6 min read

Wednesday Bolts: 1.2.19

Marc Stein (New York Times) on the Thunder being the biggest threat to Golden State in the Western Conference: “Houston has risen from a nightmarish 14th in the West to No. 5 entering 2019, but the Rockets have essentially needed James Harden to score 40 points a night to do so. Can Harden realistically keep that up and still have something left in May and June?  With Utah still falling well short of preseason expectations and Denver difficult to endorse as a credible contender considering that these Nuggets have no playoff experience, Oklahoma City looms as the West resident with the best shot at derailing the Warriors from a fifth consecutive trip to the N.B.A. finals. Chances are it still won’t be enough to topple the Warriors, but the Thunder do boast the league’s No. 1-ranked defense and two of the game’s top 15 (or so) players with Russell Westbrook and a better-than-ever Paul George.”

Jared Dubin (Step Back) on the OKC defense making them a contender: “Of course, it’s not just as simple as playing different guys. The guys you do play have to execute the scheme. And these guys are doing that incredibly well. What the Thunder want to do more than anything else is cut off access to the basket, and this team has done a better job of that than almost any other team in the league. The average team drives from the perimeter to the rim 42.6 times per game, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com. The Thunder, despite playing the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA, allow just 39.0 drives per game, per the same data set. When opponents do break through and get to the rim, the Thunder have done an excellent job challenging the attempts there, allowing a conversion rate south of 61 percent on at-rim attempts, the seventh-best mark in the NBA. Having Adams or Grant or Noel on the floor at almost all times tends to help there.”

Sam Amick (The Athletic) on Paul George reaching his peak: “By George, after so many people thought he was crazy for re-signing rather than heading for Laker Land, that narrative is changing. Not only did he come back for more after that six-game Jazz series in which offensive balance was still in short supply, but he did so on a four-year deal (player option in the fourth season) that had everything to do with his confidence in Westbrook and everyone else in this Thunder operation. And now, with Westbrook struggling with his shot but still on pace to average a triple-double for the third consecutive season and George looking worthy of MVP consideration, there are substantive signs that the pairing is more balanced and selfless than ever. Reminder: We’re grading on a curve here, but this is a wholly different dynamic than before.”

Michael Shapiro (SI) on Paul George’s case for MVP: “George has melded his terrific offensive season with his typical defensive stoutness. He’s an opportunistic swiper when sagging off his assignment, yet he’s still comfortable guarding the league’s top wing scorers. George’s length is a serious problem. There are few shots he can’t impact. The Thunder still won’t be considered threats to Golden State until they actually take down the champs, and while Oklahoma City could grab a top-three seed in the West, they aren’t on track for a Rockets-esque 60-win campaign. George is peaking in year two with the Thunder, and has an outside shot at the MVP if the leaders slip. George’s Indiana ending was ugly, but his bromance with Westbrook has made for an ideal second marriage.”

Brett Dawson (The Athletic) on Russell Westbrook and the Thunder looking for their shooting stroke: “With no path to the rim, Westbrook launched from the midrange and beyond in Sunday’s loss, clanking jumpers from inside and outside the arc, misfiring on all eight of his 3-point attempts. He didn’t make a triple on Monday either, but shot just one. But he made a living in the midrange, the way he so often has over the course of a career in which defenses frequently have chosen to force him there, rather than let him destroy them at the rim. He’ll have to keep doing it.”

Royce Young (ESPN) on how Westbrook’s roller-coaster offense isn’t slowing down the Thunder: “But even as George scales the roster hierarchy, the heartbeat of the team remains OKC’s former MVP, albeit one still trying to strike a new balance after possessing an irrevocable hall pass the past two seasons. After posting usage rates as high as 40 percent in his MVP campaign and 32.5 percent last season, his usage rate is at 29.1 percent this season, his lowest mark since the 2009-10 campaign. Westbrook has worked to refine and adjust his approach this season, and it has not been without its bumps. It’s for the greater good, tipping the scales of the roster a bit in the meantime, but once — or maybe, if — it all eventually aligns, the Thunder will really have something. Westbrook’s career has been about conquering inconsistencies, overcoming inefficiencies and filling the gaps to make up for what he lacks. The harder something is and the more he’s doubted, the more he responds.”

Erik Horne (Oklahoman) on Abdel Nader’s utility in OKC: “It’s been less than a handful of games, but Nader’s hard work with the G League Oklahoma City Blue and the Thunder prepared him to quickly fill in – whether it’s for Alex Abrines, who’s missed the last four games due to illness and a personal matter; for Terrance Ferguson, who was throwing up behind the Thunder’s bench against Phoenix; or for Patrick Patterson, who struggled with his shot and defense in December until the final week. In his last four games, Nader has averaged 7.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game while shooting 38.5 percent (5-of-13) from 3-point range. Notice the contrast in positions. Abrines and Ferguson are lanky shooting guards at 6-6 and 6-7. Patterson is a 6-9 power forward. When the Thunder acquired the 6-6, 225-pound Nader from Boston for Rodney Purvis, it was the completion of the deal which sent the 7-foot Dakari Johnson to Orlando. It provided the Thunder with a multi-positional player instead of a one-role center.”

Jordan Brand offers an in-depth look at the Jordan Why Not Zer0.2: “When it came to this design, Westbrook said he wanted a shoe that was created specifically to harness his game rather than follow any current style trends. “From the first design meeting we had, my number one priority was making the best performance basketball shoe possible. I knew that if it was authentic to me then it would come out great,” he says. “That’s what the Why Not? mentality is all about: Doing you regardless of what people think and being confident in who you are.” Unsurprisingly, the final result still manages to embody Westbrook’s signature Why Not? fashion sense.”

Nick DePaula (ESPN) on Westbrook being too unique for Jordan Brand: “The footwear industry didn’t need just another signature sneaker. Russell Westbrook, who reinvented the arena walk-in with his daring fashion, didn’t want just any other shoe with his name attached. The starting point for his newest signature sneaker, the Jordan Why Not Zer0.2, was simple: Be anything but simple. “To have my own line, and to be creative in building it, is taking a step in an impossible zone,” Westbrook said. “I’m going to keep trying to create distinction while doing it.” With quirky cues, nontraditional color accents and sloping contours, the shoe is unmistakably created through the lens of Russ. He’ll debut the lead OKC-themed colorway in front of childhood friends and family members Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers.”

Joey Ramirez (Lakers.com) discusses tonight’s Thunder/Lakers showdown at Staples Center: “The Thunder lead the NBA in defensive rating, as they play airtight and opportunistic ball on that side of the floor. In fact, Oklahoma City — which also leads all teams in steals — is coming off a 20-point win over Dallas, in which it forced a franchise-record 29 turnovers. The Thunder’s stars have been at the forefront of this, as Russell Westbrook leads the NBA in steals, while Paul George is second. And both are among the league’s best on the other side as well. Westbrook also leads the league in assists and, improbably, is on pace to average a triple-double for the third straight season. Meanwhile, George is a top-10 scorer and top-five 3-point shooter, who has two 40-point outings in his last six games.”

Around the League: LeBron is still recovering from his groin injury…. Enes Kanter is unhappy in New York…. Recapping yesterday’s NBA action…. Will DeMarcus Cousins consider re-signing with the Warriors?…. NBA trade rumors…. The best and worst teams in December.