NBA

The Thunder are in the Ruling Days of the NBA season

Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook celebrates a dunk over Washington’s Marcin Gortat during the Thunder’s 121-112 win over the Wizards on Thursday night. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
The Thunder are in the Ruling Days of the NBA season

There’s a scene in the recent Netflix drama Ozark where Rachel, the owner of an inn and lodge in a small Missouri town, explains to Jason Batemans’s character Marty her grandmother’s philosophy on the most important days of the year.

It’s around the 4th of July, and an oppressive, enveloping rainstorm had not ceased for days, beating down on the small lake town. Marty asks if they’ll be “screwed” if the rain doesn’t let up — being near a lake, the small town’s economy is propped up by the Independence day revenue stream. Rachel responds that her grandmother used to call the days leading up to the 4th of July “ruling days”…as in the days that will “rule how we live the rest of the year.”

Unlike the people in Ozark (which, by the way, I’d probably give a 7.5/10), the Oklahoma City Thunder’s ruling days aren’t dependent on whether or not it rains. In fact, it just means that they need to handle business.

That’s the beautiful thing about it: it’s wholly in their hands to mold the season into something meaningful or else let it slip through their fingers like sand. It’s in their hands for now, but it may not always be.

There are two ways to look at the Western Conference playoff picture: the one (the Thunder are only two games out of third place!) or the pessimistic one (they’re only a game and a half out of the playoffs…). Ruling days indeed.

Although the Thunder do face some tough opponents in the remainder of the season (the Warriors, the Raptors, the Celtics, and Spurs and Rockets, twice apiece), it’s still incredibly manageable. Of their next ten opponents, six of them are against teams that are under .500. With many other teams, that would be a comfort, but the Thunder are exceptional in many ways, including the fact that they routinely can’t get up against under-matched teams.

It’s difficult to imagine the Thunder missing the playoffs, but it certainly is a real possibility. Drop a few games they shouldn’t (as has been a theme for the Thunder) and they may find themselves on the outside in. Not a great look for a team looking to keep one of the most coveted free agents of the last several years, Paul George.

I’m intrigued by the other possibility, though: the Thunder shooting up the Western Conference standings and securing home court advantage, at least through round one. OKC is currently just one game behind Minnesota and San Antonio for the third or fourth seed.

The Spurs are always going to do their thing as long as they have Gregg Popovich, but with Kawhi Leonard seemingly out for the rest of the year, now the time is ripe for the Thunder to make a move. The next two games against the Spurs (March 10th in OKC, March 20th in San Antonio) are going to be incredibly important for the Thunder if they want to make a jump up in the playoff picture.

Minnesota, on the other hand, are going to have to figure out how to play without cornerstone piece Jimmy Butler for a a month to a month-and-a-half. The ‘Wolves really took off as soon as it took on Butler’s identity — grit, grime, and hustle — and now are in danger of losing their playoff footing. Unfortunately for OKC, they’ve squandered their chances at taking games from Minnesota, dropping three of four to the divisional rival already this season.

This is the most important stretch arguably in Thunder history. If they miss their mark and fail to capitalize on other teams’ injury adversity, the season was an abject failure and George, at least in my mind, likely doesn’t stick around. On the other hand, if they can shoot up the standings and secure home court advantage for at least the first round of the postseason, I think it heavily bolsters OKC’s chances of retaining PG for at least another season.

And so there we have it: the Thunder are in just as good of a position to have home court advantage as they are to drop out of the playoffs completely. The cards are on their side — they have a top-three roster, talent-wise, and other Western Conference teams will be limping to the finish — but they need to take advantage of the ruling days of the NBA.

 

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