Don’t look now, but the Thunder are everything we thought they’d be and more. They’re a legitimate contender in the Western Conference and have become a dominant force league-wide.
Since Dec. 1, the Thunder are 20-8 with the fifth-best net rating in the league — plus-4.5. When they have their starting five of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, and Carmelo Anthony on the floor, they’re a whopping 15-0, as noted by ESPN’s Royce Young. That lineup has a net rating of 20.9 in that same time span.
So what’s changed for the Thunder since then? A lot of people will direct you to their offense and Westbrook’s return to his MVP form. But even when they were down earlier in the year, their defense is what propped them up. Now that they’ve hit their stride on offense, their defense is taking them to new heights.
The Thunder’s defense is suffocating
The Thunder’s 102.9 defensive rating is good for No. 5 in the league this season. Even when they’re not hitting shots, they’re not allowing their opponents to either. But when they are hitting shots? They might be flat out unstoppable.
That’s how the Thunder bested the Wizards on Thursday night. Though Washington ended the game with 112 points, the Thunder held their lead wire to wire because of two runs they opened up at the beginning of the first and second quarters with their defense.
They hustled on every play and contested every shot — even the ones that should’ve been easy for Washington.
They show that same effort on every play, but it’s also calculated, too. They know how the floor is spaced and know when they have their opponent beat. They force you to the baseline or sideline and use their length to make difficult passing lanes murkier than they already are.
Look at Westbrook and Steven Adams trap Bradley Beal here.
And look at how low they get in their defensive stances — they know where Beal’s only options are and they soundly take them away.
That’s incredible defensive pressure and length and opponents are seeing it on every possession. When you combine that skill along with their size and effort, they turn into a menacing force that can stop any offense in the NBA on any given night.
They’re a real contender in the Western Conference now
It isn’t reflected in the standings at this point, but the Thunder have to be taken seriously. Their defense is stifling and they’ve got one of the more talented starting lineups in the league. Westbrook is a walking bucket, George is a stifling two-way wing who is leading the league in steals, and Anthony has found his way as a slasher and a shooter on offense.
They’re a tough team to guard in the halfcourt — but when they’re forcing turnovers? Good luck. Westbrook on the break is unstoppable. And if you manage to stop him, you’ve got Adams ready to clean things up while Anthony and George are trailing the play.
The Thunder have the second-best record in the league since Dec. 1, and they’re for real. You might not take them seriously now, but they’re going to give teams in the Western Conference a tough run come playoff time.