NBA Daily: Thunder are Putting the West on Notice

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To say the Oklahoma City Thunder got off to a rough start this season would be a bit of an understatement. Coming into the season, they were projected to be a probable title contender and Sam Presti was being lauded as the early favorite for Executive of the Year. Instead, they started off 8-12 in their first 20 games and had two small losing streaks of four and three games.

December has been a very kind month for the Thunder, however. They started off the month with three straight wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Utah Jazz, all quality opponents. The Spurs and Wolves are top four record-wise in the Western Conference and the Jazz are fighting for the eighth seed.

In total, they’ve only lost three times this month. Including their most recent win, Christmas Day against the Houston Rockets, they’re riding a five-game win streak. The win over the Rockets was arguably their biggest win of the season. It’s the type of win that could really catapult a team to a higher level.

The signs were very encouraging. Their big three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony combined to score 75 points. They all shot over 50 percent from the field. Westbrook also dished out 11 assists. Andre Roberson, who has been crucified in the public this season, proved why he is so valuable to the team. He came up with the biggest play of the night, a blocked shot on James Harden to prevent a game-tying three. He then sprinted down court and received a pass from Westbrook for a layup to put the game away.

The last member of the starting lineup, Steven Adams, was his usual brilliant self. He was a force in the paint with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocked shots. It didn’t matter that Chris Paul didn’t play for the Rockets. He missed a good chunk of the start of the season and the Rockets were still clicking on all cylinders and rolling over teams.

While they’re still a work in progress, Westbrook, George, and Anthony have all looked more comfortable with each other. They appear as if they’re all beginning to figure out their roles in the offense. Adams, and yes, Roberson, are great compliments to the Big 3. The starting lineup will work itself out, but where the Thunder could look to use some more improvement is the bench.

To compete with top teams like the Rockets, Spurs, and Golden State Warriors, the Thunder will need solid play off the bench. Each of those teams are deep and they get strong bench play night in and night out. While it was enough to hold off Houston, the Thunder really only got solid minutes from Jerami Grant in the second unit. Grant has probably been the Thunder’s most consistent bench guy.

Patrick Patterson, one of the Thunder’s prized offseason acquisitions, has been very inconsistent. He’s averaging career-lows in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. Against the Rockets, he played only nine minutes and missed the only shot he took. However, a few games back against the New York Knicks, he had his best game of the season with 12 points, five rebounds, and 4-6 shooting from three-point range. They’ll need similar production out of him as the season goes on.

The Thunder will also need some more production out of Raymond Felton and Josh Huestis. The two of them, along with Grant and Patterson, make up the bulk of the Thunder’s second unit. During this five-game win streak, the Thunder have received strong play from this group. They’ll need more of it going forward to keep up this momentum.

This team was always going to need some time to gel. To this point, both Anthony and George have been accustomed to being the focal point of an offense. Both players are talented enough and smart enough that it was only a matter of time before they figured it out.

As it stands, the Thunder currently occupy the fifth seed in the West. They’re half a game up on the Denver Nuggets and one and a half games back of the Wolves for fourth. Barring a major collapse from one of the top three teams, it’s unlikely the Thunder catch the Rockets, Warriors, or Spurs. A top-four finish and home court in the first round is not out of the question, however. That’s a far cry from where the Thunder were one month ago.

The Wolves have also been playing well as of late. They’re 7-3 in their last ten games. The Thunder are 1-2 so far against the Wolves this season, with only one game left in the season series on Jan. 10. Although it’s still early in the season, it’s a game that might end up having major implications later on.

In any case, it appears as if the Thunder have finally begun to put it all together. They are looking more and more like the team that many expected them to be. Can they figure it all out in time to mount a serious challenge to Warriors, Rockets, or Spurs? That remains to be seen. But as it stands, they’re starting to put the rest of the West on notice.