Friday 01st March 2024,
The Hoop Doctors

The Ever-Transforming OKC Thunder

As the Oklahoma City Thunder head to their second appearance in the Western Conference Finals in as many years, the talk will be about how they’re growing up — they are — about how they’re maturing in late-game situations — also true — and about how this crazy season could mark the changing of the guard in the Western Conference at the least. And maybe changing of the guard isn’t quite the same as ‘eventual rise to power,’ because Oklahoma City has been fast-tracked from up-and-comer to championship-caliber franchise in a few short seasons; but now the prophecy of the Thunder seems to be one step closer to being fulfilled.

Though the San Antonio Spurs, even with the refurbishing and evolution of their own roster, still do represent the old guard and really, the perfect foe standing between O.K.C. and their first trip to the Finals. The Spurs have transformed themselves out of necessity; they saw weak spots forming and exposed in prior seasons and addressed them with youthful exuberance in the form of lanky, athletic forwards and sharpshooting wings. Because of these additions, time could be subtracted from the legs of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili until now, when it matters most. That they still managed the best record in the Western Conference speaks to how well those supplementary players are working out. And of course the genius of coach Gregg Popovich.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have become the dynamo that they are — running both the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers ragged with unrelenting fits of fury and a 10-0 run seemingly around every corner — because this postseason, they’ve better accepted who they really are. Last spring, it was all about Russell Westbrook shooting too much and Kevin Durant too little. This spring, the traditional ‘point guard sets up offense, passes to star player who makes something happen with the ball’ way of playing does not apply in Oklahoma City. It’s looking like it probably never should.

In Durant, Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, the Thunder possess three faces of terror on one body to present to their opponents. Harden’s ability to set other teammates up for easy looks in some ways makes him the most point guard-y of the trio; when he’s working the offense, you need to worry most about him as well as the position of others, as he’ll find them. Durant is as straightforward as a guy his height who can launch from anywhere on the floor and get points in volume can be; he also has served as the late-game dagger-thrower in these playoffs. Westbrook is pure, unvarnished atomic energy. His spurts of complete dominance, and at the same time mania, haven’t been stopped yet this postseason. When he’s hitting his emergency-brake stop pull-up jumpers in transition or coming off a screen, you can feel his power growing too rapidly for anyone to properly control. Westbrook is the constant Major Problem when he’s on the floor because, as the point guard, he’s got the ball; and as Russell Westbrook, that means he’s looking to make the team better by driving the opponent insane through highly explosive possessions, over and over again.

But the difference between this year and last, so far, is that when one of the three filters isn’t looking quite right, the Thunder have been smart enough to try another one. Westbrook still shoots a lot, waiting for the flame to ignite, but the tension isn’t there anymore. Durant gets his looks consistently and Harden still has stretches where the game is his to carefully manipulate. Like the Spurs, who’ve laid the groundwork for transforming a team on the run, the Thunder are versatile in their methods of attack. The ongoing change now is that Oklahoma City seems to understand that to be at their best, they shouldn’t follow anyone else’s path.

Griffin Gotta contributes to The Hoop Doctors and is a co-managing editor of Straight Outta Vancouver on SB Nation. The story arcs and infinite weirdness of the NBA are addictions he deals with every day. Email him at griffingotta at gmail dot com.

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