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Who’s James Harden?

Posted By Steven Jones On Nov 11 2012 @ 9:30 pm In Oklahoma City Thunder | No Comments

The Oklahoma City Thunder lived up to expectations by easily defeating the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night, using a 19-8 burst at the start of the fourth quarter to extend a lead that they never relinquished.

The game mostly served to showcase the Thunder’s capacity for explosion. It is worth highlighting two of the weapons that sparked this particular outburst, since they have been oddly overlooked – oddly, because the men who wield those weapons are two of the most beloved and dissected in the NBA community.

Most NBA fans know Kevin Durant as a superlative shooter and Russell Westbrook as a freakish athlete. It is time for those fans to diversify their perceptions. Recognizing Westbrook’s shooting touch and Durant’s athletic prowess takes patience and observation, but it goes a long way toward explaining exactly what sets the Thunder duo apart from other talented young players.

Begin with Westbrook, whose physical gifts are second perhaps only to LeBron James among NBA players – and, perhaps, all professional athletes. The UCLA product has taken superb care of his incredibly durable body, but deserves far more credit for developing a weapon to complement his attacks on the hoop.

That weapon is a devastating pull-up jump shot from either elbow, launched after one or two hard dribbles in halfcourt sets, or at the end of a few strides in transition. Last season, it seemed hard to believe that opponents hadn’t scouted Westbrook specifically enough to plan for his pull-up, but watching him dissect the Cleveland defense made it clear that recognizing his go-to move does little good, because his off-the-dribble attack remains so devastating thanks to his aforementioned otherworldly athleticism.

Tonight, Westbrook even showcased a once-in-a-blue-moon outside touch, hitting four three-pointers in a second-half stretch that included two catch-and-shoot triples (normally a 20 percent or less proposition for him) and a buzzer-beating 40-footer to end the third period.

Westbrook entered the contest shooting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc, and he seems unlikely to replicate tonight’s performance on a regular basis. As long as he keeps his midrange pull-up, though, he doesn’t need much more than a respectable three-point touch.

His running mate has earned a reputation for having a touch that is far more than “respectable.” “Dangerous” or “deadly” might better describe Durant’s long-distance stroke, now known around the world thanks to two summers spent devastating international opponents on various U.S. national teams.

Durant’s off-the-dribble game, though, deserves much more credit, and might be even more unique than his marksmanship. There haven’t been many forwards in NBA history who could shoot like Durant, but there may never have been a 6-10 (at least) athlete with Durant’s wingspan, speed, and attacking mentality in transition. He needs no more than three dribbles to get from halfcourt to the basket when moving at full speed, and his reach and agility make it almost impossible to impede his path. LeBron may be slightly scarier when bearing down on the hoop, but Durant is more graceful.

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