Thunder winning games, just not expectation game

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-4, which means they are on pace for about 49 wins this season. Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring. If the playoff started today after an absurdly short regular season, they would be the seven seed in the West.

That coming after a season where they won 50 games, Kevin Durant led the league in scoring and they were the eighth seed in the West. That was followed by a summer where the Thunder decided to stand pat and not make any big free agent moves, not to make any dramatic roster changes.

So why does it feel like the Thunder are a disappointment?

Because of you and me, because of our expectations. Our unreasonable expectations (we warned you this would happen). All of us saw how dynamic they were in pushing the Lakers in the first round last season. We saw Durant dominate the world this summer, with Russell Westbrook by his side. All that led to this feeling that they would take another gigantic leap forward.

That almost never happens. If you bring back the same team you had last season, then you are what you were last season. Really, after a breakout year just remaining the same in the face of a “sophomore slump” is a step forward. Not the leap people wanted, but a step.

What is frustrating is you can see where these Thunder really could be better. Where they really could take that leap, mostly because this year feels like a regression on the court.

However, that really isn’t measured until the playoffs. Last season the Thunder started out 7-7 but figured it out by the end of the season. That could happen again if a few things come together.

On offense, the Thunder are still good, but it is coming with Durant and Westbrook more in isolation. Durant is averaging 28.4 points per game, Westbrook 23.5, but some of the movement — both ball and player — have been gone.

What is keeping the offense going is free throws — they are getting to the line more (per field goal attempt) than any team in the league. Then once there they are hitting a ridiculous 88.1 percent of their free throws as a team — the 89-90 Boston Celtics hold the current record at 83.2 percent. OKC is five points ahead of that. What all those free throws mean is the Thunder are still attacking.

What they are not doing well is defending. Last season they gave up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, this season that has jumped to 112.5, 29th in the league. They are allowing teams to shoot a higher percentage, they are creating fewer turnovers (which really hurts them because the Thunder are so dynamic and get such easy baskets in transition).

The biggest problem is in the middle — opposing teams are getting five more shots a game right at the rim than they did last year. In today’s NBA you need someone to protect the paint, and maybe this year’s draft pick Cole Aldrich can be that guy someday, but he is not right now.

The Thunder could help their cause by starting Serge Ibaka. They did with Jeff Green out against the Jazz last game, Ibaka had four blocks and the Thunder beat a hot Jazz team. When Green returns he needs to play, but it may be time to bring Nenad Krstic off the bench. You don’t lose any offense (he had 22 points against the Jazz) and what he brings on defense is needed.

It’s a step in getting this team back to the potential we all expected of them, what we hoped of them. But maybe we should reign in those expectations, too. This week they play Boston then Milwaukee on the back-to-back. Things are not getting easier for these Thunder as they try to improve. And improvement might look a lot like standing still sometimes.

PBT Extra bold prediction previews: Can Thunder win 60 games?

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Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are healthy — just how good will the Thunder be?

The bold prediction in this PBT Extra preview with Jenna Corrado is that the Thunder will win 60 games, something they have not yet done. I wouldn’t bet on them hitting that number — with a new coach, and them making sure Durant and Westbrook get rest coming off injuries, plus the fact they’re in the deep West, that number may be high.

I think they have a better chance to come out of the West than win 60 games. I think they have a good shot to come out of the West.

Gallinari ready to take big role in new Nuggets offense

Danilo Gallinari, Jimmy Butler
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DENVER (AP) — Danilo Gallinari wants everyone to know this: His surgically repaired left knee, the one that took three procedures to fix and nearly two seasons to fully trust, no longer bothers him.

The Denver Nuggets forward doesn’t need to be on any sort of minutes restriction. He doesn’t need days off during the season. And he certainly doesn’t need to be coddled.

He’s Gallo again, the hard-to-guard Italian playmaker who can knock down the 3-pointer just as easily as drive to the hoop or even post up. He believes he will fit in quite nicely into new coach Michael Malone’s system.

“The thing I’m focused on is trying to get (this team) back to the same level that the Nuggets were when I got to Denver, when we were going to the playoffs easy. When we were clinching a playoff one or two weeks before the season was over,” said Gallinari, who was acquired in the 2011 blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. “We need to get back to that level.”

Almost seems so long ago, given that the Nuggets have missed the playoffs two straight seasons after consistently making it for nearly a decade.

Gallinari returned last season for the first time since blowing out his knee in a game on April 4, 2013. His minutes were closely monitored early in the season. He never really got completely on track until late last season, when he averaged 20.5 points over the final 10 contests, including a career-high 47 against Dallas. He’s hoping to carry that kind of confidence this season.

“I’m good to go. I was good to go as soon as the beginning of last year,” Gallinari said. “I was not on the same page with the coach that we had.”

That would be Brian Shaw, who was fired last March after 1 1/2 seasons in charge and going 56-85. Exactly why he wasn’t on the same page with Shaw, well, Gallinari preferred the past remain the past.

“I’m ready to play the new season,” he said. “We need to win games, and get back to the same level we were before.”

Gallinari thinks the Nuggets have the personnel to do just that, especially with a rookie point guard in Emmanuel Mudiay and Gallinari’s knee feeling better than it has in a while. He feels like he has some ground to make up, too, since he said that knee robbed him of some of his prime.

“Playing my best basketball right before I got injured,” the 27-year old said. “Now, we’re back to the same level, hopefully better.

“My knee has been feeling great. It felt great last year. Feeling great during the summer. Feeling great now. I just feel good.”

He spent the summer playing for the Italian team at the EuroBasket tournament, where he averaged nearly 18 points a game. In those games, Gallinari saw quite a bit of time at the four spot on the floor, forcing teams to either use a bulkier big man to cover him and risk getting burned on a drive or a smaller player that Gallinari could simply shoot over.

Malone plans to employ a similar type approach, something they discussed over gelato when the coach visited Gallinari in Italy soon after he was hired.

“He’s 6-foot-10. He can handle the ball. He can play pick-and-roll. He can stretch the floor and shoot the 3,” Malone said. “There’s not a lot he can’t do offensively.”

Gallinari wants the responsibility of being the go-to player for the Nuggets this season, especially at crunch time.

“I’ve always been trying to do that, since I came to Denver,” Gallinari said. “That’s what I like to do. I feel good filling those shoes.

“I want to have the ball in my hands. I do want to have the ball in my hands a lot more.”