That Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers sit atop the Western Conference after roughly a quarter of the 2018-19 NBA season is certainly a surprise. What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? After 22 games, OKC is a just a half-game behind the Nuggets and Clippers. That wasn’t the case when the season began back in October. What happened?
As the new season began on October 16, the Thunder were forced to start the season without their star, Russell Westbrook. The former NBA MVP had arthroscopic knee surgery to repair some minor issues and missed the Thunder’s preseason. He was held out of the preseason to ensure he would be ready to go for the regular season. He wasn’t.
The Thunder faced two-time defending NBA champion Golden State on the road in Game 1. Without Westbrook. They lost 108-100 starting a string of four straight defeats. Westbrook did return to the lineup in Game 3. He shot 13-of-23, scored 32 points, and had 12 rebounds in a 131-120 loss to Sacramento. After a six-point loss to Boston, OKC was 0-4.
With Westbrook back in the lineup and paired with Paul George, the Thunder began their turnaround with a win over Phoenix. Westbrook and George each scored 23 points to give OKC its first victory of the season. It would also be the first of a seven-game winning streak. The Thunder turned up the heat and averaged 115 points a game during the seven-game stretch. Westbrook shot the lights out – over 52 percent – and just like that Oklahoma City was 7-4.
Five games into the seven-game win streak, Westbrook sprained his left ankle and missed the Thunder’s next six games. OKC did not panic and George took over. The Thunder beat Cleveland, Houston, New York, and Phoenix twice with Westbrook out of the lineup. George was the game-high scorer in all but one of those games. He topped 30 point in three straight.
Even with Westbrook out of the lineup, OKC proved that it could win. The schedule surely helped as none of the Thunder’s opponents during the stretch had a record over .500.
After losing their first four games of the season, the Thunder are 15-3. They have won their last three straight and will face 8-17 Brooklyn on Wednesday night before facing the aching Bulls on Friday. Westbrook has had three triple-doubles in the Thunder’s last six games. While Westbrook and George, who leads the team in scoring averaging 23.2 points per game, continue to lead the offense, it is the defense that has really keyed the Thunder’s recent success.
Oklahoma City is fourth in the NBA in points allowed per game (103.1). Look at some of their recent efforts. They gave up just 95 points to Golden State in a 123-95 win on Nov. 21. They held Cleveland and Detroit to just 83 points each in recent victories. Even in a to Denver, OKC held the Nuggets to 105, five point below their season average.
Can the success continue? Absolutely. It will likely continue through the rest of December. The Thunder’s next four games are against teams that are below .500. After two dates with the Nuggets and Clippers again, the only team OKC will face in December with a winning record is Dallas (12-10).