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The Transformation of the Thunder

Back in December, the Miami Heat knocked off Oklahoma City, 97-95. The Thunder sat at 11-8 after that loss, on the fringe of the playoffs in the Western Conference. When the two teams met again this week, the Thunder rolled to a 99-75 rout, taking their 30th win of the season against just a dozen losses.

That's right -- the Thunder have gone 19-4 since that loss to the Heat and are now firmly in the conversation when it comes to contenders to take the Western Conference this year (and have the unenviable prospect of facing an even more determined Cavaliers crew in the NBA finals this summer). So how have they gone from mediocre to elite?

One change has been the return of a healthy Kevin Durant, of course. As the career of such big men as Bill Walton and Sam Bowie showed, and Joel Embiid seems to be showing now, if you can't put foot problems in your rear view mirror, your career will suffer. He is back from his foot issues and is playing well on both ends of the floor.

Another change has been a serious commitment to defense. You can fly as high as you want and put up points in buckets, but when you go cold and the opposition keeps scoring, you're heading toward elimination. That crucial ability to gather stops when you need to is what separates teams like Houston and Dallas from teams like San Antonio and Golden State.

Remember when Dallas came out of nowhere to win that title in 2011? They had finally decided to play solid defense and got the stops when they needed them. Before 2011 (and since), they haven't had that mentality, and they have foundered. Kevin Durant has been a lockdown defender for a couple seasons now but hasn't been in the lineup enough to lead his team in this way consistently. This season, the defense is emerging, and the Thunder are a dominant team.

Shifting between the big and small lineup seamlessly has made a difference too. Against the Heat, the Thunder went small with Serge Ibaka at the 5, and they ran all over the Heat, pulling Hassan Whiteside out of the paint to guard Ibaka on the mid-range jumper. Then when the Heat added Bosh to make the Thunder pay inside, Durant made his defender pay the price with matchup issues.

What do the Thunder need to do to be big players in the postseason? Flashes of defense are one thing, but a commitment to play it for four quarters is a tall task. If Durant can stay healthy the rest of the way, look for the Thunder to be shocking teams like the Spurs and the Clippers -- and maybe even the Warriors -- in June.