OKLAHOMA CITY — The difference between the two visits the Golden State Warriors made here last season and the one they made Wednesday were easy to see. Gone was the cauldron of intensity and anger that awaited the Warriors — and, specifically, former favorite son Kevin Durant. In its place was a more typical — though still vocal — home fan base.
Part of that change undeniably can be traced to the simple passage of time, which allows for the memories from Durant’s eight spectacular seasons here to transcend the bitterness associated with his departure. But a larger part comes from the obvious differences in the team Durant left behind a year ago to the one that resides here today — differences that were obvious to anyone watching Wednesday night as the Thunder routed the Warriors, 108-91, in front of a sellout crowd here at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Gone are the days when the Thunder and Warriors would step on the court with Golden State holding a massive talent advantage. Thanks to the arrival of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in a pair of blockbuster trades this offseason, the Thunder can now credibly claim to have as much firepower as any team in the league — or, at least, any team this side of the Warriors.
The proof came on the court Wednesday night. Last season, Oklahoma City got trounced the four times it played Golden State, looking as if it had no business being on the same court with the Warriors. And, from a talent perspective, it didn’t.
But now they do, and they showed as much in this one. Westbrook’s name will be who NBA fans around the country will be discussing as they sit down to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, both for his forehead-to-forehead jawing match with Durant in the third quarter and for his spectacular line of 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 37 minutes.
The difference between this year’s Thunder team and last year’s, though, is that last year the focus was on Westbrook. Now, with George (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Anthony (22 points) playing alongside him, Oklahoma City can do more than just give the ball to Westbrook and get out of the way.
And that’s why the Thunder have a chance to be a contender in the Western Conference this season, instead of the one-man sideshow they were a year ago.
“First and foremost, this was a great team win, a great team victory,” Anthony said. “I think tonight shows who we can be, who we want to be, and who we think we can be. We did it for a full game, rather than a half or a quarter. We put together a full game.
“Tonight is our identity, and who we want to be.”
Coming into this game, the Thunder found itself in a rut. It had lost six of its previous nine games — with five of those losses coming after losing a double-digit lead.
But it should be pointed out that Oklahoma City’s underlying metrics — the Thunder rank 16th in offense, third in defense and fifth in net rating — are right in line with those of the Boston Celtics (besides the clutch statistics, of course, in which the Celtics have led the league).
In other words: The Thunder are every bit the team they were expected to be. George – who was terrific Wednesday night, coming up with 10 of Oklahoma City’s 27 deflections – and Anthony give the Thunder the kind of dynamism at both ends it used to have when Westbrook and Durant were tearing the opposition apart during their eight years together.
Westbrook may have ridden that solo act to a historic season, becoming the first player to average a triple-double in over a half century and winning the league’s MVP award, but Oklahoma City never had a chance to be a truly competitive team. That showed in their four blowout losses to the Warriors, and especially showed in their five-game loss to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. So Thunder General Manager Sam Presti pulled off two stunning trades – landing George on the eve of free agency, and then Anthony on the eve of training camp.
“The effort, the intensity, the way we played … that’s how we need to play,” Thunder Coach Billy Donovan said.
There are still issues. Patrick Patterson, brought in to be a key piece this summer, has been a non-factor. Oklahoma City is still trying to sort out the rest of its bench as well as what it is getting from backup point guard Raymond Felton. Everyone admits the ball sometimes stalls on offense; Anthony and Westbrook, in particular, are often the culprits.
But the raw ability is there, as the Thunder showed Wednesday night. When it’s right, this Thunder team has the ability to challenge the Warriors as only the Houston Rockets can, thanks to its combination of three explosive scorers and its length and athleticism defensively.
When Durant left, it as if the Thunder’s days of competing with the Warriors on any kind of equal footing were over. The gap had grown too large. But thanks to the acquisition of George and Anthony, it’s closed enough to allow everyone here to — realistically — think they have a chance.
That’s why the animus toward Durant has noticeably lessened: Now, when the Warriors and Thunder take the floor, it’s about the basketball again. The Thunder proved that with their play Wednesday night.
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