The Miami Heat hung tight through the first two quarters against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. In fact, with 9:28 left in the third quarter they were well within striking range, trailing 50-49.
Then Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Thunder offense woke up. All it took was four minutes and a 17-2 Thunder run and the Heat didn't stand a chance. Behind Westbrook's 13 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds, the Thunder easily handled the Heat in a 99-74 thumping.
Durant added 24 points and 10 rebounds and Serge Ibaka had 19 points as the Thunder joined the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs as the only teams in the league with 30 wins. Thanks to an offense clicking on all cylinders, the Thunder are looking more and more like a team that could challenge the Warriors and Spurs out West.
Since falling to 11-8 on Dec. 3 after losing two in a row to the Atlanta Hawks and the Heat, the Thunder have gone 19-4. They've been as good as nearly every team in the league other than the San Antonio Spurs, who, at 20-3, are better over their past 23 games. The Warriors are 19-4, too.
The Thunder are catching up to the Warriors and Spurs because thanks mostly to an offense that is starting to discover its identity as a wonderfully erratic unit that can attack in so many different ways. With Westbrook at the helm, there's absolutely no time to relax defensively. Westrook dished out 15 assists against the Heat, and on more than one occasion it was because the Heat were being lazy.
On the above play, he made eye contact with Steven Adams and that was it. They simply changed gears and the Heat failed to react. Then he found Andre Roberson because Dwyane Wade fell asleep on a backdoor.
Part of this is the Heat are playing lackadaisical defense, but part of it is that Westbrook and the Thunder can go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye.
Oklahoma City is establishing themselves as a contender in the West because of it. In the first 19 games of the season, the Thunder had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 106.8 and a defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions) of 100.7. In the 23 games since, their offensive rating has ballooned up to 111.7 while the defense has improved slightly, to 99.8. Their net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) of +11.8 is second-best in the NBA since Dec. 5, trailing only the Spurs and their preposterous net rating of +19.
The Heat, meanwhile, have lost five of their last seven games and looked lost against the Thunder. Hassan Whiteside had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks and Wade added 22 points, but the team could get nothing going offensively -- 74 was their lowest point total this season.
The Thunder are just getting started. At 30-12, they are likely out of the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.
All the talk has been about the Spurs, Warriors and Cavaliers. But since early December, the Thunder have been playing as if they belong in the conversation.
1 thing we learned
The San Antonio Spurs defense is rude.
We already knew this much, but it's getting out of hand. With an offensive rating of 102.4, the Dallas Mavericks have the 12th-best offense in the NBA. That wasn't the case against the top-rated defense of the Spurs, who blew out Dallas 112-83. The Spurs held the Mavericks to 56 points through the first three quarters -- the Mavericks picked up 27 points in fourth quarter garbage time. What they're doing defensively is unfair to the rest of the league. The Mavericks, who normally shoot 43.9 percent from the field, were a miserable 35.8 percent on Sunday. Dirk Nowitzki had four points on 2-of-10 shooting as only two Mavericks scored in double figures. The Spurs' defensive rating of 93.3 is more than five points per 100 possessions better than the second-best team in the league.
And with LaMarcus Aldridge ready to take over offensively with Kawhi Leonard -- Aldridge had 23 points and Leonard had 15 -- the Spurs are looking better and better. They've now won 11 in a row and 18 of their last 19 and still haven't lost at home, winning 33 regular season games in a row in San Antonio. They're only two games back of the Warriors. That matchup on Jan. 25 can't come soon enough.
Play of the night
Boban Marjanovic is such a fan favorite in San Antonio thanks to his impressive play and his massive hands that people are getting his likeness etched into their hair. Now, he's just being evil on the basketball court. The stare down after is what's getting the most attention, but the most impressive part of this play might be that Marjanovic is still holding onto the rim when he lands. Wow.