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Sounds of Thunder: Oklahoma City Thundering down the stretch of final NBA schedule

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A look at the final weeks of the regular season for OKC.

It’s time for the Thunder to embrace their inner “Road Warrior”

The Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit in the sixth spot of the playoff pecking order, thanks to banking 3 more wins than Basketballreference.com’s 38 and 33 win/loss projection. With eleven games remaining, the Thunder are a game and a half ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, a single game behind the number 5 seed Los Angeles Clippers, and 2 and half games behind the 4th seed Utah Jazz. Is OKC in a good spot now? Or should the Thunder go all out to move up a spot or two?

Let’s take a look at the challengers.

Memphis Grizzlies v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

The Grizz

What’s Coming Up:

Memphis has 10 games remaining on their regular season schedule, 6 at home and 4 on the road. Only 4 of their remaining opponents sport winning records, and those match-ups are split, 2 at home, 2 on the road. The road games are monsters, with Golden State on Sunday and the Spurs on April 4th, the night prior to playing the Thunder at home on April 5th. The Thunder are the 3rd of the Grizzlies’ remaining four +.500 squads, and the Indiana Pacers are the last. The Grizzlies lost by ten on the road to the Pacers on February 24th and will be hungry to avenge that loss on March 29th.

One of the top stories early in the season surrounded Memphis’s success over the reigning Western Conference champ, Golden State. The Grizz drubbed the Dubs at the Fed in their first meeting on December 12th, then legitimized that with a huge 4th quarter rally and overtime win at Oracle Arena on January 6. However, the Warriors redeemed themselves nicely when they handed the Grizz and 15 point beatdown on February 10th and, with the Spur pressing for the #1 Western Conference spot, Golden State will go all out to even the score against a possible first round foe.

The Grizzlies/Spurs story-line has been similar to Golden State. Memphis won the first two games, both at home, and lost to the Spurs on the road on March 23rd, and like the Warriors, the Spurs will be battling for the top spot while making sure they even things up against a likely playoff opponent.

Memphis should be favored in their home games against the Thunder and Pacers. The Thunder have the second worst road record of any seeded team in either conference and would be in dead last in that category if not for the Pacers. The Thunder are better than they were in these team’s previous meetings, but a win for a young squad that has struggled hitting shots on the road, against a team that matches up with them size wise, though not impossible, would be a big upset. It would take a miracle for the Pacers to pull off a win at the Fed.

Of the 6 remaining opponents, Memphis only plays 2 on the road. Their record against these teams, the Dallas Mavericks (twice), the Sacramento Kings, the New York Knicks, and the Detroit Pistons is a pedestrian 5 and 4, but the Kings are toast, and so are the Knicks. The Detroit Pistons and the Dallas Mavericks are in the hunt for the final playoff spots in their respective conferences, but both are worse road teams than the Thunder.

Prediction:

Grizzlies win seven of their next ten, six if the Thunder pull out the win on April 5, and finish with 46 or 47 wins.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Clippers

What’s Coming Up:

Of the four teams vying for the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th seeds, the Clippers may have the easiest row to hoe. They only have 9 games remaining and just 2 of those are on the road. However, 4 of the Clippers’ 5 remaining antagonists carry better records. The bright side for Clipper fans is that 3 of those contests are at home and should guarantee at least a split.

The Clips’ other 5 games include 2 against the Kings, at home game against the road weary Mavericks, another with the tanking Lakers, and a road game against a Phoenix contingent that has dropped 6 straight.

Prediction:

Clippers win at least 7 of their final nine and finish season with 50 wins and possibly lock the #4 spot in the playoffs.

Utah Jazz v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

The Jazz

What’s Coming Up:

Even though they are farther ahead, the Thunder actually have a better shot at catching the Jazz than the Clippers. Utah, loser of 3 of their last 4 has struggled of late against quality opponents and 5 of their remaining 10 game are against better opponents than in their recent losses.

The fun starts Saturday, March 25th, with a trip to the aforementioned Los Angeles Clippers, a team trying to overtake the Jazz for home court advantage in the first round. The Clips already own a 2 to 1 series advantage. Jazz fans will be pinning their hopes on the Jazz’s road win against the Clippers in their last meeting on March 11, but 3 road losses in a row since then doesn’t bode well for Utah’s chances. Things don’t get much easier when the Jazz get home and find the surging New Orleans Pelicans waiting for them.

Following a tough two game start to these final games, the Jazz should regain their winning ways on the road when they face the woeful Kings, and then come home to face a swooning Washington Wizard team that is experiencing its own problems with quality opponents.

Then things get really dicey. In Utah’s final 6 games, only one looks like a sure win.

First up, a road trip to see Pop and the Spurs, followed by yet another trip back home to face a red hot Portland Trail Blazer team that has won 9 of its last 12 games, doing their dead level best to get into the post-season. Then the one game in this final gauntlet that should be a respite and win against the T-Wolves.

Something tells me when Jazz fans looked at the schedule and saw who they drew for their final 3 games, the overall reaction was probably something in the neighborhood of "WHAT THE _ _ _ _" (fill in the blank with the colorful metaphor of your choice)

On the road against those feisty Trail Blazers, a quick jaunt to Oracle Arena and a date with the Warriors, and finally back home to wrap it all up against the Spurs.

Not only is this the toughest schedule of the teams covered herein, but is made just that much tougher as a result of travel. A total of 7,862 miles in 18 days on 9 flights. Granted, the Thunder will also catch the team jet 9 times to finish the season, but they have 5 days to catch their breath at home mixed in the middle. The Jazz will basically be living out of their suitcases the for the remainder of the season.

Prediction:

In seasons past it, was common practice for the top teams to rest their starters going into the playoffs. They are generally afforded that luxury because the pecking order is usually set a week to ten days prior to the end of the season. This season has been anything but a normal season and both conferences’ top spots are up for the taking and there are still 4 teams in the West scratching and clawing for that last pass to the post-season party.

It is entirely possible that the final playoff match-ups, top to bottom, could stay in flux until the final day of the season, which means 8 of the Jazz's 10 final opponents are going all out. If the Jazz, who are missing Derrick Favors and Shelvin Mack, can finish out 5 and 5, they would be fortunate.

Five wins would give Utah 49 on the season.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder

Of these four teams, the Thunder have the most games remaining, eleven. Unfortunately, seven of those games are on the road... (See ranking of Thunder road record discussed above) ... and, in all likelihood, the first 7 of those eleven final games will decide where the Thunder finish in the final rankings. Get past those 7 relatively whole and the Thunder have a shot at Utah and the Northwest Division Championship.

The Thunder’s final run kicks off Sunday, March 26th, on the road, at Houston. A game with huge implications not only for the team, but for a certain individual battle that has been on everyone’s lips for weeks: the MVP battle between Houston’s James Harden and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook.

These teams have met three times this season and the Rockets hold a two to one advantage, but the differential in those 3 games combined is a minuscule 7 points.

As stated earlier, the Thunder is a better team than when these two last met on January 5th. After fleecing the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline, Sam Presti upgraded his starting rotation with the addition of Taj Gibson. With Taj came Doug McDermott, a player with the potential to rain threes on an opponent like hail from an Oklahoma thunderstorm.

Gibson’s presence was felt immediately. McDermott took some time to adjust, but in the Thunder’s last 7 games has lit the scoreboard hitting 9 of his last 18 3-point attempts.

Will it be enough? That depends on what that question has depended on all year: Russell Westbrook. His final assignment going into the playoffs is leading his young charges to victory on the road by helping them maintain the same composure they have shown all season at home. A tall order considering their inexperience, but I learned a long time ago to never bet against Russell.

After taking on the Rockets Sunday, the Thunder make the 5 hour trek up I-45 to meet the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. In the Thunder’s last trip to American Airlines Center, they were embarrassed 104 to 89 during that dreadful 4 game losing stretch to kick off the month of March. Since that debacle on March 5th, the Thunder moved Gibson to the starting PF spot and the Thunder have reeled off 6 wins in their last 7 contests.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Taj re-assignment, coupled with McDermott’s rediscovered shooting stroke in addition to a quick return to the scene of the crime, should work in the young Thunder’s favor, but unlike Oklahoma City, the Mav’s won’t be playing the second game of a back-to-back.

After the back-to-back Texas gut-check, the Thunder fly out to sunny Florida to face an Orlando Magic team that hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record all month. Hopefully the Thunder won’t mess up what is shaping into a pretty impressive streak before flying home for 5 days.

Not that home will be all that welcoming however as the Thunder kick off the 3 game home-stand against a Spurs squad looking to avenge the rare double digit loss the Thunder handed them on March 9th. After testing their metal against Pop’s boys, the Thunder go up against a Charlotte Hornets bunch that has been showing a pulse of late behind the leadership of All-Star Kemba Walker, and finish off the home trip with a serving of Milwaukee Bucks and their star, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The not so sweet dessert to these key seven games is a trip to the Fed and the aforementioned battle with the Memphis Grizzlies. As an added bonus, depending on how the cards fall, this game could determine who gets the second-seeded Warriors or Spurs or the third seeded Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

The Thunder should be favored in their final four game even though 3 of them will be contested on the road. On April 7th the Thunder get a shot at avenging a terrible loss to an even more terrible Phoenix Suns team during that 4 game losing streak earlier this month and then it’s off to Denver to play a Nuggets team the Thunder have already beaten once on the road, albeit taking overtime to do so.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The final road game of the season is against the struggling Minnesota T-wolves, and then the home finale with the Nuggets.

Prediction:

Every game from here on out is a winnable game for the Thunder. Every game, but it would be bold indeed to say the Thunder will finish their 2016-17 campaign on a 12 game winning streak. It’s not impossible mind you, but not likely.

I think the Thunder beat Houston. This young team adores their main man Russell Westbrook and will pour their heart and soul into winning this one for him. If they don’t put it all out there, they aren’t the team I thought they were, but you don’t do something like this unless you are 100% on board the Russell Westbrook freight train:

Much less twice:

"Roomies!!"

Hey guys, if you’re going to put up a picture of the Bandit in your living room.....

.... get it right. The star of Smokey and the Bandit wasn't Burt Reynolds..... it was the car!

The Bandit

The T/A-6.6 high performance logo.

Bandit 1 sold at the Barrett Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, AZ for $500,000 in January of 2016, and in the post-muscle car oil embargo era was the finest production sports car built in America in 1977. Forget the Corvette, the ‘77 Pontiac Trans Am could match it’s 160 MPH and do it all day long without overheating. A true road warrior, and if the "Roomies" and their teammates want to finish strong, taking some of the Bandit’s spirit along wouldn’t be a bad idea.

If the Thunder can win 5 of their remaining road games, they have a very good chance of going 8 and 3 and finishing with 49 wins and taking the #5 seed via the tie-breaker they have over Utah.

Closing Statement

The Thunder could rise as high as the number five seed, that’s true, the question is, do they want to?

Like the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, perhaps getting to number 5 wouldn’t be the best thing when you look at possible playoff pairings.

If the Thunder reach number 5, chances are high they will meet the Clippers in the first round and be virtually guaranteed to meet the Warriors or Spurs in the second round. On the other hand, if the Thunder maintain their spot at number 6 and don’t let Memphis overtake them, they would face the Rockets in round one while Memphis the giant killers would be taking on either the Spurs or Warriors to set up the second round.

Put another way, door number one, stay at 6 and get past Houston and the Thunder would then face either a beat up #2 seed or Memphis. Or door number 2, make it to number 5 where the Thunder must survive a physical 1st round match-up with the Clippers and then face a well rested #1 seed that swept its opening round opponent in the second round.

Given those two options, my hope is the Thunder finish strong, keeping Memphis at bay and gaining confidence on the road along the way, Utah exceeds expectations and holds the #5 spot, and leave the Thunder with door number one.

Now, if by some miracle, the Thunder go 9 and 2 and finish the season with 50 wins, they would win the tie-breaker with the Clippers as a division winner, secure home court advantage in the first round, and, IMO, make Westbrook a virtual lock as the league MVP. Okay Monty, give me door number 3.

"Roomies!!"