The Western Conference left the door open for the Thunder
Oklahoma City didn’t have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for most of the year, but it’s quickly making up ground on the rest of the West. Top seeds beware.
Seven Western Conference teams are surely thrilled to be winning 70 percent of their games. They should just know that the Oklahoma City Thunder are coming to crash the party.
A situation that looked like doom in a deep Western Conference a few weeks ago suddenly seems bright. A six-game losing streak in late November tagged Oklahoma City with a 3-12 record before Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant hurried back from their respective injuries.
Yet five games after Westbrook’s return and four following Durant’s, the Thunder are just three games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Oklahoma City has won three games in a row against the 76ers, Pistons and Bucks, and there’s enough confidence produced from those wins to have every other team vying for the eighth spot out west worried.
Scott Brooks‘ team can thank those middling Western Conference teams for not taking advantage of their opportunity.
The Phoenix Suns currently find themselves in the eighth spot with a 12-11 record, well behind seventh-place Dallas’ 17-7 mark. An injury to Isaiah Thomas and a shift in the starting lineup has hurt Phoenix’s continuity as it searches for last season’s magic. Neither has a difficult schedule.
Ninth-place Sacramento has only won two of its last eight and is coming off a painful loss to the Lakers on Tuesday. 10th-place New Orleans oddly has been one of the league’s worst defensive teams despite having two excellent shot-blockers in Anthony Davis and Omer Asik. 11th-place Denver’s season thus far can be cut into thirds — two losing skids sandwich an 8-2 stretch.
Assuming none of the top-seven Western Conference teams falter to any great degree and none of the teams Oklahoma City is chasing go streaking in a major way, the Thunder could become one of the most dangerous eighth seeds in NBA history.
The stars are still stars. Durant, who is averaging 22 points in his four games, hasn’t forced the issue since returning and is shooting 50 percent while dishing four assists per game. The same can be said for Westbrook, who’s yet to record less than seven assists per game while averaging 24 efficient points.
But the pieces around Durant and Westbrook seem more ready to help the two stars than they have in the past. With Westbrook and Durant out, Reggie Jackson grew as a leader, Oklahoma City added muscle in the form of depth. It should bode well for a team that with or without its two All-Stars is defensively oriented — the Thunder rank seventh in the NBA by allowing 100.1 points per 100 possessions this season.
During a 114-101 win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, Brooks went 12 players deep while giving 10 players 13 or more minutes or playing time. Steven Adams has split time with Kendrick Perkins at center, and Andre Roberson has replaced Thabo Sefolosha as the perimeter starter alongside Durant and Westbrook. Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow and Jackson have given the Thunder the ability to put less offense on its two stars, and that will be key come the postseason.
This was the Thunder’s hope when Durant and Westbrook first went down. Games without their stars would empower everyone else in the short term, making the collective even better once the two big guns returned. It’s early still, but unless one of the Western Conference’s young teams hits an uptick even close to what Durant and Westbrook can bring to the Thunder, the odds favor Oklahoma City putting itself in a playoff position sooner rather than later.