In the ever-shuffling deck of cards that is the Western Conference, this morning’s playoff picture — beautiful and untouched by today’s activities — appears to be the best-case scenario for the Thunder. Even after a 6-10 record post-All-Star break, which includes a recent 4-game losing streak, a scenario exists where OKC could avoid both Golden State and Houston in the first two rounds. It’s no cakewalk either way, but it’s as clean a shot the Thunder would get at the Conference Finals if they can end their lengthy slump in time to make a run.
Of course, the standings are fluid and have probably changed by the time this is being posted — no telling what they’ll look like when the regular season ends. But if you’re a Thunder fan, you’ve gotta have your fingers crossed for something like above. The Blazers are no joke, but OKC swept them this season. The Nuggets are good, but I think you’d still prefer them over what lurks on the other side of the bracket.
Here’s how FiveThirtyEight predicts the West will shake out:
- Warriors (57-25)
- Nuggets (55-27)
- Rockets (52-30)
- Blazers (51-30)
- Jazz (50-32)
- Thunder (49-33)
- Clippers (48-34)
- Spurs (47-35)
In that scenario, the path would be Houston, Denver/Clippers, then presumably Golden State in the Conference Finals. You’ll take Option A (or something like it) if given the choice, but it’s a stretch to think too far ahead given how the Thunder have been playing. OKC briefly fell to 8th last week, so holding onto the 4/5-spot is hardly a guarantee. Teams will move, and shake, and rise, and fall. I lost my ability to see the future many years ago, so I’m moving on.
The Thunder must win five of their last nine games to match last season’s record of 48-34. There are at least that many winnable games left on the schedule, but five of the opponents are currently in the playoffs — including Denver, Houston, and Milwaukee. In any case, if OKC’s final record is any better than last season’s, it won’t be by much.
Cue the Spiderman pointing meme:
Pretty wild, right? Eerily similar numbers building toward an eerily similar record. Carmelo Anthony is somewhere smiling, pouring a glass of wine, and checking his phone for the millionth time today. Sweet, sweet vindication.
I’ll still take this team, though.
Dialing Long Distance
The Thunder caught fire on Friday night in Toronto, hitting 20-of-43 (46.5%) from 3-point range to beat the number two team in the Eastern Conference. It was just the second time in the last 15 games OKC has shot 40 percent or better from three — something they did 10 times in the 15-game stretch preceding this one. Three-point shooting has been a major issue since the All-Star break, but for one night in Canada, things looked a lot like they did when 2019 was definitely OKC’s year.
Russell Westbrook has been surprisingly adequate from downtown since the break, firing 8.5 threes per game with a success rate of 35.4 percent (25% pre-All-Star). In an ironic twist of fate, however, just about everyone else (save for Jerami Grant) has seen a dramatic decline from beyond the arc over the stretch. The Thunder were 13th in the NBA in 3-point shooting through 57 games, making 35.2 percent and on an upward trajectory. They’re 23rd in the category just 16 games later, shooting 33 percent since the break — fourth worst over the stretch even with Westbrook making 10 percent more of his attempts — and have a 6-10 record to show for it.
The win on Friday was solid for a number of reasons, one being the universe temporarily correcting itself in regard to how the Thunder offense operated. With Westbrook struggling on 2-of-9 from three, his performance looked like an early-February throwback, putting up an 18-12-13 triple double (plus four steals) while his teammates made it rain from long distance (20/43 3P). Paul George hit 5-of-10, Grant added a career-high 5-of-8, Terrance Ferguson made at least three for just the second time in his last 18 games, and Dennis Schroder made 4-of-7 off the bench. Like many times early in the season, it didn’t matter that Westbrook couldn’t get anything to fall — there was enough offense from everywhere else to account for it.
Westbrook’s 13 assists against the Raptors were the most he’s had in a game since February 7 — when he had 15 in a winning performance similar to Friday’s: missed most of his shots, recorded a monster triple-double, added four steals in a solid team defensive effort, teammates made 17 threes at a high percentage, and the Thunder erased a halftime deficit to win. PG and Grant were the leading scorers in both games, with Schroder and Grant reaching double-figures in each.
Westbrook’s numbers in the two games:
Friday @ TOR: 18 pts, 12 reb, 13 ast, 4 stl, 3 TO, 30% FG, 22% 3P, +18
Feb 7 vs MEM: 15 pts, 13 reb, 15 ast, 4 stl, 3 TO, 31% FG, 25% 3P, +18
Assuming George fully breaks out of his shooting slump (41.7% 3P Last 5) and returns to MVPG form, nights like Friday and Feb. 7 may prove why the collective three-point shooting of Grant, Ferguson, and Schroder is equally, if not more, important than Westbrook maintaining his post-All-Star renaissance from deep. The best version of this team existed when Westbrook couldn’t buy a bucket, PG had them to spare, and the role players were shooting well above their career-average three-point percentages. Russ being more efficient would be a great addition to that, but getting improved Westbrook, even with George rounding into form, is likely a net loss if the rest of the team doesn’t follow suit.
The Thunder have many times proven they can win with Westbrook struggling to shoot the ball, but the same can’t be said for the opposite. Grant, Schroder, and Ferguson combined for 12-of-22 (54.5%) in the win over the Raptors, a rarity once commonplace earlier in the season. Grant’s doing his part at 40 percent from deep since the All-Star break, but OKC needs all three to find their pre-All-Star form. Ferguson and Schroder both hit 44 percent from long range prior to the break, but find themselves shooting sub-30 ever since. Friday was a step in the right direction, but they’ll need to replicate it before anyone can get excited about what’s next.
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