Since the calendar flipped to December, the Thunder has started to look like the team fans were hoping to see this season. This is fun again, right? Fourteen wins and five losses is great, weak schedule or not, and the defeats have come by an average of 3.4 points.
And did you know the Thunder has scored 120 or more points in four of the last eight games? Of course you do, because you’re a fan who reads this website. But still, that’s pretty dang impressive.
With the offense surging and the team’s performance seeming to stabilize, now seems like a great time to look ahead. Is it too bold to assume the Thunder can now take care of business against weaker opponents for the most part? It needs to because the next fifteen games of the season, precluding a February 6 showdown at Golden State, could very well be the most important stretch of the season for the Thunder.
The Thunder currently sits in fifth place in the Western Conference standings, one game out in the loss column from the Timberwolves and four games from San Antonio, who’s currently occupying the third spot. It’s a point that’s been repeated a million times, but that third spot is an absolute necessity for Oklahoma City. A quick update on Operation: Avoid Golden State, the directive the Thunder has been operating under all year, will tell you that the Warriors look more and more dominant with each passing game and Houston’s chances at grabbing the No. 1 seed are rapidly diminishing. The three-seed would likely mean one of the Nuggets, Blazers or Pelicans in the first round and facing Houston in the second. That’s where you want to be.
In light of that, the next 15 games actually provide a pretty soft schedule for the Thunder. Meaning that if Oklahoma City is going to make a move, the time is now.
I’ll divide the set of games into three categories: teams significantly below .500, teams around .500, and teams significantly above .500.
Below .500: Phoenix, Charlotte, Sacramento, L.A. Lakers (x2), Brooklyn
Of these six games, four come at home and none come with the Thunder on the second night of a back-to-back. In fact, one of the two road games features the Hornets playing on the second night of their back-to-back. I know this Thunder team is susceptible to mental lapses, but in all honestly this should be six wins. Then again, the record so far this season against these teams is 1-3.
Around .500: Portland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans
Three games at home, two on the road. Philadelphia and New Orleans are home games on the second night of back-to-backs, but an interesting deep dive by numberfire.com revealed that teams above .500 (a.k.a. “good teams,” of which I think OKC finally qualifies) who play at home on the second night of a back-to-back actually win at a higher percentage than those playing at home after a day of rest this season. That’s encouraging. Throw in the Pistons, who are 6-11 since Dec. 1, and it’s not a very intimidating group.
Above .500: Minnesota, Cleveland, Washington (x2)
The Jan. 10 matchup with the Wolves is a classic schedule loss, the third game in four nights on the road. If it’s anything like all the other games the Thunder has played against them this season, it should at least be exciting. The Thunder has not yet seen Cleveland and Washington this season, but the good news is two of those three games are on national television, which fares well for the show ponies on the roster.
After this stretch it’s two games with Golden State, Cleveland again, and the Rockets in short order. The big guns.
If the Thunder can post an impressive 11-4 over the stretch, the three seed is within reach heading into the post-All-Star back stretch of the season. If not, it will be almost impossible to make up five games on a Spurs team sharpening into playoff form with just 25 games to play. That would lead to a tough first round battle with the Wolves and a second round matchup with the Warriors, which would be a heck of a lot of fun but likely means an early exit, putting the team’s future in jeopardy.
However, the Christmas day game showed just how advantageous a playoff series matchup with the Rockets could be. The roster changes on both sides have favored OKC since last May, with multiple long perimeter defenders to guard James Harden and his surrounding shooters, and enough weapons to punish the Rockets on the other end. From there…who knows.
Again, I’ve always been a “one foot in front of the other” guy, so it’s really tough to look to look too far ahead with any clarity. Injuries could happen to this team or others, or a million different things. But if the stars continue to develop and the role players come out of their shells (hello Terrance Ferguson!), it won’t matter who’s on the schedule. But while the Thunder is doing that, go ahead and pick up some wins, okay?