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OKC is working its way back in the conversation.
Sports Analyst Charles Barkley said it during a TNT pre-show according to Tulsa World.
"The Thunder need a big guy who can score. I think Adams is going to have a terrific rookie year. I said Oklahoma City's only weakness is down low, they don't get easy baskets. You have to beat up the Miami Heat. If Adams does a good job and Russell (Westbrook) comes back, there are four legit teams in the West (including the Thunder)."
Barkley reiterated that sentiment in a post-game show following Houston's loss to the Lakers, he once again tossed the Thunder on a list of teams who have a chance at the title in the West. Before the Thunder opened their season against the Utah Jazz, most analysts looked elsewhere for top contenders who they felt showed promise of having great seasons. The Thunder was routinely mentioned as a team with several short comings.
1) They were missing a key component in the absence of injured Russell Westbrook.
2) They were missing a viable sixth man due to the department of both James Harden and Kevin Martin.
3) They were missing a scoring presence down low.
4) They were missing a scoring punch from an inexperienced and inept bench.
1. Utah Jazz
The Thunder opened their season against the Utah Jazz, controlling most of the game, but ultimately holding on to squeak by 101-98. The victory did very little to squash gloomy concerns and panic that had started to settle around the team. Thunder's All-star Forward Kevin Durant scored 42 points and grabbed 6 rebounds. Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha helped with 14 points each.
Later that week, OKC's Midwest Division rival, the Minnesota Timberwolves, hosted the Thunder in a game that pitted them against their former teammate, Kevin Martin. Minnesota, a team on the rise in the Western Conference, controlled the game from start to finish, winning 100 to 81. Jeremy Lamb finished with a team-high of 16 points, shooting 7-15. Timberwolves Forward Kevin Love led his team with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
3. Phoenix Suns
The match-up with the Phoenix Suns proved to be a game-changer for the Thunder. First of all, All-star Point Guard Russell Westbrook returned to the starting line-up. Westbrook received a thunderous welcome from the OKC's home crowd after Durant graciously allowed his teammate the honor of being announced last before the game. The Thunder went on to win 103-96. Durant led all scorers with 31 points. Westbrook showed signs of some rust, but for the most part looked like his old self, managing 21 points, drawing 7 fouls, and recording 7 assists.
The 107-93 win over the Dallas Mavericks cleared up several issues for the Thunder. This game satisfied any concern about the health and strength of Westbrook's knee. He scored 8 of the Thunder's first 11 points, finishing with 22 and exciting the crowd with 2 highlight-reel dunks. Durant had 23 points and 10 assists while Serge Ibaka added 17 points and 13 rebounds. Monta Ellis led Dallas with 20 points, but he also had 7 of the Mavs 21 turnovers which lead to 27 fast-break points for the Thunder. Vince Carter was ejected from the game in the 3rd after delivering an elbow to the face of Thunder Center Steven Adams. Adams ended with 6 points and 9 rebounds in 20 minutes of play.
The match-up with the Detroit Pistons was Rookie Steven Adams coming out party. The rookie recorded his first NBA double-double. He scored 17 points, and had 10 boards and 3 blocks against a much-improved Pistons team. The Thunder won 119-110 in a game that bounced back-and-forth through 3 quarters. Detroit bigmen Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, were plagued with foul trouble. Durant and Westbrook combined for 29 attempts at the foul line, making 26. Durant had 37 points while taking only 15 shots. The Thunder much maligned bench also came up big. Jeremy Lamb knocked down an important 3-pointer in the 3rd quarter to seal a 17-2 run by the Thunder. Reggie Jackson had 6 assists. Nick Collison worked well with Adams to defend against the Piston's pick and roll offense. This type of contribution from the Thunder bench definitely does not go unnoticed. "Those guys are being aggressive and to me, I think that group of guys have a chip on their shoulder," Russell Westbrook on the reserve players.
The win against the Wizards was a lesson in perseverance. Sometimes, things don't go right, but a team has to figure out how to make enough parts work to give themselves a chance to win in the end. This is how all the great teams do it - the Heat with LeBron, the Spurs with Tony Parker, the Clippers with Chris Paul, and the Thunder with Kevin Durant.
No doubt, the conversation will continue to change as the Thunder continues to put it all together:
1) Russell Westbrook continues to get his legs under him and work on the accuracy of his shots and ball handling.
2) Reggie Jackson continues to grow in his role off the bench igniting the game and providing a spark for his teammates.
3) Steven Adams continues to develop into a prominent defensive and scoring center that the Thunder desperately needs.
4) Bench Players Jeremy Lamb continues to score the ball, while Nick Collison continues to provide solid minutes.