Before the season started, Las Vegas oddsmakers looked at the situation unfolding in Oklahoma City, and like many others, expected the Thunder to trade away key veterans such as Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari in the coming months. As such, they set their win total over/under at a measly 32 games.
The Thunder cleared that benchmark on Feb. 13.
On Sunday evening, thanks to Dennis Schroder's heroics, they improved to 40-24 on the season and continued to soar past all expectations. Down by 18 at one point in the first half against the Boston Celtics, the Thunder battled all the way back to take a brief lead in the fourth quarter. But with just a few seconds remaining, the Celtics had the ball and were up by one.
After Boston inbounded the ball to Kemba Walker, it looked like the Thunder would have to foul. Instead, Paul held Walker up, forced him to change directions, and Schroder sneaked in for the steal as Walker turned blindly toward the sideline. A few seconds later, Schroder darted to the rim for what would be the game-winning layup.
Schroder finished with 27 points and six assists in yet another strong performance off the bench, as he continues his Sixth Man of the Year campaign. But beyond just another big night from the German point guard, and another impressive victory, the night marked an important stepping-stone for the Thunder in their playoff journey.
Thanks to the Houston Rockets' blowout loss to the Orlando Magic, the Thunder have climbed up to fifth place in the Western Conference standings, and are all of a sudden just 1.5 games back of the fourth-place Utah Jazz. With only a little over a month remaining in the regular season, the playoff race is about to start heating up, and the Thunder are in strong position.
Of the five teams queueing up in the Nos. 3-7 spots in the West, only the Rockets have an easier schedule than the Thunder. All of a sudden, the Thunder might not merely make the playoffs, but could host a first-round series -- something they didn't even manage last season.