The Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets on the eve of the season, and everyone seemed to agree the real winner in the deal were the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Thunder, NBA finalists last season, had traded one of their young stars. It seemed illogical, and it also seemed to suggest they could not possibly be as strong, leaving the Western Conference door ajar for the rebuilt Lakers.
One-fourth of the way into the season, Oklahoma City are tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best record (17-4) in the NBA. After looking a bit unsteady immediately after the trade, losing two of three games, Oklahoma City have been the best team in the league.
A winning streak has reached eight games, and the foundering Lakers are eight games behind them in the conference standings.
They have continued to win because they still have two elite players, in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They are flourishing because the player they acquired for Harden - Kevin Martin - has stepped into the third-man role and is scoring 15.8 points per game, or only one fewer than Harden averaged last season.
The maturation of several young players also plays a role. "Our guys are making better decisions," said Nick Collison, the forward. "We're not having those long stretches where we don't get good shots, like we used to have at times. I just think it's a maturity and growth of our team."
The Thunder have scored at least 100 points in 12 consecutive games. Durant, who has won the past three consecutive scoring titles, is shooting 51.5 per cent from the field and averaging 27 points a game, second only to the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, at 28.4. Oklahoma City are equally proficient on defence. Their opponents make only 42.4 per cent of their shots, the best mark in the NBA after the Indiana Pacers (40.9).
"We're 21 games into a long season," Durant said. "But right now I like the group we have. Kevin Martin has come in and played well for us. Russell is stepping his game up."
He added that the centre Kendrick Perkins "is doing a great job".
"Everybody is just filling in for what James left off," Durant said. "And we have a great group of guys here, and we're just doing a great job of just playing together and playing defence. That's the key formula."
The Thunder moved Harden when they could not agree on a contract extension. Harden is six years younger than Martin, but the Thunder also received from Houston two first-round draft picks, a second-round pick and the reserve Jeremy Lamb.
Oklahoma City looks good not only in the moment, but for the long term, too.
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