Nobody ever totally counts out a team that has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing for it, but for most of this season, it sort of felt like the Oklahoma City Thunder were being overlooked in the ‘contender’ conversation. Once it was became clear that the Warriors were playing historically dominant basketball and the Spurs had become more dangerous than ever after fully integrating LaMarcus Aldridge, many fans and analysts started subscribing to the inevitability of a Golden State-San Antonio conference final. In fact, the more talked-about topic regarding OKC has been Kevin Durant’s impending free agency and whether the Thunder’s inability to reclaim the West in the post-James Harden era could signal KD’s departure from the only professional franchise he’s ever known.
One game into this current series against San Antonio, it certainly looked like that would be the case. OKC was sluggish and unprepared, getting blown out and looking more like a lottery team than a squad that a top-five player would want to commit to. Everyone knew the Thunder would come out with guns blazing in Game 2 after that embarrassing ass-whooping, but few expected them to actually steal a win on the Spurs’ home floor (where SA went 40-1 during the regular season, tying the 1985-86 Celtics for the best home record in NBA history). They followed up that impressive performance by splitting two competitive home games, and suddenly, with two games already in their pocket, the Thunder are a legitimate threat to win this thing.
The closeness of the series is obviously a fantastic development for OKC, but in the larger picture, the elevated play and emergence of its supporting cast on a big stage has already made the series somewhat of a ‘win’ for the Thunder. No team in the NBA relies on two players as much as OKC relies on Durant and Russell Westbrook. Without Durant’s services for much of last season, the Thunder shockingly missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009 (although this is more a testament to how brutal the West was in 2015 than how bad OKC was). Without Westbrook in the 2013 Playoffs, OKC bowed out to a much lower-seeded Memphis squad in just five games.
Ever since making the ill-advised Harden trade in 2012, Sam Presti has tried patching together rosters that can take some of the load off of his superstars—failed experiments like Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb come to mind—but none of the complementary pieces were able to really produce when the stakes were highest. By contrast, San Antonio has an illustrious history of role players stepping up when their numbers were called in critical situations. Greg Poppovich and the Spurs built a system that involves everyone and easily plugs in new parts; the Thunder built a Jenga tower that’s dependent on a couple of key blocks staying in place.
There’s still a fair bit of truth to that latter statement—OKC isn’t beating San Antonio if KD or Russ gets hurt. But once you look past those guys—and Serge Ibaka, a nice complementary piece who never quite made the jump into stardom—the Thunder actually have an intriguing young core; one that’s growing more and more promising as each game of the playoffs unfolds.
After being thrown directly into the flames and getting significant playing time as a raw rookie, Steven Adams has really started to come into his own (and I’m not just talking about his noteworthy hair stylings). He’s always been one of the tougher big men in the league and has no problem scrapping with opposing centres, but his offensive game is coming along as well, which gives Durant and OKC’s guards more options on the pick and roll. Adams has reached double figures in both of his team’s wins this series, which shows you what it means to this team when someone farther down in the offensive pecking order can get it going.
And he’s not even the only mustachioed Thunder big man playing well right now! There were lots of questions and doubts in the offseason about Presti signing Enes Kanter to a max contract last offseason, and there’s still lots of room for debate on the value there, but he turned some heads this season and finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. When you consider that he was brought in via trade for a disgruntled Reggie Jackson, Kanter has provided the Thunder with similar production to what they were getting from Jackson without detracting from the locker room vibe. Plus, as Zach Lowe notes, his notoriously shoddy defense has come a long way since joining OKC, and it’s made a tangible difference against the Spurs.
The real wildcard in all of this is Dion Waiters. Throughout his career, Waiters has been better known for demanding the ball than being deserving of it, but—inbounds passes aside—Waiters has shown flashes of why he might be able to be the third reliable perimeter guy OKC so desperately needs. In Game 4 he exploded for 17 points, scoring in a variety of ways and even contributing to some of the team’s ball movement. He’s not the quickest guy, but he attacks the rim with a surprising grace and manouvres creatively in traffic. Waiters made a vital late-game three in Game 2 and drained a couple of them in Game 4 as part of a highly efficient shooting night. If he’s really starting to figure it out, it makes OKC a whole lot scarier going forward.
You can more or less say the same thing about the Thunder’s entire supporting cast. The signs are there, and unlike some of the past OKC squads, this is a young group with tons of upside and some big moments already on their resumes. In the past, the Thunder brought in and leaned on maxed-out veterans like Martin, Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, Caron Butler, and Thabo Sefolosha to be important role players. Now Presti has totally revamped the roster and made way for this new wave to contribute. You can even see a young, defensively-skilled wing player like Andre Roberson stepping directly into Sefolosha’s old role. Rather than have the worn down Perkins on the court, struggling to keep up with athletic big men, you have the energetic Adams moving easily and asserting himself. Rookie Cameron Payne is far from being a finished product, but he’s done a commendable job so far of taking over the backup point guard duties that Fisher, Jackson, and D.J. Augustin had left vacated.
There’s a lot still to be decided in this series, and in OKC’s case, the result will mostly be a reflection of how well Durant and Westbrook can play. But after three seasons of shaky, band-aid solutions to the talent void created by Harden’s absence, Presti and the Thunder may have the answers they need for a roster that can rival the league’s deepest for years to come; or, at least, one that can give them meaningful playoff minutes against the stiffest competition. The rise of the Warriors and reinvention of the Spurs made everyone question if OKC’s title window with Durant was shut for good, but with everything on the line right now, that’s far from true. Regardless of how this series ends, when Kevin Durant sits down at the end of the season to evaluate his options going forward, there’ll be a lot to like in terms of the one he’s coming from.