Oklahoma City is no mere Cinderella. A league doormat last season with a 23-59 record, the Thunder's sudden, dramatic ascendance may seem like the plot line for a fairy tale, but no stroke of midnight will return this team to its previous servitude status anytime soon.
On the contrary, despite all the huzzahs OKC (33-21 through Monday) has earned for a nine-game winning streak that has propelled it to No. 5 in the Western Conference, many NBA observers still haven't grasped how fundamentally solid this team has become. Consider how well the Thunder stack up on some of the crucial elements required of a team seeking to make a deep playoff run.
• A consistent go-to scorer who can help his team weather the cold spells and deliver in crunch time. Nobody has scored more consistently than Kevin Durant this season -- or any other season in a long time. Durant has scored at least 25 points in 28 consecutive games, the longest streak since Michael Jordan's 40 in a row in 1986-87.
As for crunch time, I asked Durant how he has changed from when he launched an airball in a last-second loss to the Lakers back in November, compared to the three-pointer he nailed to tie the score in regulation and another one to clinch the win in overtime against the Knicks last Saturday.
"Before I used to put too much pressure on myself, say, 'I've got to hit this shot,' " Durant said. "But now I am thinking, 'This is just another shot,' and I think that is the way all the great clutch shooters think of it. That's the way I have to approach it. I didn't hit them early in the year and I am starting to hit some now. I want to be a real clutch shooter like those other guys are and I've got to take my lumps for it. I think that will make me a better player."
• Quality defense. The Thunder's improvement on defense has been nothing short of astounding. They've leapt from 28th to first in the league in opposing field-goal percentage and 20th to third in defensive efficiency.
Focus and effort play a big part in the upgrade
"If you want to be good at something, you have to keep working on it," coach Scott Brooks said Sunday during Oklahoma City's visit to Minnesota. "We talked about defense all summer long, and then starting in training camp we worked on it. At yesterday's shootaround, we spent 45 minutes on it."
That's the focus. And the effort?
"One of great things about this team is I don't have to worry about coaching effort," Brooks said. "Nobody wants to be that bad defender on the floor, because the other four guys are really committed to stopping the ball."
Although the Thunder lack a dominant big man, six of their top eight players are at least 6-foot-9, and the other two are 6-5 and 6-3. Such consistent length enables OKC to switch while defending the pick-and-roll.
"Whether it is ball screens or pin-downs or dribble-handoffs [being executed by opposing offenses], being able to switch off can take away that advantage and help us blow plays up," said backup forward Nick Collison, 29, the elder statesman in the rotation and the Thunder's glue guy.
Under assistant coach and defensive guru Ron Adams, the Thunder use their length and quickness to maximize such fundamental tenets as denying the ball to prime scorers as much as possible, pressuring the shooter with hard close-outs and steering the action toward the sideline and away from lane penetration. On Sunday against Minnesota, Adams fronted Timberwolves top scorer Al Jefferson with his center (Nenad Krstic, Serge Ibaka or Collison) and then had his power forward (Jeff Green or Collison) rotate hard down the baseline to deter Jefferson when the Wolves managed to get him the ball. The result was a mere 10 points in 29 minutes for Jefferson, who came in averaging 17 points. Meanwhile, Durant hounded small forward Ryan Gomes into 0-of-9 shooting in 24 minutes.
"Getting our captains, Kevin and Jeff Green, to buy in to our defense has made a really big difference," Davis said.
Said Durant: "We don't have a guy blocking four shots a game down [in the paint], so we help each other by being scrappy and playing hard."
• Capable role players who understand and commit to their assignments. The way Brooks has brought along and praised his role players while getting Durant to buy in to a team concept is why he deserves to be the front-runner for Coach of the Year (and why Durant belongs in the MVP conversation). A typical example is the coach's review of the exciting overtime win against the Knicks.
"Kevin and Jeff made big shots, and Russell [Westbrook] has also made big shots for us this year," Brooks said. "But when I talk to the team about making winning basketball plays, it is not just making the big shots. It is taking the charge like Nick did. It is getting the extra possession like James [Harden] did on the tap-out [for the offensive rebound]. On that big shot Kevin hit [to win the game], the screen that Nick set on [Danilo] Gallinari was just as big as Kevin making the shot and Russell passing the ball to him."
In Durant and Westbrook (who missed back-to-back triple-doubles by a single rebound over the weekend), the Thunder have a formidable one-two star tandem for years to come. But the ongoing motivation of defensive stalwarts like Green and Thabo Sefolosha, and of bench contributors such as the rookie Harden and Collison, is what adds the depth and spine that is so important to a team in the postseason. Collison summed up the healthy attitude of the supporting cast: "As a role guy, you have to wait for the game to give you your opportunities. I've had better years offensively, but with this team I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to do."
• Genuine camaraderie. "I just told someone the other day that this feels like it did when I was in college," said Collison, whose Kansas teams went to Final Fours in 2002 and '03. Backup rookie point guard Eric Maynor, who came over from Utah in December, said both the Thunder and the Jazz "are real quality organizations. If there is a difference, it is that we're younger, and so everyone is always together. We just always stick together."
• Road success. Only three teams top the Thunder's 17-11 road record: the Lakers, Celtics, and Cavs. Oklahoma City went 8-33 on the road last season.
• Organizational integrity. As amazing as the Thunder's quantum leap forward has been this season, the blueprint for it has been in place ever since general manager Sam Presti took over the personnel decisions in June 2007. A protégé of R.C. Buford in San Antonio, Presti has been lucky -- anyone would have taken Durant with the second pick of the 2007 draft -- but also very savvy, drafting Westbrook and Harden ahead of more glitzy talent on the board, pouncing on opportunities to acquire valuable pieces such as Krstic, Sefolosha and Maynor at bargain prices, and pruning the roster of everyone but Collison from three years ago. It is a testament to his vision that the Thunder haven't diverted from their plan one iota: They were quiet at the trade deadline and have been painstaking in their rebuilding as if the team were 21-33 instead of 33-21.
One possible consequence of this approach is a nothing-to-lose attitude that may make the Thunder especially dangerous and immune to pressure in the postseason.
"All year long, I've told the guys that the pressure of the game and the pressure I put on them is just to play hard for themselves and each other," Brooks said. "And these guys like playing hard for their teammates. Wherever that ends up, I think we can be happy with it."
The best under-the-radar moves at the deadline belonged to the Bulls, whose swaps with Milwaukee and Charlotte set the franchise up for the future and yet improved the roster right now. Everyone naturally wants to talk about the $5.8 million in cap space cleared by moving John Salmons to Milwaukee for the expiring contracts of Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander, a deal that positions the Bulls for a run at Dwyane Wade or another max free agent this summer. But combine that with the trade of Tyrus Thomas to Charlotte for Flip Murray, Acie Law and a future first-rounder (at least two years off), and the Bulls have also aced this season's chemistry quiz with better glue guys on the court and in the locker room.
Thomas has great hops but a 10-cent attitude that was further devalued once the Bulls benched him in favor of rookie grinder Taj Gibson and gave every indication he wouldn't be re-signed. In his stead, Warrick has less upside but is more stable, more experienced and knows his role. Likewise, Murray doesn't have Salmons' talent but is a capable journeyman who has learned to provide points off the bench for seven previous teams.
Warrick and Murray have immediately become part of the rotation and are averaging more than 24 minutes per game apiece in the three games since the trades. But the best short-term impact of the deals is that the Bulls created cap space without jettisoning Kirk Hinrich. He is overpaid with two years and $17 million left on his contract after this season, but Hinrich is an ideal complement to All-Star Derrick Rose in the backcourt. Chicago was 10-17 when Hinrich replaced Salmons as the starting shooting guard. Since then, the Bulls have gone 19-10.
Del Negro said he "wasn't comfortable" with the idea of trading Hinrich at the deadline. "The intangibles Kirk brings are incredibly important," the coach said. "He is one of our captains, he's our best perimeter defender, and he can run the team when we need him to so he takes a lot of pressure off Derrick."
What's more, Hinrich might finally be reversing his shooting woes. He has nailed 27-of-54 from the field, including 9-for1-6 from three-point range, in the five games since the all star break. If that continues, don't be surprised if the Bulls overtake Toronto for the No. 5 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, raising the potential for a rematch of last year's classic first-round series with the Celtics.
Having praised Rockets GM Daryl Morey's performance the past couple of years, it feels odd to note that his maneuvers have essentially doomed Houston's playoff hopes this season. No doubt getting under the luxury-tax threshold, picking up callow but intriguing power forward Jordan Hill and snatching a 2012 first-round pick (top five protected) from the Knicks (as well as a swap of first-rounders with New York in 2011 if Houston chooses and the pick isn't No. 1 overall) is all quality handiwork in the Tracy McGrady deal. But acquiring Kevin Martin from Sacramento to go with point guard Aaron Brooks is an oil-and-water pairing in the backcourt that also disrupted the incredible chemistry the Rockets had created in the first half of the season.
Both Martin (who has played starter's minutes off the bench in his first two games) and Brooks are volume, ball-centric scorers. They are both, to put it charitably, less-than-mediocre defenders, a flaw that will be less glaring if and when Yao Ming returns from injury next year to protect the rim. But this year, Rockets opponents will be able to proceed to the hoop with impunity -- and with 6-6 Chuck Hayes at center, the Rockets block a mere four shots per game, 27th in the NBA. And giving up Sixth Man Award candidate Carl Landry to Sacramento as part of the three-team McGrady trade deprives Houston of one of the league's best bargains (Landry is on the books for $3 million next season.)
But losing Landry cuts deeper than dollars. Rick Adelman's team was one of this year's feel-good stories because it had taken on the mantle of scrappy underdogs. Without their top three scorers from a year ago (Yao, McGrady and Ron Artest), the Rockets had refashioned themselves as a group of bruising, synergistic role players, staying in playoff contention because of nonstop motors and nonexistent egos. Landry epitomized this ethos. Last year, he bounced back from a gunshot wound to his leg; this year, he lost two teeth in Dirk Nowitzki's elbow and missed but one game.
• Nate Robinson is not a good fit for the Celtics. A ball-hog reserve coming to a team of selfless All-Stars, he's always scored and clanked in bunches. Eddie House offered similar virtues with much less aggravation.
• Getting Antawn Jamison is a net plus for the Cavs only if they can regain the services of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is hoping to reach a buyout agreement with the Wizards. Jamison is undeniably talented and a solid-gold teammate, but I don't see how he is a significant upgrade over J.J. Hickson in a matchup with Orlando's Rashard Lewis. Hickson moves without the ball more often than Jamison, who will save Lewis energy by staying on the perimeter more frequently. And is the 33-year-old Jamison really going to close out on Lewis' three-pointers more effectively than the 21-year-old Hickson? Finally, for what it's worth, nobody dominated Jamison more thoroughly than Kevin Garnett during his vintage years with the Timberwolves.
• Everyone is excited about the Knicks' ability to clear enough cap space to sign two max free agents. But is the allure of Madison Square Garden (and Madison Avenue) really more appealing to LeBron, Wade and the rest than, say, playing in Brooklyn (once the Nets move there) with Brook Lopez and possibly John Wall, or playing beside the Bulls' Rose and a frontcourt of relentless bangers like Gibson and Joakim Noah? To clear that cap room, the Knicks had to clean the cupboard of draft picks, and if they indeed intend to sign two max free agents, they will have to renounce their rights to their best player, David Lee. The combination of Gallinari, Sergio Rodriguez and Wilson Chandler isn't exactly championship glue, especially if your max men turn out to be two players from the B list of free agency.