If you were to time travel to last year, and tell a Thunder fan, still moping over the team’s loss to the Rockets, that they would acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony over the summer, that fan would be ecstatic (although, if you could time travel and chose to use your powers for this purpose, the fan might think you’re a very odd person, and I’d have to agree with them). If you were to ask them how many wins the Thunder would have with this new roster, the fan might’ve told you 55, maybe even 60. At the very least, the fan would be certain that the new team would have more wins than the 47 the Travelling Russell Westbrook Triple Double Experience managed in 2017.
Well, here we are. The Thunder have 45 wins with only 3 games left to play- if they top last year’s win total, it will be by only one win. Even worse, they still are not even a lock to make the playoffs. So much is still up in the air, and since we have no time traveler from the future to fill us in, all we can do is map out the possible outcomes for the Thunder. Let’s start with the worst-case scenario:
Missing the Playoffs Entirely
This isn’t likely- FiveThirtyEight says the Thunder have a 94% chance to make the playoffs- but it’s a little embarrassing for a team with so much talent to still not have sealed it’s spot this late in the season. All those close losses and late game collapses have added up, and if the thunder were to lose all 3 of their final games, there’s a chance they could fall out entirely. The Thunder’s remaining games: at the Rockets (more on that in a second), at the Heat (uh-oh) and home against Memphis. If the Thunder win two they’re in- if the only win one, things get super complicated, and they could theoretically finish anywhere from 4th down to 10th, depending how the other teams final games shake out. And if the thunder can’t even beat an atrocious Memphis squad at home in the season finale, they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs, and should go ahead and buy Paul George his ticket to Los Angeles . There’s not much else to say about this scenario.
If the Thunder wind up the 8 seed, they’ll be treated to a rematch of last year’s first round series. The central stars-Russell Westbrook and his long-ago teammate James Harden- remain the same, but everything else about these two teams has changed. They actually form a fascinating dichotomy- the Rockets are what it looks like when a super team (or least a super-duo) gels instantly, while the Thunder are a cautionary tale about how even extremely talented players can take a while to figure each other out.
On court, the Rockets would probably prefer an easier first round matchup after all their work to get the 1 seed. When the playoffs come around, depth matters less, young players become harder to count on, and superstars become even more important. The Thunder, for all their flaws, have two legitimate superstars, a budding star in Steven Adams, and…whatever Carmelo Anthony is at this point. I’m sure the Rockets would rather face the Nuggets.
All that said, the Thunder would be underdogs with good reason in this series. Paul George is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, one of the few to really give LeBron James problems, and watching him go toe-to-toe with Harden for seven games would be delightful. But elsewhere there are problems. If Russ falls asleep for a possession defensively as he’s prone to do, the Rockets are knocking down an open 3. Last year Enes Kanter was famously played off the court when the Rockets attacked him in the pick and roll. They will do the same to Carmelo Anthony. If Steven Adams gives the rockets problems in the paint, they will switch to lineups with Ryan Anderson or PJ Tucker at center to draw him out of the paint. We haven’t even mentioned Chris Paul yet, who will ensure the Rockets remain elite while Harden rests- something Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have been unable to do when Russ sits. The two things the Thunder are elite at- Offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers- are two thing the Rockets excel at limiting. That means less second chance points and less transition. Can the Thunder win this matchup? Yes. But win it in the first round and your reward is…making the second round. It would be far better to delay this series to a later round, where winning it gets you into the finals.
The Thunder play the Rockets tonight. A win will go a long way in securing a playoff sport for OKC, and would show that OKC is still able to turn it up in big games- something they’ll need to do to advance in the playoffs.
Golden State Warriors
It’s a weird thing to say about a team that are the defending world champions, but Warriors are a more favorable match-up for the Thunder than the Rockets are. The Thunder are tailor made in a lot of ways to challenge this Warriors team- the Thunder are filled with long, athletic defenders on the wing who can chase Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson around, they have the behemoth that is Steven Adams to snare rebounds and punish the Warriors on the glass when they try to go small, and they have enough offensive firepower to take advantage of the opportunities the Warriors give them (those two things that the Thunder are elite at, offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers, correspond to two things the Warriors are terrible at- securing defensive rebounds and limiting turnovers). Even as they’ve struggled this season, the Thunder have always been confident in their ability to get up for big games, and they show that when they stomped the Warriors twice early in the season.
And of course, Stephen Curry is hurt, and won’t play in the first round. You’re going to need to go through the Warriors at some point to make the finals (if the Thunders still hope to do that), and they’re never going to be more vulnerable than in Round One with a banged up Curry still out. The Warriors are still dangerous without Curry- they beat the Thunder without him just a few days ago, and they still have 3 all-stars, a deep bench, and a top 3 player in the league in Kevin Durant. And yet…they aren’t quite the Warriors without Curry. Curry unlocks so much for his teammates due to the gravity he has as a shooter on or off the ball. Quinn Cook isn’t giving you that.
The Thunder should hope for a more favorable first round matchup- even the wounded Warriors are more dangerous than the Trailblazers or Spurs or anyone else. But if it comes down to this series, the Thunder will have a chance. And the drama- Westbrook vs Durant, with near equal firepower supporting them- would be on a level we normally don’t see until the finals. I think there’s at least one person (he wears #0) who’s secretly hoping for this matchup.
Portland Trail Blazers
Despite the Warriors and Rockets being considered true title contenders and the Blazers not, the Thunder have accomplished something against both those teams that they haven’t against the Blazers- won a freaking game. Portland executed a perfect sweep of the Thunder this season, winning four times.
The Blazers are a great team. Damian Lillard may end up first team All-NBA this season. But despite the sweep, the Thunder shouldn’t be too scared of this matchup. Across all four games, Russell Westbrook and Paul George have shot the ball poorly. The Trailblazers have a good defense this year, but there’s no Kawhi Leonard or Chris Paul locking things down on this roster- Westbrook and George just need to knock down the looks they do get. And even with that poor shooting, all 4 games have been close- the final margins were 3,4 8 and 11- and 3 of those games were within 3 points within the final 5 minutes.
Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM, has a quote that goes “Great teams don’t win close games- they avoid them.” By that metric, neither the Thunder nor the Blazers are great teams- they have near identical point differentials on the season, per CleaningTheGlass. Close games leave a lot to chance, and in this series things have gone the Blazers way in those close games (for instance, Carmelo missing 2 completely wide open 3’s in a row in the final loss to the Blazers- that’s failed execution by OKC, but for Portland that’s pure chance- they didn’t leave Melo that open on purpose. Their scheme failed, and they were fortunate that he couldn’t punish them for it). Your opinion of OKC’s chance in this series probably come down to whether or not you think OKC can do better in future close games. There’s reason to think they can’t- crunch time has repeatedly devolved into ISO ball this season, with Russ chucking up ill advised mid-rangers and 3’s instead of hunting for a great look, and it’s happened enough times that it’s probably not correctable. OKC has only the 16th ranked crunch time offense in the league.
Still, those regular season outcomes may not matter as much as you think. The playoffs are played at a different speed, the rotations will be different for both teams, and there will be more time to game plan. There’s certainly things to be learned about both teams from the 4 regular season games, but a regular season sweep in no way guarantees a playoff sweep. Case in point: 2 seasons ago the Warriors swept the Thunder in the regular season, only for the Thunder to take a 3-1 lead in the Conference finals before collapsing. OKC, given little chance in that series against the 73 win juggernaut, had every opportunity to win, partly because Billy Donovan made some excellent adjustments from the regular season, and partly because Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant took their games to another level in the first 4 games before promptly shooting their way out of the series over the final 3 games. Still, it’s possible to do well against a playoff opponent who swept you in the regular season. If you believe in Westbrook, George and Adams as a trio that can do great things, you have to think their talent matters more than the disappointing regular season results against the Blazers.
If the Thunder win all 3 remaining regular season games and some things break their way, they could finish as high as 4th, and if they beat Houston tonight we can look at those potential match-ups. A first round series against the warriors or Trailblazers feels like the most likely outcome however. That’s a tough spot to be in- either face the defending champs or a team that swept you in the regular reason. But there’s a price to be paid for inconsistency and all those losses against sub-.500 teams, and the thunder are about to pay it. It’s too late to change any of that, so the Thunder’s hope now is that they can reach and sustain that level of greatness they’ve showed tantalizing flashes of throughout the season. One way or another, we’re about to find out.