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.
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."
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
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
Under assistant coach and defensive guru
"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."
"Kevin and Jeff made big shots, and
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
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
Thomas has great hops but a 10-cent attitude that was further devalued once the Bulls benched him in favor of rookie grinder
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
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
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
But losing Landry cuts deeper than dollars.
• 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