Author - Brady Trantham

Is Enes Kanter close to returning?

Dec 14, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) reacts during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 109-89. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

With the All-Star game in the rearview mirror, the Oklahoma City Thunder set their sights to the unofficial second half of the season.

The next seven games set up with for the current seventh seed in the West. With the way the Thunder were playing leading up to the annual mid-season break, a soft schedule could work well into Oklahoma City’s fortune.

All this is a blessing, considering the Thunder could very well be seeing their star reserve return. Perhaps sooner rather than later.

Reports of Enes Kanter knowing his return date have trickled out over the last few weeks from The Oklahoman‘s Erik Horne and The Norman Transcript‘s Fred Katz. This comes as great news considering the early predictions that suggested Kanter’s 2016-17 year could have ended with the chair smash.

When the Thunder take on the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at the Chesapeake Arena, it will be four weeks to the day when the franchise announced Kanter’s successful surgery and four week reevaluation.

At this point, to expect Kanter back Friday or shortly after is still a tad too optimistic. While Oklahoma City would certainly benefit from the Turkish big man returning to the rotation, the Thunder’s schedule may afford the team more time to be cautious with Kanter.

When the Thunder returned to practice on Wednesday, Kanter was participating in what was described as a non-contact, heavy conditioning practice.

“He’s been cleared to practice,” Billy Donovan said earlier today at practice. “Enes doesn’t have a problem shooting.”

Donovan elaborated on Kanter’s status in the short term.

“As it relates to Friday, it will be more of a medical decision, so I don’t wan’t to say he is in or out,” Donovan shared.

This comes as welcome news for Oklahoma City.

Back in the Thunder’s January road-dog schedule, Oklahoma City went 7-6 with Kanter. That stretch included road games at Golden State, Houston, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Utah. From Kanter’s first missed game against Cleveland on January 29th to now, the Thunder’s record was 4-6 — a more home friendly schedule but two meetings against the Cavaliers, road game against San Antonio and Kevin Durant’s return to Oklahoma City.

While the schedule grew favorable with more home games in Kanter’s absence, the opponents were much tougher than the January slate.

Why is it okay to be excited to expect Kanter to not only return at some point this season, but make an impact with the team as they close out the regular season? The recent news about Kanter being cleared to practice shouldn’t be shocking.

If you have been listening to the Peake & Roll Podcast — if you haven’t, shame on you. Subscribe and listen here! — then you may have heard a little anecdote concerning the injured Kanter on episode 14.

The week of the Golden State game in Oklahoma City, two weeks after the surgery, Kanter was seen walking around the practice facility in full practice jersey garb and no cast on his arm. He was moving in a way that made it seem he did not want to be seen by the media, as he waited to walk on the floor after a player was made available for questions — backs turned to the court, before he quickly walked down a corridor.

This could be a case of looking to much into a common occurrence, but it was an odd sight to behold considering no one expected to see Kanter until after the All-Star break.

At 32-25, Oklahoma City finds itself a mere three games back from the fourth seed. There are 25 games remaining, with eight of those being against teams with winning record — the fewest in the NBA per The Oklahoman‘s Brett Dawson. Even if the Thunder decide to remain on the cautious side concerning Kanter’s injury and save him for the postseason at the latest, its no pipe dream that the Thunder could gain some ground without him.

But all things considered, it may be okay to expect to see the mustached big back soon. Only Kanter knows, as he shared with reporters with his trademark grin.

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New York practice notes

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight’s game against the New York Knicks (23-33) is the final game for the Oklahoma City Thunder before the All-Star break.

After the emotional game on Saturday and hangover blowout loss on Monday, the Thunder may be looking forward to their mid-season break.

According to Russell Westbrook, the team will not overlook the Knicks. Why?

“Not if you’ve got your ass kicked two times in a row,” Westbrook said emphatically.

The Thunder’s recent loss against the Washington Wizards — which saw Oklahoma City miss 24 consecutive shots — is a large reason the Thunder want to come out firing tonight against the Knicks.

“We need to set the tone for the first quarter,” Westbrook added. “We need to get back to starting games the right way.

Early in the first quarter Monday night, Oklahoma City found themselves in a 22-6 hole.

Domantas Sabonis — who will now be joined by teammate Alex Abrines in the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans — also spoke on the importance on focusing on the Knicks.

“They are a very talented team, and we need to come out strong for 48 minutes.”

With this being the final game until All-Star weekend, many questions centered around the Thunder’s three participents in the festvities over the weekend.

“Just have fun,” Sabonis said. “I’ve been talking to Russ and Steven (Adams) and they said to find some time to rest.”

Abrines is the most recent additon to the All-Star week activites. Sadly, Abrines’ vacation trip to the Bahamas will be altered with his weekend destined for New Orleans.

“I was very surprised,” Abrines shared. “I was really happy, I was planning on leaving tomorrow morning for the Bahamas but now I will just leave a few days later.”

Abrines is ready for the challenge.

“It’s an honor. There are a lot of great players in this game and I’m excited to improve.”

While his Bahamas plan was changed, Abrines still plans to take his girlfriend on a walk around town in New Orleans.

In a surprising news nugget, former Thunder player Kendrick Perkins was at practice chatting with Westbrook, Andre Roberson and coaches. According to the Thunder, Perkins was just in town and saying hello to old teammtes.

Stay tuned with Thunder Digest for gameday coverage, live tweets and the recap!

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Golden State practice notes

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The atmosphere surrunding the Oklahoma City Thunder practice facility matched that of a playoff series.

Dozens of media members decended upon Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams, hours before the most hyped game in Oklahoma City since July 4th, 2016.

Westbrook was in a particlarly cheerful mood, and very open. He smiled and welcomed the barrage of questions on the Golden State Warriors.

“They are a good transistion team, they shoot a lot of threes,” Westbook said as he was explaining the keys to stopping the Warriors. “We gotta be ready in that aspect and be ready to play.”

Of course, the cause for the media circus is the return of Kevin Durant. Other than stating that for eight years as teammates, Durant meant a lot for the city, Westbrook, of course, was short in his answers regarding his former teammate.

“Be physical,” Westbrook said when asked about defending Durant.

Westbrook did reveal if a teammate leaving has hurt him.

“Hurt? I mean I’m fine. Move forward. Things happen in life and as a man you’ve got to move forward. I have a great group of guys here that I love like my brothers. There have been many teammates come and go that I talk to and don’t talk too — not just Kevin (Durant).”

Steven Adams offered no revelations into his thoughts on how he expects the Oklahoma City crowd to react to Durant’s return.

“I really don’t know, we will see what happens.”

When asked if he has talked to Durat since his departure, Adams replied in a most Kiwi way.

“No, he’s not on my team.”

Even Zaza Pachulia, the newest addition to the Westbrook hit-list, didn’t raise any emotion when ESPN’s Royce Young asked if he was upset he wasn’t playing tonight.

“I don’t care,” Westbrook replied.

With Pachulia out, the Thunder have a huge advantage down low, which Westbrook and Steven Adams expounded upon.

“We can use our size, attack the paint,” Westbrook shared.

“We are going to try and stick our system,” Adams said when asked about the loss of Pachulia. “We’re not going to try and over do something.”

As the emotions swirl around the metro in preperation for tonight’s game, Westbrook couldn’t recall a time growing up as a Lakers fan where his heart was broken.

“Heart broken? Maybe my dad more so than me,” Westbrook shared. “I was more worried about school honestly.”

The Thunder will look to take advantage of the Warriors — who will be on the second night of a back to back and continue the good trends from Thursday night’s win against the Cavaliers.

Stay here with Thunder Digest all day for coverage of tonight’s game against the Golden State Warriors.

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The Thunder has a third quarter problem

As NBA seasons develop, patterns emerge. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, a particular trend has kept the current seventh seed in the West from turning their fortune in some heartbreakers.

The most recent game in Indiana is a perfect example. One of the more pressing problems that has haunted the Thunder so far is the third quarter.

After extending the lead to 16 in the first half, the Pacers came charging back in the second half to take back the lead. A valiant effort by Russell Westbrook gave Oklahoma City a chance late, but the early second half collapse proved too much to overcome.

The main culprit? The Thunder were outscored 32-18 in the third quarter.

“The third quarter was not a case where we played good basketball start to finish,” Coach Billy Donovan said at practice today.

This has not been a rare occurrence, it has become rather common. With the season getting closer to the All-Star break, the Thunder’s ability to hold halftime leads and keep up in the second half has been extremely challenged as of late.

The NBA team average for points in a game is 105.3 — when you break that down by quarters, the average amounts to 26.3 points per period. So far this season, OKC has endured 16 third quarters where their opponents broke the 30 point mark.

Again, it is a problem that has plagued OKC all season: In the 2016 calendar year, the Thunder gave up eight 30 point performances and have now matched that amount in the 2017 portion of their schedule in fewer games.

To simply give up 30 points in a third quarter is not a death sentence, but it isn’t something to overlook. The Thunder are 6-10 in games where they surrender a 30 point outburst in the third.

Another example is the most recent game against the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder matched the Warriors in the first half as well as the fourth quarter for the most part. What doomed OKC was a 37-22 blitz by the Warriors in the third quarter.

But you have to be realistic. It is near impossible for a team constructed like OKC is to not have a few hiccups over an 82-game season. Some nights the shots won’t fall, and others the hoop is a mile wide. In a season where every win and loss is magnified higher than in previous regular seasons, the Thunder cannot afford the luxury of sidestepping flaws. Especially when they have been festering as the season progresses.

Looking deeper into the third quarter mess reveals an interesting fact. Going back to Jan. 1, the Thunder has been outscored by 10 points in the third quarter six times. From October — the opening night game — to December, OKC was outscored in the third quarter by 10 points once. It has worsened over time.

The defense is not the only side of the ball at fault. Offensively — especially with the loss of Enes Kanter as well as the Steven Adams absence a few weeks ago — the Thunder has underperformed. OKC has failed to score 20 points in the third quarter six times, however three of those have come in the last 30 days.

It is an oddity to say the least. The Thunder are rarely blown out from the jump. Even with these third quarter collapses, OKC has found ways to climb back into ball games to make it competitive late. The last game against the Pacers is another example of this.

While the team is far from perfect, a roster that has Westbrook, Victor Oladipo and Adams will always give you a fighting chance to win games. It appears the third quarter is the teams most glaring weakness.

Is it fatigue? A lack of focus? Adams can’t pinpoint the cause.

“It’s just one of those things that we need to correct,” Adams said. “To win you have to be dialed in for 48 minutes a game.”

If OKC is going to salvage as many wins in Kanter’s absence, they need to plug the third quarter hole quickly.

Tomorrow night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers — while difficult — would be an opportune time to reverse the dreaded third quarter trend.

 

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Thunder get rolled by Cavs 107-91

Russell Westbrook recorded his 24th triple-double of the season for the Thunder, but it wasn’t enough as Oklahoma City fell to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 107-91.

Oklahoma City got out to a hot start, as they were pushing the ball in transition and beating Cleveland down the court almost every time. They won the first quarter 24-21.

Things got lopsided in the second quarter, as the Thunder couldn’t seem to get a bucket and the Cavs finally started hitting. The Thunder started forcing some bad shots and were eventually outscored by 16 in the second quarter.

Three pointers weren’t falling tonight which ended up being a big problem for OKC. They finished the game 6-of-26 from behind the line. Westbrook was 1-of-6 and Victor Oladipo was 1-of-4.

Leading the Thunder was Russell Westbrook with 20 points, but not a great shooting night finishing 7-of-26. Next was Oladipo with 17, and Joffrey Lauvergne with 14.

This was the Thunder’s first game without Enes Kanter, and his absence was really showing. The second unit had really found a groove, throwing him the ball inside and him either making a post move or dishing it out. That was nowhere to be found today as the offense ended up pretty stagnant.

Oklahoma City had no answer for Kyrie Irving and Lebron James. Both of them could score at any time and were having their way with the Thunder’s defense. Irving finished with 29, James with 25. Iman Shumpert added in 16. Kevin Love sat the second half with an injury, and only played 12 minutes. In his absence, Tristan Thompson had 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Oklahoma City made a run with Westbrook on the bench in the fourth, getting within 82-75 but Irving scored a pair of layups and later drained a 30-foot three-pointer to give the Cavs a 98-82 lead.

Overall, the Thunder just didn’t have an answer for Cleveland’s stars. The bench cut the lead to 7 in the fourth, but just couldn’t get stops. They were trading buckets, and hitting two’s while Cleveland started nailing three’s. The game got out of hand late, as the Thunder just couldn’t keep up.

Next up for Oklahoma City is the San Antonio Spurs. That game will be on the road Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Transition: C-

The Thunder started out with this ranking as an A+ after the first quarter. They made Cleveland look pretty old and slow. But as the game went on, the Thunder stopped running and getting buckets in transition. They didn’t have many opportunities to run after turnovers, as they only forced five.

Big third: C+

The Thunder were only outscored by two in the third quarter. Holding back this grade, is the fact that they only scored 20 points. If the offense could score tonight, the outcome may have been different. Granted, they did only allow Cleveland 22 points, so it was a solid defensive quarter.

Pound the glass: B-

The reason why this grade is higher than the others, is the fact that the Thunder grabbed 55 rebounds. They out rebounded Cleveland but still couldn’t get a whole lot going from offensive boards. Steven Adams finished the game with only seven points. They also allowed 19 points to Tristan Thompson.

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OKC in 10 game stretches shows team’s success

Dec 14, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan reacts during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Professional basketball players are asked every day, before and after each game, about the importance or disappointment of a single win or loss. Over an 82 game stretch, it is safe to assume that these questions draw some ire out of the players.

Two season ago, when the Oklahoma City Thunder were reeling in an injury-plagued season, the former Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins provided insight on how the team views their season. Simply, they break it down into 10 game intervals.

It is easy to get caught up in the moment. The Thunder recently blew a halftime lead in Minneapolis before losing to the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves. A bad loss no matter how you slice it. But when viewed from the 10 game lens, its impact weighs less heavy.

At this point — prior to tonight’s game against the Sacramento Kings — the Thunder find themselves at 24-17. Not bad, not great. Considering team losses and some injuries here and there, Oklahoma City fans are happy. If you look at the season through Perkins’ 10 game intervals, you may become more pleased.

1ST 10 GAMES – 6-4

2ND 10 GAMES – 6-4

3RD 10 GAMES – 6-4

4TH 10 GAMES – 6-4

You add in the recent Minnesota loss — the first of the 5th 10 game interval — and you find yourself at the 24-17 mark.

What does this mean? From a good sample size, the Thunder are a team that bounce back and steady the ship. With a few head scratching losses and the occasional exciting upset victory, Oklahoma City has shown who and what they are.

A deeper look inside their schedule results:

LONGEST WINNING STREAK – SIX GAMES

LONGEST LOSING STREAK – FOUR GAMES

That is a little funny. Six and four.

With the four game losing streak and two three game losing streaks the Thunder have lost back to back games only one other time. There will be more stretches of consecutive losses but with how the Thunder have proven to be rather resilient, those stretches will be short.

It would be foolish to not acknowledge the Thunder’s immediate future. A California road trip which includes the LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors, followed by a battle in Salt Lake City. After one more home game, Oklahoma City will finish out January with consecutive road games in Cleveland and San Antonio. By far the most difficult month of any NBA team.

The Thunder’s 6-4 average may be skewed due to the gauntlet of January. With that same assumption, Oklahoma City’s evidence on the floor suggests it would not be wise to simply bury the Thunder due to a plethora of road games.

In other words, a future 10 game stretch may result in a disappointing 4-6 record. But there is nothing wrong with then assuming that the Thunder can again steady the ship and go 7-3 in the next 10 game stretch.

For more perspective, if the Thunder’s 6-4 average through 10 game intervals continue, they would finish anywhere from 48 wins to 50 wins. This would put the Thunder anywhere from the 7th to the 4th seed.

Even 41 games into the season it is difficult to project a team’s future. Especially when you consider Oklahoma City’s schedule pre and post January. But there is something to be said about witnessing a team’s resiliency and grit. Two things Russell Westbrook perfectly personifies.

The Thunder will only go as far as Westbrook can take them. While he leads the league in scoring and is still averaging a triple-double, Westbrook has shown stretches of great play where he elevates his team and poor stretches where he can be the cause of poor losses.

About a 6-4 average if you think about it.

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OKC closes Memphis 103-95

Jan 11, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jerami Grant (9) blocks a shot attempt by Memphis Grizzlies forward James Ennis (8) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Russell Westbrook needed all 82 regular season games to hit 18 triple-doubles. Through 40 games in the 2016-17 season, Westbrook now has 18 as his Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 103-95.

In a rare January home game, the Thunder led from start to finish. It was an excellent reply to the Memphis knockout punch the Thunder endured a few weeks ago.

After being ejected in the previous match and recording no assists, Westbrook scored 24 points, dished out 12 assists and grabbed 13 boards. As impressive as his offense was, his defense was equally as impressive. Memphis point guard Mike Conley didn’t record his first points until the five minute mark of the second quarter.

Besides the triple-double, the story was the absolute brawl of a matchup between the Memphis and Oklahoma City bigs. Both teams combined for 98 points in the paint. The duo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter combined for 31 points, 21 rebounds and four assists.

Grizzly bigs, Zach Randolph and Mark Gasol were neutralized offensively but forced Kanter and Adams into frustrating periods of play — Kanter had three airballs.

Both teams hovered around the 30 percent mark from beyond the arc. As history has shown, when Memphis and Oklahoma City get together, the defense picks up.

“I feel disrespected right along with him,” Westbrook said replying to Andre Roberson’s thoughts earlier today. The previous matchup saw Memphis absolutely light it up from the floor, especially at the end of the game when it was out of reach. Tonight, Roberson and the Thunder made sure Memphis couldn’t find any rhythm from the floor.

The Grizzlies shot 41 percent from the floor and even struggled from the charity stripe. Memphis shoots 78 percent from the free throw line but was abysmal tonight, shooting 12-of-21. On the other end, the Thunder made Memphis pay for each foul — only missing six of their 29 attempts.

While Oklahoma City led by ten throughout, the Grizzlies would not quit. Under two minutes to go, it was a four point game with the Thunder playing sloppy offense. This led to the most exciting sequence of the game.

Conley had a clean steal at the top of the key from Adams. The seven footer then hustled down the floor and forced Conley to put Memphis into the half court. After a few dribbles, Conley pulled up for a three that Adams then blocked, leading to a Westbrook steal, fast break and Oladipo dagger three. From then, the Thunder closed the game with a few Jerami Grant (10 points) highlight dunks.

“It was an incredibly play, his ability to run the floor,” Billy Donovan said in the post game. “That play embodied what was required tonight against Memphis to win.”

“He’s becoming one of the best big men in the league now,” fellow Stache Brother Kanter said after the game.

The Thunder are now 15-3 in the 18 games Westbrook has earned a triple-double. While some may see Westbrook as a stat chaser, his head coach sees it differently.

“It’s easy to get wrapped in numbers and only focus on numbers, but numbers don’t always reflect winning. These numbers reflect winning,” Donovan proclaimed. It’s hard to argue with him.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Defend the rim B-

Memphis dropped 52 points in the paint — which is nothing to write home about. But they were able to match Memphis’ physicality and force Gasol into a bad game, who scored only nine points. Westbrook even made Conley think twice on three easy layups after a monster block earlier in the game. Statistically it wasn’t pretty, but when you remember that scoring down low is what Memphis likes to do, the Thunder’s effort was paramount.

GO FAST A+

Playing fast against the Grizzlies is hard to do. Their grinding style of play is easy to fall into, yet the Thunder were able to find opportunities to get out on the open floor time and time again. They outscored Memphis 27-9 on the fast break and were able to play enough of their game to never surrender the lead all night.

PLAY WITHIN THE GAME A+

While the Thunder found opportunities to go fast, they were able to run their offense in the half court and harass the Memphis bigs. The Grizzlies were unable to put together successful runs or find any rhythm from downtown. Excellent overall game from Oklahoma City.

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OKC loses third straight, falls to Rockets 118-116

Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) is guarded by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) in the third quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder (21-16) dropped a heart breaker to the Houston Rockets (28-9) 118-116.

Russell Westbrook was on fire throughout, scoring a game high 49 points on 16-of-34 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five assists. Westbrook even dropped a career high and an Oklahoma City Thunder record eight three pointers on 15 attempts.

After a hot start in the first quarter, the Thunder held a 14 point lead. For the remainder of the second quarter and the first 10 minutes of the third, the Rockets outscored Oklahoma City 57-30. The Thunder found themselves down as many as 18.

Westbrook never sat in the third quarter. A curious decision considering Billy Donovan’s consistency with Westbrook’s breaks. Surprisingly it paid off.

The bench, primarily Enes Kanter who finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, along with Victor Oladipo — 17 points — scratched and clawed the Thunder back into the game.

After being outscored by the Rockets 33-18 in the second quarter, the Thunder’s defense stiffened to a degree, resulting in a 33-21 advantage for the Thunder.

“We did a much better job of defending and rebounding the basketball in the second half.” Donovan told reporters. “We didn’t do a very good job defending in the first half because we sent them to the line 18 times.”

After a flurry of Westbrook layups and an Oladipo three, the game was tied at 116 with 3.7 seconds left.

James Harden — 26 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists — took advantage of a collapsing Thunder defense and found Nene rolling towards the basket where he was fouled on a dunk attempt. Nene made both free throws giving the Rockets the lead for good. A controversial play where it appeared Nene wasn’t even touched by Thunder defenders.

“I’m not saying if it was a foul or not,” Donovan said after the game “but I thought our guys fought hard to get us back into position to win.”

The final play saw the Thunder attempt a pass to Kanter for a tip in that failed to hit the goal.

On a second night of a back-to-back, the Thunder could have easily folded down 18 late in the third. It was an exciting game pitting the league’s top MVP candidates. The stars did not disappoint. Westbrook and Harden combined for 75 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds.

The Thunder now have lost four of their last five games.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Defend the three D 

The Thunder held the Rockets to 38 percent from 3 on 15-of-39 shooting. Every time the Thunder made a run, a defender would leave a shooter all alone for a back breaking three. Houston is on pace to shatter the NBA record for three point attempts and makes for a single season and Oklahoma City did little to stop both in critical moments.

Good Russ down the stretch B

Westbrook scored nine points in the fourth and assisted on the biggest shot of the quarter to tie the game. What people will remember the dribble-dribble-pull-up-jumper from three that just rimmed out for what would have been the lead with 3 seconds left. Westbrook got the Thunder back into the game but couldn’t quite finish.

Show up, Bench C

If it wasn’t for Kanter, the bench would have scored seven points. Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines and Semaj Christon didn’t help the Thunder much offensively. In a game where the Rockets played sloppy defense, the bench’s collective performance is disappointing.

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Westbrook vs Harden – MVP comparison

Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) blocks a shot attempt by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight’s NBA showdown puts Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder against the James Harden led Houston Rockets.

The Thunder are coming off two disappointing road losses to Eastern Conference foes while the Rockets are riding a five game winning streak. Not only is this a big game for the Western Conference standings — Oklahoma City is currently in the sixth seed and Houston is the third seed. — but it is an exciting matchup between the league’s top two candidates for Most Valuable Player.

36 games into the NBA season, where do we find ourselves in the MVP race? Here is a quick rundown of the seasons these two megastars are having:

RUSSELL WESTBROOK

  • Currently averaging a triple-double — (league high) 30.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game.
  • The deepest into the season that a player has averaged a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season.
  • Westbrook leads the league in clutch time points scored — fourth quarter or overtime with less than five minutes to go and neither team is ahead by more than five points — Westbrook has scored 134 points, Isaiah Thomas is second with 98 points.
  • According to NBAMiner.com, Westbrook is fourth in the league in “And-1” plays with 32 and seventh in the league in completed “And-1” plays with 23 made free throws.
  • Westbrook’s assists have accounted for 41.5 percent of the Thunder’s made three-point shots.
  • Per 36 minutes, Westbrook leads the league with 32.2 points per game.
  • Westbrook leads the league with 10.7 free throw attempts per game, shooting 82 percent.
  • Westbrook has five games this season with over 40 points scored, including a season high 51 points. Of those five games, Westbrook achieved three triple-doubles. The 51 point effort included 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
  • Westbrook has a seven game triple-double streak, second longest in NBA history.
  • Out of 36 games, Westbrook has been held under 20 points only three times. He has not been held to single digits.
  • Season high 51 points, season low 14 points.
  • Westbrook has the season high for assists in a single game with 22 against Phoenix on December 17, 2016.
  • Westbrook has eclipsed the 15 assist mark seven times this season.
  • Westbrook has eclipsed the 15 rebound mark five times this season — three games with 17 rebounds (season highs).
  • Westbrook is 11th in the league in rebounding. The only point guard in the top 40. Rajon Rondo is second among point guards with 6.5 rebounds. If you stretch it out to point guards and shooting guards, Westbrook still leads — Harden is second with 8.2 rebounds.
  • Westbrook has 16 triple-doubles on the season, second most has nine. Oklahoma City is 13-3 when Westbrook gets a triple-double.
  • Points, rebounds and assists thus far are the highest for Westbrook’s career.

JAMES HARDEN

  • Currently averaging 28.4 points, (league high) 11.9 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game.
  • Harden’s league high 11.9 assists is by far the most by a shooting guard. Nicolas Batum is second with 5.9 assists
  • According to NBAMiner.com, Harden leads the league in assists leading to made three-point baskets with 5.2 three-point baskets per game.
  • Harden is second to Westbrook in free throw attempts per game with 10.3 but leads Westbrook in free throw percentage at 85 percent.
  • Harden boasts the highest scoring triple-double of the season when he earned 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on December 31, 2016.
  • Harden is second in the NBA in triple-doubles. The Rockets are 8-1 in games where Harden earns a triple-double.
  • Harden is currently on a three game triple-double streak.
  • Harden has three triple-doubles against the top two teams in the West — two against San Antonio and one against Golden State — Houston went 2-1 in those games.
  • Harden leads the league in 15+ assist games with nine.
  • Out of 36 games, Harden has been held under 20 points only four times. He has not been held to single digits.
  • Season high 53 points, season low 13 points.
  • Harden’s season average totals in assists and rebounds are the highest for his career.
  • Harden has two 40+ scoring games, including the 53 point game.
  • Harden has eight games where he was perfect from the charity stripe — including and 18-for-18 performance against Boston on December 5, 2016.
  • Harden has made at least five three-pointers in a single game six times, including a nine made three-pointers performance.
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With each game Sabonis shows improvement

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Legacy is an integral part of the NBA. For some players, the desire is to create a foundation of memories and amazing play. Championships, records and accolades are the fuel for this particular drive.

For others, the desire stems from continuing a legacy.

Domantas Sabonis is no stranger to the latter. The challenge for the former Gonzaga Wildcat is attempting to balance the expectations that are inherent with star lineage and the patience that is needed for a rookie lottery pick.

Through the first six games of the season, Sabonis has shown glimpses of what made Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti pull the trigger on the Serge Ibaka trade. While the focus of that player transfer was Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, many around the NBA applauded Presti for adding Sabonis to the deal.

The Thunder as a franchise is in a pseudo-rebuilding mode after the departure of Kevin Durant. A luxury considering Russell Westbrook is fully entrenched for the foreseeable future. Other than Westbrook, the starters are all under 25 years old.

Sabonis is an integral part to the Thunder equation. If Oklahoma City is going find sustained success in the post-Durant era, Sabonis will have a lot to say about it.

So far in this young NBA season, Sabonis has given the Thunder reason for optimism.

In the first three games, Sabonis struggled. Of course, any rookie will have their lapses. Foul trouble and unfamiliarity with the increase in competition plagued Sabonis.

“There maybe some nights where he will get into foul trouble, he got some early fouls against (Blake) Griffin,” Billy Donovan told reporters during the early Sunday morning practice. “It’s going to be a process, anytime you’re young like that, there will be ebbs and flows.”

The West Coast back-to-back was the business trip the rookie needed. Prior to the Clippers’ game, Sabonis averaged four points, 2 rebounds and no blocks or assists. From the Clippers’ game since, his averages have seen a steady increase: eight points, four rebounds, one block and three assists.

The crowning moment was the big three-point shot Sabonis hit late in the fourth against the Clippers. It was a shot that finally gave the Thunder the lead, which it never surrendered. It was a shot that common rookies are hesitant to attempt.

“Coming out of the California trip and this last game (against Minnesota), he’s had three games where we’ve seen improvement, hopefully that can keep happening,” Donovan added at practice.

Statistics are just one part of the process. Like Donovan said, there will be ebbs and flows with young players. The box score will be all over the map as the season marches on. For Sabonis, it is all about consistency.

The team respects Sabonis’ game. Veterans like Nick Collison have taken it upon themselves to help mold the former lottery pick. Similar to the improvement from Steven Adams’ rookie campaign going into his current play, Collison understands the ability Sabonis’ possesses.

“He’s got a good feel on how to play already, he’s very skilled,” Collison shared at Sunday’s practice. “He has a good feel for everything that goes on on the court, he’s an impressive guy to be doing it at that age.”

While team expectations overall have been tempered to an extent, the improvement Sabonis has made in a few short weeks has given the franchise the optimism necessary to continue to play the rookie even through some tough stretches. Once the game slows down and Sabonis understands the way the game is officiated, you can expect the rookie to be vital to the Thunder’s success.

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