As we head into the second half of the NBA regular season, there is an established Big Three. But are the Oklahoma City Thunder poised to enter the title conversation?
Fourth favourites at 10.00, it’s not a reach to say that OKC remain a step behind the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the still-unconvincing Cleveland Cavaliers when it comes to looking at genuine championship contenders.
But six straight wins have propelled the Thunder above .700 headed into Friday’s trip to the Dallas Mavericks. And with an offense now averaging 108.6 points per night, second in the NBA, it’s clear they’re going to be a defensive nightmare for everybody else in the league.
Could this be a sign that first-year coach Billy Donovan is finally putting a stamp on the team? If his aim is to allow Kevin Durant – whose numbers have barely shifted from last term - and Russell Westbrook to act as much as decoys as detonators, then it seems to be working.
Oklahoma City had 30 assists against Denver on Tuesday, a boon for a team that relies frequently on its All-NBA duo for solo scores – with Westbrook leading the Association in transition points and sitting third in pick and roll scores.
And the point guard, whose average has dropped to 18.5 per in January from his season mark of24, will come to Dallas with something to prove in the wake of his zero-point ejection during OKC’s 108-89 defeat of the Mavs last week.
It starts a four-game road swing for the Thunder, who are worth a punt at -15.5 at the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday before heading onward. And in their nine games leading up to All Star break, only the Warriors are legit foes. With a regular punt.
“I think the Thunder are a legitimate championship calibre team,” former Knicks and Rockets head coach turned ESPN analyst Jeff van Gundy said. “I think they’re the fourth team that could win it all. I think when you put Durant and Westbrook on the floor together, they are dynamic.
“I think for them to take that next step up to being able to really consider themselves a favourite with Golden State and San Antonio, their defence has to take a jump. I think they should be a dominant defensive team. I think Westbrook and Durant and Serge Ibaka need to lead that charge, because if they become a dominant defensive team with the weaponry that they have offensively, they’ll be as good as anyone.”
Even so, OKC is already eighth in defensive efficiency and rising with only 100.1 points conceded per 100 possessions. And as they head into Dallas and beyond, you can bet on calls for a Big Four in the title talk to become louder.
Best bet: Take Oklahoma City on a handicap of -12.5 over Dallas