It’s not easy making Russell Westbrook anything other than the main story in Oklahoma City, especially on a night when he sets another triple-double record. But Paul George’s recent tear is nothing short of spectacular. The Thunder’s imported star notched a triple double of his own in Oklahoma City’s 120-111 win on Monday night, erupting for 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. George is averaging 36 points per game since Jan. 19. The Thunder are 11–1 in that span. The former Pacers star continues to be OKC’s headliner even as Westbrook continues to rack up the triple doubles.
George’s explosion has continued to invert Oklahoma City’s offense in year two of its new dynamic duo. The reliance on Westbrook’s scoring has become almost non-existent, an important evolution as his jump shot continues to deteriorate. George’s output from three has never been better, and it’s carrying the Thunder offense of late. He’s at 40.8% from beyond the arc, hitting 215 threes through 55 games. His previous career high is 244. George hit eight of 13 threes Monday night, burying triples from three feet beyond the arc. He went toe-to-toe with James Harden on Saturday night, and ultimately prevailed on the road. He’s an MVP candidate, with a first-team All-NBA honor likely on the way. Sam Presti’s gamble two summers ago continues to be rewarded.
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Westbrook’s shooting woes are not to be dismissed. He’s having a historically bad season from three, making just 24.6% of his 211 attempts. The struggles are inside the arc, too. Westbrook’s once-reliable mid-range game is scattershot. Elbow jumpers are banging off the glass. His pull-ups require an extra dose of consideration before letting it fly. Oklahoma City’s season last year ended with a 2-16 performance from George as the Thunder wilted in Utah. An early exit this year could fall on Westbrook’s shoulders.
The concerns over Westbrook’s jumper don’t seem to have a tangible effect on Oklahoma City’s offense, though. Westbrook shot 5-19 on Monday, making just one of six threes. Such struggles have become more than an outlier in recent months. But with George as the leading man, the Thunder still scored 120 points and shot 45.7% from three. Jerami Grant is stretching his game like never before. Dennis Schroder’s shot has stabilized after cratering in Atlanta last year. Even as Westbrook’s shot fails to regain its previous form, the rest of the Thunder are finding their groove, with George leading the way.
The Warriors are still the unrivaled favorite to win the West as well as the Finals. The action-packed trade deadline caused us to wonder who would match up the best with Golden State out of the East. But who could be the premier challenger in the West?
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Denver holds the No. 2 seed after Monday night at 38–18, and Houston is a natural candidate after dragging Golden State to seven games in last year’s playoffs. Yet each team comes with its own set of questions. The Nuggets’ young core is as untested as they come. Chris Paul’s effectiveness is still in question as well as the stability of Rockets’ remade bench.
Oklahoma City has a potential pathway to competitiveness with Golden State. The Thunder are long, athletic and furious on the glass, made in the same vein of the 2015-16 squad that blew a 3–1 lead before Kevin Durant left town. George evolving into a scoring threat akin to Durant is paramount to the Thunder’s success. Oklahoma City would need multiple 40-point efforts to even consider toppling the reigning champs. Beating Golden State may be a pipe dream. Testing the champs is within reach.
Amid a league presently consumed by July’s free agency and an impending Anthony Davis trade, the Thunder’s core exists as one of the most stable in the league. Westbrook will likely be in Oklahoma City through 2022-23. George’s $38 million player option will take him through 2021-22. Even Steven Adams is under contract for two more seasons. Some worried the Thunder’s long and expensive commitments would hamstring them long-term, limiting the franchise to middling playoff status as Westbrook ages. But George’s ascendance has seemed to change the calculus. His rise to MVP status has made the Thunder on par with the top contenders to Golden State’s throne, ready to strike if the Warriors’ dynasty dissipates. The Thunder’s path to renewed relevance has been atypical. Their recent success behind George is another unexpected success in the post-Durant era.