It’s March, which means this is the last full month of the NBA season before the playoffs. The Thunder have 23 games remaining, 11 at home, 12 on the road. Assuming they maintain their current clip, Oklahoma City’s record should finish something like 60-22.
Will that be good enough to pass the Spurs? Who knows. In all truth, it probably doesn’t really matter. As the Thunder proved last season, they’re fine without home court advantage. Plus, with the Lakers pushing, finishing with that top seed might not be all that attractive either.
But regardless of seeding and positioning, March is the time to really start cranking it up. It’s time to nail down lineups and rotations, time to begin establishing a somewhat consistent standard of performance to go on. The Thunder didn’t exactly cruise into last year’s playoffs riding an incredible wave of momentum, but they certainly knew who they were. Right now, I’m still not entirely sure this team does.
The win over the Clippers exorcised a few crunchtime demons, but this isn’t over. The Thunder still are a bit hard-headed when it comes to halfcourt execution in tight games, and often rely far too much on Kevin Durant. Yesterday was a step in the right direction. (Watch how the Heat close people. LeBron and Wade are the focuses — focuses? — but they aren’t intent on isolated. Shane Battier and Ray Allen are as big of crunchtime threats as Wade and LeBron.)
So there’s a lot to get squared away before the playoffs. Seeding, yep, but understand who exactly the Thunder want to be, specifically in tight games, is definitely on the March itinerary too.
1. Russell Westbrook (Last week: 1)
We all know the MVP conversation is and will continue to be centered around LeBron and Durant (with it being mostly around LeBron), so to acknowledge a guy is having a tremendous season we have this category of “[Insert [player] deserves to at least be in the conversation.”
And Russell Westbrook deserves to be in the conversation.
His performance over the last month and two games has been strikingly good. Not coincidentally, those 14 games are all after his tantrum against the Grizzlies. Westbrook’s numbers post-meltdown: 26.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 51.9 percent shooting and 45 percent from 3.
He’s elevated his play. This is the best he’s ever been, and that’s saying something. For the last month, you could make a very good case he was the Thunder’s best player.
2. Kevin Durant (Last week: 2)
Per NBA.com/stats, Durant in the clutch — last five minutes of a game with a margin of five or less — this season: He’s played 19 games with such a circumstances, and 58 minutes. He’s 16-43 from the field (37.2 percent), has five assists and has scored 62 points, or 33.6 per 36 minutes.
Last season: He played 26 games and spent 84 minutes in the clutch. He went 27-79 from the field (34.2 percent), had only one assist and scored 83 points, or 35.7 per 36.
It has felt like Durant has struggled a bit in crunchtime this season, but actually, he’s performed better. The five assists and a better shooting percentage. I think part of it is that he’s played fewer crunchtime minutes, thus making the failures stick out much bigger in our minds. Plus, most of those have happened kind of lately.
And I’ll add this: In the postseason last year, Durant in the clutch in 28 minutes was 9-19 (47.4 percent), with two assists for 29 points.
(Also, small correction: Yesterday I said that Durant had only missed two or more free throws in a game once. He’d actually done it twice coming into Sunday’s game. Against the Blazers and against the Cavs.)
3. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 3)
Serge Ibaka back. After going through somewhat of a little production lull in late January and about half of February, Ibaka has strung together a nice four-game stretch. Over his last four, he’s averaging 17.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game, while shooting 64.4 percent from the floor. He finished February strong enough to break the month-by-month decline in scoring, going from 12.5 points a game in January to 12.6 in February.
4. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 4)
In terms of on/off court rating, Thabo actually has the highest on the team when he’s on the floor (+13.5). He’s quietly been tremendous over the past few weeks. His offense is better and he’s of course maintained his stellar defense with it.
5. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 5)
Just steady, solid play from Perk. He’s been able to maintain that spurt of energy he had in late January and has carried it on for more than a month. He had a very good February and was good against the Clippers yesterday.
Plus, did you know: Perk’s net rating is a +12.3, and extremely good number. In wins, Perk’s net rating is +18.8, in losses it’s -3.7. In February it was +22.9 and so far in March it’s +21.8.
OKC’s starting lineup was once a liability, but now, it’s one of the best Scott Brooks’ has (+12.7). I think a lot of that is a credit to Perk and how he’s come into form over the past couple months.
6. Kevin Martin (Last week: 6)
The blowouts certainly contributed to it, but Martin played just 24.7 minutes a game in February, down from 29.8 the previous three months. And so far in March, he’s played just a total of 48 minutes in two games. A trend, or is just coincidental?
7. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 8)
Reggie Jackson’s February: 7.5 points, 2.6 assists, 2.2 rebounds, 51.6 percent shooting in 17.9 minutes per game.
Now, those numbers are a touch inflated because Jackson saw extended time playing in blowouts. But still, it’s clear to me that he’s taken a very solid step forward and is becoming a reliable backup option and someone that adds to the second unit.
8. Nick Collison (Last week: 7)
In a two-point loss to the Nuggets, he was a -10. In a four-point win over the Clippers, a -10. Up is down, black is white, heaven is hell.
9. Hasheem Thabeet (Last week: 9)
Three blocks against the Clippers!
10. Ronnie Brewer (Last week: N/A)
He played 12 minutes in a blowout to the Hornets, but saw no time against the Nuggets or Clippers. So the blockbuster deadline deal to bring Ronnie Brewer to town might not have been so big after all.
11. Derek Fisher (Last week: N/A)
In two appearances, Derek Fisher is 0-6 from the floor. Someone in the comments said we should have a “When will Derek Fisher make his first shot?” pool. I’m in. Put me down for at the Bobcats on Friday.
Inactives: Daniel Orton, Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins, Perry Jones III