Once in a while, the Kevin Durant – Russell Westbrook combo isn’t only about outscoring their opponents, but about playing excellent defense for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Yes, Russell Westbrook and defense. No, he hasn’t turned into Gary Payton all of a sudden, shutting down opposing guards by not leaving their sight all night and still having the energy to post 20-10 on the other side. Westbrook is never going to be a shut down defender, and few truly great offensive point guards are. Westbrook, however, does have games in which he actually puts in enough of an effort and energy to make life difficult for the player(s) he’s guarding.
It didn’t even come at a cost on the other side of the ball – Westbrook finished with 23 points and 7 assists, leading the Thunder in scoring to a 104-92 win over the Toronto Raptors, remaining as the team with the best record in the West. Kevin Durant followed with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kevin Martin also scored in double figures.
But the Thunder didn’t win because of the good passing, or not mostly because of it. They won, yes boys and girls, because of defense. Kendrick Perkins posts awful numbers, but he’s one of the few players who doesn’t translate well into statistics,unless you start counting the number of times he switches well on pick n’ rolls, changes shots and blocks the lane for guards to penetrate. Serge Ibaka is the umbrella for blocks, but Perkins, against most opponents, is the man who provided the big body and the smart steps to block penetrations into the lane.
This is the most consistent part of the Thunder’s defense. The one you can expect to see on most night. Russell Westbrook actually not falling asleep and giving up on plays, remaining concentrated on the weak side and off the ball? That deserves mentioning, and even some praise. Westbrook led his team with 3 steals, as the Thunder scored 17 points on fast breaks and 23 in total off the Raptors’ turnovers.
These are, with no disrespecting the lately not too bad Raptors, the easy games for the Thunder. Against the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, all the Western teams seem to be having a ball. The important thing isn’t just padding up your stat numbers but showing and adding things to your game. Kevin Durant can win the scoring title if he plays a bit more selfishly, but it seems this season is about improving the all-around game as well.
Durant is averaging 28.2 points to go with his 7.8 rebounds and most surprisingly, a career high in assists so far with 4.2 per game, and suddenly becoming one of those guys that can finish with a triple double by mistake, after usually being the last stop in any type of offense. His defense has improved as well, which like Westbrook has become a much more active part of his game, taking less plays off.
Maybe it’s because of the winning runs, but it probably has to do with more than just a good mood. Westbrook, Durant, the Thunder, are destined for greatness, or at least be around the big games in the NBA’s title deciding moments for the near future. You don’t get there by just staying in the same place, while the others improve.