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Bill Simmons on OKC Thunder, Championship Contenders

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Bill Simmons unleashed part 2 of his end of NBA season team rankings. Today he featured the teams that will be battling in the playoffs. In this grouping, the Thunder are the candidate for what Simmons calls "Young and Hungry."

NBA Power Poll: The Contenders | ESPN

His analysis of the entire field is worth while as is his in-depth examination of the Thunder. I've excerpted a few choice passages below, interspersed with my own thoughts:

A few weeks ago, Kendrick Perkins said something interesting: he believed you need two quality big guys if you really want a good defensive team. His reasoning was that one guy alone couldn't protect the rim, defend the low-post and jump out on high screens. With two big guys, everything falls into place.

What is most remarkable about this fact is that the transformation started to take place even before Perkins suited up. If you recall, he was out recovering from injury for almost a full month after the trade. And yet, because the players were beginning to shift into their natural positions, the overall team defense started to improve as well. They held five of their next 12 opponents under 100 points. Nazr Mohammed, an afterthought for many, allowed Serge Ibaka to assume his natural position at power forward. What the transformation probably speaks to the most is that Jeff Green was not a quality big guy, and his inability to play in that power forward position was having a negative impact on everyone else. Even by raising the front line to "average," the Thunder began to show major improvements.

Two weeks ago, I spent some time with Phil Jackson and Game 7 of the 2010 Finals happened to come up, mainly because I felt like torturing myself. That game was decided within the six feet around both baskets. A turf war, if you will. The Lakers were a little tougher, a little bigger, and a little deeper on that specific night. That's why they won. 

The Thunder now have the size to compete, but they would have had that merely with Mohammed. What Perkins also brings to the team is that idea of toughness. Perkins' conditioning and athleticism are still not where it needs to be (and may not be until next season), but he can still cover enough ground to send a message.

Example: Nick Collison sets good screens. Perkins sets screens that the other guy doesn't want to run into. There is a difference, and that difference becomes more and more important when a coach asks his player to run through a Perkins screen 10 times a game in a seven game series.

Anyway, it's easy to concentrate on the trade's watershed effect on Boston...and inadvertently skip over how brilliant it was for Oklahoma City. Their team makes sense now. Jeff Green's minutes were redistributed to Perkins, Ibaka and James Harden. Durant gets to play more small forward, where he can shoot over anyone. Suddenly their swing guy is Russell Westbrook (slightly miscast as a point guard/decision maker) and his ability to co-exist with Durant every night (who's just a better offensive player). What's weird is that they're best friends, and yet they can't totally figure out how to play together -- it's like watching two hip-hop artists awkwardly team up for a song and just take turns shouting. 

 The mystery of how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook play together, and yet alone, is most likely going to be their short-coming this season. If you look at guys like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, that trio was ready and willing to support each other from day one. They had been through enough successes and failures to know how to do it. Durant and Westbrook simply have not had enough time together yet. What Is probably most interesting is that when they do figure it out, their individual stats probably won't look any different than they do today. Rather, the difference will reveal itself in the way everybody else around them sees their statistics rise.

Here's the point: The Zombies are 18-to-1 to win the title right now. It's the one bargain out there. They can defend, rebound and score at the end of games. More importantly, they can protect that six feet. 

Simmons is right about those six feet. I remember watching the Celtics melt away in that game seven because they could not protect the rim or get a rebound when it matters most. In all series, offenses will faulter and shots will go cold. However, if a team can win that turf next to the rim, it becomes the great equalizer.