OKC Thunder Becoming Contenders Thanks To Perkins, Ibaka

During the playoffs last season, I said that Oklahoma City was another year away. They had the firepower and certainly the guile, as we saw when they took the champion Lakers to six games in the first round, but they hadn’t been to the playoffs before. Inexperience is the same reason Chicago won’t get out of the East this season. In order to advance in the playoffs, you need to have had the experience of being there as a team. This season, the Thunder has that experience and, with the addition of Kendrick Perkins (only key addition from 2010-’11), they finally have size and nastiness.

In Game 2 against Denver Wednesday night, Perkin’s defensive talent was on full display. His hard early foul on Wilson Chandler was a clear-cut message to the Nuggets that OKC was not merely an offensive juggernaut, as is the case with many young teams.

The Thunder have the youngest starting lineup in the NBA -- average age: 23.4 years old. But with a committed nucleus of versatile defenders (Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook), they are quick to the ball, eager on defensive rotations and constantly swarming.

The work Perkins did on Nene cannot be understated. Since the Carmelo deal, Nene has been a revelation in Denver, proving more than ever to be a consistent low post option. His 61.5 shooting percentage led the entire league. Yet last night, defended by Perkins and Serge Ibaka, he looked uncomfortable and never found a flow, finishing just 2-of-8 from the floor.

Kenyon Martin meanwhile, has been key to the Nuggets’ resurgence in the West as well. He averaged 15 points and nearly eight rebounds in March while shooting a healthy 56.5 percent. Like Nene though, he too has struggled mightily against the length and quickness of Ibaka and the bulk of Perkins, shooting a combined 6-of-18.

Even more so than Perkins, the key to OKC’s defensive scheme is Ibaka, whose growing support for this team is becoming readily apparent each night. His ability to shut down the paint as a shot-block artist is one thing, but even more so, he is emerging as a rebounding machine on both ends of the floor. Ibaka’s control of the glass in the first half was a huge reason why the Thunder held a commanding 43-17 lead midway through the second quarter, and why they ultimately captured a 17-5 advantage in offensive rebounds.

For Denver though, it comes down to point guards Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, who have been in all-out attack mode -- a two-man wrecking crew leading the fastbreak. The North Carolina duo excels in the open floor and their playmaking ability in transition has been the catalyst for the Nuggets surprising playoff run. Denver simply doesn’t have the talent to beat people in the halfcourt, so George Karl intelligently turned the reigns over to his speedy guards, a drastic change from the days of the slow-footed Chauncey Billups.

Ibaka however, has helped limit their effectiveness. He is fast enough to keep up with them and equally adept at preventing easy transition buckets. His Game 2 effort of two blocks and 12 rebounds in just 23 minutes (along with 12 points) has changed the tenor of the entire series. More important, it’s just that type of production that turns OKC from being merely dangerous (see last season) to actually becoming a legitimate title contender.