Fresh off of a 20-point beatdown of the reigning champs in Golden State, the Oklahoma City Thunder are treading steadily in the western conference, currently fifth with a shot at overtaking the San Antonio Spurs for the third seed. Much maligned as a team constrained by large egos and ball stoppers, OKC has managed to string together an impressive collection of wins against the league’s best teams. Last night’s dominant victory against the Warriors is a reminder that the Thunder pose a serious threat to make a deep run in the playoffs and are dark horse contenders for the NBA title.

Any analysis of OKC’s playoff hopes should start with Russell “Why Not” Westbrook. Averaging 25.5 ppg, 10.3 apg, and 9.3 rpg, Westbrook is close to averaging a triple double yet again, and deserves serious consideration for this year’s MVP award. Westbrook plays with seemingly unlimited energy at a breakneck speed that applies the most pressure on opposing defenses of any player. Granted, that same argument can be made for Stephen Curry, with the attention he demands as soon as he crosses half court, and LeBron James, a walking mismatch nightmare for opposing coaches. The difference between Westbrook and the two aforementioned players is Westbrook’s energy and motor—Brodie never takes a single play off.

With his burst and freakish athleticism, Westbrook can drive on any defender in the league and either score, get fouled, or dish the ball for an easy assist. Throw in his ability to pull-up and rise for a mid-range jumper that’s become his bread and butter over the last two seasons, guarding Westbrook is a Sisyphean task. Even when his shot is off, Westbrook plays with the same relentlessness that drains opposing defenses of energy and their will to play. His decision-making has improved significantly. While he does commit a fair amount of turnovers, they’re rarely the out-of-control turnovers off of reckless drives or forced passes that Westbrook’s been criticized for throughout his career. The sheer volume and usage rate of his play style is guaranteed to produce turnovers. A walking paradox, Westbrook is cool, calm, and collected with his decision-making while simultaneously playing at a dizzying pace that leave defenders gasping for air.

Playing the role of Robin to Westbrook’s Batman, Paul George has been excellent this season as the league’s best perimeter defender and OKC’s best shooter. His smooth ball handling and effortless athleticism give him an endless array of moves that makes him difficult to guard on offense. George is shooting 42.7 percent from distance this season, making him one of the league’s deadliest shooters. In crunch time, George is often tasked with closing out games and has proven to be effective, hitting clutch threes and scoring on smooth drives to the rim. On defense, George locks down the opposing team’s best wing player and wreaks havoc in the passing lanes with his league-leading 2.23 steals per game.

If there’s ever an award in the NBA for Most Underappreciated Player, the trophy should be molded in the face of Steven Adams. Adams is second on the team behind Westbrook in Player Efficiency Rating. His 21.5 PER trumps George’s 19.5 and Carmelo Anthony’s lowly 13.8. With his ability to set bone crushing screens, play solid defense, grab offensive rebounds, and score off of pick n’ rolls, Adams is perhaps the league’s most valuable center in terms of what he brings to a team as a humble contributor who scores efficiently and matches up well against small ball lineups. Adams has proven to be the Warriors’ kryptonite, particularly with his size and improved ability to score in the post and off of dynamic pick n’ rolls with Westbrook. Adams is also a talented enough defender to guard stretch fours while anchoring the paint to block and alter shots. Despite his Khal Drogo-like appearance and reputation as one of the league’s strongest players, Adams’ calming presence on offense and defense make the Thunder a legitimate threat to win any game they play.

With their size, length, and athleticism, the Thunder matchup well against any playoff team. They’ve shown up in big games, with two wins against the Warriors and impressive wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs. It seems that pundits have ignored OKC’s continued improvement as a team, writing them off in playoff scenarios and favoring teams like the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves. Could Russell Westbrook and Co. upset powerhouses like the Warriors and Cavs to make history as NBA champions assembled in a frenzied offseason of star free agent signings?

Why not?

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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