Yay, the season's over! You know what's fun about this little stretch where 82 games have passed and the playoffs haven't started yet? You can sit back and reflect on all of the great moments. It's a nice little reprieve before you start dwelling on every coaching move, every dumb shot, every stupid foul, every terrible call, all of the things that go along with the roller coaster of emotions that is the NBA Playoffs.
I think it's pretty clear what the mentality should be in regards to this season. The Thunder played without its second-best player for just under half of the season. Rather than fold or, really, struggle much at all, the team just kept chugging along, finishing with the second-best record in the entire league. That was thanks largely to its best player (Kevin Durant, if you were wondering) elevating his game to an entirely new level - one that no one really knew he could reach, even by his already ridiculous standards. It was the type of season that, regardless of how this postseason goes down, will be looked back to as the season when Kevin Durant changed the narrative from being No. 2 to being in the conversation for best in the league. Yeah, yeah, Lebron has the rings, KD needs them, we all get that.
Still, it's been covered elsewhere (by Tom Ziller and Royce Young, for starters), so I won't get too far into it here - heck, even Lebron agrees - but KD won the MVP this year. Lebron didn't lose it. Which says a lot about how dominant Durant was.
And yeah, we could get into the rest of the story lines, too: Ibaka elevating his game, Reggie Jackson becoming a reliable sixth man, Scott Brooks' head-scratch-inducing rotations, Fisher and Butler just being around, Perk and Sefolosha's injuries, Steven Adams (gotta please the NZ readers), but really, all of that comes second to Durant.
That's because, through it all, 2013-14 really was the year of Durant. He's finally going to get his more-than-deserved MVP, and the only thing that could top that off even more perfectly would be a Finals MVP. Just an all-time great season and one that will be talked about for a while. Honestly, the guys deserves a Top Ten all to himself.
Nevertheless, as the cliche goes, it's a team game, and the Thunder sure have a pretty great team around Durant, as well. As great as he was, there were plenty of memorable moments in the non-KD division as well. So, without much further ado, I present the Top Ten plays of the 2013-2014 Oklahoma City Thunder season, featuring Kevin Durant and friends.
The Russell Westbrook lefty pass
(via Jason Damiano)
The folks over at Thunder Obsessed put together this nice video of some of Russell Westbrook's best passes, but the ones to take special note of - simply because he seems to be incorporating them into his game now more than ever - are those beautiful lefty passes.
The one against the Bulls is especially awesome, simply because of how out-of-nowhere it comes. This is a guy who has earned a reputation as someone that likes to drive in transition and use his freak athleticism to get past anyone and finish. So for him to see this tiny window and react that quickly, and to throw a pass that accurately, speaks volumes to the growth of Russell Westbrook, the point guard.
We sometimes get overly defensive of Westbrook, because it really does seem that the criticism of him as a ballhog has died down, and most rational fans now appreciate him for what he is. Still, it's nice to have plays like these to pull out of the back pocket and say, "did you see that?" whenever that one rogue person wants to play the tired "Russell Westbrook takes too many shots" card.
KD gets showered with MVP chants as he extends his 25+ point streak to 39 games
The only decent video I could find of it is here.
It was great for so many reasons, not the least of which being that it was against the Spurs. More than that though, the streak was his sort of victory lap to the entire season. He'd already had the 30+ point streak, already beat Lebron once, basically, he was just knocking off the last few things from his checklist. He would pass Jordan two games later, after basically saying he just wanted the streak to be over. But you see in his smile here and disbelieving headshake that he understood the stakes. Completing the season sweep of the one team in the league with a better record than you, and doing it while coming within a game of a mark set by Michael Jordan? That's a good moment for Durant. Plus, his mom was there for good measure.
Ibaka blocks Austin Rivers, Westbrook gathers rebound, and outlets to Durant who jams it home on the other end
To be fair, this is just the one that is most fresh on our minds, as this certainly isn't the first time a sequence like this happened. Still, you won't find many better representations of Thunder basketball when its firing on all cylinders.
First, you have defensive savant Serge Ibaka (whom Zach Lowe dubbed as just 2nd Team All-NBA, grrrr) chasing down Austin Rivers. Then, you get Ibaka's uncanny ability to time his jump perfectly, completely avoid any contact, and then block the ball in a way that keeps it in play for his teammates. Then you have Westbrook - who is always looking to force the action - gathering the loose ball and firing up a quick strike right on the money to KD on the other end. Finally, you have KD, who does what he does better than anybody else in the game: scoring the basketball. Albeit this time with that extra oompf, which he likes to let out from time to time.
Those are the plays that ignite the team for stretches. To see hustle defense pay off that quickly and directly on offense is something that can refocus a team. And with the struggles the Thunder have had on the defensive side in the second half of the season, it's nice to see plays like this are still possible. They're sure going to need this type of basketball to reach the next level.
It's also fun to jump off the couch and pound your chest when a sequence like that goes down.
10) Kevin Durant caps off MVP season with game-winning dunk over entire Pistons team to secure No. 2 seed.
via SB Nation
So this happened last night, and it very well could go higher on the list, but in an effort to avoid overreacting, it's here to kick off the countdown.
This was Durant going into "I got this" mode. The defense couldn't get stops, but it didn't matter, because Durant kept putting his head down, kept driving, drawing fouls, putting points on the board. He finished with 42 points, 24 coming in the fourth quarter of a game the Thunder had to have. None bigger than this dunk where he maintained that same attitude: "Get out of my way, I'm finishing this."
Rather than entering the playoffs as a 3 seed and having lost three straight, the Thunder enter as the second-best team in basketball and have home court in what is sure to be a grueling second-round matchup with the Clippers, assuming both teams take care of business in the first round.
The Servant is also the savior.
9) Reggie Jackson and Kevin Durant pick on poor Kenneth Faried
(via Daily Thunder)
(via Daily Thunder)
Then, we'll wash that down with KD taking poor Kenneth for a quick dance before splashing a jumper over his sprawled corpse.
Rough night for the Manimal.
It really seemed like Russell was finally going to get his moment. All these years as sidekick to Durant, here he was, in classic Westbrook form, pulling up a bit too early, from a bit too far, with a bit too much confidence. Except, he's Russell Westbrook, and those are exactly the things that make him so awesome.
Of course, Andre Iguodala had an answer at the other end. Doesn't change the fact that this shot was really neat.
Plus, Westbrook eventually got his revenge (more on that later).
7) Thunder holds Rockets to 19 points in second-half of win on Jan. 16.
(via NBA jordan)
Not really a play and not really even a sequence. It was a performance though, the type that shows just how dominant the Thunder can be when they really focus their defense. It also may be the moment that took the entire season to another level.
The video contains highlights of the entire game, and it's worth watching from the beginning because you see how the Rockets were able to get cooking in the first half. But then, it gets really interesting at the 1:45 mark when the second half highlights start, and you see the shift. Hardly any highlights of the Rockets offense, and two of them resulting in Ibaka blocks. I'm sure there are more videos out there, and you could also look at the NBA Stats linked box score and see all of the second half plays (or just ogle at the numbers), but it was as memorable of a performance as the Thunder had all season.
It also set them up for things to come. This was still pre-All Star Break, when they were a Top-5 defense in the league. Add to it that Durant was in the infant stages of his MVP breakout, and this really was the point when the Thunder began to look like a serious contender once again, even while learning to play without their All-Star point guard for a little while.
The tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
6) The Slim Reaper is born in Portland
The Slim Reaper was probably born a bit before this, but remember the stakes of this particular game. Portland had already come back and beat the Thunder twice on the season by simply out-executing in the fourth quarter. Also, they were still seen as a legitimate contender not just to the Thunder, but the entire conference. And OKC had yet to notch a win against said contender, so there was a lot to prove. On top of that, Durant had topped 30 points seven times in a row coming in, so his legend was already being built.
It all came to a head, though, when KD got a technical with 3:45 remaining and his team down 3. The free throws then put them down 5.
From there, all that happened is that the Thunder closed on a 15-2 run, with Durant scoring 11 of those himself including 3-for-3 from 3-point range. Look at the shot at the 1:35 mark, when KD did that thing where you can tell he's feeling it - when he looks a little off balance, leads a little bit more than usual with his front foot, and then buries the shot anyway. This was just one of what felt like 500 of those types of shots during the ridiculous 30+ point streak. There's even one more to enjoy at the 1:55 mark of the clip, the dagger from that game.
It wasn't the start of the streak, and it wasn't the end of the streak. It didn't have the bigger picture feel like the shutdown of the Rockets did five days earlier. But it was when KD/Slim Reaper mania really took hold and everyone began to take note. The interwebs started sharing his absolutely absurd numbers for the month of January, guys like J.A. began putting their own spin on the Slim Reaper thing (above), and it became more and more undeniable that Kevin Durant was going from "great player" to "all-time great player."
Somehow, he had even more to prove.
5) The "best player in the game" discussion gets serious as Durant shines against Lebron and the Heat.
(via BASKETBALL VIDEO MIX)
Now that KD had a legitimate case for MVP, he had one more thing to take care of to make it official: go toe-to-toe with the guy he'd be taking the trophy from.
The Thunder, as they tend to do against Miami (ahem, Scott Brooks, ahem) got off to a horrid start, spotting the Heat a 22-4 lead.
(As a quick aside, you could really take the clip of Brooks trying to fight Lebron at 1:12 and make it No. 1, but that would compromise this entire thing).
So there they are, down big, only they keep clawing back. Fisher's banked-in 3 (the first one, which is not in the video) started it, but the real highlight comes from the 1:27 mark through the 2:36 mark, when the duel between KD and Lebron went nuclear.
I wrote about it after the game, and you can see from the poll at the bottom of that link, but that stretch was KD's shiniest moment right there, when the MVP narrative most dramatically shifted in his favor.. There he was, dueling with the MVP - the one who he's been No. 2 behind for so long - and he was answering everything. Lebron hits a jumper, KD hits a jumper. Lebron hits a fadeaway, KD hits a fadeway. Finally, when you think he can't possibly keep topping himself, he hits that three right in Lebron's face.
No longer was KD No. 2. He may not have been No. 1 yet, but he was most definitely blurring the lines. More than that, he was showing he could go head-to-head with a champion. That's what this will all boil down to in the end, and it's why so many people want a Heat/Thunder Finals. To be the best, you have to beat the best. KD did that on Jan. 29, all but earning the MVP trophy right then and there.
But if you think he was satisfied with that, you don't know KD.
4) KD hits nasty stepback against Nets as Brooklyn fans cheer him on.
(via Daily Thunder)
As incredible as Durant's 41-game streak of scoring 25+ points was, his streak of scoring 30+ was maybe even more jaw-dropping. Just as Durant ended the 25+ streak on his own by sitting out an entire fourth quarter, he did the same in this one against Brooklyn. Not before giving a highlight for everyone to take home as a souvenir, though.
In many ways, you could view this as Durant basically saying, "Look, I can do what I want. Streaks be damned." He had already torched Portland, he got the best of Lebron James two nights before, there wasn't much more for him to prove. The Portland game was the height of Reaper mania, and the win over Lebron was sort of the resolution. This game against Brooklyn? It was the Epilogue; bonus material to keep with the rest of the book, but nothing really new to say. He had spent the previous two weeks dominating the Twitter discussion every night, leading Sportscenter every morning, and becoming the MVP frontrunner.
After he pulled this ridiculous stepback, putting his Russell Westbrook-less team up 30+ (!!) over a Brooklyn team that was rounding into form at the time, all he had left to do was sit back and smile. He had already proven himself, so the rest was just extra.
Which, as you'll see in the remaining few plays, there was still quite a lot of.
3) Durant continues dominant January with game-winner against Atlanta
This actually came in between the Portland and Miami games. Seriously, that January was something else.
And before we get too carried away, we should mention that KD's clutch statistics aren't quite as menacing as we sometimes make them out to be (a subjective criteria in that link, but you get the idea). They're still damn impressive, though, given the volume of opportunities.
Also, the overwhelming evidence remains the same: he's a threat. Actually, he's the biggest threat. Sometimes he gets carried away and tries for the big shot at the wrong time. That doesn't mean he doesn't make them enough to earn moments like this.
At this point, he wasn't just scoring insane amounts of points on any given night, he was doing it every single night. And then, on top of it, to make shots like this that literally won games, it became hard to ignore what Durant was doing for the Thunder.
Still, it took more than one game-winner to totally convince people.
2) The Slim Reaper sucks the souls out of Toronto
(via NBA Highlights)
It was the game of the year, and while he had that incredible January, followed it up with a pretty incredible February, kept going through March as his streak of scoring 25+ points picked up steam, for some reason, people were still hesitant to anoint him too early on.
Then this happened.
All of a sudden, everyone started to realize, "Is there anything he hasn't done this year?!"
The play is what makes Kevin Durant as terrifying a matchup as anyone in the playoffs. The inbounds pass is lazy, he doesn't seem all that interested while dribbling, it almost gets turned over, but then, seemingly out of nowhere (only, it's KD, so of course it's not out of nowhere), he pulls up. He's slightly off balance, the defender is just a hair too far off of him, and that's that.
What's most enjoyable is the crowd's reaction. The nervous fans sit, waiting for the inevitable, hoping for a miracle that he won't ruin what would be a fantastic win. Then... swish. So, so cold.
Game over. MVP race over.
1) Russell Westbrook beats the Warriors and the buzzer with an absurd shot as the clock expires.
Of course, in the Year of Durant, it's actually Russell Westbrook that made the play of the year. He's always trying to steal the spotlight! Not really, Skip.
In fact, what made it so special was that it took this long for Westbrook to finally get his moment. For someone that has the public perception of being a selfish ballhog, he really is quite deferential to KD in pretty much every close-game situation.
So for the brodie to come out and bury that shot, after he had already proven he could do it in the first Warriors matchup, just reaffirmed what most Thunder fans already knew - you can load up on KD at the end of the game, but Russ is just as lethal. Sure, it took an incredible save by Thabo, but it was the quintessential Westbrook play. He played decoy to start, closed out like a bat out of Hell on Serge's shot, leapt to the moon and back to tip it and keep it alive, and then had the presence of mind of gather himself and fake the defender enough to get off a decent - albeit super tough - 3-pointer.
And say what you will about Brian Davis, but he does jubilation as well as anyone. His yell, combined with the raucous crowd, says it all. It's why we sit through 82 games with these guys. There are low points, there are a lot of just dull points, but it's these moments of sheer brilliance that illicit outright exuberance that make sitting through the entire thing worth it.
The best part? There may be more of those moments to come. The season's not over yet.
What did we miss? Share your favorite plays in the comments section!