Durant and Westbrook ready to get Thunder back on track
After a tumultuous three years, the Oklahoma City Thunder are finally whole and ready to pick up right where they left off. It was just three seasons ago that they seemed ready to take the league by storm. Their five-game series loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals was attributed to a lack of experience rather than talent. The Thunder were arguably the most gifted team in the NBA at the time. With a core consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, many forecasted a dynasty for the fledgling Thunder, but the basketball gods had different plans.
As though they flew too close to the sun and melted their wings, the Thunder began to fall apart that summer after their Finals loss. The first sign of the end was the loss of Harden. Though Harden was a restricted free agent during the summer of 2012, Oklahoma City’s general manager Sam Presti decided not to re-sign Harden to avoid entering the luxury tax. After turning down a four-year, $52 million deal, Harden was sent to the Houston Rockets in one of the more bizarre and depressing deals of recent memory.
Despite the loss of their cunning guard, the Thunder ran through the regular season as if it were business as usual. They hoisted a 60-22 record entering the playoffs and were poised to face LeBron James and the Heat once again. However, Oklahoma City’s dreams were short circuited in a first-round series against Harden’s Rockets. Despite a blow out performance in the first game by the Thunder, things turned ugly following game two. Houston’s Patrick Beverley would later clash knees with Westbrook on a menial out-of-bounds play in Game 2. Westbrook would leave the game—and then the playoffs—with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Though the Thunder would beat the Rockets 4-2 in the series, they would fall five games to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round.
The offseason of 2013 was one of cautious optimism for Oklahoma’s fans. Though many expected Westbrook to be ready for the start of the season, he had a last-minute operation done two weeks before the Thunder’s opening game. At that point, many questioned whether Durant would be capable of carrying the team by himself. Memories of that disastrous series against the Grizzlies were still fresh in fans’ minds. Though he was undoubtedly the NBA’s second best player, there were real questions about Durant’s ability to lead a team on his own. He was always too nice to be a closer, too quiet to get his team moving or too skinny to overpower anyone. Looking to change his image, Durant set out on a quest to revamp his image. No more Mr. Nice Guy. At least on the court, he was nasty, mean and cold-blooded.
After the Thunder’s Christmas game against the Knicks, Westbrook would have another surgery performed on his right knee thus allowing Durant to take the team’s reins again. Oklahoma City did not just stay afloat with Durant in the driver’s seat, they flourished. Even when Westbrook returned, Durant was still the team’s alpha dog as his game continued to rise. After finishing in second place for most of his career, Durant surpassed King James and won the MVP award. Oklahoma City entered the postseason riding a massive wave of momentum once again. With a 59-23 record under their belt, the Thunder came into the playoffs with revenge on their minds. Though Memphis managed to contain Durant for most of the series, the MVP broke free for the last two games to give the Thunder a 4-3 victory. Oklahoma then faced Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round. The Thunder and Clippers exchanged wins and losses through the first four games of the series until the Clippers finally cracked. Sensing blood in the water, Durant, Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder quickly pounced on them and finished them off in six games.
The Thunder were so close to the Finals. The only thing standing in their way was San Antonio. Despite the Spurs being the favorites, Oklahoma City was confident they could take them out. The Thunder have historically played well against the Spurs and for the first couple of games against them, they proved it. The Thunder would, however, suffer another critical injury; this time to Ibaka. The Thunder would fall in six games to the championship-bound Spurs.
A few weeks before the 2014-15 season was set to start, Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot, sidelining him for the first 17 games of the season and limiting him for the rest of it. To make matters worse, Westbrook suffered a fracture in his right hand just a couple games after the season started. Oklahoma’s starting point guard would miss 14 games and during this stretch things got dark. The team got off to a terrible 2-12 start without their stars. However, when Westbrook made his return, the MVP candidate logged one of the most impressive individual seasons of all-time. He fought tooth and nail to drag the Thunder into the playoffs. Though he nearly averaged a triple-double for the final two months of the season, it was not enough to push Oklahoma City into the postseason as Anthony Davis and his New Orleans Pelicans squeaked their way passed the manic Westbrook and his team.
Now, with the 2015-16 season looming, the Thunder appear to start their year without any extra baggage for the first time in a while. Durant is back to full strength. Westbrook is a different animal now: older, wiser and angrier. Most importantly, Oklahoma City will enter the new season with a revamped bench and coaching staff. After canning Brooks, the Thunder hired Florida’s highly touted Billy Donovan. Donovan, an offensive mastermind and ex-NBA player, seems like the perfect person to fully extract the Thunder’s offensive capabilities. Though Durant’s unrestricted free-agency is next summer, many do not expect him to leave. If the Thunder really want to make sure their superstar stays, they should have one objective: domination. It is not enough to simply win; they have to dismantle whoever they face.