By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Oklahoma City Thunder are still making big noise in the NBA despite dealing away James "The Beard" Harden and hope their new mix will take them even farther than last year's trip to the Finals.
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way and Serge Ibaka stepping up to contribute more scoring punch, the Thunder have not missed a beat, heading the Northwest Division and fighting the San Antonio Spurs for top seed in the West.
"I like the way we're playing," three-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, who is again leading the league with a 28.6 point average, told reporters at Thursday's shootaround ahead of their game against the New York Knicks.
Coach Scott Brooks, integrating new pieces such as guard Kevin Martin, center Hasheem Thabeet and rookie guard Reggie Jackson, was also satisfied with the team's transition.
"I like where we are right now," he said.
Despairing of being unable to retain Harden under the salary cap, the Thunder made the bold move of trading the Sixth Man of the Year to Houston before the start of the season.
Harden has gone on to average 26.3 points for the Rockets, but the Thunder have not missed a beat and came out of the deal with a clutch of additional draft picks.
Thabo Sefolosha said moving on without Harden opened things up for other players.
"It's always going to be a bit of an adjustment losing a guy like James," the guard said, adding that new guys such as Martin and Jackson were fitting in well.
"James needed the ball a lot more than K-Mart," noted Sefolosha. "That gives an opportunity for a guy like Reggie to showcase his game more with the ball in his hands. I think it definitely opened up a lot of things for other guys."
Veteran Nick Collison said a key factor in the Thunder's progress was the continued development of their young players including Durant and Westbrook, who are both 24.
"I think the biggest thing with us is we've had some growth with our guys. The trade was a big deal. We have different players, but the improvement I think we've seen is maturity and growth," Collison said. "It's just another year of experience.
"The decision making has been better, our spacing has been better. Some of the more subtle things we used to struggle with we've gotten better."
Durant said he believed Westbrook, who is averaging 23.6 points and 7.8 assists, was playing his best basketball.
"He's scoring the ball tremendously," said Durant. "He makes good decisions. He's picking and choosing his spots when to pass, when to shoot. That's the growth of a player. He's learning."
Durant said he had also been handling the ball and passing more this season.
"It's giving me more opportunity to handle the ball, trying to look for my team mates more," said Durant. "James was such a great passer I think that's what we missed a lot about him when we first traded him.
"It's giving me more opportunity. Last year we were at the bottom of the league in assists and this year we're averaging in the 20s (22 for 16th best in the NBA). So just looking at that you can tell we've gotten better."
Westbrook was also bullish about the Thunder.
"We all trust each other," he said. "We've got good chemistry. We're in good position as a team right now."
Brooks said it was all about getting better every day.
"No question we had a good year last year, and came up three games short of our goal," he said.
"But I like where we are right now. I like the experience we have gained through the last three years of playoff experience."
Martin said his new team had high expectations and relished another opportunity to meet the Heat and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with the title on the line.
"Both teams have great players. We've got two superstars, they've got two superstars," he said. "They've got good low post play and we've got good low post play.
"So it's a great match-up everybody loves to see. Hopefully if we see them again we can turn the tide this time."
(Reporting by Larry Fine, editing by Nick Mulvenney)