There’s no BCS in the NBA. Style points, momentum and how the media and coaches feel about certain teams have no effect on playoff seeding or title runs.
But it sure feels like the Thunder need a big win, doesn’t it? Probably because they haven’t had one yet.
In the Thunder’s eight wins so far this season, the team has beaten opponents with a collective record of 26-44. Only one of those teams, Golden State, currently has a winning record. OKC’s three losses, on the other hand, have come at the hands of teams with a collective record of 21-9.
Now, that’s going to happen in the NBA. I’m no statistics maven, but I understand that most teams are going to have a better record against teams with bad records than they do against teams with good records. Makes sense even to a journalism major (required math component: making sure your phone has a calculator).
But the Thunder have had a couple of opportunities to beat good teams, and they’ve whiffed on all of them so far. San Antonio was a close game, and the first one played with the new roster, but it was a loss. Atlanta is decent, and the Hawks beat OKC at home. Memphis came into the Peake for a supposed showdown and essentially had its way with the Thunder in the last three quarters. The Warriors are above .500, but playing without Andrew Bogut, and not expected to do much.
Enter the Clippers, who are playing as well as anyone in the Western Conference not named the Grizzlies. You could add the Spurs in that group, except that L.A. was last seen beating them in San Antonio. If you’re looking for the measuring-stick-of-the-moment, with the Grizzlies opportunity already missed for now, the Clippers are your team.
As pointed out in yesterday’s 3-on-3, the good news is that a lot of the issues that people thought would be the most troublesome for the Thunder have been put to rest, at least for the short term. Kevin Martin is integrated and team chemistry still seems strong. OKC has surpassed expectations defensively so far for the most part. Nagging issues like offensive rebounding remain, but every team has a few things that they don’t do well. Even the Heat and juggernauts of yesteryear like the Shaq Lakers and Jordan Bulls had a couple of small holes that had to be papered-over.
But at some point OKC needs to pile up a few wins against good teams just for a confidence perspective. While it’s true that most of this group has already learned to win together, there are important pieces who have not. Martin for one, but also a guy like Hasheem Thabeet. If you want to play into June, that’s enough games against enough elite teams that everyone is going to have to shine in big moments. Martin is someone who knows how to play in the NBA, but he’s never made a big shot at a big moment because there’s never been a big moment for him to have, unless you care about regular season heroics for a team that’s going nowhere. Thabeet’s biggest NBA moments have probably come in the Thunder’s 11 games so far this year, which tells you something.
That’s why that even with no BCS, it’s important for the Thunder to get a big win, and get one soon. Chemistry may be good now, but will there be issues in the future if Oklahoma City starts struggling to win close games against good teams? Don’t Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the other team leaders need to build trust with every pair of eyes they see in the timeout huddle before an important late possession?
It’s a long NBA season. There are plenty of teams that would love to trade for the Thunder’s “problems” and accompanying roster and 8-3 record. There are many examples of teams that didn’t get off to quite the start they wanted to, and then end up having great seasons. There are also many examples of teams that seem to be peaking late at just the right time, and it doesn’t work out. Like, for example, the Spurs, who were probably already fielding calls from jewelers with ring ideas, riding a 100-game winning streak or at least one that felt like that, but then got swept aside by OKC in four games.
The need for Oklahoma City to assert itself is nonetheless there. It’s part of what has made this team click in the past. Anything to add just a little bit of hop to the step of the players and begin to regain that small percentage of the Thunder swagger that still feels like it’s missing. This team used to have an aura that it built in a short time frame — the Thunder are athletic, nasty and active and play in front of a raucous home crowd, and you’re going to have your hands full. It seems like that’s just a weeeee bit off so far this year. Not by a lot, but by a little. It’s not quite the same level of swagger.
The Clippers present a good target in more ways than one. Remember when Blake Griffin made his debut in Oklahoma City, and Durant made some comments afterward about how OKC is Griffin’s town? It had a whiff of self-motivation on the part of KD, who was already clearly a more established player than the rookie. It didn’t matter that the crowd had given Griffin one round of solid applause when he was introduced, and then went right to booing the Clippers and rooting hard against him. KD was willing to manufacture a little bit of a slight to get himself motivated. And in subsequent games against the Clippers, who have oddly owned OKC even when they weren’t great, you can kind of sense that tension is still there.
Lots of people talk about the potential long-term rivals for the Thunder, and the Clippers more and more resemble a team that could fit that bill depending on what happens in free agency. They’re definitely one of the two flavors of the month in the Western Conference. They’re getting a little bit of the attention that the Thunder used to get. In the soap opera that is the NBA, these are the kinds of things that matter a little bit.
Sounds like a recipe for a strong Thunder performance. And it also sounds like there’s enough motivation for OKC that you’ll have to start wondering if the Thunder don’t come out and play competitively.