After losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, all eyes were set toward this season in hopes of another shot at bringing a NBA title to Oklahoma City. The stars looked like they were finally ready to align. Kevin Durant was just coming off a season where he was named MVP, Russell Westbrook finally seemed completely healthy, and Steven Adams was poised to make significant strides this season. It was set up perfectly for Thunder success.
Then the Thunder became thunderstruck.
Kevin Durant suffered a Jones’ fracture before the start of the season, quickly sending Oklahoma City into a sense of urgency before even a single minute was played. All eyes were now geared toward Westbrook. After putting up an excellent display of scoring (38 PTs, 15-16 FT, 11-26 FG) in the season opener against Portland, Oklahoma City’s worst nightmare was realized the next night against the Los Angeles Clippers. Westbrook went down with a broken hand and was scheduled to miss the next six weeks.
Could OKC survive without Durant and Westbrook?
Durant and Westbrook would go on to miss the next 15 games. OKC went 4-11 in those games. Durant would go on to miss nine more games, including last night’s contest against Orlando. Oklahoma City did stand their ground, going 5-4 in those games. However, their victories haven’t been impressive by any means. Three of their victories included the bottom-feeders of the NBA (Lakers, Timberwolves and Magic), with their average margin of victory being 9.4 points. Taking out the outlier in this sample size (23-point victory over Charlotte), their margin of victory is a paltry six points.
Oklahoma City is currently three games behind the Phoenix Suns for the 8th seed and two games behind the New Orleans Pelicans.
It might be early to say, but today’s and Friday’s contest against New Orleans could be considered must win games. A home-and-home sweep would put OKC even with New Orleans as well as positioning themselves in striking distance. OKC still has two more games against Phoenix, February 26 and March 29. Both games will be played in Phoenix.
Looking ahead, OKC has some major work to do. While they are sound defensively (2nd in OPP FG %, 6th in OPP 3-PT %, 10th in Points Allowed), it’s actually the offensive side of the ball where OKC has struggled. They are 9th in FG %, 18th in PPG, 20th in Turnovers and 27th in assists. Most of their struggles are a direct result of Durant missing games, but when he has been out on the floor (22 games), he has played well, averaging 25.1 points, 4.1 assists and 6.7 rebounds on 51.1% FG. The only knock on Durant’s production could be that he is not shooting the ball enough. Durant is averaging 8.8 FG makes a game, his second lowest average of his career.
With 34 games left on the NBA schedule for the Thunder, there has to be a sense of urgency and it starts with Durant. This can possibly be a resume enhancing stretch for Durant if he can manage to will OKC to the 8th seed. Management seems to be all in as well, trading for Dion Waiters.
If Phoenix keeps pace for the rest of the season, they would finish with about 46 wins. If the winning percentage holds for Phoenix, Oklahoma City would have to win 22 out of 34 games, or 68.75% of their remaining games. Only four teams in the NBA have a higher winning percentage than 68.75% (Houston, Memphis, Golden State and Atlanta).
Oklahoma City needs to find their championship form and fast as their playoff push starts tomorrow against New Orleans and MVP candidate Anthony Davis. Will Oklahoma City set the tone to their playoff push? Or will they falter and become the most dangerous 8th seed that never was?
One thing is for certain: they’re not going down without a fight.