What’s the same thing you hear from and about young teams over and over? They’ll learn from that… that’s a good experience… there’s a lot to study from that loss.
Well, here’s a chance to prove it.
Last season, playing as the youngest team in basketball and surprise playoff contender, the Thunder was pushing not just into the playoffs, but potentially up the ladder for better than the eight-seed. Which was important because Oklahoma City wanted to avoid the Lakers at all cost.
But in April, the previously stellar Thunder defense sagged, the team pressed a bit and went 5-4 to close out April heading into the playoffs. This also off a solid March in which OKC went 11-5.
The swing game really was what’s known as the Tony Brothers Game, in which OKC dropped a tough one in Salt Lake City to the Jazz 140-139 after there was an obvious blown call on the final play. A shame too, because Kevin Durant’s effort to get the Thunder back in it was something else.
After that, the Thunder lost a tough one at home to the Nuggets, beat Phoenix, then dropped back-to-back road games versus Golden State and Portland. A better finish and the Thunder avoids their worst possible matchup against the Lakers in the first round and maybe, just maybe, finds a way out of the first round. Because look at the Western standings from last season. Three teams tied with 50 wins. Just a slightly better run to the close and OKC is sixth in the West playing Phoenix in the first round.
Now, the Thunder’s in a much better position. Already at 50 wins with six to play, the Thunder hold a three-game lead in the Northwest over the Nuggets. There are two big ones against Denver to take care of, but OKC certainly has the upper hand in winning the division and sealing up that coveted four-seed.
What it will take though, is learning from last season. The Nuggets are hot. They’re playing as anyone. They just beat the streaking Lakers in L.A. to pick up their seventh straight and 15th in 19 tries without Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder can’t afford to limp into the postseason. Unless of course they’re content with the five-seed, because that’s definitely in play if they don’t finish well.
It was pretty much the same story for the Thunder the last two games, almost even down to the score. Oklahoma City dropped games in Portland and Los Angeles mainly because of poor offensive execution down the stretch. And when I say poor offensive execution, I really just mean the Thunder couldn’t make a shot. OKC doesn’t run the most complex, innovative offense, but what it does have is two of the best scorers in basketball, which by default gives you a pretty good offense.
But the way those games closed is a bit stressing. The team looked anxious, tight and just appeared to lose focus, especially Saturday against the Clippers. The way those two games went is really what sent my mind flashing back to last April.
The schedule isn’t overly difficult ahead, but it’s not easy. At Denver, home versus the Clippers, home versus Denver, at the Lakers, at the Kings and home versus the Bucks to close. Very similar to last season’s schedule honestly. In 2010, OKC dropped its final game to Denver (at home), then lost both on a West Coast road tilt against one good and one bad team.
The Thunder control their own destiny and one win against the Nuggets might be enough to really take care of things. But it’s more than that. It’s about finishing well and building on the momentum of March and carrying that into the postseason. Because this year, it’s not about just getting there like it was last season. This year, it’s not about just being thrilled to play a few extra games. This year, it’s not about just hoping you win one, maybe two playoff games. This year, it’s about doing something. And that starts with a sprint to the finish line, not a limp.