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Nothin' but Net: Thunder starting to come alive

By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Oklahoma City Thunder are the NBA's forgotten giants.

When Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury in last season's playoffs, Kevin Durant and the Thunder had no chance to make the NBA Finals. It happened to be the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round who eliminated OKC, but if it wasn't Memphis, it would've been the San Antonio Spurs in the West Finals.

No team can overcome the loss of a superstar, especially in May or June. The loss to the Grizzlies was nothing for the Thunder to be ashamed about. Injuries happen, it's just the timing that can hurt more than the physical pain.

The loss hurt because the Thunder were legitimate title contenders. They lost the previous year to the Miami Heat in the Finals. They could've easily gotten back with a healthy Westbrook, but, as they say, that's how that goes.

Fast-forward to training camp and the Thunder faced questions. Did they have that bench presence that James Harden and Kevin Martin provided in years past?

The popular name to assume the mantle was Jeremy Lamb, an extremely talented shooting guard from Connecticut. He could shoot and he could score, but he played a total of 147 minutes in the NBA last season. Seemed like possibly unrealistic expectations for a kid who saw some time in the D-League last season.

Then, news broke that Westbrook's knee needed another procedure and he might miss several weeks of the regular season. If the Thunder couldn't endure without Westbrook in the postseason, how could they for a few months of the regular season?

So we all dismissed the Thunder to some degree. They gave us reason based on performance without Westbrook and no really great backup to handle the job. Reggie Jackson was good, but could he guide the Thunder to elite status?

Hardly mattered.

Westbrook missed a total of two games. The kid who missed no time in high school, no time at UCLA and sat out his first NBA game after his knee injury in the playoffs far and away exceeded his timetable.

So it would be easy to assume that Westbrook's return in Game 3 was the singular moment that made everyone remember the Thunder are one of a handful of teams capable of winning the NBA title.

Or, it could be traced to a recent five-game winning streak, which has occurred thanks to defense.

After allowing 100-plus points in four straight, the last of which were losses, the Thunder tightened their belts and started stopping teams. During this five-game run, OKC has allowed 100 points just once and held the opposition to an average of 88.8 points per game.

Two of the victims during this streak - the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers - rank in the top 10 in scoring. The San Antonio Spurs are 11th by .4 of a point.

"I think the last three or four games we've put a string of defensive efforts and defensive performances we can continue to build on," head coach Scott Brooks said after the Spurs win on Wednesday.

This recent run of defensive prowess jumped the Thunder to ninth in the league in points allowed. They are fifth in opponents' field-goal percentage. In short, OKC has become a strong defensive program.

Defense isn't the only reason the Thunder began looking like the Thunder. Roles are becoming more clearly defined led by two men mentioned above, and it's not Durant and Westbrook.

It's Jackson and Lamb.

They've co-assumed the Harden/Martin role as the bench stud.

Lamb has scored in double figures in three straight and Jackson has gotten 10 or more in five of six. The only time Jackson failed to reach double digits, he had nine.

Jackson was gigantic in the Spurs victory on Wednesday. He had 23 points in 26 minutes of action and earned the respect of the NBA's grandest old-timer.

"Reggie Jackson kicked our (expletive)," noted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Those words were revered and uttered by the managers of the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers about the more famous Reggie Jackson, but this incarnation is vital for OKC's success.

Thabo Sefolosha is a fantastic defensive guard and a decent shooter, but there are going to be nights when the Thunder will need offense, even with Durant and Westbrook on the floor. (Westbrook had six points against the Spurs.)

If you analyze the recipe for NBA champions, the Thunder have the superstar portion down with Durant and Westbrook. If the defense holds up, and it should with Sefolosha and perennial All-Defensive fixture Serge Ibaka, and the bench produces like it has, we won't underestimate the Thunder any longer.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

- Even with Derrick Rose out for the season, I still believe the Chicago Bulls will get the third seed. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets don't appear anywhere close to unseating them. The Bulls will be a little over. 500 and that will be enough for the third seed, especially considering the Atlantic Division champ might be sub .500.

- The Cleveland Cavaliers are shopping Dion Waiters, but the market is not going to be huge. His reputation is as a gunner and some perceive him to be the problem child in Cleveland, despite ardent protests from Waiters himself.

- Derrick Williams is probably worth a flyer for the Sacramento Kings. He didn't play terribly in Minnesota last season, but he only played because 65 percent of able-bodied men in the Twin Cities couldn't.

- My MVP vote right now would go to Chris Paul by a hair over Paul George, LeBron James, Tony Parker and Kevin Love. Paul is averaging 19.0 ppg and 12.2 apg. Unreal production for a great team.

- Movie moment - Caught up with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." It's like Brad Pitt's "Forrest Gump" without the hip factor that even Gump didn't have. Button is not a movie for men.

- TV moment - I had to watch "The Mentalist" again to find out who Red John was. Too much hype and the payoff could never be enough. It wasn't. Although, using a pigeon to attack someone was pretty revolutionary.

11/29 14:19:53 ET

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