Things have yet to turn around for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team still can't finish games like the top teams in the league. Sloppy ball handling from their two superstars has caused the offense to sputter. The real Serge Ibaka is still missing and then bench has far too often played hit or miss basketball.
After going 2-2 in their previous four-game stretch, the schedule gets a little bit easier--though they will still face off against three potential playoff teams. Let's see if this is the week that things finally get corrected for the Thunder.
03/14 vs Trailblazers
FORECAST: Cloudy with thunderstorms throughout the day
Damian Lillard has been playing like a bat shot out of hell since the All-Star break. He's averaging over 40 points a game in his matchups against the other point guards that were selected to the 2016 All-Star game. On Monday night he gets his first shot at Russell Westbrook--who was voted in by fans as a starter.
Meanwhile, the Thunder have been stuck in basketball purgatory the second half of the regular season. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been just as stellar statistically as they were all season, but they are turning the ball over at an alarming rate.
Westbrook is coming off a nine turnover game against the San Antonio Spurs and KD had his first game with less than five turnovers in a shade under two weeks.
OKC is going to go as far as their two stars can carry them the rest of the season and it won't be very far if they continue to struggle taking care of the basketball.
The last time these two teams met it was a--and stop me if you've heard this before--late game barrage by Portland that helped them edge the Thunder. In all the talk about Lillard don't forget that C.J. McCollum can just as easily get hot from deep as well.
Prediction: Thunder 99, Trailblazers 102
On the Doppler Radar: Russell Westbrook vs Damian Lillard
Lillard is a man on a mission and his game and leadership have helped the Trailblazers have a better than expected year so far. Lillard's shooting ability makes him a very tough guard and Portland does well to keep him in motion without the ball on offense too. Russ, for all his triple double glory, has had a couple defensive lapses that cost OKC their last two games (slacking off Rubio on the game winner against Minnesota and gambling for a steal on an open Danny Green three against Spurs). We usually get the best version of Russ when he's playing against high quality competition so this will be a fun head-to-head game within the game to keep an eye on.
03/16 at Celtics
FORECAST: Partly Cloudy with sunshine breaking through in late afternoon
The Boston Celtics are a constant reminder of what could've been. Sam Presti was a well-known fan of Brad Stevens during the coaches time at Butler, however OKC was still pro-Scott Brooks when Boston swooped in and got Stevens to come to the NBA sidelines.
Stevens leadership and mastery of offensive sets and end of game plays has helped makes the Celtics collection of players a much better team. Billy Donovan has been decent in his first season, but Stevens has become a known commodity and that is something the Thunder could very well use.
On the court, the Celtics will be without Jae Crowder for this game. Crowder, the team's best two-way player, will be missed on the court as he was the best matchup for KD. However, the team still has Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to throw at Durant and Westbrook.
This is a game where the rest of the OKC team should have a big impact on the outcome. If players like Randy Foye, Anthony Morrow, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, etc. can have solid outings than there should be no reason for the Thunder to come away empty-handed.
Prediction: Thunder 104, Celtics 96
On the Doppler Radar: Steven Adams vs Tyler Zeller
Adams has steadily shown improvement all year, especially as an offensive threat. Donovan has said he doesn't mind going to Adams in the post and trusts him to make the right play down low. For the longest the talk about OKC was that they were missing an interior presence. Now, as Adams is starting to look the part it might all be for nothing as the league has become more perimeter dominant. Tyler Zeller is an example of the new age big man. He's a threat to shoot from the outside and is mobile and agile enough to cause trouble for guards in the pick and roll. If Adams can get going early and be a force in the paint all night things should go well for the Thunder.
03/18 at Sixers
FORECAST: Heat Advisory Watch
No disrespect to the hardworking folks at Liberty Ballers, but there really isn't much to say about this game. OKC is one of the four best teams in the NBA and the Philadelphia 76ers are actively trying to be the worst.
Thanks to their roster construction there isn't much high-level NBA talent on this team and with Jahlil Okafor out for the year there's even less. The ones who do suit up in Philly give every game their all so take them lightly at your own risks. However this should be an open and shut case for the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder 126, Sixers 111
On the Doppler Radar: Serge Ibaka vs Nerlens Noel
Serge Ibaka has been in a funk all season. The high-energy finger-wagging Air Congo has been a rare sight for most of the season. Maybe it's the adjustment to a new offensive system or maybe the injuries that he quickly and amazingly recovered from last year are finally taking a toll on him. Either way, if the Ibaka we have seen of late is the Ibaka that shows up for the playoffs than we'll have a lot of time to ponder the KD offseason free agency bonanza. Nerlens Noel has been elite defensively since coming back from an ACL injury as a rookie. If Noel is guarding Serge than it will be up to him to drag the rim protector as far away from the basket as possible.
03/19 at Pacers
FORECAST: Clear Skies with a high of 80 Degrees
Back to the team that started it all. In their first game out of the All-Star break the Thunder welcomed the Indiana Pacers to town and being great host gave away a late fourth quarter lead. That loss seemingly has become a pattern of play for OKC of late.
As of this post, the Thunder have lost a league-high 12 games when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. That is not a stat any team wants to be on the top of the list for.
Since the Pacers game the Thunder have only won four games and are in serious danger of dropping to the fourth seed in the Western conference.
For their part, Indiana has hung in tightly in the Eastern conference playoff race (where they currently sit in seventh). They will need all the wind they can get and it will be up to OKC to come out and match the intensity and effort that the Pacers bring.
Prediction: Thunder 109, Pacers 99
On the Doppler Radar: Kevin Durant vs Paul George
Two All-Stars going toe-to-toe is always must see television in the NBA. Paul George has thankfully regained his star caliber play after suffering a horrendous knee injury in a Team USA exhibition game. While Kawhi Leonard has overtaken him as the game's best two-way player George isn't that far off. Once again it's going to be on KD to give his best effort on both ends of the court. Durant can score on any defender, but if he can elevate his defense into the elite territory it will serve the Thunder very well going forward.