Oklahoma City Thunder Lead Up The West

This was supposed to be Oklahoma City’s year in the Western Conference, as the compressed lockout-induced schedule would favor their young legs and the conference finals loss to Dallas a year ago had given them the playoff toughness. So far, so good. The Thunder is 11-2 and leading the West as they go into a nationally televised game at reeling Boston tonight (8 PM ET, TNT). Perennial power San Antonio is hot on their heels and defending champ Dallas has righted the ship after a slow start. Collectively these three teams have won 14 straight, and if we want to stick to the Lone Star State, even if the rebuilding Rockets have won their last two. Today, the Notebook takes a look at the three contenders from the Red River area…

Oklahoma City (11-2, 1st): With the Thunder having a big year so far, it’s no surprise Kevin Durant is off to a blazing start, averaging 26 ppg and shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Russell Westbrook is outstanding at the point, scoring, dishing and grabbing a few rebounds to boot. The only thing Westbrook doesn’t do is shoot well from the outside, especially the three-ball. Two-guard James Harden is a good scorer and not bad from long range, but the best three-point shooter on the team is 6’7” off-guard Thabo Sefolosha. He’s not getting a lot of minutes right now, but I believe anyone who can hit from downtown like he can has to get some more time and keep defenses from collapsing back to stop action off the dribble from Westbrook and Durant.

Oklahoma City uses three big men down low, none to particularly good effect. The young 22-year old from Zaire, Serge Ibaka, joins veteran Nick Collison and championship-tested Kendrick Perkins, a key enforcer on Boston’s 2008 championship team (as a Celtics fan, know how disappointed most of us were when he was traded and what a thunderous ovation he’ll get at the Gahden tonight).

Overall, the Thunder have the young legs, they have the playoff experience now and they have the go-to player that NBA teams can’t win without. I’m standing my preseason choice of them to reach the Finals, but I still have deep reservations about the lack of scoring punch from anyone other than Westbrook or Durant. They’re not ready to beat Chicago or Miami out of the East and they’re a far cry from a sure thing in the West.

San Antonio (9-4, 2nd): The veteran Spurs just keep on churning out wins, having knocked off Memphis, the LA Clippers, Utah, Dallas and Portland in this young season, as head coach Greg Popovich tries to balance his older team’s need to be rested, with the immediate need for wins. The 9-4 start gives the coach some breathing room. Tim Duncan is 35 years old and still a contributing factor, but no longer a dominating force. But when I look at Duncan I see the same I thing I wrote about Baltimore Ravens’ safety Ed Reed on Friday—he’s a vet, that with the money on the table, you somehow know will save his best moment. Reed intercepted a pass to preserve yesterday’s win for the Ravens. And Duncan is infinitely better at his spot than Reed. Don’t bet against the Spurs legend at crunch time, especially with the desire to right the wrong from last year when they lost to Memphis in the first round.

The backcourt is where the scoring comes from on this team with Manu Ginobli being an outstanding shooter and Tony Parker able to score off penetration. San Antonio has quality depth up front, with young DeJuan Blair averaging an 11/7, while rookie Kahwi Leonard and Tiago Splitter each grab five boards a game. Veteran forward Richard Jefferson averages 12 ppg. San Antonio is well-coached, well put-together and the only question is how much gas is left in the tank.

Dallas (8-5, 7th): If San Antonio is old, Dallas isn’t far behind. Dirk Nowitzki is now 33 and still only averages 5 rebounds a game. He needs help on the glass, and so far veteran pickups Brendan Haywood and Lamar Odom are providing it. Shawn Marion, who was so exercised in the preseason about the Mavs not getting the respect due to champions, could do more to earn that respect. He’s averaging a 10/5, but the 6’7” forward likely needs to add more in both categories if his team is going to even repeat in the West, much less the league overall.

There’s tremendous depth at guard, with veterans Jason Kidd, Delonte West, Jason Terry and Vince Carter all able to log quality minutes. One huge problem is none of them are having a really great year shooting the ball from the outside. That’s a big reason they won a title a year ago and it’s necessary to ease some of the heat on Nowitzki. Furthermore, the current five-game win streak comes against New Orleans, Detroit, Boston, Milwaukee and Sacramento. That’s not exactly Murderer’s Row. Give Dallas full credit for doing what a veteran team does and sweeping a soft schedule spot to get themselves off the mat. But now they have to prove they can win against quality (if you haven’t tuned into the NBA yet, Boston’s 4-7 and looking worse, which is why I bracket them in with the other teams on Dallas’ win streak). This week is their opportunity. If you want to get a look at the Mavs, you can see them tonight at the Staples Center for a playoff rematch with the Lakers (10:30 PM ET, TNT), Wednesday at the Clippers (10:30 PM ET, ESPN) and on Thursday at a Utah team off to a nice start (10:30 PM ET, TNT).

And Houston? Right now the Rockets are an afterthought in the state of Texas, but with Kevin McHale coaching, they’re a respectable 5-7, have a very good backcourt with Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, plus a solid option at forward in Luis Scola. They need more depth and a lot more experience, but McHale has to be pleased with the early progress. The playoffs won’t happen this year, but so far the direction is good.