A week ago, observers wondered how anyone could beat the San Antonio Spurs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder had a simple solution: every important player on their team became significantly better.
Basketball numbers often lie, but in three critical cases, they tell most of the story of how the Thunder became San Antonio’s Kryptonite, and punched its first Finals ticket as a franchise since the Seattle Sonics broke through in 1996. Examine these three statistical trends.
Kevin Durant, Round 2: 26.8 ppg, 51.6% FG, 85.3% FT, 3.2 apg, 2.8 TO/g
Durant, Western Conference Finals: 29.5 ppg, 53.2% FG, 91.1% FT, 5.3 apg, 2.5 TO/g
James Harden, Round 2: 16.0 ppg, 35.8% FG, 92.5% FT, 25.0% 3PT, 2.2 apg, 2.0 TO/g
Harden, Western Conference Finals: 18.5 ppg, 49.3% FG, 80.6% FT, 60.9% 3PT (14-23), 3.7 apg, 1.8 TO/g
Serge Ibaka, Round 2: 8.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 46.8% FG, 0-1 FT, 4.0 bpg
Ibaka, Western Conference Finals: 12.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 60.0% FG (24-40), 82.4% FT (14-17), 2.8 bpg
It is probably not possible at this point to praise Durant too highly, as he put up these numbers while serving as his team’s most reliable rebounder and sitting out for 30 total minutes in the six-game Conference Finals series. His performance went from very good to great, but two of his teammates increased their efficiency enough to give the Thunder essentially twice as many viable scoring options.
For all the praise he’d drawn in the Thunder wins over the Mavericks and Lakers, Harden had shot poorly and done little besides score in the first two rounds. He reversed the trend with his performances in the last four games against San Antonio – all wins – which were relative models of efficiency.
Ibaka was even more impressive, morphing into an unstoppable midrange jump shooter who attacked the basket whenever slower defenders closed out on him.
All three players deserved every bit of acclaim they’ve received this week, but the real key to the Thunder’s change in fortunes came from the man whose numbers suggest a serious regression.
Russell Westbrook, Round 2: 25.6 ppg, 48.5% FG, 81.8% FT, 4.6 apg, 0.8 TO/g
Westbrook, Western Conference Finals: 18.2 ppg, 37.8% FG, 73.9% FT, 7.3 apg, 3.3 TO/g
Anyone who didn’t watch the games would conclude that Westbrook dominated the Lakers and disappeared against the Spurs, and that is why those numbers cannot fully be trusted. Westbrook came of age in this series, proving for now that the many things he brings to the table compensate for what he takes off.
If Westbrook were still monopolizing the ball to the extent he did at times in the 2011 postseason, his teammates would have been unable to step up their own offensive output as they did in Games 3-6 of this series. His growing unselfishness and recognition of how best to set up his running mates are as responsible as anything else for Oklahoma City’s march to the Finals.
After beating the Spurs in every conceivable way over the past four games, including tonight’s comeback from a deficit that grew as large as 18 points, the Thunder will enter the Finals favored over either Boston or Miami. If they can keep up their current level of play, they will justify every bit of that faith.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.