The Oklahoma City Thunder are becoming an enigma in the NBA this season. Despite a record of 42-19 in the Western Conference, they have regularly drawn criticisms for their deficiencies and inconsistent form.
So how far can the Thunder go this season?
Oklahoma City’s demoralising defeats to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday and the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night have displayed everything that is good and bad about the team at present.
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They have played as well as any team against the reigning champions, yet trail the season series 0-2 against them.
They should’ve won the home encounter last weekend but quite literally threw the game away in the dying seconds as Kevin Durant made a costly turnover which again, allowed Steph Curry to steal the headlines.
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Up until that point, Durant put on a clinic and looked to have sealed the win with a difficult 3-pointer down the stretch. Offensively, the Thunder were a force that Golden State struggled to contend with.
Against the Clippers last night, they led by as many as 22 points and by 17 going into the fourth quarter, but once again, their inability to close the game out came back to haunt them.
The Clippers outscored the Thunder 35-13 in the fourth quarter and went on a 26-5 run in the final 7:25 to seal the win.
Offence has never been a problem for this team; they are one of the best offensive teams in the league. Their problem lies on the other end of the floor.
If the team were as engaged defensively as they are offensively, they would be regarded as serious title contenders and arguably, the biggest threat to the Warriors.
For teams chasing a championship though, playing just one end of the floor won’t get it done.
Their defensive efforts this season have been below the standard required to compete with the elite teams in the league, who they will be hoping to face in the latter stages of the playoffs.
They have lost five of their seven games since the All-Star break, which included defeats to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors and now the Clippers.
One of those defeats also came against the injury-plagued New Orleans Pelicans, who put up 123 points on the Thunder, despite averaging 102 points per game.
The team has given up around 109 points per game during their recent seven-game stretch. They have looked disengaged and disinterested on defence, which is a major worry for the team.
Speaking after the loss to the Clippers last night, Durant said they are "fooling themselves" if they think they can achieve something playing as they are currently.
"We want to be a great team. We're fooling ourselves," Durant said on Wednesday night, via ESPN.
"If we just want to be a great team, the way we're playing, we're fooling ourselves. We want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, that's cool, but we're fooling ourselves with the way we're playing."
Oklahoma City are one of the most dynamic and athletic teams in the league, led by their superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With those two on the court, they can beat anybody.
Durant and Westbrook remain the best scoring duo in the NBA and one of the best scoring partnerships in NBA history, ranking alongside the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen from the legendary Chicago Bulls team.
The biggest problem for the team and the franchise as a whole, however, has been finding a third scoring option after the big two.
Since the departure of James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012, OKC have struggled to find another scorer to complement Durant and Westbrook and lead their bench as Harden did so well during his three-year spell, winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in the process.
Kevin Martin was the player OKC received in the Harden trade but his stint in Oklahoma City didn’t last long and he moved on in free agency soon after.
The franchise had high hopes that Reggie Jackson would develop and fill the role after they drafted him, but after growing frustrated playing third fiddle, he subsequently requested a trade and is now reaping the rewards playing an integral role leading the Detroit Pistons.
Dion Waiters, who was acquired from the Cavaliers last year, is currently the guard they look to for scoring off the bench, a plan that is'nt having the desired effect. Waiters is currently playing with no confidence and his lack of production is hurting the Thunder.
One man who is providing some much-needed bench scoring for the team is Enes Kanter, who is averaging 12 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season and has turned into a valuable player leading the team’s second unit.
At this moment, there aren’t many people who would bet on the Thunder beating the San Antonio Spurs and the Warriors to reach the NBA Finals as they have a lot of work to do to overcome one, let alone both of those teams.
They certainly have the talent, but with a rookie coach in Billy Donovan, it may take more than one season for him to get the best out of his team and implement his methods. But, the Thunder may not have more than one season, with Durant’s free agency looming in the summer and the uncertainty that will bring on the future of the organisation.
Also speaking to reporters after the loss to the Clippers, Donovan said he wants the Thunder to hold themselves accountable and figure out what kind of team they want to be.
"I think the biggest thing is, the decision we have to make collectively as a group from an accountability standpoint is, what kind of team do we want to be?" Donovan said via ESPN.
"Because in order to do that, there has to be a high level of sacrifice by everybody."
The keys to success for OKC will lie on them tightening up on defence, limiting their turnovers, closing out games and finding scoring outside of Durant and Westbrook.
With the business end of the season upon them, and with Durant openly cutting a frustrated figure at present, the time is now for the Thunder to find their identity and challenge the heavyweights in the west.
The talent is there; they have the pieces to the puzzle. But, can Donovan put them together?