For two seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder played with the same starting lineup. Players grew comfortable with a set rotation and a steady dose of the same minutes.
That all changed on Feb. 24, when the team traded two starters to acquire Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson from Boston. With Perkins and Robinson currently out with knee injuries, the Thunder has had to adjust on the fly despite losing power forward Jeff Green and center Nenad Krstic.
So far, the transition has been seamless.
The Thunder plugged in Serge Ibaka as the starting power forward and patched up the center position with Nazr Mohammed, who came over in a trade with Charlotte that sent reserves D.J. White and Morris Peterson to the Bobcats. In the two games that the Thunder has trotted out its new temporary lineup, OKC has averaged 112 points and given up just 96.5 per game. The Thunder allowed Atlanta to shoot 47.6 percent Friday but held Indiana to 34.1 percent shooting Wednesday.
“The best thing about this trade is we got veteran guys that learn quickly,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant. “Nazr's been on so many teams, Perk played on a championship team and Nate played on a team that went to the Finals. So they learn sets quickly and they learn defensive sets quickly. We just got to keep pushing and try to help them out as much as we can.”
SCORING MADE EASY
Over the past two games, the Thunder has scored 51 points off 33 opponent turnovers. The Thunder had 24 points off 17 Indiana turnovers on Wednesday and netted 27 points off 16 Atlanta turnovers on Friday.
“That's the best way to do it, I think, especially if they're running zone and they can't really set up,” said Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder also has made 48 of 55 free throws over the past two games, meaning 44 percent of the team's scoring in the last two outings has come off turnovers and at the charity stripe.
HARDEN STEPPING UP
It was no secret that someone on the Thunder would have to take on more of a scoring role following the departure of Green. That someone has been second-year guard James Harden.
In the four games since Green was traded to Boston, Harden has averaged 16.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting off the bench, displaying assertiveness attacking the basket unlike anything he had previously shown in a Thunder uniform.
In fact, in six games since the All-Star break, Harden has averaged 17 points on 47.6 percent shooting.
“We all believe in him, and he knows that,” Durant said. “And he's been playing defense very well these last few games. He's just playing hard for us. He's been working extremely hard and he's starting to see some of the benefits of it.”
The Thunder's winning ways could very well continue over the next three weeks as it integrates new pieces into the mix.
Starting with tonight's game against Phoenix, the Thunder is entering a favorable stretch of the season's schedule. Seven of this month's final 14 opponents are below .500.
After the Suns tonight, the Thunder plays at Memphis and at Philadelphia before hosting Detroit on March 11 and then going on a three-game road trip to Cleveland, Washington and Miami.
A six-game home stand follows the Miami game, starting with Charlotte on March 18, a potential target date for Perkins, who is recovering from a knee injury, to join the lineup. After the Bobcats, the Thunder hosts Toronto, Utah, Minnesota, Portland and Golden State. Of those six teams, only the Jazz and the Blazers have a winning record.
Newly acquired guard Robinson and forward Nick Collison got to know each other in Seattle while Robinson was playing college ball at Washington and Collison was with the SuperSonics.
“He used to come up and play with us during open gym in the summertime when I was in college,” Robinson said. “We'd mix it up. He's always been a great guy to me. He has great character and a great spirit about himself.”
Robinson recalled a charity event he had with Atlanta Hawks guard and fellow Seattle resident Jamal Crawford, during which Collison would up winning the softball Home Run Derby.
“He has a future if he wants to start his own softball league,” Robinson said of Collison. “He'd be the home run leader.”
Turns out Harden might not be the Thunder's only left-handed 3-point shooter. Horsing around with teammates after his first practice, Robinson was spotted nailing five straight 3-pointers right-handed. He then switched to left-handed and made three of five.
Asked if he was ambidextrous, Robinson said, ‘A little bit. It's something I've been practicing since I was a kid.”