Lakers in the offseason, it looks like he’s settling into his second year with Oklahoma City nicely. After extending his contract with the Thunder rather than choosing to jump onboard with Lebron, George now has Westbrook’s back instead. After Westbrook, George has the second-most most steals in the league; the Houston Rockets are the only other team with two men who rank in the top ten in steals. George is scoring an average of 26.4 points per game this season and he’s a solid three-point shooter. He and Westbrook both find themselves on the list of top ten scorers in the NBA as well. That’s some feat. And George has had two 40-point games in his last six.
The supporting cast of Thunder
Aside from the two most well-known players on the team, the Thunder also has a supporting cast of guys that have propelled them to the top of the conference. Steven Adams, the seven-foot center from New Zealand, is also a big point-scorer for the Thunder with an average of 15.6 points per game. The big guy is consistent as well, racking up his 15th double-double in the Thunder’s win against the Mavericks on New Year’s Eve as he provides stellar defense.
Dennis Schroder is a 24-year-old backup point guard out of Germany. He’s a great off-the-bench scorer and difference maker for the Thunder, though his defense could use some work. He once hit a career-high 41 points, though his average is more like 15.9. There are some off-the-court concerns about Schroder though, as he’s got a few pending charges after an arrest in the offseason following a fight outside an Atlanta bar. Still, the guy is good.
Jerami Grant is another fantastic off-the-bench scorer with 12.4 points per game. He’s having a great season, both on and off the court. Known for putting his team first and cracking his teammates up, Grant is versatile, shooting 37% from the three-point line and averaging more than one block per game, one of only six players in the NBA (including his two teammates) to accomplish that feat.
Terrance Ferguson is a 20-year-old, athletic shooter who played in Australia rather than going the college route. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype offensively just yet, but he was meant to make shots and give Westbrook a little breathing room, and he’s making a big effort on defense.
A guy who the Thunder are missing right now? Andre Roberson is their usual starting shooting guard, but he’s been dealing with a recent injury, a ruptured left patellar tendon followed by surgery and a setback at the end of November that likely means he’s out for most of this season. In the meantime, the Thunder have been forced to fill his spot by committee with the likes of Ferguson and Alex Abrines.
The main difference between this season and last season is that more OKC players have had a hand in the team’s success. It’s how they recover even when stars like Westbrook have a bad night. Head coach Billy Donovan is happy with the way his team is playing, saying, “Because we’ve got players on the ball who can contain and guard the ball, it allows Paul, it allows Russell, it allows Terrance, it allows Dennis – those guys, because they know somebody has the ball under control – it opens up those guys to be able to go after some of those things a little bit more, which is a little different than it was a year ago.”
Keep watching to see if the Thunder can keep it up this season!