Oklahoma City Thunder: A Year Too Young No More

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2010-2011 Looks promising for the young Thunder.

Last season was, for a fact, the best season the Oklahoma City Thunder have ever seen… not that it should surprise anyone, considering there are only two years to pick from (yes, Seattle there were better years, I understand, but this is Oklahoma City’s team now).

Very few Thunder fans will soon forget how memorable the 2009-2010 season was. It was the cornerstone for what this team will do in this new decade. The team isn’t getting any younger, but at 24 years and 260 days (as of October 13, 2010), the Thunder don’t have to worry about age for a good while. Last season’s devastating ending, however, can be chalked up to inexperience.

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Outside of the Ford Center, the Thunder struggled in the playoffs.

The post-season was not kind to the young Thunder players, and nerves got the best of them in the Staples Center. The hostile environment got to the Thunder. While they shot fairly evenly (and not exactly efficiently, both makrs under 40%) both in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, the stats in Los Angeles are a bit worse. 14.7 fewer points per game, 10 fewer rebounds including 3.3 on the offensive end, 2.3 fewer assists, and an assists to turnovers ratio 1.1 points lower. It’s pretty safe to say the young guys might not have quite been ready for their first trip to the playoffs.

The numbers are even more staggering when you look at the numbers for the Lakers. Despite the losses in Oklahoma City, including the 110-89 Thunder win the even the series, the Lakers never played poorly–they were simply outplayed by the Thunder. A veteran team with a veteran swagger.

Now begins the Thunder’s newest journey on the road to the NBA Finals. They were out of the hunt in 2009, fell a few steps too short in 2010, and now, for the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the Thunder look poised to find a way to the Finals, no matter who is in their way. And all the ingredients are there for the Thunder to cook up the magic that no one saw coming last year, but they’re doubling the recipe.

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Few teams have as strong a camaraderie, between players and coaches alike, as the Thunder.

It all begins with Kevin Durant. Even he had forgettable shooting performance in the playoffs last year after being crowned the NBA’s Scoring Champion. Durant added to his already stunning list of accolades, leading Team USA to it’s first gold medal in the FIBA World Championships since 1994. Not only was he given the chance to show how icy his veins could be in the clutch on a world stage, he did it by being the backbone of the team with the highest expectations in the world. He has developed his leadership ability, his teamwork, and his superstar status, none of which came at the expense of his humility. He is a crowd, and especially a hometown, favorite, and is drawing a following by simply doing exactly what he loves–playing the game.

Then comes the immediate supporting cast, who have consistently found ways to help Durant lead the Thunder to victory, just not all necessarily at the same times. Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green both logged minutes this summer along with Durant on Team USA, and Westbrook was fortunate enough to make the cut and travel to Istanbul, Turkey for the FIBA Worlds. Jeff Green then spent the rest of his summer scrimmaging with college and pro athletes from his home town in Maryland. Both have been instrumental to Durant’s success, creating outlets and assists, as well as taking some of the heat off of him by adding double-digit scoring of their own. Thabo Sefolosha has been a defensive pest for the Thunder, bothering the prolific scorers of other top-tier NBA teams. Nenad Krstic added to the mix by stepping out and hitting big 18-foot jumpers at the top of the key. Then comes the bench, with the young guns James Harden, Eric Maynor, and Serge Ibaka, as well as veterans like Nick Collison.

All in all, the Thunder have built up a team stocked with young talent and teamwork. They have dubbed this year’s training camp “Thunder U,” establishing a college-like atmosphere, playing with high-emotion and teamwork, and working those elements into skill. Under head coach Scott Brooks, the Oklahoma City Thunder has a team that, if for no other reason, will win games due to hard work and playing like a team. And they’ve done it all with plenty of room under the salary cap.

The best statistic of all coming from last season is that now only 2 players on the current Oklahoma City Thunder roster (the 15 man depth chart), D.J. White and Cole Aldrich, have not played in a NBA Playoff game, and D.J. White has at least seen the atmosphere. There’s no more being too young. The experience is finally there, the drive is finally there, and the want is finally there.

The NBA’s youngest team, the NBAs feel-good team (in the midst of all the Miami Heat talk), looks ready to strike. Don’t be surprised if they make a run.

As always, keep Thundering Up

-jw

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