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OKC Thunder Look Poised To Take The Next Step

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The Oklahoma City Thunder kicked off their season last night with an impressive 106-95 victory over the Chicago Bulls at home.  Kevin Durant scored 30 points last night and received support from Russell Westbrook who finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds and Jeff Green who added 21 points. 

While it's foolish to draw conclusions just one game into the season it is impossible to not gush over this Thunder team that has quickly developed into one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league.  Led by Durant who has emerged as the league's most popular player following the aftermath of "The Decision", Oklahoma City looks poised and ready to become a Western Conference powerhouse.

Durant enters his fourth season with great expectations on his shoulders.  He is the early season MVP favorite and looks likely to repeat as scoring champion again this year.  It is easy to appreciate and be amazed at how advanced his offensive game is for a 21 year old, with an ability to take the ball to rim and hit shots from anywhere on the perimeter effectively both off the bounce or in catch and shoot situations.  What elevates Durant to an MVP-type level is his willingness and desire to compete on the defensive end even when he is struggling offensively.

This exactly what was on display all night as Durant struggled with his shot all night due to the Bulls' suffocating defense on him.  Durant had to work for his points and only shot 9-24 from the field, but was able get to the free throw line on 13 occasions last night, converting on 11 of his opportunities.  What really stood out about his performance was on the defensive end

Durant's wingspan gives him the advantage of playing the passing lanes while being able to recover in time to defend his opponent. He did this to great affect last night resulting in 3 steals on the night, including two in the fourth quarter when the game was in the balance that resulted in a pair of easy transition baskets for the Thunder.  Durant's man-to-man defense has also improved dramatically over the course of the past year.

Luol Deng had the misfortune of being matched up with Durant and while, as I mentioned above, he did have success in making the Durantula work for his points he felt the affect of his suffocating defense.  Deng finished with 13 points on 13 shots and struggled to create enough separation from Durant most of the night to create open looks.

It's easy to wax poetic about Durant who's gifts have been apparent since his arrival in the NBA, but the player who's emergence is essential for the Thunder to improve on last season's results is Russell Westbrook.

The Thunder were able to push the Lakers to 6 games in the first round last year not because Durant carried them, but because Westbrook absolutely terrorized Derek Fisher.  It became such a mismatch that the Lakers were forced to switch Kobe on to Westbrook after the first four games in order to slow him down.

Westbrook now must prove that he can sustain that level of play for a full season and his summer with Team USA looks to have gone a long way in helping him achieve that. 

Westbrook was electric last night.  He scored efficiently, taking only 15 shots to get to his 28 points and was able to make Derrick Rose work all night on both ends of the floor.  He was the best player on the floor and on most nights that happens, the Thunder will be victorious.  If Westbrook can play at an All-Star level all year, it will give the Thunder a true complement to Durant and will create matchup problems for teams around the league with his ability to get into the lane and finish or create for others. 

While both Westbrook and Durant have emerged as elite defenders at their positions, Thabo Sefolosha anchors the defense with his propensity for playing the passing lanes, blocking shots and locking down the opposing team's best perimeter scorer.  Serge Ibaka also provides another defensive presence off the bench with his knack for blocking shots and being a pest defensively.

Both James Harden and Eric Maynor are second year players who's development will be imperative for an OKC team who's main weakness last season was their lack of depth.  Harden struggled with his shot last year and must improve on that to alleviate the scoring burden on Durant, Westbrook and Green.  He did flash the ability to be a game changer off the bench at times last year, particularly in the playoffs at home against the Lakers. 

Maynor's continued growth as a backup point guard will help the Thunder's second unit operate offensively.  If he can score efficiently as he did yesterday only taking 3 shots for his 10 points it will give the Thunder a much needed boost. 

Certainly this team has weaknesses that must be addressed, mainly there lack of size inside (Cole Aldrich's progression is vital) and perimeter shooting.  The foundation however is solid and with another year of experience under their belts the youth movement that GM Sam Presti totally invested in may pay off sooner rather with the Thunder looking like they are ready to build on last season's achievements rather than stagnate in their development.