You Can't Accuse the Thunder of Giving Up
OKC earned its third win in 27 games against Toronto on Friday as the Raps played awful on offense. But Sunday's loss to the visiting Cavaliers seemed more telling. For all but a two-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter, the Thunder quite nearly played Cleveland evenly, despite killer shot-making by Delonte West and Mo Williams as well as another 30-point game from LeBron James. Late in the third, Cleveland turned a four-point lead into a 10-point margin and held that spread through the fourth.
But the fantastic thing -- the factor which kept OKC in closer proximity than most far superior Cleveland opponents -- is that the young Thunder players never quit.
Durant, Westbrook and Green have a tremendous chemistry on the court. Obviously, it rarely registers in the win column and often not even in the box score. But that's a youth and talent issue. Westbrook is playing true point guard for the first time since high school, which means he's playing true point guard for the first time ever. Green is learning how to subjugate his talents for the cause of increased versatility and team benefit. At Georgetown, the highly structured Princeton offense forced Green to be a playmaker on every possession. Alongside Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder need Green to be more of a Shawn Marion at times, a Scottie Pippen at other moments. Green has become a shooter, a board-crasher, a ball-mover, a wingman. It's a big jump, perhaps as great the leap from college combo guard to NBA point guard.
And Durant, of course, still must be the best player on a terrible team in a city that's never had a professional major league franchise. Durant has to be a messiah. He seems to relish the role, and relish his relationship with his teammates. Durant cannot relax, because there is Westbrook stabbing for a steal. Durant can't give up on a play after an errant shot, because there is Green crashing the offensive glass. It works inverted as well: every time the Thunder seemed on their way toward ignominious 20-point defeat, Durant hit a silky jumper or picked LeBron's pocket or zipped from midcourt to the rim faster than an Andretti. By mutual collusion, the Thunder refused to allow obliteration.
It's a minor victory, of course: the Cavs won by 11, and OKC sits at 3-25. The team is still on pace for the worst single-season NBA record ever. But the shimmer of hope, a fistful of spirit remain, with every Westbrook assist and Green three and Durant dunk. In a few years, opponents will long for 2008, when OKC represented an easy mark. This team, meek as it seems, travels on the path toward respectability. Patience will be required, but almost certainly rewarded.