By John Hollinger
ATLANTA -- If you’re measuring how far the Oklahoma City Thunder have come in a year, consider this: Last season, the Thunder needed all 82 games just to win 23. This year, they did it in half the time.
Unbelievably, the Thunder hit the midpoint of the season having already matched last year’s win total at 23-18 in the wake of Monday’s thrilling 94-91 win in Atlanta. And while there were many heroes -- Kevin Durant with his de rigeur 29 points, most notably -- for the purposes of brevity I’ll highlight two.
First, and most obviously, there was Jeff Green. With the Thunder clinging to a 91-89 lead and 15 seconds left, Green had the ball near midcourt and was trying to get it to Durant. But with Josh Smith smothering him and Joe Johnson denying Durant, there wasn’t any opening for him to get his prolific teammate the rock.
“The play was drawn up for Kevin,” said Green, “But Atlanta did a tremendous job denying it to him. He couldn’t get the ball [and] I didn’t want to force it to him.”
So instead, Green took matters into his own hands. He spun away from Smith’s pressure, dribbled down the lane, and uncorked a right-handed statue-of-liberty slam over Smith that left the home crowd gasping. It’s rare to see one of the league’s top shot-blockers posterized in his own building, let alone on such a crucial play.
“The play of the game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “[The Hawks] did a good job not letting KD get the ball. Jeff made as a strong a move as we’ve had all year. … He knew they were going to go after his shot and he did a good job going over Josh.”
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” said Green. “He was on my back hip, I just wanted to make a play at the rim. I knew he was coming, I was just trying to finish the play.”
That play wouldn’t have happened, however, had Green not made a stellar defensive stop first. With 33 seconds left and the Hawks looking to tie or take the lead, Atlanta caught Green in an isolation against Joe Johnson in Johnson’s favorite spot at the left elbow.
But Green chased him off the jumper and forced him into a wild miss, setting up his game-clinching theatrics at the other end.
“I just wanted to take him to the baseline,” said Green, “I knew I had help coming. I know how good Joe is, I know he can make that jump shot with ease at the elbow. I just wanted to make him make a contested shot.”
After Green made the free throw, the Thunder led by five, and while they had to endure a desperation 3-point attempt by Jamal Crawford that could have tied it, Green’s plays were the ones that put Oklahoma on top.
The other notable performance came from reserve big man Serge Ibaka. The raw 20-year-old rookie, who grew up in the Congo without shoes or running water, earned extended duty due to the absence of Nick Collison (concussion) and had six points and 10 boards in 24 minutes.
In doing so, he is giving Western Conference rivals yet another reason to fret about the Thunder’s future: Yes, it appears they’ve found another keeper. Beyond the stats, Ibaka’s athleticism and energy allowed the Thunder to keep pace with Atlanta’s jumping jacks -- something that rarely happens in Philips Arena.
A late first-round pick in 2008, Ibaka has come a long way after spending last season as a bit player in Spain. The idea this season, most observers thought, was to let him get his feet wet in the D-League. Instead, his development has been so rapid that he’s already a rotation player.
“We brought him in over the summer,” said Brooks, “and he’s getting better because he’s a serious competitor. He wants to compete, he wants to get better, and it’s exciting to watch because he’s putting the work in and he’s coachable.”
It was the fourth time in five games Ibaka played at least 20 minutes, and the Thunder have won three of them. While his role will likely diminish a bit once Collison returns, his presence fills out a frontcourt that seemed dangerously thin when training camp began.
It’s one of many quantum leaps the Thunder have made in the past twelve months. It’s hard to remember, but a year ago at this time they were 8-33. They've nearly tripled their first-half win total, and after another hard-fought road win in a tough arena the Thunder -- who are one of only seven teams with a winning road record at 11-9 -- seem well on their way to making the playoffs a couple years ahead of schedule.