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Thunder Report the Following First Fifty | February
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The 2010-2011 Oklahoma City Thunder have finished playing their first 50 games of the season. Although they have not yet reached the NBA All-Star break, they are well past the halfway point of the regular season. I think that when I was younger, I always associated the All-Star game as the midway mark for the NBA, but I realize now that was just another misconception that people want you to believe.

Oklahoma City still has four games remaining prior to the break, with perhaps their toughest challenge coming tonight at home against the Memphis Grizzlies. If you have been paying attention at all since this site was launched last November, you know my feelings when it comes to the Grizz, and more specifically, Zach Randolph. He is an absolute beast, and where this team struggles to defend big bodies who can score, they need to try to do something different tonight to take him out of the contest. I don't care if that means trying to get under his skin to get him to pick up a couple of technical fouls, or if they can find a way to lock him on the team bus. It doesn't matter. Just make someone else beat you this time.

After tonight's game, the Thunder will play a home and home series with the Sacramento Kings, with a road game against the Golden State Warriors sandwiched in between. Those are certainly all winnable games for this team as they enter the break, and they are currently on a modest three game winning streak. If you recall, the team entered the break last season on a six game winning streak. They could top that by one this season, which would be very nice, considering they have a brutal stretch coming out of the break on the other side with games against the San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers.

But through their first 50 games, the Thunder are 33-17. They are in first place in the Northwest Division and hold a 3 1/2 game over the Utah Jazz and 4 game lead over the Denver Nuggets. And with the expected return of Brandon Roy within the week, the Portland Trailblazers cannot be counted out at just 6 games back. The Minnesota Timberwolves, however, are looking ahead to next season.

Oklahoma City is also in possession of the #4 seed in the Western Conference, and also hold a 2 1/2 game lead plus the season series tiebreaker advantage over the New Orleans Hornets, who occupy the fifth spot. That would give them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

They can also boast the highest scorer in the league, as Kevin Durant is averaging 29 points per game. The next closest scorers are Amar'e Stoudamire at 26.3 and LeBron James at 26.1 points per game. They are also tied for the highest scoring duo in the game, with Durant and Russell Westbrook (22.5 PPG) combining for 51.5 points per game. They share that distinction with James and Dwyane Wade (25.4 PPG) of the Miami Heat.

Westbrook is also eighth in the league in assists, averaging 8.6 dimes per game. Durant leads the team in rebounds per game with 7 per contest. Serge Ibaka is also making a strong case for NBA Sixth Man of the Year, as he grabs 6.8 rebounds per game, blocks 2.08 shots per contest, and possesses the fifth highest field goal percentage in the game at .571 on the season.



So with all of those accolades, why are some people saying that this team is a slight disappointment through the first 50 games of the season? Quite simply, the expectations were placed too high entering the season.

The Thunder gave the Lakers a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs last season. They pushed them to six games, losing the series finale by just one point. That was the lasting image that everyone remembers. And while that was a great series, they had to face the Lakers because they earned the eighth and final seed. They won 50 games and finished in fourth place in the division. While they may not win many more games than that this season - if they can reach that mark at all - they are still improving with each game. Jumping from the eighth seed to the fourth seed in one season without adding any premier free agents or draft picks is very impressive.

It is because this team continues to mature. They are still growing up and learning how to play together. This is still one of the youngest teams in the league, but they are performing quite well with all things considered.

Sure, I would love to see a more consistent defensive effort throughout an entire game. It would be great to grab some more rebounds, dish out a few more assists and knock down a few more three pointers. They have had to abandon their defensive philosophy at many times throughout this season and win behind their solid offense. They would like to go back to the defensive mindset of last season, but you have to play the cards you are dealt.

I am in no way making excuses, and I fully understand that while offense wins games and excites the crowds, defense wins championships.

But don't let the lofty expectations fool you. Two seasons ago, the Thunder were 12-38 through their first 50 games. Last season, they were 29-21 at the same point in the season. They are four games better than a year ago, and are on pace for a 54-28 season. They are 5-0 in overtime and 17-6 in games decided by six points or less. That proves that they are continuing to learn how to win.

Those numbers, as well as this team in general, should not go unnoticed. They are doing what they need to do at this point, and they will continue to get stronger as the season progresses.

Steady improvement and progress are key factors that contribute to a successful season. Oklahoma City is on the right path.

* Make sure to follow Kelley on Twitter @RobKelley24

 

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