After the Thunder take on the Rajon Rondo-less Celtics tonight, the season will be half over in terms of games. To put it mildly, the first half of the season has been a success for the team.
In addition to having the league’s best record, they have two players in the all star game, a favorable schedule in the second half (18 of their remaining 33 games will be at home–where they have lost only once this season), and have played the most exciting brand of basketball in the sport. What more could anyone ask?
Well, I guess one think people could ask for is mid-season awards. Let’s do that.
Least Valuable Player
Normally, it is pretty easy to pick out a weak link…but now that Byron Mullens plays for the Charlotte Bobcats (where he’s playing surprisingly well for the worst team in the league) it is a real chore. Even when Ryan Reid gets in the game, he brings good things to the table. And this was a guy who, when his name was called on draft night, ESPN couldn’t come up with an info card on. And lately, Royal Ivey has been playing with the second team and providing solid minutes.
By process of elimination, I’ll give it to this guy in the middle:
He does only have one functional knee.
As the NBA season nears the mid-way point, the Oklahoma City Thunder enjoy the best record in the league. In racing out to that great start, the team has been buoyed by the leagues third best scorer (Kevin Durant), third best ball thief (Russell Westbrook), third best shot blocker (Serge Ibaka), and the consensus best bench player (James Harden). They have won when it was close (winning 4 out of 5 games decided by 3 points or less), they have won in blowouts (11-4 in games decided by ten points or more), they have beaten good teams (12-4 against teams that have better than .500 winning percentages), and most importantly, they’ve just won (22-6, 2 1/2 games better than anyone else in the Western Conference).
Yet for some reason, the national analysts are not impressed by the team. ESPN.com’s John Hollinger has the Thunder ranked sixth on his power rankings. Among the five teams with worse records than OKC he has in front of OKC is Portland whose record would not even get them in the playoffs if those started today. Similarly, the website’s Marc Stein only ranks Thunder as a fringe top-5. TNT’s Charles Barkley consistently downplays Oklahoma City’s legitimacy as a title contender by suggesting the team relies too much on only three scorers (Durant, Westbrook, and Harden score 65.6% of the teams points). Meanwhile, Barkley has no qualms about the Miami Heat’s chances despite their three stars accounting for 66.9% of their points.
The lack of respect is probably a good thing. How often to champions speak in the post-game celebration about how everyone believed in them even when the team had doubts about their abilities? I’ll tell you how often: never. Regardless of who wins, the team’s star always gives a shout out to those who doubted them. Thunder star Kevin Durant has already begun to bristle about nay-sayers.
In response to public euphoria about Blake Griffin’s dunk over Kendrick Perkins, Durant tried to downplay the event while griping about the perceived lack of respect the media gives the team.
Monday night (almost Tuesday morning), those who stayed up past their bed time to watch the Thunder game were given a treat. With a final score of 111-107 in overtime, Oklahoma City was victorious against the Portland Trail Blazers. The game featured prolonged scoring runs by both teams, two former Longhorns dueling for player of the game status, officiating drama, and Russell Westbrook dunking over and over and over again.
During the game, representatives from the deluded “Save Our Sonics” organization from Seattle (who now support Portland, the team that was once their greatest rival) sat behind the Thunder bench heckling the players they believe belong to them. Then, after the game, OKC players alluded to trash talk from the Blazers as motivation. Basically, it was everything you expect from a rivalry match.
This got me to thinking: Who is the Thunder’s biggest rival? As a team that has technically only existed for a few years, that is not an easy question. Such things must come about organically, and with a lack of history that belongs to the franchise, the animosity that comes about to create rivalries is difficult to pin down. But some do exist.
My rankings go like this:
5. Dallas Mavericks
Geography is always an easy way of creating rivalry. However, in the first couple of seasons, there was very little between the two teams except that it was an easier commute to play games. That changed last season, and it was before the two teams met in the playoffs.
It started with Mav owner Mark Cuban being one of only two owners to vote against the team relocating to Oklahoma. Of course, that was only trying to protect what had been Mavericks turf (Fox Sports used to show Dallas games in this market). However, I would peg December 27, 2010 as the day that sparked the inevitable rivalry between the two local teams. That was when a game at the OKC Arena featured an injury to Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki that still managed to be a Mav victory after a huge fourth quarter.
The outcome was not remarkable–the win signified the Mavericks 17th in 18 games at the time–but after the game, several Dallas players stood at half court taunting the crowd. This was not the behavior of a team who was simply satisfied by another win. Again, they were on a role during that time frame. Those were the actions of a team who felt a special satisfaction from beating their neighbor.
Then, of course, the two teams wound up facing each other in the Western Conference Finals in a prelude to Dallas winning their first NBA title. That series certainly inflamed the competition among the teams, and when Maverick coach Rick Carlisle lost his shiz in their most recent match up (kicking a ball into the crowd that struck a child in the head) it was abundantly clear that the competition between the two teams is anything but friendly.
Patrick has gone into great detail regarding State Senator Josh Brecheen’s disdain for science. The senator, pictured above and to the left, is taking another stab at undermining the study of science by introducing State Bill 1742. The bill not only establishes that Brecheen is declaring a war on evolution, but that Brecheen is also a terrible bill writer.
Esentially, the bill sounds innocuous. According to the bill’s introductory section, it simply provides assistance to teachers, promotes critical thinking, allows supplementary text, and does not promote a particular belief system. Wow, totally reasonable, right? Then, he declares an emergency.
Let’s look at the bill a little closer…
Monday, as part of the NBA’s Martin Luther King Day extravaganza, the Thunder played a game in Boston against the storied Celtics. The game was a symbolic changing of the guard with Boston’s aging, accomplished roster squaring off against the up-and-coming talent wearing OKC jerseys.
With a 97-88 road victory for Oklahoma City, it was clear that the young legs of their core talent gave them advantage over the geezers playing for the Celtics during this condensed season. While the proven veterans spent the lockout drinking Kool-Aid and working to make the lockout last as long as possible, Thunder players came into camp in shape after figuring out ways to play basketball without NBA sponsorship. With a record of 12-2 (compared to Boston–who was expected to be a title contender–at 4-8) the upstarts are making a claim at league supremacy.
Of course, most outside observers want to give all the credit to the Thunder big three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but that isn’t really the case. Those guys are dominating, yes, but the role players coming off the bench are just as big of a factor. For instance, Oklahoma City’s stars aren’t carrying nearly the load as Boston’s big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen because they can relax on the bench without the team falling apart. So, not only do they have the advantage of youth and superior preparation, but they also have depth of talent on their side. Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, and Harden can slide into the line up without a noticeable drop off.
Then, when those bench players are still on the sidelines, they can be even more valuable by creating images like this:
You know how one of the most endearing things about college basketball is the way the bench behaves during March Madness? That generally comes from a tight-knit group of players living the college life coupled with the emotion of high stakes competition. Oklahoma City’s bench is acting in the same manner minus the college atmosphere and high stakes. This picture came during an early season game. After the game ended, 4/5ths of the season still remained. Yet these guys reacted to the events on the floor like scrubs on a 15 seed who just hit a dagger to knock off Duke.
One can only surmise that this team is pretty close and enjoying their success.
Now for a breakdown of how these players express their enthusiasm.
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