Yesterday, Glen Davis was asked what strategy the Boston Celtics will use against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His response was simple:
“Stop Kevin Durant.”
Easier said than done. Durant has quickly become as feared a scorer as anyone in the NBA. He can score outside, or drive by you. He has a guard’s handles, and a center’s height and length. He can kill you softly or he can do it loudly but, as Durant’s 29-game stretch of 25 or more points earlier this season can attest to, he always seems to kill you.
But beating the Thunder would still be easy if Durant was a one-man wrecking crew. Sadly, for the Celtics at least, he has help.
Help to the tune of Russell Westbrook, perhaps the NBA’s best-kept secret, as well as a herd of other talented youngin’s. I don’t know why nobody talks about Westbrook being an elite, rising point guard, but the man is averaging 16.1 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.9 boards. If those stats aren’t enough to get you to believe in Westbrook, the following statement might be: HE’S 21 YEARS OLD! AND HE’S STILL RAW! AND HE HAS A LOT OF IMPROVEMENT LEFT!
Besides Westbrook, the Thunder’s embarrassment of young riches continues. There’s Jeff Green, the young man out of Georgetown pouring in 14.9 points and 6.0 boards. James Harden, only a rookie, who has repeatedly shown the ability to score. Thabo Sefolosha, an athletic wing who — even though he can’t score a lick — embraces his role as a defensive stopper. Serge Ibaka, a physical freak who caused Tim Duncan all kinds of problems a week ago. Eric Maynor, a backup point guard acquired midseason for next to nothing, who has proven himself to be a keeper. Not to take away from the rest of their stable of young horses, but there’s also B.J. Mullens. And he sucks.
Besides Mullens — nobody’s perfect, even Sam Presti — the Thunder are in good hands for the future. The present, even. Nobody would have ever expected the Thunder to progress so quickly, but there they are, only three and a half games out of the Western Conference’s second seed.
Their ascent has been breath-taking, especially for NBA aficionados who understand that young players aren’t supposed to contend so quickly.
“They interviewed Jeff Green after the game [recently] and he surprised me because he was like, ‘We’re a hard-working team, trying to win a championship,’” Kendrick Perkins recalled after Tuesday’s practice. “Well, no one picked Oklahoma City to even make the playoffs this year, but just the vibe in that locker room, to have one goal and that’s to win a championship as a young team, I found that kind of crazy.”
It isn’t the Thunder’s talent that’s so rare. Rather, it’s that so many young players with skills to burn have decided to put individual accolades aside to focus on nothing but winning. Players aren’t supposed to start that winning mentality until later in their careers. It often takes years of lump-taking before players decide nothing matters but a ring. But not in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder skipped a few levels in their development, straight from basement-dwellers to being within view of the penthouse, and I’m not quite sure how they did it so quickly. Maybe it’s because they have a group of competitive players with their heads on straight. Maybe a lot of the credit should fall on Scott Brooks, the coach who leads the way, or Sam Presti, the astute general manager who assembled the roster. It might just be a testament to Durant’s greatness, or Westbrook’s underrated impact. Perhaps it’s just something in the Oklahoma City air. Probably a combination of all the above.
Whatever the reason for it may be, the Thunder will be a playoff problem for some unlucky team this year, and are poised to pose issues for the rest of the NBA for quite some time. As good as they are now, it’s scary to think how devastating they’ll become with age.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Thunder visit Boston tonight, not down the road. And tonight, even before age makes them even more formidable, the Thunder are a more than competent opponent capable of striking the Celtics down on their own court. Especially if Paul Pierce sits out, and especially if the Celtics play passionless basketball like they did Sunday night against the Spurs.
The Celtics could use a return to winning ways, but to do that, they’re going to have to really earn it. And I can guarantee it won’t be as easy as “Stop Kevin Durant.”