I was watching last year’s Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, Game 6. All anyone needs to understand the difference b/w OKC circa 2012 and 2013 is watch that game. The first half of the season offered glimpses of near-sighted happiness to all of the thunder fans(me included). “Beard, what beard” and “K-Mart to the rescue” resonated in Loud City all too often. Going off to a great start, the Thunder reached the All-Star break just a game behind the Spurs for #1 seed in the West.
Thereafter it has been a very very weak performance. You may counter saying that they had a 11-4 run since the All-Star break but you have to factor in the quality of opponents they faced. The losses have come at the hands of the streaking Nuggets(twice), the Spurs and the Rockets, all of whom are playoff bound and possible competition for the Western Conference crown. For any other team, a 11-4 run might be ok but for the young Thunder, who will(and should) view this season as a failure if they fail to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy(even at the expense of the mesmerizing Heat), this is not a great trend.
Back to the departure of Harden; people look at Houston and see the All-Star that he has become there(something he would have never become in Oklahoma) and everyone is happy. But the Thunder lost much much more than just a 3rd scoring option with his exit. They lost a second, smarter floor general. They lost someone who could change the game even MORE then Durant or Westbrook. They lost the knockout punch that followed the 1-2 punch of KD and RW. They lost someone who commanded double teams on a team with 2 perennial All-Stars. They lost someone who could score from outside, inside, get to the rim, draw fouls(he leads the league in free-throws attempted) and on a whole, be as important for the opposite defence to mark as KD and RW.
Don’t get me wrong, Kevin Martin is not a liability by any stretch. Coming off the bench, spotting up for the 3, the occasional backdoor and stretching the defence is a great thing he brings to the table but what he doesn’t bring far outweighs what he does. During the first half of the season, Durant and Westbrook shared the responsibility of the extra work needed among themselves. But that is a very dangerous strategy to be using during the playoffs when teams will be on them like white on rice. Serge Ibaka has started to shoot the corner 3 but that again isn’t going to be the staple. Coach Brooks has his work cut out for him and I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if he starts to ask Westbrook to start playing as a PG and not a 2-guard.
As of now, their energy seems a little low and they better pick their game up if they want to burn away the memory of the team dejected in defeat after last year’s promise filled Finals.