For the NBA fan whose team makes the playoffs — especially if that team makes a deep run — the grind is exciting, terrifying, exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. In a way, it’s kind of going on a first date with someone when you’re still an awkward teenager. The anticipation is excruciating. The positive possibilities are many, and almost unbearably exciting. And the potential for something absolutely terrible and embarrassing to happen seems just as high. Higher, depending on your mood and general disposition.
Basically, it’s awesome, except for when it sucks.
And so begins another playoff season in Oklahoma City, this time with expectations higher than ever, and an emotional first-round matchup kicks things off. With a few days off between the season finale and Game 1 against
James Harden the Rockets, there’s plenty of time to examine a lot of good things to get excited about, and a lot of scary things to be fearful of.
Scoring margin. Stat heads know that, in general, average margin of victory has a stronger correlation with winning an NBA title than most other stats — including team record, winning streaks and all the rest. Well, not only did the Thunder lead the league in scoring margin by a whopping 1.3 points at +9.2 points per game, but every team in league history with a scoring margin that high or better won it all that season. Of course, another way to say it would be that the Thunder will have the best scoring margin in history of any non-title team if OKC fails to win it all. So, there’s that.
Sixth man. I don’t know if you guys were aware of this, but people have been a little concerned this season with how good the Thunder would be without James Harden. But it turns out that replacing Harden with Kevin Martin not only didn’t slow the Thunder down from a statistical standpoint, but actually made OKC more formidable. Obviously, the success can’t be pinned on that one change alone. General development was probably the single most important factor. But the Thunder was a more efficient offensive team than last year, climbed into the top five of the defensive efficiency rankings as well and improved by a wealth of other statistical category — including playoff seeding and wins.
Reggie Jackson. Excuse me. I meant, REGGIE JACKSON! (h/t to Zach Lowe and his love for Larry Sanders.) Darnell Mayberry spent much of the preseason constructing the Jackson bandwagon with his bare hands, and then Jackson himself came along and forced us all to pile in and pulled the thing down the road with a mixture of brute force, hard work and improving understanding of the nuances of the game. Jackson’s blossoming into a guy that turned Eric Maynor into an expendable player was refreshing, and bodes well for the Thunder in the playoffs if the coaching staff can continue to deploy him as effectively as they have so far, even with the tighter rotations in the playoffs.
.377. That’s the Thunder’s 3-point shooting percentage this season, good for third in the league. With 3-pointers increasingly becoming all the rage in the NBA, that might be the single most important shooting statistic in the modern league, so it bodes well for OKC that they shoot with such merciless efficiency beyond the arc. That is especially important when you remember how the 3-pointer killed the Thunder in the Finals last year. But it’s more than a little terrifying that one of the two teams better than Oklahoma City in this category is the Miami Heat. And not only are they better, they’re much better. The difference between OKC’s third-best percentage and Miami’s second-best percentage is the equivalent of the difference between the Thunder and Brooklyn’s 17th-best percentage. Wait — this was supposed to be the good stuff. So let’s move on.
50-40-90. You may have heard that Kevin Durant is a good basketball player, and a particularly good shooter. And he’s still on the team.
3.3. That’s Russell Westbrook’s average number of turnovers per game. It’s only 0.3 less than he averaged last year, but seriously: when was the last time you spent a lot of time thinking about his penchant for turning the ball over? For one, he’s averaged fewer turnovers than KD for the second consecutive season. And that was with a (very) slight uptick in USG% — up to 32.8, the highest in his career. People who don’t watch the Thunder very much probably still wonder if his occasional recklessness could doom OKC in the playoffs. People who do watch the Thunder often do not. With KD also reducing his turnovers by 0.3 per game from last year, that’s close to one turnover per game less from OKC’s best players, which could be significant in close games. Pretty notable when three of the Thunder’s four Finals losses came down to the final possessions.
Dec. 25, 2012, and Feb. 14, 2013. Not because I didn’t get what I was hoping for on Christmas and Valentine’s Day from a gift standpoint (don’t be gross). I did. But because of the unpleasant memories, and sense of foreboding, unleashed by two Thunder losses to the Heat on those days. This is the one thing that scares me more than anything else when considering OKC’s title chances. Not only did the Thunder lose both games against Miami, but those games were lost in much the same way as the four consecutive losses that ended the Thunder’s season last year. It was as if the Thunder didn’t learn anything from their past experience. Or as if the Heat are still just plain better, which is an even worse thought, and possibly the correct one. The Heat ruined two holidays so far this basketball season. Here’s hoping they don’t ruin Thunder fans’ summer as well.
Derek Fisher: 17.4 minutes per game. Look, I’m pretty sure that having Derek Fisher on the roster adds value to the Thunder somehow. I’m enough of an unabashed Sam Presti disciple to accept that there is a reason he’s on the team. But it’s clear — CLEAR — that he is a detriment to OKC when he’s on the court right now. He is in exactly two of Oklahoma City’s 20 best lineups (by average scoring margin per 100 minutes), according to basketball-reference.com. I think he’s a fine man. I know he hit some clutch shots in the playoffs last year. But the thought of him playing significant minutes in big moments scares the living daylights out of me. (He’s more than welcome to prove my fear to be miscalculated, however. Please do, Mr. Fisher, if you are put in that position.)
James Harden’s averages. OK. It hurts just a little to see how good Harden has been this season, at least offensively, and to realize he’ll be behind enemy lines during the playoffs. Fear the Beard, indeed.
Two months. Seriously. The playoffs last TWO MONTHS. There has got to be a way to shorten it at least a little, starting with getting rid of the two-day breaks between some games in the first round, and probably extending to shortening the first round to five games again. They’re just too long, and the stress sure builds up within diehard fans. And if one day off between games isn’t enough time for elite athletes to recover, then it just increases the importance of a deep bench — which Thunder fans probably wouldn’t have too much of a problem with. And when you are a fan of a Western Conference team in the Central time zone, it’s even worse with all of the late games. There are a lot of tired eyes around places like OKC for two solid months. I’m sure the cost in productivity at local businesses is well into the millions, for real.
Kevin Martin’s inexperience. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s worth remembering that Martin, for all his veteran savvy, is essentially untested in the playoffs. That’s at least a little bit scary. Martin’s only other exposure to the playoffs came with little real expectations, and that is certainly no longer the case now that he’s a key part of the prohibitive favorite in the Western Conference. We just don’t know how he’ll react when the lights are brightest, and that’s not the case with almost all of OKC’s other players whom we expect to get heavy minutes in the playoffs. Only Jackson has played less in the postseason (not counting Thabeet here, because it’s likely he’ll get Nazr Mohammed-type minutes in the playoffs).
No Thunder Alley watch parties. OK. So what goes on outside Chesapeake Energy Arena during home games has no bearing on what happens inside of it. Still, slowly but surely, in some ways the Thunder are losing some of the elements that made them such a unique team to follow as a fan, and that hurts a little. The Harden trade stole our innocence in a way the Jeff Green trade did not. Two consecutive deep runs in the playoffs have expectations through the roof, the Heat’s dominance notwithstanding. There are other up-and-coming teams that are considered the darlings of the league — the Thunder’s first-round opponent among them. The formerly spontaneous airport greeting parties (which began after the Thunder clinched the playoffs for the first time after a road game in Dallas during the 2010 season, no matter what anyone tells you) are now practically official team events where you wouldn’t be surprised to see a sign recognizing sponsors. Fans leave games a little earlier than they used to, and the games aren’t quite as loud. And the outdoor playoff watch parties were perhaps the best example of Oklahoma City’s love affair with its NBA team. The city and team had plenty of time to figure out a way to bring them back, and they didn’t. But hopefully that’s the last bad news Thunder fans have to experience in 2013. We’ll know soon enough if it is.