Since the start of March, Oklahoma City have been on a tear and the Thunder have moved into a position where a postseason berth is increasingly probable. OKC have gone 7-3 in their last ten games and finally look to be rounding into form at the right time.
I have been impressed by the Thunder’s ability to find wins in different ways. There were been blowout wins against the Jazz but the other victories have been much harder to come by.
Oklahoma City’s defense got them over the line on a back to back against the Spurs and Pelicans. The team shot the ball really poorly in those games but their intensity on the less glamorous end of the floor stifled the opposing team.
The Thunder’s win against the Suns is arguably the pick of the bunch. Phoenix led the game for long periods and seemed to have an answer for every mini-run that OKC went on. Devin Booker was laser-like from the mid-range area as he drained basket after basket.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Coach Daigneault rolled the dice by inserting Aaron Wiggins into the ball game for his first minutes of the night. Wiggins got up to speed quickly with two transition baskets and that made all the difference.
The contest became a two-possession game and the game became much simpler for the Thunder. Wiggins joining the closing lineup meant Josh Giddey moved to the center spot with Jaylin Williams being sat down on the bench. At that point in the game, Oklahoma City had the mobility to guard every square of the court and make Booker’s looks from the mid-range much more difficult.
The Suns’ offense sputtered and the Thunder were able to go on a game-clinching run. That victory is important on three distinct levels. Beating Phoenix moved the Thunder into the 9th spot in the Western Conference, just one game back of the Golden State Warriors.
Golden State have played two more games than the Thunder and have a tricky end to the season. The Warriors will play Denver and Dallas away from home; their road play has been shoddy all season long. GSW also have difficult games against the likes of Philadelphia and Sacramento, two teams who are in red-hot form.
The second level of the victory’s importance relates to team morale. Come from behind victories against good opponents is a mood booster and the Thunder will have a lot of confidence going into their West Coast road trip.
Finally, the statement victory against the Suns energised the fanbase and got Loud City rocking again for the first time in quite a long time. Attendance dwindled during the Thunder’s lean years and we have not seen a crowd so passionate, so engaged since Westbrooks’ MVP season in 2017.
OKC have played well in March but the real test starts tonight. Over the next seven days, the Thunder played four games on the road that will likely decide if the Thunder make the playoffs or end up in the play-in tournament. A clean sweep, 4-0, would finally get the team above 0.500 and above the Minnesota/Golden State/Dallas grouping.
The two Clippers’ fixtures are the toughest remaining games of the schedule. The Clips have played excellent basketball lately and Ty Lue has done a good job of integrating the likes of Eric Gordon into his nightly rotation. LA are 5-1 in their last six games with the only defeat coming against the Orlando Magic when Kawhi Leonard did not suit up.
Gilgeous-Alexander has typically done well against his former team but I would argue that the Clippers are a completely different team at full health. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are outstanding two-way players on the wing who the Thunder will struggle to find answers for.
Sinking down towards the painted area should hopefully contain Leonard’s mastery of the mid-range but I am concerned that Paul George will feast from downtown on relatively open looks.
The game against the Los Angeles Lakers should also not be overlooked. The Lakers are fighting for their lives at the moment and the Thunder will play them on the second night of a back to back. It is the sort of game that may be considered a schedule loss earlier in the year but it is now a must-win contest.
The last game of the road trip comes against a tanking Portland and should hopefully be an easy night at the office for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City have done incredibly well in the month of March to put themselves in the hunt for a playoff berth. Nobody, not even the most optimistic Thunder fan could have predicted this. However, all of that good work will count for nought if OKC fail to win a game this week.
A good week will involve the Thunder taking care of business against the Lakers and Blazers and maybe, just maybe stealing a game against the Clippers. Going 2-2 keeps the dream alive but 3-1 would put the Thunder in a position of strength for the last three weeks of the regular season.