NEW YORK – The Oklahoma City Thunder are still making big noise in the NBA despite dealing away James “The Beard” Harden and hope their new mix will take them even farther than last year’s trip to the Finals.
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way and Serge Ibaka stepping up to contribute more scoring punch, the Thunder have not missed a beat, heading the Northwest Division and fighting the San Antonio Spurs for top seed in the West.
“I like the way we’re playing,” three-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, who is again leading the league with a 28.6 point average, told reporters at Thursday’s shootaround ahead of their game against the New York Knicks.
Coach Scott Brooks, integrating new pieces such as guard Kevin Martin, center Hasheem Thabeet and rookie guard Reggie Jackson, was also satisfied with the team’s transition.
“I like where we are right now,” he said.
Despairing of being unable to retain Harden under the salary cap, the Thunder made the bold move of trading the Sixth Man of the Year to Houston before the start of the season.
Harden has gone on to average 26.3 points for the Rockets, but the Thunder have not missed a beat and came out of the deal with a clutch of additional draft picks.
Thabo Sefolosha said moving on without Harden opened things up for other players.
“It’s always going to be a bit of an adjustment losing a guy like James,” the guard said, adding that new guys such as Martin and Jackson were fitting in well.
Veteran Nick Collison said a key factor in the Thunder’s progress was the continued development of their young players including Durant and Westbrook, who are both 24. Durant said he believed Westbrook, who is averaging 23.6 points and 7.8 assists, was playing his best basketball.
“He’s scoring the ball tremendously,” said Durant. “He makes good decisions. He’s picking and choosing his spots when to pass, when to shoot. That’s the growth of a player. He’s learning.”
Durant said he had also been handling the ball and passing more this season.
“It’s giving me more opportunity to handle the ball, trying to look for my team mates more,” said Durant. “James was such a great passer I think that’s what we missed a lot about him when we first traded him.