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Sounds of Thunder: For the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s time to shut up and put up

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Sam Presti hit the big red button in the off-season, it’s now or never. There is no tomorrow.

Mark J Rebilus @ USA TODAY Sports

In a recent comment section, Welcome to Loud City’s Dom Flaim coined the phrase that is the perfect description of this entire 2017/18 Thunder season:

“It’s all weird right now.”

Devastating losses to weak teams followed by thrilling victories over the league’s elite have been just juicy enough to keep fans intrigued, but repeated lapses in effort, focus, discipline, or whatever label you want to use, have forced many Thunder fans to bottle some of the emotional commitment they have enjoyed with teams in the past.

Take the Thunder’s last two games against future lottery fodder, the Sacramento Kings, and Atlanta Hawks. In each game, the Thunder won 3 of the 4 quarters played but wasn’t just beaten in the one they lost, they were bitch-slapped. After holding the Kings to just 40 first-half points, Sacramento came out of the locker room and came within a point of doubling their score in the third quarter. The Thunder held the Hawks to just 18 points in the first 9:18 of that game, then opened the bank and gave away 48 before they could get off the court at halftime.

Granted, the Thunder were without defensive roadblock Steven Adams during much of Sacramento’s 3rd quarter run and missed the Atlanta game entirely, but the Kings are a bunch of rookies and 1st-year players and the Hawks are, for all intent and purpose, a G-League team.

nba.com

This scoring chart says it all. The Thunder didn’t just have a defensive letdown, that ebb from 2:42 remaining in the 1st quarter to the 1:02 mark of the 2nd, represents a 23 point meltdown in just under 14 minutes. Every NBA fan understands that teams go on runs, even bad teams, but that stretch was scary and a microcosm of the entire season. From the penthouse to the outhouse in the blink of an eye and, with a closing schedule against eleven straight winning teams, these catastrophic collapses must stop. Now.

The Longest Playoff in NBA History?

Lost with the “weirdness” of the Thunder’s season is just how “weird” this season has played out across the league, especially in the Western Conference. At the end of last season, 15 games separated the #3 seed Houston Rockets and the first playoff runner-up 9th place Denver Nuggets. This season, with roughly 15 games remaining, the split between #3 and #10 is a minuscule 4 12 game separation. One bad run and any of these seeds could find themselves making early summer vacation plans. Just ask the Spurs. Two weeks ago they were looking at home court advantage through at least the first round, and today they are 14 games — 12 against teams with winning records — away from making plans for the lottery drawing in June for the first time since 1997.

How real is that?

Bill Clinton was just starting his second term in office the last time the Spurs didn’t make it to the dance. Welcome to Loud City’s newest contributor, Isaiah Freedmon, has never existed in a world that didn’t include the Spurs in the playoffs. Take a look at the All-NBA Rookie 1st and 2nd teams:

Make no mistake, the 2017/18 post-season kicked in just after the All-Star break and it isn’t going to be over until June.

What the Contenders are Facing the Rest of the Way

#3 Portland Trail Blazers - Fifteen games remaining, 11 against teams with winning records, 5 at home, 6 on the road. Current home/away record, 23-11 home, 18-15 road. Last ten, 10-0.

#4 Oklahoma City Thunder - Twelve games remaining, 11 against teams with winning records, 5 at home, 6 on the road. Current home/away record, 24-11 home, 17-18 road. Last ten, 7-3.

#5 New Orleans Pelicans - Fifteen games remaining, 11 against teams with winning records, 6 at home, 5 on the road. Current home/away record, 18-14 home, 21-14 road. Last ten, 8-2.

#6 Minnesota Timberwolves - Thirteen games remaining, 8 against teams with winning records, 4 at home, 4 on the road. Current home/away record, 26 - 8 home, 14-21 road. Last ten, 5-5.

#7 LA Clippers - Sixteen games remaining, 14 against teams with winning records, 6 at home, 8 on the road. Current home/away record, 20-14 home, 17-15 road. Last ten, 7-3.

#8 Utah Jazz - Fourteen games remaining, 7 against teams with winning records, 3 at home, 4 on the road. Current home/away record, 22-11 at home, 16-19 on the road. Last ten, 8-2.

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#9 San Antonio Spurs - Fourteen games remaining, 12 against teams with winning records, 8 at home, 4 on the road. Current home/away record, 24-8 at home, 14-22 on the road. Last ten, 3-7.

#10 Denver Nuggets - Fourteen games remaining, 11 against teams with winning records, 4 at home, 7 on the road. Current home/away record, 26-10 at home, 11-21 on the road. Last 10, 5-5.

Some side notes about these teams moving forward

  • Portland is both healthy and hungry and sporting the NBA’s longest winning streak. While the Thunder were making their fans squirm against two bottom feeders, the Blazers were crushing the defending champion Warriors, 125-108, and the East’s #8 seed, Miami Heat, 115-99 in Rip City. Their toughest stretch kicks off with a road game against the Clippers on Sunday, the second game of a back to back, then back to the Moda Center against the Rockets on Tuesday, the Celtics on Friday, then here in OKC on Sunday, March 25. If the Blazers survive that, it will be tough to knock them off their #3 spot with just 10 left on their schedule.
  • The Thunder’s next eleven opponents have winning records. The good news for Thunder fans is the teams winning record against +.500 opposition, 20 - 18. It’s not much to hang your hat on, but the Thunder are one of only two of the 8 contenders that have put together a winning record against winners. The Timberwolves, at 24 and 19, are the other. Additionally, Steven Adams and Paul George, banged up in the Thunders last two outings, are cleared to play. However, with the toughest SOS (strength of schedule) at 2.6 per teamrankings.com, and a propensity for mental letdowns, the next 27 days may feel like walking through a minefield while blindfolded for Thunder Nation. If the schedule alone doesn’t create enough trepidation coming down the stretch, the Thunder have also dropped the tiebreaker to three of their closest competition in this race, Portland, Minnesota, and New Orleans.
  • After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a devastating Achilles tendon injury on January 26th, the Pelicans dropped 5 of their following 6 games. Since then, New Orleans has jumped on All-Star Anthony Davis’ back and won 11 of their last 13 and posted a 4 and 2 mark against +500 teams during that stretch. A road test in San Antonio on Thursday, followed by a back to back set against the Rockets and Celtics this weekend will go a long way toward telling us where the Pels will fit into the final standings.
  • The Timberwolves only face 8 teams above .500 the rest of the way, but since Jimmy Butler’s meniscus surgery on February 24th, the T-Wolves have dropped 3 of 5 games against +500 opposition and could have easily been 4 had the Wizards not blown a 10 pt fourth-quarter lead Wednesday night. According to Rotoworld, Butler isn’t projected to return until at least March 26th. Minny has a road trip to San Antonio on Saturday, followed by a flight home and a back to back meeting with the Rockets at the Target Center, a matchup with the 7th seeded Clippers on the 20th, and a road trip to face the 76’ers on the 24th. At this point, Butler is running on an anti-gravity treadmill and it is anyone’s guess how effective he will be upon his return.
  • TeamRankings rates the Thunder’s remaining SOS the toughest, but I disagree. Of the eight teams battling for the final 6 spots in the Western Conference playoffs, the Clippers have the most to play at 16 and the most against +500 opponents, 14. In addition, 8 of those +500 match-ups are on the road. The Clippers are 17 and 15 on the road, but holds the worst record against winning teams among the contenders at 12 and 23.
  • Among the teams left in the hunt for the final 6 remaining playoff seeds, the Jazz has the fewest games against winning teams and a respectable 22-23 record against +500 opponents. The Jazz are on a 7 game winning streak and their next 4 opponents, all sub-500, have a combined record of 83 and 191. Look for the Jazz to move up the standings for at least the next week and possibly beyond. While 7 of their final 10 opponents are winners, none of their remaining games are back to backs and their last two games are against the Warriors and Blazers. Teams that could be resting much of their roster by that point.
  • The Spurs are on the outside of the playoff seedings looking in and though cleared to play by the Spurs medical personnel, their best player, Kawhi Leonard, is still refusing to play until his personal team of doctors gives him the okay. The Spurs have dropped 9 of their last 11 games, including 8 losses against +500 competition. Starting on Thursday, the Spurs face 10 winning teams in a row and barring a miracle run at the AT&T Center in the next 5 at home, they are done like dinner and will miss the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.
  • The Nuggets, with only one winning team to contend with in their next 4 games, have a narrow window to make up valuable ground in the next week, but then face 4 +500 teams on the road the following week. Overall, the outlook is bleak for a Nugget team with a 16 and 22 record against winning teams and the worst road record, 11 - 21, among the 8 contenders. The Nuggets will come close but will duplicate their #9 finish from a year ago.

Strength of Schedule

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder - 2.6
  2. LA Clippers - 1.7
  3. Portland Trail Blazers - 1.6
  4. Denver Nuggets - 1.6
  5. San Antonio Spurs - 1.0
  6. New Orleans Pelicans - 0.9
  7. Utah Jazz - 0.0
  8. Minnesota Timberwolves - -0.1

R.K.’s 1st Round Predictions

#3 - Portland, 51 - 31, teams want to reach their peak going into the playoffs and Portland is there.
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#6 - Minnesota, 48 - 34, the cream generally rises to the top this time of year but Jimmy Butler’s absence will hurt the T-Wolves despite their easy schedule.
Portland in 6.

#4 - Oklahoma City Thunder, 49 - 33, this team has a ton of star power that came together to make a strong run in the playoffs and have shown they can beat any team in this league on any given night. Now is the time for the promise to start producing. There is no tomorrow.
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#5 - Utah Jazz, 49 - 33, the Thunder dodge the tie-breaker bullet, but face one the best defensive teams in the league with Rookie of the Year candidate, Donovan Mitchell as their first-round prize.
OKC in 5.

#7 - LA Clippers, 48 - 34, the Clippers make it to the party but face either the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors for their trouble.

#8 - New Orlean Pelicans, 46 - 36, “the Brow” has been brilliant without Boogie, but don’t look for any post-season miracles.

Final Thoughts

The Thunder have been in Oklahoma City for ten years and this season has been, without doubt, the most frustrating to watch. With the star power this team has at its disposal, 55 to 60 wins was not out of the realm of possibility, but here we stand with just 41 wins and only 12 games remaining.

I’m a homer, I admit it. I’m predicting the Thunder win 8 of their last 12 games and hold on to the #4 seed, but the truth is this, there isn’t one stat out there to back me up, none. Based on SOS and this team’s history, I should be praying for 6 wins and only dropping to the #7 seed, but one thing keeps me from it. Potential.

We’ve seen glimpses of this team’s potential all season. Even in games the Thunder have lost and this is the time of year when the cream of this league rises to the top. But in all fairness to my readers, there’s no denying it, that’s all I’ve got.

It’s weak, I know it, but I think this Thunder team has coasted all season. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long to find out. The Thunder play 6 of the 11 winning teams in a row in the next two weeks. Six games at home, six on the road. If the Thunder win 4, we’ll know, if not, c’est la vie.