Just who are the Oklahoma City Thunder? It’s been 81 games, and the best answer remains the shrug emoji ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is a Thunder team that rattled off 6 straight wins in March, seemingly setting themselves up for a comfortable playoff birth, only to promptly lose 4 of their next 5 games — all by 4 points or less — putting them back in danger of falling out of the playoffs. They then failed to beat the Stephen Curry-less Warriors on their home court. After that, with their fanbase reaching a fever pitch of panic, they went into Houston, beat the best team in basketball due in no small part to Russell Westbrook deciding, in the 80th game of the year, to try on defense, and then whooped the Miami Heat on the road to finally lock up their playoff spot, but not before letting the Heat get ahead 16-1 in the first quarter to make everyone sweat a little bit.
And that was all in the last month.
The season as a whole has been an extended version of these last 15 games — periods where The Thunder look like world beaters, followed by stretches where they’ve performed like a lottery squad. That’s left a lot of people scratching their heads as to what this team is. You could just conclude they’re an average basketball team- they have only one less win than the Indiana Pacers, and no one is thinking too hard about what the Pacers are. But the Thunder are more complicated than most 47 win teams.
The Thunder have expressed a confidence all season in their ability to “get up” for big games, as a way of brushing off questions about their losses to inferior competition. That’s a cliche thing for a team to say, but it’s actually true for this team, to a point. The Thunder this year are 26-23 against opponents .500 and above. Only the Warriors and the Rockets have won more games against teams over .500; the East-leading Toronto Raptors have won 24 games against teams over .500, but have played 5 fewer of those games. The difference between those teams and the Thunder are those teams took care of business against bad teams. The Thunder are 21-11 against teams below .500, which doesn’t seem bad until you realize it’s tied for the worst mark among the Western Conference playoff teams. If the Thunder could’ve just achieved the 24-8 mark against losing teams that the Pelicans posted, they would have 50 wins and comfortably locked up the 3 seed. Losing to teams like the Nets and Mavericks back in December hurts even more with that context.
Still, there’s reason for hope in those numbers — it shows the Thunder have done better in “big games” than you would expect, based on their overall record. That doesn’t mean they’ve shown up to every big game — in very recent memory, they lost to the Steph-less Warriors, choked a way a late lead against the Celtics, airballed their way to defeat against the Spurs, and collapsed against the Trail Blazers, all games that qualified as “big”. They’ve also now beaten the Warriors and the Rockets on their home courts without Andre Roberson. The Thunder have enough failures in big games to give you pause, but enough successes to think they have a better chance of pulling off an upset than a typical 47/48 win team.
And that’s the point: the Thunder are not your typical 47 win team. They have far more talent than a typical 47 win team: a league MVP in Westbrook, an all-star and Third-Team All-NBA caliber player in Paul George, one of the best defensive centers in the league in Steven Adams, and whatever it is Carmelo Anthony can give a team. And for the first half of the season, they had a Defensive Player of the Year contender in Andre Roberson.
The Roberson injury is something that needs to be considered in discussing the Thunder’s inconsistency. The Thunder famously started the season 8-12 before ripping off a 22-8 stretch, capped off with an 8 game win streak. The narrative was straight forward: Oklahoma City, after taking some time to figure out how to play together, had started clicking, and if they could sustain it, figured to finish somewhere in the low 50’s for wins on the season, despite the putrid start.
And then Roberson got hurt. If that injury never happened, I think it’s pretty likely the Thunder continued on the trajectory they had been. Roberson’s injury was devastating not just because it cost OKC a valuable player (Roberson IS really valuable, but he’s also the 5th starter), but because it forced OKC to relearn how to play together for the second time in one season. As Billy Donovan said in the wake of the injury:
”The one thing that I think is a mistake is now to throw all this onus on Paul George, that he now has to be our defensive stopper. It has to be our team.”
OKC took a while to figure out how to incorporate Paul George and Carmelo Anthony on offense, and it naturally took them a while to figure out how to play defense without Roberson. As Donovan said, it wasn’t just a matter of plugging in another starter and counting on Paul George to replace Roberson’s contributions. The whole team had to relearn how to play defense without Roberson there to correct their mistakes. The reason for at least cautious optimism heading into the playoffs is that they seemingly have.
To my mind, you can divide the Thunder’s season into 4 parts: the early struggles, the winter surge, the period following Roberson’s injury, and the signing of Corey Brewer. I don’t mean to overstate Brewer’s importance — he’s no Roberson. But his signing gave OKC a consistent starting 5 again, and came a month after Roberson’s injury — enough of an adjustment period for the team to adjust it’s defense. Here’s how the Thunder performed during those 4 stretches:
While the first stretch of the season was the worst by record, the Thunder had a fine net rating during that time — they just got unlucky in close games. Their worst stretch by net rating was the 15 games after Roberson went down before Brewer joined — they offset it by winning their close games, but they were slaughtered multiple times in that stretch, including a 25 point loss to the Lakers, of all teams. But since Brewer joined the team, they’ve posted the same defensive rating they put up during the hot streak in the middle of the season. They’ve gone 10-7 in that stretch, but 5 of their losses have been by 4 points or less. You’d rather win those games of course, but the Thunder appear to be back to mostly playing the way they were before Roberson went down. Again, that’s not because of Brewer; Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant, and Josh Huestis have been excellent in this stretch. No one player was ever going to replace Roberson, but with time to adjust to their larger roles, these 3 have mostly been up to the challenge.
Will that hold up in the playoffs? It’s impossible to say, just like it’s impossible to know for sure which Thunder team will show up in the playoffs. The Thunder’s inconsistency has certainly been troubling, frustrating, insanity-inducing, blood pressure-raising, etc. But as maddening as the low points of this season have been, the high points have been incredible. This team has within itself the ability go play like a 60 win team, and that means it has the ability to go on a tear in the playoffs, and it’s flashed that at moments this season- stomping Golden State, beating the Rockets when they needed the win to salvage their season. They have, as promised, gotten up for the big games. And their net rating over this final stretch of the season suggests the team is rounding into form at just the right time.
The Thunder aren’t your average 48 win team. There were moments this season where they played far below a typical 48 win team would, and those moments cost them a higher playoff seed. But it also means they have a chance to accomplish far more than a typical 48 win team would in the playoffs.
Just who are the Oklahoma City Thunder? We’re about to find out.