Meet the new Thunder, same as the old Thunder.
Which is a pretty good thing, those old Thunder captured the imagination of the NBA fans nationwide last season. They were athletic, they got and ran, they were just fresh and fun.
Thunder players talk openly of wanting to get rings with this group, there is a real chemistry there. That’s one reason before the season started a lot of people thought the Oklahoma City would take another step forward and could be the one team that would take a ring off the fingers of the Lakers out West. There was patience in the front office — Oklahoma City stuck with the players they had rather than trying to make a big splash in free agency. They were going to grow.
When they finally got a chance to match up on the Lakers again Monday night and measure themselves…
It looked almost exactly like the NBA playoffs last season. Right down to the Lakers winning, 101-94.
It’s still about the Lakers length up front and how that can clog the paint and turn the Thunder into jump shooters. Despite what some predicted it is not about Derek Fisher being older than the Terra Cotta Warriors. It’s not about Kobe’s knee, which looked just fine as Bryant threw it down like he was 25 again at one point.
It’s about the Lakers length, big men who can move and defend on the pick-and-roll. Big men who can protect the rim like Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. That trio finished with 47 points and 24 boards.
The Lakers didn’t defend much of anything in the first half as Russell Westbrook carved them up. Westbrook was stunning all night (he finished with 32 points and 12 assists). He would explode off the pick and roll, or get out in transition where the Lakers still do not have the athletes to deal with him. It was that fun, athletic Thunder team everybody fell in love with.
For a while.
In the first half, the Thunder had an offensive efficiency of 117 (points per 100 possessions). In the second half that fell to 88.6. Because the Lakers took away the easy baskets.
Kobe was energetic and was barking out defensive calls — getting on his big men — and it worked. The Thunder couldn’t find room to get inside consistently so they started to settle for jumpers. Gone were the transition buckets. The Thunder started falling in love with the three even through they couldn’t make them (2-of-22 on the night). Kevin Durant again couldn’t get going with Ron Artest being physical and dogging him (Luke Walton also played some pretty good defense on him for a stretch, a sentence we never thought we’d type). Durant finished with 24 points but needed 24 shots to get there.
One other key was the Lakers were not fouling (well, except for Bynum). The Thunder get to the line on a higher percentage of field goal attempts than any team in the league. Put it this way — they take an average of 30.7 free throws a game and hit 83 percent of them. But they got to the line just 22 times against the Lakers, just another way Los Angeles took away easy points away from the Thunder.
While the Lakers looked good it’s hard to read much into them — frankly we know what they can do. They can look like this, they can look every bit the champion and team to be feared. Then next game, who knows? They could be a disaster. What we know is that come the playoffs — so long as everyone is healthy — we will see a lot more of these Lakers.
With the Thunder… what can they do? They could use a steadier offensive and rebounding post presence (a Kevin Love like guy). They need a three-point shooter or for someone to develop that shot. They need to find a way to execute when the game slows down, as it inevitably does in the playoffs.
They didn’t do any of that Monday, they looked like the same old Thunder. Which is very good and very entertaining. But it’s not getting anyone fitted for a ring.