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Thunder, Pelicans, Suns and Crucial Playoff Implications

The Oklahoma City Thunder face the New Orleans Pelicans twice in a row this week. The outcome of these games has a greater impact on the playoffs than you can imagine.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

At this point you should know it, Russell Westbrook doesn't like to be ignored:

Oklahoma City has a chance to show the Western Conference that neither do they.

After losing four of six and falling to 10th in the West, three games behind Phoenix, the Thunder are approaching a critical stretch of games. Nine out of the remaining 11 games in February are against teams in the West. seven of those nine are playoff teams, including a game against the Suns, and back-to-back games against the ninth-place New Orleans Pelicans.

Those back-to-back games against New Orleans have pretty large implications for the Thunder. At 26-22, the Pels have been on a bit of a roll. They've won six of their last seven, including a win against the Clippers without Anthony Davis; and bringing an end to the Atlanta Hawks 19-game win streak.

They've already beat the Thunder twice this season, both back in December. The first was against a returning Kevin Durant and the second game back for Westbrook in a 112-104 loss. The second was a game that both Durant and Westbrook missed; Durant with an injury and Westbrook in a last second shot. OKC lost 101-99. Now that you're caught up to speed, let's get you all primed for two must win games this week.

Playoff Implications

The Pelicans have been on a roll as of late. They've won five of their last six games, including beating the Los Angeles Clippers without Anthony Davis and ending the surging Atlanta Hawks winning streak at 19 in a row. Davis is averaging over 28 points in his last five games is making a real case for the MVP with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors tapering off enough to enter Davis back into the conversation.

The Phoenix Suns are in a bit of a bind themselves. They have gone 2-4 in their last six games. If you take a look at their record against West playoff hopefuls, things look even worse. They've only beaten Portland, Dallas (x2), San Antonio, and Golden State so far this season. Mind you the wins against SAS and GSW were way back in the second and seventh games of the season, respectively.

You wouldn't believe how close these teams are. Take a look at these charts (all charts courtesy of Playoff Status.com):

Playoff Probabilities

The probabilities that a team will win each playoff spot. All future unplayed games are assumed won/lost with a probability based upon relative team strengths.

50% - probability the team will win this playoff spot - green number indicates the team controls its destiny for this spot
50% - probability the team will win this playoff spot - red number indicates the team does not control its destiny for this spot

Record Divisional Winners Wildcard No Playoffs
Team Division W L 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Suns Pacific 28 22 2% 5% 13% 26% 54%
Pelicans Southwest 26 22 2% 6% 15% 28% 49%
Thunder Northwest 24 24 2% 1% 4% 13% 80%

What does this chart mean? It means that based on their current record alone, the Thunder have a far greater chasm to cross than the Pelicans to reach that eighth seed. The Pelicans already own two wins against OKC and the two remaining games this week will not only cut the gap down, but will also place any tiebreaker rules squarely on Division record (OKC is at 5-4, NOP is at 6-4). OKC is in an easier division.

Winning Magic Number

The number of consecutive upcoming games a team must win to guarantee winning a given playoff spot.

  • "numeric" indicates the number of consecutive upcoming games that must be won to guarantee winning this spot
  • "DNCD" indicates the team "Does Not Control its Destiny" for this playoff spot and thus, even after winning all remaining games, needs help from other teams to win
Record Divisional Winners Wildcard No Playoffs
Team Division W L 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Suns Pacific 28 22 DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD 31 0
Pelicans Southwest 26 22 DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD 32 0
Thunder Northwest 24 24 DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD DNCD 34 0

What does this chart mean? Look how close the number of wins that are needed from each team, just to clinch the eighth seed. Two wins over the Pelicans this week would put both the Thunder and Pels at 32 games, meaning literally every, single win counts from here on out.

Strength of Schedule

To quantify whether a team's good record is due to strong play or weak opponents and assess future opponents strength

Winning Percentage
Sort and Rank by Remaining Games Rank
Team Division Self Opponents of All Games Opponents of Played Games Opponents of Remaining Games League Conf Div
Suns Pacific 56% 51% 50% 53% 5 5 2
Thunder Northwest 50% 51% 51% 52% 10 10 3
Pelicans Southwest 54% 51% 51% 51% 11 11 5

What does this chart mean? Pay attention mainly to the "Opponents of Remaining Games" and "Rank" columns. What that is telling you is that the Suns have the 5th hardest remaining schedule in the entire NBA. That's a pretty sizable gap between the Pels and the Thunder. Enough of a gap that  the previous two charts are an indicator if nothing else that the Suns have the largest uphill climb and that New Orleans and OKC are so close they can smell each others breath.

The Thunder need these two games, not in a way to hype them on TV, but literally (as well as the the remaining two against the Suns) if they are going to make the playoffs.

Key Matchups

Since Kevin Durant will miss tonight's game against the Pelicans, it helps to look back on the second game against the Pelicans. Some questions to ask yourself:

Can the Thunder sustain an offense that can keep up with the now resurgent Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and Davis? We know Westbrook is going to get his, but will Dion Waiters be the catalyst this time? With both Kevin Durant and Perry Jones (ankle) sitting out, Waiters started and put up 24 points (9-15 FG, 2-4 3Pt, 4-6 FT) to go with four rebounds. Since Reggie Jackson has been rendered a non-factor will we see him get minutes against a Evans/Gordon backcourt?

The Thunder are going to need more firepower and Dion just replacing Jackson is not going to cut it.

Will the real Serge Ibaka show up? He registered 6 points on 2-8 shooting last time out, but has been on a nice run lately. His work on the boards has been admirable (11.1 rebounds per in the last six games), it will go along way against a Omer Asik/Davis frontcourt that combined for 24 rebounds last time.

His defense is going to have to show up given that the Nick Collison-Kendrick Perkins pair gave up 16 points in a 5 minute span. Last time out Davis used is mid-range game to later open up drives to the hoop, only Serge could possibly look to keep up with a AD that is on that type of roll. Play Davis down a few notches and the Thunder win that second game going away.

Now, Jrue Holiday is going to be out this game as he heals from an ongoing stress reaction in his right leg, but Evans has been picking up the slack (10.0 assists in his last five games, 12.0 per if you exclude his 2 assist night against Denver). A Jackson-Waiters-Westbrook trio may be in order at some point, as it's never been tried this season.

The most effective offensive lineup has been the Westbrook-Jackson-Roberson/Morrow-Ibaka-Adams lineup (Off Rtg of 1.33 and 1.31. They've used those lineups sparingly (42.3 and 24.4 minutes on the season), while the Waiters included lineups are far less efficient. Given Holiday's absence I can imagine that another scorer on the wing would cause defensive issues for the Pelicans, especially if Jackson can rediscover himself and Waiters can keep his train going.

Those are big "Ifs."

A rusty Durant coming back probably evens the skill level, but their play has still been erratic. They hold a 14-7 record (.667) with both Westbrook and KD, far below the .721 pace that has been the standard over the last three seasons. We honestly can't know game-to-game what Thunder team we'll get, and part of that is owed to opponents having figured out the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Predictions

Wednesday Night: I'll stray away from Marine's excellent preview and pick New Orleans to win, 112-102

Friday Night: Oklahoma City Thunder 105 - New Orleans Pelicans 98, because I think that Kevin Durant will return.