Oklahoma City Thunder Proving Life Without James Harden Is Still Sweet

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent INovember 28, 2012

Nov 26, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russelll Westbrook (0) is congratulated by Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) after a play against the Charlotte Bobcats during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Even without the dynamic James Harden on the team, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still flying high. They are playing some fine basketball and are 11-4, good for first place in the Northwest Division. Even though some doubted that the Thunder could get back to the NBA Finals this season without Harden on the roster, Kevin Durant and his teammates are proving otherwise.

Let's start with the man who took over for Harden as sixth man, Kevin Martin. He is not as strong a playmaker as the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, but he has still been great. Martin is averaging 15.7 points per game off the bench and is shooting a deadly 49 percent from long range.

His defense has also been solid, at about a steal a game.

The rest of Oklahoma City's players have stepped up phenomenally, to the point where it's as though Harden never left. Russell Westbrook is mastering the balance of scoring and passing en route to what will surely be a third consecutive All-Star season, averaging 21.1 points and 8.6 assists to go with 1.6 steals.

Kevin Durant has been as dominant as ever. He is third in the league in scoring at 25.9 points per game, and he'll work hard all season in hopes of winning a fourth straight scoring title. Still, his offense has not been the story of the season, even though he is shooting 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc.

Durant is the unquestioned leader in Oklahoma City and will lead the team on offense most nights, but his much-improved defense has turned a lot of heads this season. The former Texas Longhorn is averaging 9.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.9 steals per game. On top of being a scorer, he has now become even more complete a player in adding the role of defensive pest to his resume.

Granted, his defense has always been decent, but it has never really broken out until this year. If he can keep it up, the Thunder will continue to flourish without Harden.

An even bigger surprise for the Thunder this season has been Serge Ibaka. After leading the league in blocks per game last season, the 6'10" forward has stepped up on offense in 2012-13. He is currently second in blocks at 2.9 per game, but he's also averaging 14.5 points thanks to an improved jump shot.

The fact is that while the loss of Harden may have seemed big at first—and it still is—the Thunder have adjusted accordingly, and the results speak for themselves. This is a team that has done nothing but improve each of the past three seasons. Their trip to the NBA Finals last season is indicative of how bright their future is, even if they did lose.

The way the team is playing now, there is every indication that Kevin Durant and his teammates are going to stop at nothing to get that far again, even if it is without Harden. Sure, he's doing great work for the Houston Rockets now, but Oklahoma City isn't a team to start playing badly just because they can't adjust to playing without him.

Instead, the team has clearly used his absence to become an even better squad. The Thunder will be difficult to stop once the last month of the season comes along.