OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder have locked up the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. A date with division rival Portland, who the Thunder swept this year, brings a level of optimism not seen in the region since late-February.
Late February is of course when Oklahoma City chose to forsake the comfortable confines of home-court in these very playoffs. They were riding high following a double-overtime win over the Utah Jazz. 18 games over .500. Boasting a Most Valuable Player candidate in Paul George.
The Thunder played on the second night of a back-to-back following their win over Utah. No one blamed Oklahoma City for being fatigued and losing to the up-tempo Sacramento Kings.
But they kept losing.
From February 23rd (Sacramento) to March 31st, the Thunder played 19 games. Their record during that span was a horrendous 6-13. This was something beyond a “bad funk.” Oklahoma City never once resembled the team prior to the All-Star break.
Their competitors did not follow in the Thunder’s impaired March. In fact, those behind Oklahoma City began to play their best basketball of the season.
By the end of March, the Thunder were looking up at teams they had previously dominated prior to their collapse.
“It’s an 82-game grind,” said everyone who has played in the NBA. The eternal quote rings true in every instance when you’re trying to explain a team’s losing skid.
Of the Thunder’s 13 losses during the 19-game stretch, six games in particular stand out: At Minnesota, at Indiana, Toronto, at Memphis, Miami and Dallas.
There was no consistent theme in these losses. What played into OKC’s 6-13 run was just that. Inconsistency. A poor shooting night, lack of focus, defensive lapses, fouling, etc.
- The Thunder lost on the road to Minnesota, who had beaten Oklahoma City twice already. A loss to a bad team is exactly that. The Thunder played sloppy basketball and let a game they should have won get away from them.
- After dominating in Indianapolis for the first half, the Thunder committed sloppy foul after sloppy foul in the third quarter. They sent the Pacers to the line 14 times and allowed their opponent to regain momentum and slow the game down, before losing on a last-second put-back by Wes Matthews.
- Oklahoma City losing at home to Toronto is nothing to complain about. The Raptors are title-contenders. But the Thunder’s free throw shooting weakness showed itself in full as they missed 14 freebies. Oh yeah, the game went into overtime.
- Two days after beating the Raptors in Toronto, the Thunder embarrassed themselves against one of the worst teams in the league who were actively tanking by sitting Mike Conley.
- Russell Westbrook was suspended for a home game against the Miami Heat because he committed a dumb frustration foul the game prior — pushing him above the technical limit. After jumping out to a 15-2 lead early, the 33-36 Heat then outscored OKC 41-16 the rest of the half.
- Losing to the Dallas Mavericks. At home. No Luka Doncic. Dirk Nowitkzi out-hustling the Thunder at age 40.
Here is where Thunder fans may be frustrated. If OKC splits those six games, they end the season at 52-30. If they won all six, they are 55-27 — the second seed in the West.
Paul George did hurt his shoulder during a February 26th loss to the Denver Nuggets. He missed the next three games (OKC went 1-2). His level of play dropped significantly — three-point percentage dropped from 41 percent to 32 percent.
Without George playing at a high level on both ends of the floor dealing with shoulder pain, the Thunder got away from the identity that made them such a force. Decreasing amounts of forced turnovers, points off fast break and Russell Westbrook being asked to shoot more helped lead to a downtrodden Thunder.
Their schedule also became much tougher. Of those 19 games, the Thunder played 13 games against playoff teams — seven of those 13 were against the top-four seeds from each conference. Oklahoma City went 5-8 in those 13 games and 2-5 against the top-four seeds. Considering how bad the Thunder looked, those records are positive.
The Thunder had also been dealing with the loss of wing depth in Alex Abrines — the probable Thunder’s 7th man in their rotation. Without this depth Oklahoma City was forced to rely on extended minutes from Abdel Nader and even had to dip into Deonte Burton and Raymond Felton a few times.
This along with Patrick Patterson becoming virtually unplayable (Markieff Morris was added when this poor stretch began), and George’s injury were more than enough to make the Thunder look awful.
Even with all the disappointment, OKC salvaged a six-seed thanks to a five game winning streak — 7 wins of their final 10 games — and some fun NBA voodoo-magic on the final day of the regular season.
Many feel confident about the Thunder’s prospects as they are matched up with the Trailblazers, who OKC swept this season. Portland will be without big man Jusuf Nukic and the Thunder’s old-buddy and notoriously bad defender Enes Kanter will be there to greet Westbrook and George as they slice to the basket for many (made) layups.
They have to prove it again, however. The postseason is different than the regular season. The Thunder cannot afford to simply believe that 6-13 stretch was such an outlier that it won’t apply in the postseason. Nor should they believe they’ve figured out Portland.
See you on Sunday afternoon!