This was supposed to be the year where the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden was supposed to put it all together and finally reach the mountain top. These four young men who had just competed (and medaled) in the Olympics were supposed to pick up where they had left off and continue on their improvement track. From 1st round losers to Western Conference Finals losers to NBA Finals losers, the eventual next step would have been NBA Finals winners. Everyone went into training camp with that mind set.
And then, 5 days before the season started, in the middle of a stirring football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, came the shocking news that one of the quartet had been traded. James Harden, whose contract extension talks had stalled with the team, was traded, along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and 3 draft picks. It took several days before the jaws of Oklahomans throughout the state were picked up off the ground.
Once the shock wore off, and the trade was analyzed, it was one of those instances where it was a good trade for both teams. The Thunder got a comparable player in Martin, a good young guard in Lamb, assets in the form of draft picks, and salary cap flexibility. Championship contending teams usually never have assets and salary cap flexibility, but this trade gave that back to the Thunder before they had an opportunity to lose it. Houston, in return, got a franchise player in Harden. After clearing cap space and failing to land Dwight Howard in the offseason, the Rockets were chomping at the bit for a franchise-type guy. So far, it’s been a win-win for both teams.
Whether we were ready for the season or not, it still had to be played. The schedule doesn’t care whether the Thunder made a big roster move five days before the start of the season. The schedule doesn’t care that the Thunder never got the opportunity to play any pre-season games with any of its new players. All the schedule decrees is that said team be at the location of the game with at least 8 dressed players. So with that, the Thunder embarked on the first half of the season.
November 1st, 2012 – November 4th, 2012 : The sky is falling!!!! Grab the women and children, and head to higher ground!!!!! (1-2)
After the core rattling trade five days prior, the Thunder had to open their season on the road against their Western Conference Finals opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. The game was back and forth most of the night with neither team controlling the game. In the final minute with the Spurs down by three, Tony Parker hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to tie the game. On the Thunder’s next possession, with the opportunity to take the lead, Russell Westbrook turned the ball over to give the Spurs one final shot. Tony Parker calmly sank a 21-footer at the buzzer to give the Spurs the victory.
Of course, panic set in after that. Would the Thunder ever win another game again? Is this the beginning of the Curse of the Beard? Would we have won that game had James Harden not been traded? The second game was against the Portland Trailblazers in Oklahoma City. The Thunder easily dispatched of the Trailblazers in expected fashion. But that did little to quell the panic of the fan base, especially when Harden was in Houston averaging 35.3 points per game after the first three games of the season.
The Thunder entered the third game of the season with high hopes. But after 21 turnovers and an inability to make shots in the second half, the Thunder lost to the Atlanta Hawks to bring their record to 1-2. Needless to say, some in the fan base were ready to jump off of the Devon Energy Tower.
Novemeber 6th, 2012 – November 23rd, 2012: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. (8-2)
This home heavy stretch against lesser opponents is just what the doctor ordered, not only for the team, but also for the fan base. After the Atlanta loss, the Thunder reeled off five straight win against 3 likely lottery teams (Cleveland, Detroit (x2), and Toronto), and one injury ravaged team (Chicago). It’s almost like the team had a mini training camp with these 5 games serving as preseason games. The players got a sense of what their roles were, and the coaching staff got a sense of how the rotation would work.
Then we played the Memphis Grizzlies, and got man-handled. The big boys (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) did work inside and Rudy Gay went all KD on the Thunder, hitting seemingly every big shot in the 4th quarter. The fear that engulfed the fan base at the beginning of the season changed from, “When will we win a game?” to “Will we be able to hang with the top teams in the West?”
Those fears were eased a little when the Thunder won their next 3 games, the final two being against Western Conference playoff hopefuls Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Against the Warriors, Kevin Durant notched his first career triple double with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Thunder went on the road and lost against the Boston Celtics after that in a close game. Overall, the feeling at this point in the season is that the Thunder were starting to get it together, but still had some kinks to work out.
November 24th, 2012 – December 19th, 2012: We’re going streaking!!!!! (12-0)
This is where the team seemed to put it all together. During this stretch of games, the Thunder beat their opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. The team averaged 108.6 points per game. That is an astonishing run. The winning percentage of the teams that the Thunder beat during this streak was .477, not necessarily power house numbers, but not necessarily the Sisters of the Poor, either.
There were some very important things that happened during the streak:
1) We completely emasculated a team. In the second game of the streak, the Thunder beat the Charlotte Bobcats 114-69. The Bobcats were riding high coming into the game at 7-5, the same amount of victories as the previous season. The young Bobcats were looking to show what they could do against one of the big boys in the league. And the Thunder just beat them with their own stick. To a team that was still feeling itself out, this victory is just what they needed to prove to themselves that they could still run somebody out of the gym if necessary. The beating was so bad for the Bobcats that they did not win another game for the next month (17 games total after that).
2) In the next game, the Thunder exorcised any demons from the trade and beat James Harden and the Houston Rockets handily, 120-98. While the game started off as a walk down memory lane, it quickly turned into an “us versus them” mentality when Harden had a spat that momentarily had Hasheem Thabeet ejected from the game. After that, Harden became another opponent that received boos. And the cherry on the top was that Harden completely struggled against the Thunder shooting 3-16 for 17 points, well below his average.
3) We dominated the Los Angeles Lakers at home 114-108. I know these aren’t the Lakers from a couple years ago. But this was the superteam that was constructed in the offseason to battle the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. When Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were added to the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, it sent shockwaves through the league that this would be the new team to beat. Though chemistry issues have kept the Lakers from achieving this, it was still good to beat them and let them know that we still run the West.
4) We beat the Spurs handily at home 107-93. With the Lakers struggling, this team is probably our biggest rival. With the Western Conference Finals last season, and the close game the Spurs won to start the season, this was a pivotal matchup for the Thunder, not only record-wise, but mentally also.
December 20th, 2012 – January 7th, 2013 – Holiday sputter (5-4)
It’s a funny thing about perspective. If I were to tell you that we’ve won 17 of our last 21 games, you’d probably think that’s a pretty good run. But, if I told you that we’ve lost 4 of our last 9 games, you’d probably think that we are struggling a bit. This is where the Thunder found themselves at this point in the season. After winning 12 in a row, they lost on the road to an upstart Minnesota team that was just beginning to put it all together, before injuries once again derailed their season. Then, the Thunder lost on Christmas day to the Miami Heat. The one monkey that still hangs on the team’s back is the ability to consistently beat Miami.
After the Miami loss, the Thunder went on to win 5 of their next 7. One of the losses was against the Davids of the NBA, or as I like to call them, the Washington Wizards. This Wizards team, with the worst record in the NBA, always seems to play its best against the Goliath’s of the league. They’ve already beaten the Heat once this season, and they beat the Thunder last season also. It’s just something about that slingshot.
January 9th, 2013 – January 20th, 2013 – Wonder Twins activate! (6-1)
This is what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done in the past 7 games:
- KD – 35.9 points / 6.1 rebounds / 4.1 assists /1.7 steals / 1.3 blocks per game
- RW – 29.0 points /6.7 rebounds /7.1 assists /1.0 steal per game
What these two guys have been doing the past two weeks has been nothing short of dominant. Durant had a career high 52 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks during this stretch. And Westbrook has notched 4 straight games of 30 points or more. It’s become a tradition that when the Thunder trade away a major player, someone steps up in his place. When Jeff Green was traded two seasons ago, Serge Ibaka and James Harden stepped up their games and the Thunder continued improving. This time around, when Harden was traded, Ibaka has elevated his game to another level, and the two superstars have gotten even better.
The Thunder ended the first half of the season with a 32-9 record, good for best in the league. They are the last team with single digit losses and have the best scoring differential in the league, at +9.0. Looking forward, the second half of the season will be a little bit tougher, though. The Thunder will have 3 more road games and the teams they’ll be facing have a combined .511 winning percentage. In the end, I see the Thunder ending up with the number 1 seed, not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA with a 63-19 record.