Do the Oklahoma City Thunder have a toughness complex?
One of the reasons the Thunder have the NBA’s second-best record is because they have three young, explosive players – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden – who simply cannot be contained off the dribble.
When defensive schemes cannot prevent a player from getting to the basket, teams usually resort to rough stuff as discouragement. Michael Jordan went through it. So did Allen Iverson. Tony Parker still gets thrown to the floor from time to time.
That approach fits fine and dandy with the Thunder, who are second in the NBA in both free throws attempted and percentage. But over the last couple of weeks, the Thunder appear to be taking a stand in showing opponents that they will not be pushed around.
It started in Oklahoma City’s last game before the All-Star break, in which Harden initiated a prolonged jawing session with none other than Kobe Bryant. Harden’s trash talk continued for so long that Metta World Peace felt the need to intervene on Bryant’s behalf before a referee stepped in and told everyone to knock it off.
In its first game out of the break, Oklahoma City visited Philadelphia, where Durant threw an elbow at the head of Evan Turner in an attempt to end a skirmish. Remember, it was Durant who last season said the NBA has “a lot of fake tough guys.”
Whether the Thunder feel as if they have to bully their way into title contention or respond to teams trying to delay their inevitable ascension, it is misplaced aggression. It gets them nowhere, as the 12 technical fouls already amassed by center Kendrick Perkins plainly illustrates.
Besides, it is their well-placed aggression that is getting the job done.
In rallying for wins this week at Philadelphia and Orlando, Oklahoma City had spectacular defensive fourth quarters, using their quickness and toughness to choke off the opposing offense. The Thunder limited the 76ers to four points on 1-of-13 shooting over the final 5 1/2 minutes and the Magic to six points – all by Dwight Howard – over 6 1/2 minutes.
“We defend. That’s one thing we are consistent with,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We just have to keep doing it.”
Against Philadelphia, the Thunder crowded the Sixers on the perimeter and protected the rim with Perkins and Serge Ibaka. In one sequence, Westbrook simply muscled the ball away from Lou Williams. On another, Perkins got out to block a 3-pointer by Jodie Meeks.
Against Orlando, they had Perkins defend Howard with no help and went small to shadow the shooters, inserting defensive demon Royal Ivey for Ibaka. The Thunder turned a nine-point deficit into a four-point lead as the Magic didn’t make a perimeter shot.
“We went small,” Brooks said. “I thought that gave us some energy, gave us some juice. I know we would have enough and we did. As the game went on, we got stronger defensively.”
It should be also noted that the Thunder has been doing this without the injured Thabo Sefolosha, perhaps their best perimeter defender.
When the playoffs arrive, opponents will scheme to take away a portion of Oklahoma City’s offense, and it will be pretty easy. Because Durant, Westbrook and Harden are so skilled, the Thunder rely heavily on clear-outs, simple pick-and-rolls and jumpers.
The offense will inevitably stall at times, as it did in last year’s playoffs. This time, the Thunder seem better equipped to handle those stretches – as long as their aggression is not misplaced.
TRIVIA: Who was the last player to lead the league in one of the five major stats while being traded during that season? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Speaking on Jim Rome’s radio show, TNT analyst Charles Barkley said he wished he could shoot 20 percent of all NBA fans. When Rome gave him the chance to backpedal, Barkley added, “No, I meant that, Jim, Eighty percent of the fans are fantastic. But 20 percent of them are so mean-spirited and say the most nasty things to you, because they know you can’t grab them.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, explaining how he knew Dwyane Wade wasn’t trying to break his nose when Wade fouled him in the All-Star Game:
“He’s not that kind of person. … He’s a nicer guy than I am, to be honest with you.”
LINE OF THE WEEK: Derrick Williams, Minnesota at LA Clippers, Feb. 28: 27 minutes, 9-10 FGs, 4-4 3-pointers, 5-5 FTs, five rebounds, one block, 27 points in a 109-97 win. The rookie’s previous season high was 15 points. Even more impressive, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he was the first player in NBA history to shoot 90 percent from the field and not miss a 3-pointer or free throw.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Jason Terry, Dallas at New Orleans, March 2: 23 minutes, 1-9 FGs, 0-5 3-pointers, one rebound, four assists, two fouls, one turnover, two points in a 97-92 loss. In a loss to New Jersey earlier in the week, Terry grumbled afterward about the ball not finding him during a dry spell for Dallas. Sounds like some karma ran over his dogma.
TRILLION WATCH: Dallas center Ian Mahinmi avoided a 6 trillion Friday in New Orleans in glorious fashion, missing two free throws. That left Chicago’s Jimmy Butler as this week’s winner with a 5 trillion in Friday’s rout of Cleveland. Honorable mention to Detroit rookie Vernon Macklin, whose 2 trillion in Wednesday’s win vs. Charlotte was his fifth multi-minute trillion of the season.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Indiana at Chicago, March 5. The Pacers have a pretty firm grip on the third seed in the Eastern Conference and could get upwardly mobile with another win at the United Center. On Jan. 25, Indiana handed Chicago its first home loss in their first meeting since last year’s first-round playoff series.
GAME OF THE WEAK: New Jersey at Charlotte, March 4. The Bobcats get two cracks at home against the Nets this week as the teams also meet Friday. If Charlotte can’t get either of those, it could be 4-38 with 12 straight losses when Toronto – its last victim – visits March 17.
TWO MINUTES: As long as LeBron James keeps passing in the clutch, the haters will keep harping. But here’s further proof that James is playing the best basketball of his career this season: The first two games of Miami’s road trip marked the first time in James’ career he has played back-to-back games without committing a turnover, and he has done it in his best back-to-back scoring games of the season. … The Wizards make this section of the column really easy to fill. In Tuesday’s loss to Milwaukee, coach Randy Wittman benched starters JaVale McGee and Nick Young in the second half. “We played guys who wanted to play defense in the second half,” he said. “I am done with young guys. If they don’t want to play the right way, the young guys aren’t going to play. They are not learning anything when they play the way they want to play. It doesn’t do us any good. You get no development out of them if they are going in and playing the way they want to play and the way they did in that first half. … They are not developing. All they are developing is bad habits.” The following night vs. Orlando, McGee and Young were demoted to bench roles. When asked if he knew what Wittman was trying to convey, McGee said, “I can’t say I do, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later.” The Wizards were back up to six straight losses before edging the Cavs on Saturday. …The Bulls are an impressive 16-0 on the road this season when leading at the half. Ten teams haven’t won 16 games total. … Warriors guard Stephen Curry has missed virtually all of the last three games with a foot injury but told coach Mark Jackson during Wednesday’s win in Atlanta that he could take the court as a decoy or free-throw shooter if needed. “For him to throw all of his numbers and stats out the window and say ‘Coach, if you need me I can go,’ to come in to just stand in the corner, that was amazing,” Jackson said. “I’ve played with a lot of star players in my 17 years, and I know a lot of guys who would have said, ‘Don’t put me in and mess up my numbers.’ That’s what we’re trying to build here.” … When Clippers star Blake Griffin went 5-of-5 from line Friday at Phoenix, it was the first time he didn’t miss a free throw in a game this season. Dwight Howard is the only qualifier with a lower mark than Griffin’s .559. … Through Denver’s first 26 games, Nuggets rookie Kenneth Faried played just 60 minutes. But a losing streak brought on by multiple injuries elevated him into the rotation, and he has made the most of it. In 11 games, he is averaging 22.1 minutes, 9.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. More important, Denver is 5-5 since a five-game skid. With Nene still sidelined and Timofey Mozgov joining him with a sprained ankle suffered Friday, Faried should remain entrenched for a while. … Last month, we wrote that the Lakers – given their offensive chasm at small forward – should consider re-signing former Slam Dunk champion Gerald Green, whom they cut in training camp. Green won the MVP of the D-League All-Star Game last weekend and less than three days later was signed by the Nets, who have a void of their own at the 3-spot, mostly due to injuries. We thought that Green would play but had no idea he would play this well, scoring in double figures in each of his first two games. That production would come in handy for the Lakers, who reportedly inquired about Minnesota’s Michael Beasley this week. … Here’s the plan on Sixers center Spencer Hawes: His scheduled return from a strained left Achilles tendon will be March 12 – if he doesn’t have a setback. When he returns, he can play in consecutive games – as long as they’re not on consecutive days. And he can start – but he can’t play more than five minutes in any quarter for the first 10 days. Philadelphia is 12-2 with Hawes and 10-13 without him. … Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe somehow fouled out in 10 minutes Thursday at Sacramento. … Think the Raptors miss Andrea Bargnani? Toronto is 6-7 with him, including a 3-2 mark in games decided by six points or less. But in the 23 games Bargnani has missed with a calf injury, Toronto is 5-18, including 0-7 in two-possession games. “Somewhere the basketball gods are waiting for us to make those (clutch) plays, to be good to us,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Right now – and I’ve seen a lot of NBA games – we’re doing everything to win the games except winning games.”
Trivia Answer: Theo Ratliff led in blocks per game in 2003-04 playing for Atlanta and Portland. … Happy 46th Birthday, Kevin Johnson. … Nobody’s breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 20,000 women, either.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.