With essentially two and a half weeks remaining in the season, there are two questions pertinent to the Thunder: 1) Will they be healthy for the postseason and 2) can they still make a push for the No. 1 seed?
The health part is being managed, as the Thunder would say, with Russell Westbrook still on track to sit back-to-backs while Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are close to returning. The No. 1 seed part is out of their hands. Despite the Thunder already having the tiebreaker, the Spurs are three up on OKC in the loss column.
HOWEVAH, if there’s a time to make things interesting, it’s this week. The Spurs play the Pacers tonight and the Warriors on Wednesday. Let’s shoot for the moon and say they lost both of those games. That would make Thursday’s game in Oklahoma City for the top seed again. It’s obviously not a probable scenario, but when a team has won 17 straight games it means two things: 1) They’re playing really awesome basketball and 2) they’re due to lose at any time. And a lot of times, when a team comes off a streak, they lose two or three.
So by Thursday, the showdown between the Thunder and Spurs could carry a hefty amount of importance. Unless the Spurs are rolling in having won 19 straight, which seems very possible because damn, those Spurs are good.
1. Kevin Durant
I found this incredibly surprising: KD in the clutch (defined as the final five minutes margin within five) this season: 140 points (third in the league) but on 37.3 percent shooting. Damian Lillard is No. 1 with 144 points on 47.2 percent shooting and LeBron is No. 2 with 141 points on 47.6 percent shooting.
Obviously, that’s not to indicate Durant hasn’t been clutch, because “clutch time” stats can be pretty misleading. Durant firing up shots from 28 feet trying to get back in the game down five with 20 seconds left hurts those numbers. But in games where the Thunder are down three, two or tied with a minute or less left, Durant has 21 points on 7-14 shooting, including 4-5 from 3.
The lesson: The Reaper rises in the final minute of games.
2. Russell Westbrook
Maybe the most influential factor in the Thunder’s Western seeding could be Westbrook’s back-to-back availability. The Thunder have three left, one coming this week against the Spurs and Rockets. How the Thunder approach this could give you a glimpse into their mindset surrounding the top seed. If Westbrook sits against the Spurs, they may not care much. But I’m guessing they play Westbrook against San Antonio and sit him against the Rockets, who are likely to be without Dwight Howard and therefore, more beatable, despite it being on the road.
The other two back-to-backs: at the Kings, at the Clippers, and at the Pacers and at the Pelicans. Should pretty clear which one the Thunder will be planning to sit him for in those.
3. Serge Ibaka
First thing: Why isn’t Ibaka getting more attention as a possible DPOY candidate? His blocks are down, but his defense is up. Per SportVU, he’s No. 2 in the league in field goal percentage at the rim (among players that see at least five attempts), holding opponents to just 43.7 percent. Only Roy Hibbert is better.
Second thing: This is a tired, worn out discussion point, but as I watched the Thunder carve the Jazz apart on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think about how Ibaka may actually prove to be a more important offensive player than James Harden. The general feeling all along has been about Ibaka’s value on the defensive end, but really, what he provides offensively gives the Thunder a more natural, progressive scheme.
Having Ibaka as a pressure release valve in pick-and-pop, or just an option to flash at the free throw line or top of the key gives Durant and Westbrook both someone to play with. Opposing defenses face layered threats, either from a Durant-Westbrook screen-and-roll, or Ibaka with one of them. That kind of spacing gives OKC an extremely good offensive flow most of the time. By no means is there a case to be made that Ibaka is a better offensive player than Harden, but having three primary ball-handlers would’ve made the Thunder such an iso heavy team. This is an oversimplified example, but in 2012, the Thunder were dead last in the entire league in total assists with 1,124. This season, they’re 13th, already with 1,601 assists. (Obvious note: 2012 only had 66 games, but still, this year’s team has played 73 games.)
I just wonder what the Thunder’s offense would currently look like had the Thunder only been able to keep Harden and traded Ibaka instead. Would it just be a your-turn-my-turn kind of isolation offense, or would Scott Brooks have developed some kind of hybrid offensive system based around motion-based principles?
I’m rambling here, but I’ve always thought that removing Harden enabled both Durant and Westbrook, but specifically Durant, to become a more integrated creator. The connection between Durant and Ibaka that developed during Westbrook’s time out could be vital to the Thunder’s halfcourt offense going forward. Problems in the past has been about the stagnation of OKC’s offense, but with how effective and reliable Ibaka is, there’s always a play to be ran. It’s not an offensive system, but it’s at least an excellent Plan B almost every time down the floor.
4. Caron Butler
I still don’t love Butler as a spot-up shooter, but he’s certainly improving in his role game-by-game. Last seven games, he’s 18-40 from 3 (45 percent). In fact, from 3 with the Thunder, he’s 29-73 from 3 (39.7 percent), but just 17-52 (32.6 percent) from 2. It’s pretty obvious what his role is and at nearly 40 percent from 3, that’s about what you can ask for.
One big question I have: What happens when Thabo comes back? Butler’s getting between 25-30 minutes a game right now and a lot of that is because Andre Roberson rarely plays more than 20. But Thabo is a player that obviously is worthy of more minutes, so is there a split there, or does Brooks nudge someone else down in the rotation (Derek Fisher?) or does he favor one over the other depending on situation?
5. Jeremy Lamb
An eventful week for Lamb. He went 1-8 for two points against the Nuggets, then picked up his first DNP of the season, but responded by playing really well against the Kings and then added another solid performance against the Jazz. It seems pretty obvious that Lamb is going to be the 11th or maybe even 12th man come playoff time, but if this week was any indication, if called upon, he might still be ready to contribute.
6. Nick Collison
Collison flirted briefly with a double-double against the Jazz (eight points, seven rebounds) which led me to actually look up when his last one was. Dec. 29, 2012, it was, with 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Rockets.
7. Steven Adams
It’s amazing to me that Adams is the only Thunder player to have appeared in every single game this season. If you would’ve told me that in August, well, I would’ve said, “That seems unlikely but let’s see how it plays out.” I’m sometimes a very reasonable person.
8. Derek Fisher
Did you know: Derek Fisher has made a 3 in 23 of the last 25 games. That seems like… something. Especially considering he had a stretch of missing 24 straight shots last season.
9. Reggie Jackson
Jackson only played in two games last week, but he was really good in those two games. Against the Mavs, 11 points and eight assists. And against the Nuggets, 16 points and 11 assists. Since March 13 against the Lakers (seven games) Jackson hasn’t had fewer than three assists in a game, and is averaging 5.7 a game. He talked about getting back into a rhythm and playing with more instinct. He’s got that. Hopefully once he returns — likely Thursday against the Spurs — he drops right back into that flow.
10. Andre Roberson
Everyone on the team calls him Dre. I’m not feeling that so much. Because Andre is a pretty cool name.
Something else: Is Roberson the least noticeable starter on a contender currently? The guy is a rookie and he’s starting for the Thunder, one of the three or four most visible teams in the league. And barely anyone even notices him. It seems like it should be rather notable that a rookie is routinely in the starting lineup for a contender. I think everyone is just assuming he’s Thabo.
11. Hasheem Thabeet
One of my underrated favorite things about Thabeet: Even in games he plays — and sometimes plays pretty well! — he’s almost always the first guy out of the locker room and never once hesitates to see if the media wants to talk to him. He just cruises by everyone telling basically everyone he walks by to have a good night.
12. Perry Jones III
Since he lost the starting job (seven games), Jones has played a total of 21 minutes.
13. Reggie Williams
Thing I learned last week: Williams is a big soccer fan, and a really fun guy to talk to.
Inactives: Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins