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The Thunder have gone full Westbrook—and it’s good

When I worked at the newspaper in Oklahoma City, I’d play basketball sometimes with Thunder beat reporters. It was dope. They knew stuff about the team they’d often just hint at in their reporting, but let loose in between pickup games, when the sweat and endorphins got up.

Every so often, former Thunder forward Desmond Mason would come around too. By then it’d been 15 years since he won the NBA Dunk Contest with the SuperSonics, but he was still a monster. For our sakes, Dez would play at about 13 percent of his capacity, which was enough to completely overwhelm us schlubby guys with office jobs. Once I sprinted directly into his right ass cheek, which he very cannily stuck out in perfect time to screen for his teammate, whom I was defending. I wound up on the ground, he wound up grinning on his way back to play defense. It was an honor.

I bring Dez up because he’d talk too. One thing he said that always stuck with me was that his college basketball days at Oklahoma State were his favorite because his teammates played to win every night. He didn’t find the same level of intensity in the NBA. Guys there were all talented, he said, but too many of them were collecting paychecks and not enough played to win.

This lack of enthusiasm that Dez described is not a problem for this year’s Thunder team. Their preferred style of play—dunk finishes on fast breaks, suplexing opposing power forwards for rebounds, and betting the house on momentum-swinging steals and blocks—thrives in its own chaos. We’ve gone full Westbrook, and it’s good. (I’m sorry, but if you don’t like the violent, damaging way that Russ and his team play basketball, then maybe you should get into something less exciting, like railing cocaine in between motorcycle stunts, or picking knife fights at CIA black sites.)

And crucially, while this Thunder team most resembles the playing style of Russell Westbrook III, its offense isn’t completely dependent on his usage the way that scrappy and delightfully flawed first post-Kevin Durant team was a few seasons back. Paul George has made himself into the rare ego-checked superstar, content to be the best player on a roster that doesn’t necessarily belong to him, and backup point guard acquisition Dennis Schröder has settled comfortably into Oklahoma City’s usage pecking order, hounding opposing guards on the perimeter when he shares the court with Westbrook and keeping the offense afloat when Russ rests.

George in particular has been playing out of his mind this season. In the theater of modern NBA basketball—the league’s heavy marketing of its superstars and emphasis on eye-popping statistical production has reached the level of burlesque spectacle—he’s become a premier leading man, making 20 shot attempts a game look easy and forcing opposing turnovers seemingly at will.

Shipping out a late-career Carmelo Anthony in the offseason to free up minutes for the springier Jerami Grant was the last step for the Thunder to form an honest-to-god identity—that rare agreement of talent, coaching, and management that can elude NBA franchises for years, even decades. Unfortunately, part of that identity is not consistently making shots. Coming off a September knee surgery, Russ’s shooting start to the season’s been particularly sluggish (a career-low free throw percentage and an abysmal 25 percent from three), leaving the Thunder in the middle of the pack in offensive rating.

But the floor beneath Westbrook’s shooting woes is firm. The Thunder’s starting lineup draws a ton of fouls, rebounds like a pack of demons, and are among the NBA’s elite in defensive rating. Opponents who lack a top-tier ball handler often don’t even bother testing Steven Adams’ pick-and-roll defense, for fear that Adams or one of his long-armed teammates will pop the ball loose for an easy transition bucket. And this year’s bench is deep with versatile players ready to contribute. The return of a healthy Andre Roberson, meanwhile, would present an interesting wrinkle for Billy Donovan’s coaching staff to smooth.

It doesn’t feel crazy to have confidence that the former MVP’s shooting will come around. The question now is whether or not the Thunder’s bruising, tireless style can propel them deep into the playoffs after last year’s disappointing first-round exit courtesy of the Utah Jazz.

Having watched every game so far this season, this Thunder team passes my eye test. I doubt that the Warriors’ All-Star starting lineup can be stopped by natural means, but this team at least looks like they’re capable of fucking them up pretty bad in a second-round series or conference finals. There’s enough to hope for the best here.

What to watch

Steven Adams’ flexibility.
Watch this man defend in the pick and roll. His fingers scrape along the court. Every season he adds something new to his game, incrementally making the Harden look at least, ah, defensible? Maybe that isn’t the word. Anyway, Steven Adams is a legit NBA bruiser and the All-Star Game would be softer without him.

Westbrook’s “rock the baby” taunt.
Love it. He’s a new father. It’s funny and clever. Also the ongoing stream-of-consciousness arguments he picks fresh each night with the referees makes great theater.

Terrance Ferguson’s quick trigger.
He gets his shot up fast and confidently enough to be a problem for playoff defenses. The second-year pro from Tulsa shot 46 percent from three in January, and he’s plugged in so nicely for the defense-first Andre Roberson that Roberson’s return integration to the lineup (should it even happen this season) presents a tough decision for the Thunder braintrust.

Jerami Grant’s shooting.
Here’s a stat: Grant’s shooting a smidge better (nearly 37 percent) from three so far this season than Anthony did last season (nearly 36 percent). Billy Donovan could juice the Thunder offense in the playoffs by playing small ball lineups with the freakishly athletic Grant at center, something he did in spots last season.  

Who in the NBA is having more fun right now than Hami Diallo?
You’re 20 years old, come out of the NBA Draft’s second round, crack the rotation of a contender, and now you’re throwing down transition dunks two nights a week on one of the NBA’s most hype home courts. No wonder these guys don’t hang around in college anymore.

Remember when the Thunder were relying on quality backup minutes from Nazr Mohammed?
Nerlens Noel is way outperforming a cheap contract, flushing pick-and-roll dunks from Schröder and protecting the bucket from second-team scorers to the tune of 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes.

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