Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

How they can win it all: The Oklahoma City Thunder

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How did we forget about the Oklahoma City Thunder? After Kevin Durant’s season-long coming-out party last season and the tough fight the young Thunder put up against the eventual champion Lakers, the Thunder were everyone’s pick to put it all together and establish themselves as one of the league’s elite teams this season. They did that, but they managed to fly under the radar last season. The Thunder looked very good before the trade deadline; since they traded for Kendrick Perkins, they’ve looked downright scary. Here’s how the Thunder can bring a title to Oklahoma City:

1. Firepower

I don’t need to tell you about Kevin Durant. He led the league in scoring this season — again. He scores efficiently, and he can do it from anywhere on the court. He has a silky-smooth jumper, he can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket, he can catch and shoot coming off of picks, and his “rip” move allows him to get to the line over and over again and knock down free throws. He’s a scorer’s scorer, and he’s one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the league.

The Thunder were impressive when Durant was essentially a one-man show on offense last season. This season, he has help. Russell Westbrook made a huge leap this season. He was always able to blow by anyone in the league and get into the paint, put pressure on the defense in plays, and make sharp passes. This season, he’s put his offensive game together. He’s a much better shooter, he’s a much better finisher at the rim, and he’s far more consistent than he was last season. Last year, the Thunder fell to the Lakers because the offense went stagnant and Ron Artest and Co. were able to hold Kevin Durant in check. This season, with Westbrook putting pressure on the defense with penetration, Durant is free to move without the ball and get far more open catch-and-shoot jumpers and easy lanes to the basket.

James Harden has come on strong in the last few months, and he’s become the kind of all-around scoring threat the Thunder hoped he would be when they drafted him with the third overall pick. Serge Ibaka has made huge strides as an offensive player. Eric Maynor has emerged as one of the best backup point guards in the league. Last year, the Thunder’s dirty little secret was that they weren’t a great offensive team, despite Durant’s brilliance; this year, they’re a top-five offensive team.

2. Defense

Last season, the Thunder were able to win 50 games because of their surprisingly effective defense. It looked like they forgot about that at the beginning of this season. While they were still winning games playing run-and-gun basketball, they weren’t nearly as effective on defense as they were last season, and they were one of the worst teams in the league at defending the rim.

Then they traded Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, and everything changed. There were too huge benefits to trading for Perkins. First of all, the Thunder were playing Ibaka out of position at center, which wasn’t the best use of his talents, and playing Jeff Green at the power forward. Jeff Green cannot defend opposing power forwards, and each lineup that featured Green at the four had major defensive issues.

With Perkins playing center, Ibaka was able to slide to his natural power forward position, where his athleticism makes him a force defensively. Before the deadline, the Thunder had a decent defender starting at the center position and a horrible defender starting at the power forward position. Now, they start great defenders at both the center and the power forward positions. It’s hard to overstate how much of a difference that makes. The Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Green/Ibaka lineup had a defensive rating of 113.79 — the Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins lineup has a defensive rating of 102.02. These Thunder play defense.

3. The “Why Not Us?” Factor

The Thunder are a young team, and don’t have to bear the burden of expectations the way the other title contenders do. They have some of the best fans in the league. They have great chemistry. They have the confidence that youth brings with very little of the immaturity. They have as much talent as any team in the league, and the mentality of a bracket-busting college squad. That combination can absolutely create a champion. Most are expecting that Oklahoma City’s championship will come a few years down the road, but there’s no reason that it can’t happen for them this year. They know that. And the rest of the league may be about to find that out.

One more look back: Top 10 clutch shots of season to this point

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The opening weeks of the season have seen some dramatic finishes — and for a Saturday night, why not watch a compilation of them? What else were you going to do? You’ve got 3:30 to sit through these.

Who got the top spot? Marc Gasol? Damian Lillard? Al Horford? John Henson? If we told you it would just destroy the surprise.

Like crossovers? Check out Top 10 handles of NBA season so far

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It’s not really fair if you ask Nemanja Bjelica to cover Stephen Curry in space, but it does make for a good highlight.

On a nice slow Saturday afternoon around the NBA, let’s take a look at the top 10 handles moves of the season so far, courtesy NBA.com. Of course, there is some wickedness from James Harden, Derrick Rose, and Chris Paul, too. But I’m good with Jordan Clarkson in the top spot.

Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo find Jabari Parker for the slam

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I want the Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker combo to work better than it does. The Buck get outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together, with neither end of the court working terribly well.

And yet, there are flashes — like the play above — where you think this could start to work. It just may need more time (and getting Khris Middleton back in the mix would help).

Antetokounmpo is having a phenomenal season, and is making plays.

Draymond Green fires back at league: “It’s funny how you can tell me… how my body is supposed to react”

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It’s not hard to find out how Draymond Green felt after picking up a flagrant foul Thursday night when his leg flew up after a foul and caught James Harden in the face. Just go to his Twitter feed.

Saturday at Warriors’ practice, Green expanded on the subject, here’s the video via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

If you prefer to read are Green’s comments transcribed:

“I just laugh at it. It’s funny how you can tell me how I get hit and how my body is supposed to react. I didn’t know the league office was that smart when it came to body movements. I’m not sure if they took kinesiology for their positions to tell you how your body is going to react when you get hit in a certain position. Or you go up and you have guys who jump to the ceiling. A lot of these guys that make the rules can’t touch the rim, yet they tell you how you’re way up there in the air which way you’re body (is supposed to go). I don’t understand that. That’s like me going in there and saying, ‘Hey, you did something on your paperwork wrong.’ I don’t know what your paperwork looks like. But it is what it is. They made the rule. Make your rule. I don’t care. But if you’re going to say it’s an unnatural thing, an unnatural act, no offense to James Harden, but I’ve never seen nobody up until James started doing it that shoots a layup like this under your arm (sweeps arms in a demonstration). That’s really not a natural act either. That’s not a natural basketball play either. But, hey, if you’re going to make a rule, make a rule. But if you’re going to take unnatural acts out the game, then let’s lock in on all these unnatural acts and take them out the game. I don’t know. Let them keep telling people how their body react I guess. They need to go take a few more kinesiology classes though. Maybe they can take a taping class or functional movement classes. Let me know how the body works because clearly mine don’t work the right way.”

Two things.

First, Green should know that the ultimate hammer on NBA fines is Kiki Vandeweghe — former NBA player, two-time All-Star, who also coached in the league. You want a guy with a players’ perspective making the call? You already have it. And Vandeweghe played in a far more physical era than this one.

Second, the flagrant was not issued because of intent but because of the action — if you kick a guy in the face, it’s a flagrant foul. There’s no gray area here, and officials shouldn’t have to guess a player’s intent. When Green went up he was fouled by Harden, and to maintain his balance Green flailed his legs out, something he has done plenty and other players going back decades have done too. That doesn’t mean it’s not reckless. That doesn’t mean a player is still not responsible for his body. Ask soccer officials about this same issue — get your leg above the waist with other players around and it can be called a “dangerous play.” In the NBA, if your leg flies up and hits a guy in the face, it’s a flagrant foul. Whether or not you meant to do it.

Green knows the league is cracking down on this. He knows he’s a target. It’s on him to change. One would think the Finals would have taught him that lesson.