The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Sports

December 18, 2012

Westbrook, Durant giving Thunder assist

OKLAHOMA CITY —  From the NBA Finals to the All-Star Game to the Olympics, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have proven themselves to be one of basketball’s most dynamic duos.

To lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the league’s best record, they’ve found even more ways to make an impact — primarily by putting their teammates in better positions to contribute.

Both Durant and Westbrook are averaging career highs in assists this season while cutting down on their turnovers, helping the Thunder become the NBA’s highest-scoring team with an impressive line of statistics. Oklahoma City leads the league in 3-point accuracy and free throw percentage and ranks second in overall field-goal shooting.

“We’re passing the ball so much better this year,” said coach Scott Brooks, who has long harped on the need to improve the team’s assist numbers and cut down on turnovers. “Our basketball knowledge has improved a lot the past few years just from all the experiences that we’ve had. Our passing and our spacing is really good. Our offense has been in a nice rhythm.”

Somehow, Oklahoma City finished third in the league in scoring last season despite the dubious combination of passing out the fewest assists (18.5 per game) while committing the most turnovers (16 per game). Loaded with individual talent, the Thunder struggled to turn it all into something even better.

“In the past, I think we were more of an isolation team. We relied on our talent, probably too much at times,” forward Nick Collison said. “So, we’re trying to get away from that and get more to where we’re executing, sharing the ball and getting easier shots.”

Although they were unable to sustain it in the NBA Finals against Miami, the catalyst for change may have been the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Down 2-0 in the series, Oklahoma City rallied for four straight wins with its best team basketball of the year.

Durant came back committed to improving his all-around game, proving it with his first career triple-double earlier this season. Westbrook, whose assist totals dropped off last season, is passing the ball better than ever. He’s in the top 10 in scoring, assists and steals and is also among the top 10 guards in rebounding.

As a team, Oklahoma City is now in the top half of the league in assists.

“We’re not having to rely on our guys to make incredible plays, difficult plays. We’re getting a lot more easy shots. I think Kevin and Russell deserve a lot of credit for that,” Collison said. “They’ve embraced it and they’re trusting everybody else. The decisions are easier when the spacing’s better. I think that’s part of it, too. But when we’re not playing in a crowd, we get better shots.”

Some early-season growing pains after NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden was traded away — his role taken over by Kevin Martin — has faded away. Durant, who has won the scoring title the past three seasons, got some immediate criticism for being too passive and forcing the ball to others, while Westbrook opened the season in an awful shooting slump.

Oklahoma City has dispelled any doubts with the franchise’s longest winning streak since 1996 — the last time it was coming off of an appearance in the NBA Finals (then as the Seattle SuperSonics).

“We’re happy with it but we’re not satisfied,” Brooks said. “We’re going to keep doing what we do, and that’s play every game the best we can and live with the results. We know we’re not going to win every game in this league.”

Westbrook, particularly, doesn’t seem ready to accept that.

Even after Oklahoma City won its 10th straight game, Westbrook was displeased and started to duck around a group of reporters, who had gathered at his locker and skip his postgame interview. When he was tracked down at the exit to the locker room, he had no interest in patting himself on the back for his seventh double-digit assist game of the season — more than he had in 86 games last season, including the playoffs.

“I can do better,” he said.

His coach wasn’t surprised.

“He never cheats the game,” Brooks said. “He’s not a perfect player, like nobody in this league is. But his effort is always good. He plays with a lot of desire and a lot of heart and determination.”

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