Halfway through their NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder – for the first time all year – are above .500.
Yes, the Thunder held off the Miami Heat, 94-86, on the road Tuesday, to improve to 21-20. The Thunder began the year 3-12 after injuries sidelined Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Nevertheless, Oklahoma City is just three games behind Phoenix (25-18) for the eighth seed in the West.
Just how far has this team come?
“Well, to me, it’s been a roller-coaster ride,” USA Today NBA insider Sam Amick said on After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “They got those guys back, and it looked like they were going to pick up where they left off in the last couple of years. And they got back into playoff position really quickly. It seemed like in nothing flat, this whole challenge that I thought was going to (last the whole season), they seemed to have figured it out. And then they fell off and had some bad losses.”
The Thunder were blown out at Golden State and Sacramento on Jan. 5 and 7, respectively, losing by a combined 47 points. Since then, however, they have won four of five with wins over Utah, Golden State, Orlando and Miami.
“They seem to have found their way a little bit,” Amick said. “Miami’s a quality team with vets on there and obviously the kind of team that, if you’re not at your best, you can lose to. They took care of Orlando. That Warriors win was big. They seem to have found their way.”
Interestingly enough, the relationship between Durant and Westbrook – always one of the hottest NBA topics – seems to have taken a back seat to the relationship between Reggie Jackson and Dion Waiters, the Thunder’s top two options off the bench.
“I think (Waiters is) a good pickup, but they’ve got some crossover when it comes to (their) skill sets,” Amick said. “I think as long as they figure that out, which it seems like they have the last couple of games, we’re going to see this trend continue.”
But is Waiters, who is averaging 10.8 points per game this season, the answer? Is he the missing piece that can get the Thunder over the top?
“He can be,” Amick said. “It’s not perfect. Perfect would be – you’re going to laugh that I would even bring this name up – but in basketball skill set alone, if not psyche, a J.R. Smith kind of guy off the bench. My points being, Dion Waiters is a ball-handler. He’s a playmaker and wants the ball in his hands. J.R. Smith is guy you can tell, ‘Go get off the ball, and Reggie is going to find you when he need you.’ They don’t have that luxury. Reggie and Dion both want the ball.
“But even with that ball, I think Dion is not only a talented pickup and the kind of guy who could fit really well, but I’m always big on guys when it comes to just their personal story,” Amick continued. “If you get them at that point in their career where they’ve got something to prove, I think then that’s going to be a good situation, and I think Dion is there. He just got cast aside in Cleveland as the guy who was essentially the problem. The guy they decided to cut out of the equation and try to do it a different way.”
Oklahoma City continues its five-game road trip Wednesday at Washington (29-13). Tip-off is slated for 8 p.m. ET.