In the first 41 games, we saw players barrel down the lane for easy buckets, bomb 3-pointers in bunches and beat defenders backdoor for a barrage of alley-oops.
But those players weren't wearing Oklahoma City Thunder uniforms.
Those plays, made by the Thunder's opponents, defined how leaks and letdowns in the defense marred the first half of the Thunder's season.
A high-octane offense overshadowed many of those deficiencies and keyed victories. But even though the Thunder's record stands at a crisp 27-14, the team's winning formula at the halfway point has created a cumbersome identity crisis.
The team is winning in a way it doesn't want to.
The Thunder wants to win with defense. It has gotten by because of offense.
Only 12 of the Thunder's 27 wins have come by way of holding teams to less than 100 points. In fairness, three other victories extended to at least one overtime period. But the Thunder will start the second half of the year at Denver tonight ranked in the bottom third in points allowed, opponent field-goal percentage and opponent 3-point percentage.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he is pleased with his team's progress but also understands there is a difference between record and level of play.
“I look at both,” Brooks said. “But I like where we are right now. From the start of training camp, the effort and the energy has not dipped. And the focus and the commitment to continue to improve is still there.”
At its best, the Thunder's defense delivered shutdown performances in second halves. Rarely has the Thunder dug in for an entire four quarters. Those other stretches saw players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard throw down lob passes with little resistance, Rudy Gay and Aaron Brooks stroll down the lane for lightly-contested dunks and layups and Matt Bonner and Stephen Curry light up the scoreboard from beyond the arc.
“Our defense is still developing and needs to continue to get better,” Brooks said. “But we've done some things on that end where it's better but it hasn't been as consistent as we'd like it to be.”
Guarding the 3-point line was a complex challenge for Oklahoma City in the first half. The Thunder gave up at least seven 3-pointers on 18 occasions. Much of the shooting clinics came as a result of the Thunder's inability to stop dribble penetration.
Utah, for example, scored 120 points against the Thunder on Halloween and made seven of 11 3s. The Jazz racked up an opponent season-high 32 assists behind Deron Williams' ability to slither into the teeth of the Thunder's defense. Each time Williams made his way into the paint, he forced the Thunder to help and free up a cutter or spot up shooter.
Williams had 15 assists that game and, in the Thunder's third game of the season, provided the blueprint on how to overpower OKC.
The Thunder's offensive improvement, however, can't go ignored.
OKC is taking better care of the ball — lowering its turnovers from 15 per night a year ago to a 13.8-average this season — while earning 3.4 more trips to the foul line on average. The Thunder has been more effective and efficient running fast breaks and, in the half-court, attacking the basket rather than settling for jump shots.
With the exception of a few fourth-quarter clunkers, late-game execution has gotten drastically better this season, and inbounds plays throughout the game and in crunchtime have looked much sharper as well.
The Thunder's 3-point shooting, currently tied for last at 32.4 percent, has been worse than anticipated. But individual growth in several areas has been evident in many of the team's current core players.
“I think we're better than we were last year,” said Kevin Durant. “A lot of people put lofty expectations on us. But I think that we've progressed. As individuals, we've gotten better throughout the season … And our record is better. In this game, it's all about wins and losses.”
THUNDER STATISTICAL RANKINGS
WHERE THEY RANK
A look at where the Thunder ranks in select statistical categories.