The season is rapidly winding to a close, and the Thunder as a team seem to be hidden in the afterglow of some of the other championship contenders this year. The Heat just pulled off their 23rd consecutive victory, the Spurs march on even without their leader Tony Parker, and the Denver Nuggets have been on their own tear, winning 12 in a row (one of which included the Thunder).
Where does OKC fit within this story line? The glass half-full perspective might say that despite OKC's inconsistencies, they're still winning and just notched #50 on Sunday. More importantly, they have not dropped a game to a materially lesser team since the Kyrie Irving incident on February 2nd.
The glass half-empty perspective might say that even with 50 wins, the team's identity seems to fluctuate from night to night. Is it Russell Westbrook's burden to carry until Kevin Durant becomes aggressive in the 4th quarter? Is it a top-heavy team that cannot depend on its bench players? In a stretch where Miami is the measuring stick and has been doing almost everything right, the Thunder's effort seems to pale in comparison.
The Thunder are in the midst of perhaps the last important stretch of this season where they play 3 teams who know how to challenge them in different ways. How OKC plays against each should tell us plenty about what we can expect for the playoffs.
I'm kind of cheating a bit here since the Mavericks game was Sunday and marked the Thunder's sweep of them for the regular season, and OKC is unlikely to see Dallas again until next year. Why should a sub-.500 team matter so much?
I believe it still goes back to the 2011 Western Conference Finals when the Mavs used the perfect blend of top-level talent (Dirk Nowitzki), experience (Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd), and role players (J.J. Barea, Jason Terry) to take down a more talented team. After that series, we all hoped that the Thunder learned valuable lessons about how they will have to handle themselves going forward.
To the Thunder's credit, it appears that they have. Even though every time they play Dallas the game seems to turn into a disjointed affair, it is clear that the Thunder are progressively learning how to keep their heads in the game. That catastrophic meltdown from Game 4 of the WCF is long past; the Thunder don't allow this team into their heads anymore.
That lesson is going to be important, because there is now another championship team that appears to be in the Thunder's heads.
2) Denver Nuggets
The Thunder face the Nuggets in a few short hours to try and even the regular season series and keep a leg up on the Nuggets. Tonight's game will be a vast contrast to the Mavericks game. As anxiety-laden as a Mavs game can be, OKC-Denver is a thrill-a-second joyride.
Denver is riding a 12 game winning streak and is looking to make ground in the playoff standings. While OKC's record is favorable, nothing is guaranteed, as last season's final month bore out. Even though Denver will be weary from a back-to-back, they still play at a lightning pace that is like an OD on Pixy Stix.
The style of game is enticing, I know. What player doesn't want to run up and down for 40 minutes, hoist shots, throw down dunks, and occasionally play defense?
The problem with that style is that it plays too close to what Denver wants to do and not enough what OKC wants to do. The Thunder can play good-to-great defense, but the up-and-down game limits their ability to capitalize on their ability because of Denver's open-court ability. Yes, OKC can keep up just fine, as the last two games have shown, but in doing so it gives Denver an advantage that they do not necessarily have the automatic right to claim.
The Thunder must think more like how they played against Dallas, slowing the game down, and valuing possessions more. Durant needs to be more than an offset to a bench player like Corey Brewer or Wilson Chandler; he has to be a defensive wrecking machine that compromises everything a defense is trying to do.
This game may be a preview for the 2nd round, so in order to prevent OKC from giving the Nuggets a mental edge, tonight they must play a smarter and slower brand of ball against their divisional rivals.
The Grizzlies await on Wednesday night. Once again, they are a far stretch from the teams in Dallas and in Denver. If Denver is the speedway, Memphis is the off-road mud pits. The phrase 'grit-grind' is such a perfect moniker for this Grizz team because they are fearless.
The reason why Memphis is a great indicator is that they have a similar defensive perimeter game as the Miami Heat does, only with better front court. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol provide ample muscle to counter the Thunder's front line athleticism, and the contrast in styles make for an excellent coaching match-up. When is it time to go big? When is it time to go small? How do you defend Marc Gasol's evolving game?
Lastly, what do you do with a team that takes such pride in its defense? When Memphis traded Rudy Gay in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and cap space (or was it cap space and Prince?) many wondered if losing their only dynamic scorer would undermine their playoff hopes. So far, the evidence is in Memphis' favor.
Above all, the Thunder need to make sure that they are making their opposition work on defense instead of the other way around. Too many times against elite opposition, the Thunder make themselves guardable. With Durant and Westbrook on the court, this team should never be guardable. And yet, too often we see quick shots, long shots, and missed opportunities to take advantage of the Thunder's athletic superiority.
Three games. Sunday, tonight, and tomorrow. They'll tell us the viewers a lot. What will these games tell the Thunder?