What's That Sound? The Thunder Gaining Ground
After watching the Washington Wizards barely hold on against a really putrid Sacramento Kings team on Wednesday night, I skipped over the battle of Los Angeles (I knew the Lakers were going to beat the Clippers), and clicked over to Oklahoma City against Golden State to check out the other competition that the Wizards, unfortunately, find themselves in for the rest of the season -- for league's worst record.
The Wizards (9-32) put the pressure on the Thunder to keep pace, and it did, defeating the Warriors, 122-121, in exhilarating fashion as Prince George's County native and former Georgetown star Jeff Green hit a turnaround jumper off the glass as time expired. The victory was the Thunder's third in its past four games and it moved the team into a three-way tie with the Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers for the fewest wins in the NBA. The Thunder (9-34) has just a one-game lead in the ping-pong race.
When the Wizards defeated Oklahoma City on Dec. 27, the loss dropped the Thunder to 3-28 and had the team on pace to lose 74 games and catch the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in NBA history. Since then, the Thunder (9-34) has gone 6-6, with two of those wins against playoff contenders Utah and Detroit. The Thunder is clearly getting better as the season progresses. The young core of Green, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook offers reason for excitement. Last night, Westbrook had 30 points and seven assists, Durant had 27 points and 12 rebounds and Green had 26 points.
Interim Coach Scott Brooks has impressed the front office and General Manager Sam Presti could be looking to eliminate that "interim" tag very soon. What impressed me last night was the body language of the Thunder players when Jamal Crawford rebounded a Durant airball and sprinted down the court to make what appeared to be the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Instead of sulking while the Warriors -- the same team that drilled the Wizards two days before -- were celebrating and chest-bumping, the Thunder looked eager to get the ball back. You could see the confidence, as if they knew how to win after spending the first two months learning how to lose.
And when the Warriors surrounded Durant, Green ran to the ball, caught the inbounds pass from Westbrook, turned and fired. Durant hopped on Green's shoulders afterward and Green didn't seem shocked one bit. He high-fived his teammates and walked toward the tunnel as if he knew it was going to finish that way.
Once the ball banked off the glass and through the hoop, I immediately thought to myself that the Thunder could actually enter the all-star break with a better record than Washington. It seemed impossible at the end of 2008, but the Thunder is playing better basketball than the Wizards right now and its schedule between now and the all-star break is slightly softer.
The Thunder has 10 games between now and the break, and its opponents have a combined winning percentage of .463 (195-226). The Wizards have 12 games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .497 (247-250). Four of the Thunder's next five games are against teams with losing records, beginning Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Wizards get five consecutive playoff contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers (tonight), Portland, Phoenix, Miami and Philadelphia.
Getting caught by the Thunder doesn't guarantee that the Wizards enter the all-star break with the league's worst record. Remember, there's always the Clippers. But keep an eye out for Jan. 31, when the Wizards host the Clippers. That game could determine a lot.
But if the Wizards lose their next two games against the Lakers and Portland (a very, very strong possibility) and Oklahoma City defeats the Clippers (another strong possibility) on Friday, Washington could be at the bottom of the league before the end of the weekend.
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