I’ll be the first to admit it that I had the San Antonio Spurs coming away with this series and likely moving on to another NBA Title when all things were said and done. However, I’ve never been happier to be wrong. OK, I’ve been happier to be wrong (see: June 1st, 2012, Johan Santana).
The Oklahoma City Thunder are quickly becoming the most entertaining team in the entire Association. Their big three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden not only enjoy what they do on the court, but they seemingly enjoy each other’s success at the same time. That, and they play with such emotion that its hard not to get pumped up when watching them play.
When this season started, the main story line surrounding the Thunder was centered around the relationship between their two rising stars: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. In fact, here at The Waiver Wire, we’ve talked about this dynamic quite often, usually using our favorite analogy, courtesy of Bill Simmons, of how Durant reminded us of Avon Barksdale and Westbrook played the role of Stringer Bell. There seemed to be a power struggle at the top for the Thunder, with Barksdale (Durant) as the true leader which seemed clear to everybody involved, but Stringer (Westbrook) desperately fighting the tide and trying to take the crown away from his friend.
Then, a funny thing seemed to happen. Two things, actually.
The first, Russell Westbrook evolved as a player. I don’t want to say he matured, because there was nothing truly wrong with his game that needed more maturation. Instead, Westbrook grew as a player and grew into the role that Thunder management had always wanted him to be. There is nothing wrong to playing second fiddle to arguably the best pure scorer in the NBA today (Durant). And when there are rare games when Durant can’t find his rythym, or if teams decided to double team KD and completely take him out of the Thunder’s offense, that’s when Westbrook can step up and be the leader. Even Jordan had Pippen, and Pippen was a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
The other evolution for this Thunder team is truly what has allowed the team to grow and take that “next step” as a franchise. There were times over the last few seasons, and even the early part of this year, when the Thunder would get jump-shot happy. They seemingly didn’t have a player on their team that could drive to the rim at will and score the easy paint buckets when other shots weren’t falling.
Enter: James Harden.
Harden became much more than a sixth man this season. In fact, kind of like Jason Terry, it isn’t even fair to call him a sixth man anymore. He’s a starter that comes off the bench. He routinely plays 33+ minutes a night and plays during crunch time. Everybody understood the potential Harden possessed as a former third overall selection. However, this year, his development has been the crucial factor in how well the Thunder have played. If Durant and Westbrook go into funks, Harden has no problem stepping up and shouldering the load of the scoring. And, he has the ability to drive to the rim against anyone and find a way to score. Those attributes and added dynamic to the offense set the Thunder apart from their peers.
Look, after taking both Games 1 and 2, the Spurs were winners of 18 straight. They seemed poised to make another typical Duncan-era drive to the title and tear down everybody in their path. But, the Thunder regrouped when they headed back to OKC. They put Thabo on Tony Parker and collectively said “Hey, if Danny Green, Khawi Leonard and Matt Bonner are going to beat us, so be it. But, your Big 3 won’t”. The strategy worked. The Spurs bench disappeared in big moments. And the Thunder got ridiculous efforts from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. They were destined to win this series, and they seized the opportunity, unlike other young teams throughout the history of the game.
There is a lot of rhetoric flying around the NBA right now, comparing these Thunder to the ’91 Bulls (Jordan’s first championship). I’m not ready to say that this is the beginning of a long dynasty for the Thunder. All that may be true, but we’re still not at that point yet. Things seem to be falling in place for this team, but, as Yogi Berra would say, it ain’t over ’til its over.
What I do know is, right now, this is the best team in the NBA.
Nobody is going to take that title away from Oklahoma City this year. Its just not going to happen.