Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder Ready To Run West

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 27: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks to the bench after hitting a key three-point shot against the Denver Nuggets in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2011 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

KD was unstoppable against the Nuggets, but Oklahoma City's improved defense is what makes this team a real title contender.

The 2011 NBA Playoffs have been chock full of statements, from Chris Paul to Derrick Rose, from Frank Vogel to Brandon Roy, from the Memphis Grizzlies to Kobe Bryant, from the Boston Celtics to the Miami Heat. But no entity -- team, player, coach or meme -- had as eye-opening a first round series as the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Kevin Durant dropped 41 points on Wednesday to lead the Thunder to a clinching victory over the Denver Nuggets. It was Durant's second 40-point performance of the series, and yes, that's rare. It was last done in 2009; LeBron James ripped off three 40-point games against the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Kobe Bryant had two against the Nuggets. Prior to that, it hadn't been done since Dwyane Wade in the 2006 NBA Finals. It's quite a collection of scorers KD joined.

Durant's first-round numbers are off the charts beyond the 32 points per game. Per Basketball Reference, his True Shooting percentage against Denver was .628 (ultra-elite, especially considering the high volume of shots he took), he had just seven turnovers all series; a combination of those numbers gave Durant an offensive rating of 133, which means if you give KD 100 possessions, you'll get 133 points out of it. The league average is 107.

But as exciting and efficient as Durant has been, the reason Oklahoma City looks ready to tear down the Western Conference is because of their defense.

The Thunder's defense was mediocre during the regular season, just No. 15 in the league. The Nuggets' offense ranked No. 1, scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions -- better than the Spurs, Lakers, Suns or Heat. You would have expected Denver to push Oklahoma City by scoring efficiently with consistency, and by forcing the Thunder to beat them by outscoring them. But that didn't happen: Oklahoma City's defense stepped up.

 

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The Nuggets never once reached their season average during the Thunder series, and only twice (in the Game 1 heartstopper and the Game 4 home win) broke even the NBA's regular season average. The Nuggets had the very best offense in the entire league in the regular season, an offense that kept up after the midseason trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, and the fairly maligned Oklahoma City defense stopped it.

Durant led the defensive renewal; he was everywhere he needed to be for much of the series. While he's always had solid defensive tools (minus strength), he usually put it together for only possessions or stretches at a time. He put it together for a whole series. The presence of Kendrick Perkins was a real boon, of course; Nene shot 61 percent in the regular season and just 48 percent against the Thunder.

Perhaps no player has been more important to Oklahoma City's defensive turnaround to date than Serge Ibaka, the man who was freed by the Jeff Green-for-Perkins trade. Ibaka had 24 blocks against Denver, almost five per game. He blocked 12 percent of all Nuggets' shots when on the court -- and keep in mind that Denver takes plenty of three-pointers. For perspective's sake, Ibaka's 24 blocks leads the next highest playoff contestant by 11 -- almost double -- yet Serge has fewer minutes played than anyone else in the top five.

Oklahoma City's offense, led by Durant and made spectacular by Russell Westbrook and James Harden, is the engine of this team, the reason the Thunder are here. The team's defense was seen as an internal hurdle the Thunder had to overcome to survive. After watching Oklahoma City suffocate the best offense in league, that's no longer the reality on the ground. The Thunder are putting it together, and they have the best shot at taking down the Lakers and making it to the NBA Finals.

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