Last year they went down fighting. This time, the young guns may have enough muscle to take down the Lakers.
Oklahoma Thunder making more noise this season
They were young and athletic and scary. The Oklahoma Thunder met the Los Angels Lakers in the first round of the play-offs last season and put fear into the defending champions.
Every member of the Thunder seemed to have coiled springs for legs. When the Lakers won that first-round series in six games their relief was tangible.
A year later, the Thunder are again looking like a team other's should be wary of. Still young and athletic, they have added a physical presence with the addition of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed.
The Thunder have continued to develop and mature and have the makings of a team that could make a real post-season run.
"We have a lot of athletic, versatile defenders," Nick Collison, the Thunder forward said. "We keep it tight in the paint."
The Thunder are currently the NBA's hottest team, having won six consecutive games.
A year ago, their rise behind the emerging superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook almost caught every one off guard. They were the league's new darlings and finished 50-32 to capture the eighth and final play-off spot in the West.
This year more was expected, and if they have stumbled during their metamorphosis, they are now again looking like a young team coming into their own.
"A lot of people have put us at a level that teams don't get overnight, but we were put there overnight," Scott Brooks, the Thunder coach, said. "We're a team that is continuing to evolve. This is not the team you will see in a few years, it should get better. … All of the young guys have to get better."
The Thunder remain the league's second-youngest team after the Clippers, but at 45-23, are in fourth place in the West and on course to host a first-round play-off series. They are particularly tough at home (24-9) where they play before a raucous crowd.
"We have come a long way, [and] it wasn't that long ago that no one cared about us and no one really respected us as players," Durant said. "That has changed, but what we do every day hasn't - we're still just trying to work hard, because that's how we have been able to get better."
Next year they expect to be even better. And this year, they may already be the Lakers' greatest threat in the West.
Players of the week
• Dwight Howard, Orlando. The game’s best centre averaged 23 points, 18.3 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 2.3 steals per game, shooting 62.9 per cent.
• Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas. The Mavericks’ lone great player, below, had another dominating week, averaging 28.3 points and 11 boards per game.
• LeBron James, Miami. Averaged 29 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games.
Teams of the week
• Los Angeles Lakers. They have gone 11-1 since the
• Portland. The Trail Blazers went 3-0 to move ahead of New Orleans for sixth place in the West.
Duds of the week
• Paul Pierce, Boston. Shot just 28.6 per cent from the field and scored only three-of-16 three-pointers.
• Daniel Gibson, Cleveland. He averaged only 10 points and 1.3 assists in the week, shooting 36 per cent.
• Washington Wizards. A team going nowhere has sped up the journey. The Wizards went 0-3 in the week and have lost six in a row.
Games of the week
• Boston at New York, tonight. Carmelo Anthony’s addition to the Knicks adds spice to the old “Boston v New York” thing.
• San Antonio at Portland, Friday. The Spurs have quietly played the best basketball in the league all season but get a quality road opponent in the surging Trail Blazers.
• Chicago at Milwaukee, Saturday. The Bulls will try to solidify their play-off spot on the road against the Bucks, who are out to improve theirs.