Blog Entry

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

Posted on: April 2, 2011 3:20 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:19 pm
The Oklahoma City Thunder are poised to make a playoff run, at least until they run into the Los Angeles Lakers. Posted by Ben Golliver.

If you’re overlooking the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s playoff picture, you're making a mistake.

No less a kingmaker than Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant recently said that the Thunder, along with the Chicago Bulls, were the team playing the best basketball in the league other than the defending champs. "Right now Chicago is obviously playing at an extremely high level," Bryant said. "For some reason, the Thunder go below the radar in the public opinion, but they’re not under the radar in our mind’s eye by any stretch of the imagination."

Nobody truly worries the Lakers, but there are plenty of good reasons the Thunder are on L.A.’s radar, and you can bet the Western Conference’s other top seeds are just as concerned with what’s developed in Oklahoma. The Thunder have gone from upstart to contender in the last 12 months, a tag they’ll wear as long as their two All-Stars, forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook, remain healthy.

It all starts for OKC on the offensive end, where the Thunder are a top five team from an efficency standpoint. At 27.8 points per game, Durant sits atop of the league’s scoring table for the second straight season, but it’s his ability to score night in and night out – detailed here -- that sets him apart from the rest of the league. Durant’s consistency, which is leads and bounds better than any of the league's other top scorers, stems from his versatility, his range and his ability to get to the free throw line. He, not LeBron James or Derrick Rose, is the league's most potent offensive weapon. 

It’s not just Durant that powers Oklahoma City’s offensive engine. Westbrook has made the giant leap from above average to uber-elite, a player whose efficiency stats rival Chris Paul's and Rose's and put him among the league’s best floor generals. That this improvement – which should land him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award – hasn’t come at the expense of Durant’s game makes the 2011 Thunder so much more dangerous than the 2010 version. Indeed, while Westbrook has increased his scoring from 16.1 points to 22 points per game, he's also bumped his assist numbers up slightly, to 8.3 per game. Few teams in recent NBA history, let alone this season, have a combination that has proven it can score as efficiently and consistently as Durant and Westbrook. That they both present one-on-one match-up problems for everyone – Westbrook because of his quickness, strength and rebounding ability; Durant because of his length, ball-handling and range – makes them that much more deadly.

To underscore this point, consider that there are just three teams with a pair of stars in the top 10 of player efficiency. The Miami Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Los Angeles Lakers with Bryant and Paul Gasol, and the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook. That's as elite as it gets.

Around those two cornerstone pieces, Thunder GM Sam Presti has assembled the rest of the roster, as one opposing scout recently put it, “the right way.” Building through the draft and making careful, timely trades, Presti has assembled an eight man rotation that rivals everyone but the Lakers in terms of talent and cohesion. Center Kendrick Perkins, acquired from the Boston Celtics in a trade deadline move, brings it all together, filling space in the paint, providing defensive toughness, rebounding and experience. Next to Perkins the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, who is now free to roam and patrol the lane on defense and has ramped up his scoring and rebounding production in a greater role this year. Glue guy Nick Collison rounds out the frontcourt, shooter James Harden (who has really come on since the Perkins trade) provides the bench scoring, Thabo Sefalosha fills the perimeter defensive stopper role and backup point guard Eric Maynor is capable of spelling Westbrook.

Taken together, the group has no obvious holes or weaknesses: there’s size, strength, length, versatility, low-post defense, perimeter defense, leadership, experience, top-end scoring ability, and play-making. Best of all, there are overlapping attributes without redundancy. Each of the players is needed, at least for this season, and none is extraneous.  It’s no accident that this group is headed for the most wins the Thunder/Sonics franchise has seen in 14 years.

The strong regular season performance has the Thunder in line for a Northwest Division crown and the West's No. 4 seed. That will almost certainly mean a first round match-up with the new-look Denver Nuggets, another dangerous, well-balanced team that has made a strong post-deadline push after dealing franchise forward Carmelo Anthony. Team defense has been Oklahoma City’s bugaboo this year, as they are merely average from an efficiency standpoint. That will pose a problem in a series with the Nuggets, who currently possess the league’s best offense and who get scoring contributions from up and down their roster.

Road To The Finals

In the playoffs, star power has a way of winning out, and the Thunder will enter a playoff series, for the first time, with the biggest stars, guys who know how to get to the free throw line and dictate the course of a game. Thanks to Perkins’ addition, they’ve now got sufficient bodies to bang with the Nuggets bigs, they have more than enough athleticism to match-up with new Nuggets Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and they have Harden to help keep the bench scoring from being totally one-sided. The only person who could stop Durant in this series would be himself, either by getting frustrated and forcing the issue or by settling for three-pointers in lieu of better, more aggressive looks.

Should the Thunder advance past the Nuggets, as I expect they will, the current race for the No. 1 spot between the faltering San Antonio Spurs and the surging Los Angeles Lakers makes all the difference in the world. The Thunder are a nightmare match-up for San Antonio, as they possess the game-changing athleticism to play above and past San Antonio’s role players while also being able to keep pace offensively with the Spurs' halfcourt machine. Other than the requisites -- home court advantage, big-game experience and Tim Duncan down low -- the Spurs don’t have any obvious match-up advantages. Westbrook is Tony Parker’s equal, the Thunder have multiple guys to throw at Manu Ginobili and they possess the best shot-maker in the series in Durant.

The Spurs are limping into the playoffs, dealing with a rash of injuries. A young, hungry, focused Thunder team is not a squad you want to try to get healthy against. Oklahoma City wouldn’t be favored in a series against the Spurs but it would be really close, and the Spurs would be sweating bullets.

Catching the Lakers in the second round, however, would be trouble for OKC. The Lakers not only have the experience factor and head-to-head result from last year’s playoffs in their favor, their frontline is significantly better than the Thunder’s and they’ve got the one Western Conference player who is as dynamic offensively as Durant, in Bryant. They would have homecourt advantage, a more experienced coach, multiple looks to throw at Westbrook, a Durant-stopper in Ron Artest, an offensive system that is as good as any in the league and more efficient than Oklahoma City’s, and a deeper, bigger, more physical roster. The Lakers have taken notice of the Thunder, as Bryant said, but there’s no fear factor there. All the key match-ups are either even or in L.A.’s favor.

It’s abundantly clear that the Thunder are the West’s ascendant team in the face of aging giants like the Lakers, Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. They’re poised to win a series, and maybe two if San Antonio maintains the top seed.

But, eventually, the Lakers loom. The Thunder aren’t ready for all that, at least not this year. Soon it will be a different story.


Since: Apr 15, 2011
Posted on: April 15, 2011 12:09 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

OKC is in for a big SURPRISE=DENVER NUGGETS. This team will come at you wave on wave and will have a 11 man deep roster so let the fast break running and running begin.  Oh, by the way we have also discovered 2 that our 2 new 7 footers can run, shoot and run back on defense.

Since: Apr 10, 2011
Posted on: April 12, 2011 9:37 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

I agree with you TD......i think Lakers and Thunder will meet in the West Finals, with the series going to 7 games....maybe with a last second shot if we are lucky....Cool

Since: Oct 24, 2009
Posted on: April 3, 2011 2:11 pm

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

Finally, I have been saying this for a while now.  This is my pick to win it all.  Why?  It's quite simple.  Durant and Westbrook are both top 10 players in the league.  With Perkins, and Ibaka, you have not good, but great defense, and rebounding.  Not to mention a supporting cast consisting of great perimeter scorers like Harden, and Robinson.  One of the best defenders in the league, Sefalosha.  Who will be great for shutting down the Kobes and Ginoblis of the West.  Well... At least containing them.  Its all about matchups, and the Thunder matchup very well with the top teams in the West.  If you don't see it now, you will very, very soon.

Since: May 22, 2009
Posted on: April 3, 2011 1:28 pm

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

Memphis is 26-10 since the All-Star break, with wins over Dallas, OKC, Orlando, SAS, and Boston.

Since: May 22, 2009
Posted on: April 3, 2011 1:25 pm

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

Memphis is 26-10 since the All-Star break, with wins over Dallas, OKC, Orlando, SAS, and Boston.

Since: Jan 13, 2011
Posted on: April 3, 2011 3:29 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

OK City just lost again tonight (2 in a row), so all the accolades may be premature when discussing the playoffs. Watching them lose to Portland, I can see how they're beatable. But the regular season and the playoffs are two different animals. The healthy, most disciplined team that plays good defense has the best opportunity to win in the playoffs. Does that sound like OK City?

Since: Dec 5, 2006
Posted on: April 3, 2011 2:09 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

Anyone who watched the Thunder play at the Blazers Friday would have to acknowledge that they can play playoff defense. Surprisingly the Blazers' defense proved even tougher in the second half (32 points total for the Thunder). Will that be the case in the playoffs? At this point it seems unlikely the two teams meet in the playoffs. The Thunder and the Nuggets will be intriguing as two good teams clash. The Thunder prevail, most likely, because they have home court advantage. But it might be close.

The Lakers are more likely to be the team in 1st at season's end and the second round matchup for the Thunder-Nuggets winner. I wonder if the Spurs actually want to take 1st seed and have to play the Thunder. They have lost 6 straight and when has that happened when Pop didn't want it to? 2nd seed will play Memphis/New Orleans/Portland mid-winner (likely Memphis) first and then take on the Dallas-Portland winner (and don't go thinking that is a slam dunk either). Look for the Spurs to lose a few more this week.

Nobody in the press seems to think that the Lakers can lose this year in the West. I think they are vulnerable, especially if Fisher gets hurt. People cite the big three of the Lakers but Fish is the glue and the big shot maker. It just might be the Thunder that take them down.

Since: Aug 25, 2009
Posted on: April 3, 2011 1:12 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

This is a well-reasoned article overall, but I would suggest that while OKC's offense is definitely very polished indeed, their defense might not be stout enough to survive and bout with San Antonio in the playoffs - a long as the Spurs can get healthy. It is an old adage, but it is a true one to say that the pace of the game slows down in the playoffs. That happened to OKC last year and despite the addition of Perkins, I'm not really sure that they've entirely solved that problem as yet. San Antonio is well-coached and has an experienced, veteran group of players. They are also one of the best at taking an opponent out of what they like to do, and they have the point-makers (if everyone is healthy) to match OKC's scoring pace. So I'm not entirely sure that OKC would really have the edge over San Antonio IF both teams are healthy. 

I am also not so sure that OKC would have as easy a time with the Nuggets as this writer seems to think. Since trading Carmelo, Denver is playing a superb, totally team-oriented brand of basketball and as the Pistons proved in 2004, a team of selfless contributors can beat a group of individually more talented players. Denver also defends a lot better since ridding themselves of Carmelo and OKC, as the article mentions, is not the greatest defensive team. In addition Denver has two players in Felton and Lawson (ironically both North Carolina stars) who can match up well with Westbrook. And they potentially have some guys who can score on the interior with Nene and Martin. All of this leads me to suggest that Denver may be able to give OKC more trouble than most observers might expect.

The part about OKC not matching up with he Lakers seems fairly valid, however. The Lakers do have a far superior front line. While OKC has he advantage in the backcourt, it is not as great as one might expect thanks to that Bryant fellow. And up front, LA has two guys in Barnes and Artest who can really make life difficult for Durant. Perkins is not a scorer, but seeing him and Bynum go had to head when both are healthy will be interesting. I expect Bynum to score more and Perkins to rebound slightly better. But I think that when all is said and done, Bynum is a better player than Perkins and if he plays the way he has been the past month or so, LA's front court advantage is bigger than OKC's backcourt advantage. 

So overall, I would suggest that this article slightly overestimates OKC's advantages in the San Antonio and Denver matchups but mostly gets the LA-OKC matchup correct. However, we still have to play the games, so all of this speculation is mainly extraneous until the teams in question meet on the court. Fortunately, we have very little time to wait.

Since: Mar 24, 2008
Posted on: April 3, 2011 12:53 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

My dream NBA Finals matchup would be my Bulls vs. the Thunder. It'd be an awesome series, in my opinion. But of course not everyone would agree with that. 

Since: Mar 31, 2011
Posted on: April 3, 2011 12:06 am

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

Stars win close games. OKC has Durant and Westbrook, the Nuggets have... exactly. Agreed it will be a great series but OKC is going on to bigger things this year. The Nuggets are just a pit stop if they meet!!!

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