Well at this point, it would take a nigh historic collapse for the Thunder to fall out of the playoff picture (being 6.5 games up on the 9th seed with 20 games left to go) and since it has been a source of a lot of discussion on the site and around the league as a whole, I figured we could risk a look ahead at the playoffs and have a discussion about how the Thunder might fare once they get there.
I know, I know, I’m just begging for a jinx and said historic collapse. But you know what, I’m pretty sure KD and the rest of the guys are not pouring over everything I write so I’ll just go on record as saying, “I think it won’t affect their play the rest of the season.”
Although many, many things contribute to a team’s success during the regular season and also into the postseason, I’ve noticed five factors that almost always play a heavy role on whether a team has a legitimate chance to advance from round to round in a seven game series. Obviously this is not scientific so if you disagree with the inclusion of one (or all) of these factors, well, okay. I’m sure there are about ten to twenty factors that could be listed but for the sake of time…and megabytes, I’m sticking with five.
That is to say though, I’d absolutely love for everyone to share their ideas and thoughts about what helps/hurts teams in the playoffs and if you think I’ve incorrectly labeled the Thunder as having one of these factors, so if you disagree with me or feel I left something out, comment away!
But without further ado, here are the Five Factors of Playoff Basketball. We’ll take a look at the first three today, or as I’ve called them, “The Good News.” Tomorrow, well, that will be another story altogether…
Factor No. 1
Defense – Cue the NBA commercial that we have seen and will undoubtedly see for the next 4+ months. I get it, you put their words to a beat about defense…now bring back the piano ad!
Yay. This is probably the best news the Thunder team and fans could possibly hear going into the playoffs. As we all know, defense wins series (I just can’t bring myself to say championships, sorry). In fact you could even argue that defense can turn a good team into a great team because defense helps erase many of the mistakes that keep a good team from being a great team.
The Thunder fit that mold to a Thunderstuck “T” better than most. The Thunder are certainly flawed (will get more into that later), but their ability to contend shots, hound the perimeter and force a team to panic late into the shot-clock give them the opportunity to hang around in games that they are far outmatched in when it comes to talent and experience. And in the playoffs, getting stops could arguably be classified as more important than anything else because you can’t control if your jumpshot is going to be on or if the refs are going call a foul when it was an actual foul (or vice versa) or even how the other team is going to play.
But the one thing you can control is effort. And no matter what anyone says, defense is first and foremost about effort. Then, execution.
And right now, there are only two other teams who exceed the Thunder in holding their opponents to a low FG%: The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic. That’s right, the Thunder is third in the entire league in Defensive FG%. One spot ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that despite this lofty and well earned ranking, that the Thunder’s inability to grab defensive rebounds is very concerning. But they are still #3 in the league in holding teams to a low shooting percentage (even with the extra possessions they get from grabbing offensive rebounds) despite this, which is truly saying something.
The only question is if the Thunder’s recent slide in defensive focus was an anomaly or a growing trend. If it was just a bump in the road, then consider this reason number one why no team in the Western Conference will be exactly thrilled to draw the Thunder in the first round.
Because as we all know from playing at the Y or on the playground, having to go against someone who actually plays defense, and plays it enthusiastically, is just plain annoying, not to mention frustrating. Ron Artest has made a career off of this and might even win a ring because of it.
Precedent: Take a look at last year’s Playoffs. Here is the list of the Top 6 Defensive Teams in terms of Opponent’s FG% for last year’s regular season: Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, Denver, Houston, Lakers. I can stop there, right?
Factor No. 2
Elite Scorer – Cue the piano music that will literally stop me from whatever I’m doing and turn to see what moment from the last few years is on the television, where I’ll see and feel where “amazing” happened.
They just don’t come around all that often. And they are the kryptonite to the first factor of playoff basketball. Because no matter how good your defense is, Elite offense beats great defense. There’s only so much you can do within the rules of the game to stop someone from scoring. Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade; each of these guys embody this reality to an almost absurd degree.
Because nine times out of ten, you can play the best defense you’ve ever played in your life on any given possession, you can be within an inch of these guys, have your hand in their face and cut off every single move they make to the basket, but when they rise up or somehow get past you and almost impossibly still make that fallaway jumper, that’s when you know there’s literally nothing you could have done more to stop them.
Elite scorers cripple the psyche of their opponent’s defense, in fact sometimes they can even cripple their opponent’s offensive psyche as well because they know they HAVE to score this possession and almost every single possession because odds are that elite scorer is going to get his team a bucket down on the other end. Cue added pressure, cue forcing shots, bad passes and ill advised dribble-drives and now you have a recipe for offensive and defensive disaster.
Since defense gets ratcheted up almost exponentially in the playoffs, the value of someone who can score at any given moment (especially in the clutch though) and in a myriad of ways can not be measured. These people single-handedly win games, sway the outlook of a series and put an entire franchise on their back and lead them to the next round (ask a Pistons fan about Lebron’s fourth quarter arrival and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about).
When the defense buckles down and an offense stagnates, the elite scorer is the player that you can give the ball to and know that they’re going to give you a shot at winning that game.
Oh yeah, Kevin Durant is an elite scorer.
I thought that was pretty much implied but hey, I should probably just state the obvious for dramatic effect. Durant is averaging a phenomenal 29.6 points per game, shooting 47.7% from the field and 37.7% from 3PT range. He’s converting 8.8 of every 9.9 free throws he gets a game, which is a very impressive 88.5% on his free throws.
But those stats don’t tell the whole story. Ask any defender, coach or fan in the league and they’ll tell you that Durant is one of a handful of scorers who most teams simply don’t have an answer for. Why? Because he can score in almost every way possible. His height, agility, speed and quick release, not to mention a recently added understanding of how to create space and use his body to initiate and absorb contact (yes, even at his slender build he is starting to understand how to take hits while still getting a quality shot up) all add up to one heck of a nightmare for opposing players and coaches. Did I mention he still doesn’t really have a post-up game and has difficulty hanging onto the ball while slashing…and yet still is doing all this to an opponent’s best defender?!
Try to crowd him and he’ll fake a shot and go around you, unless of course you extend your arm and then he’ll just rip under you and draw a quick trip to the free throw line. Okay, so back off of him. Well then he’s just going to shoot over you…at an alarming rate of accuracy.
You get the idea.
Better yet, look at it this way. All Thunder fans see a lot of Kevin Durant, know when the rip move is coming, count on him to spot up from 30 feet and drain a three over a hand in his face, and almost expect him to hit nothing but net on his drive to the bucket into a step-back, fadeaway jumper.
So let me ask you this, what if your team was on defense for the last possession…and your team had to stop Durant from scoring?
Precedent: Too many to name. But in the last ten years, how about Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Paul Pierce, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and perhaps the best example of this, Allen Iverson. People forget this, but Allen Iverson quite literally carried his team almost single-handedly to the NBA Finals because of his ability to score at an elite level that few players can even dream of in their careers.
Factor No. 3
Road Record – Home court advantage means absolutely nothing once the underdog steals a game from the favorite’s floor.
This would have seemed preposterous to write last year; I’d just like to get that out of the way from the start. But the Thunder currently own the fourth best road record in the ENTIRE NBA. At 19-13, the Thunder sit behind Boston, Cleveland and Dallas, but sit in front of Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers. Read that again if you need to because it shocked me.
And guess what, unless they start losing to teams below .500 or teams below them in the standings at an astounding rate, that road record isn’t likely to slide down the standings. The Thunder’s remaining road games are at Charlotte, Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas, Utah, Golden State and Portland.
That’s six teams of the nine with worse records than the Thunder. But what does that really mean? Well, a lot, actually.
If I asked you to guess which teams had the best road records last year, I’m pretty sure you could list at least three of the top four right off of you’re head based off of where they finished in the playoffs last season. The Lakers, Cavs, Celtics and Magic. You got at least three, didn’t you?
The ability to win on the road and compete away from your home court can not be undervalued in the playoffs. There’s a reason the league awards teams with the best records during the regular season with homecourt advantage. It’s quite simple; most teams play better and earn more W’s at home than on the road, which means that if a team can flip-flop that homecourt advantage by stealing a game in the series, well, all bets are off.
Not only is homecourt switched in that scenario, but momentum is seriously swung in the other direction. Add on the fact that a win against a favorite on their own floor also gives an underdog team a huge shot of confidence that they can not only win on their opponent’s floor, but win the series as well, and you’ve got a recipe for an upset.
Now usually, the superior team will right that wrong by going and stealing a game from their opponent’s home floor and grab control of the series back in the process. But that control, once again, hinges on their ability to close out games on their own court.
Precedent: Um, see above. I guess I kind of ruined that one, huh?—wait! Actually the Orlando Magic is a more specific precedent because in having the fourth best road record last season, it really wasn’t that surprising that they won, despite being the underdogs who did not have homecourt, two series in last year’s playoffs by going and beating their opponent on their opponent’s court in the pivotal games of the series (and would have swept the Cavs on their home floor were it not for Lebron’s miracle heave at the buzzer in Game 2).
So the Thunder have three of the first five factors and this is why you’ll hear many, many announcers and analysts say that the one wild card, the one team in the playoffs in the Western Conference that a higher seed does not want to play in the first round is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Why? Because even though they will probably be the inferior team in talent, experience and overall execution (especially offensively), those three factors mean that in a single game of a series, even if it’s on the higher seed’s home court, the Thunder will have more than a puncher’s shot to hang around long enough to steal away a win and by doing so, turn the entire momentum and home court advantage of a series.
Tomorrow: The bad news