TORONTO -- With a month left in the regular season, there's plenty of attention being paid to one of the most interesting Most Valuable Player Award races in recent memory. Earlier this week, Stephen Curry -- the reigning back-to-back MVP -- was asked about his pick for the award, and he chose James Harden over LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook. Naturally, it was a question for Westbrook at shootaround on Thursday before their matchup against Toronto.
"I don't care, it don't matter what he say," Westbrook responded. "Who's he?"
Westbrook's historic season has been well documented, as he's on pace to average a triple double: He currently sits at 31.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game. In a 123-102 win over the Raptors on Thursday, Westbrook led the way again, putting up 24 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists in just 27 minutes. At 39-29, the Thunder are on their way to the playoffs, just a half game back of the Los Angeles Clippers for the fifth seed in the West. But while Westbrook has been making history, the Thunder will need the supporting cast to provide help if they're going to avoid a first round exit in their first season without Kevin Durant.
Despite Westbrook's brilliance, the Thunder are a middle-of-the-pack offensive team, ranked 16th in the league per NBA.com at 105.0 points per 100 possessions. As opponents key in on Westbrook in the playoffs, they'll need the rest of his teammates to do what Victor Oladipo has been doing so far in March. In five games this month, Oladipo, who called himself and Westbrook the best backcourt in the NBA earlier this week, has been averaging 19.8 points per game and shooting 55.6 percent from the field, 68.4 percent from three and has scored over 20 points in his past four.
"Victor understands [we're] trying to get him in certain areas of the floor," head coach Billy Donovan said. "He understands there are opportunities to attack and he knows when they are."
Oladipo was acquired in a trade before Durant made his decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Adjusting to an increased offensive responsibility has taken time.
"I didn't know what to expect really," Oladipo said. "Coming into a new situation, I was just trying to get used to everything. I'm comfortable now, I know what to expect."
In last year's playoff run, the Thunder's athleticism on the defensive end in small lineups with Durant at the four helped them get past the Spurs in the second round and take a 3-1 lead against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. With Durant and Ibaka elsewhere, the Thunder needed to recalibrate on that end of the floor as well and overall, they have improved on defense. The Thunder are ninth in the league this season, allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions, compared to last year when they had the 12th best defense in the league. At the trade deadline, general manager Sam Presti shored up the team's defense and addressed the need for three-point shooting by acquiring Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott in a trade with Chicago.
"He's a veteran guy and he knows the league very well," Donovan said of Gibson, who has joined Steven Adams in the starting lineup to provide the Thunder with toughness down low on defense. "He can switch, he can play post defense, he can play pick and roll, just another experienced veteran guy bringing that to our team can only help."
The Thunder also have Andre Roberson, a nightmare for any offensive player matched up against him one-on-one. Donovan described Roberson as "one of the best defenders in the league especially on the perimeter every night he's guarding people." Per NBA.com, when Roberson is on the court, opponents are scoring 103.4 points per 100 possessions against the Thunder. When he's not on the floor, that number shoots up to 108.8 points per 100 possessions. Oklahoma City will need Roberson to neutralize the opposing team's perimeter threat when it comes time for the postseason, and the pairing of Gibson and Adams might make that an easier task for the 25-year-old defensive specialist.
"Those two guys help me a lot," Roberson said. "Whether it's communicating in pick-and-roll, or telling me when I'm squared up one-on-one with a player at the top of the key, that helps me stay locked in on my man even more. I trust those guys, and those guys trust us."
So far, however, the Gibson-Adams duo has been a work in progress on the defensive end. In the past 15 games, the Thunder are a bottom-10 team in defensive efficiency. When Adams and Gibson have been on the floor together, the Thunder are allowing 108.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would put them in the bottom five in the league in defense. But Roberson believes it will come together defensively.
"That's what we've been talking about among ourselves," Roberson said. "In order for us to be a great team, we have to win on the road and be a great defensive team in the playoffs. We're slowing and surely figuring it out."
It could go without saying, but the Thunder will go as far as Westbrook takes them. And while the focus for the rest of the regular season will be on Westbrook's historic statistical chase, it will be the rest of this Thunder team -- from Oladipo's defense and Roberson's defense to Gibson and Adams figuring things out -- that will have to step it up if they want to surprise anybody in the first round.