The Oklahoma City Thunder have certainly been on everyone's radar as one of the "hottest" teams in the NBA down the stretch. Now that we've seen two games in all eight playoff series, it's time to take a more serious look for indicators that would suggest whether or not the team is better suited than #1 seed San Antonio, #2 seed Los Angeles, or #3 seed Dallas to win the West...
Naturally, we're going to have to deal with sample size issues. Not only is it dicey to draw conclusions off just two playoff games per team. But, Oklahoma City didn't face a lot of potential conference or league champions late in the season. Their games with San Antonio came early, as did two matchups with Chicago. Those were the #1 seeds, and the Thunder didn't play them recently. Oklahoma City doesn't have any games recently vs. #3 seeds Dallas or Boston either.
Luckily we have two "tester" games on the road versus #2 seeds. And, those show championship possibilities in a very favorable light.
March 16th in Miami
OKLAHOMA CITY 96, MIAMI 85
The ESPN "recap" of the game has some very interesting quotes.
OKC Coach Scott Brooks:
"Our defense was as good as it could possibly play."
Kendrick Perkins had joined the team from Boston. Oklahoma City had quickly adopted his toughness and mentality on the defensive side of the ball. They held the Heat to 29% in the first half, 38% for the game, and to only 10 second chance points in 48 minutes.
Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra:
"We have some of the best attackers in the game. They usually go over the top. They were being met at the rim."
Oklahoma City wasn't flinching when the biggest names in basketball flew at them. No intimidation. No fear.
"One thing we've gotten better at is closing games out."
I recently ran a quote from Derrick Rose talking about how the Bulls have struggled at closing people out late in the season. Oklahoma City realized as early in mid-March that they were getting better at this vs. tough competition.
"Tonight is not one of those games where you feel awful about how you played."
A salute from King James. Miami wasn't embarrassed about their performance or their effort. It wasn't, "This was our game to win and we blew it." It was, "Wow...those guys played great."
Nobody talked about rebounding. Oklahoma City won that category 51-40, including 17-9 on the offensive boards.
Good checklist for the playoffs! Defense. Rebounding. Confidence. Knowing how to close. Staring down two of the best scorers in the league.
April 10, in Los Angeles
OKLAHOMA CITY 120, LA LAKERS 106
The Lakers had just lost four games in a row...and this was supposed to be where they got back up off the mat and sent a message to a Western Conference upstart, and the whole nation, in a national TV game on a Sunday afternoon. Instead, it was Oklahoma City sending a message.
Most of the ESPN recap focused on the Lakers 5-game losing streak. But, there were these quotes:
Coach Scott Brooks
"The fourth-quarter defense was the best as we could possibly play against one of the best teams in basketball."
Sound familiar? A win keyed by defense. Oklahoma City held the Lakers to just 16 points in the fourth quarter. We now have clutch defense in tester games vs. championship contenders and superstar players.
"This was a step in the right direction, but we want to get to something bigger, but it was kind of a statement win for us."
New addition to the mix. Oklahoma City isn't thinking that wins over Miami and the Lakers represent reaching the peak of a mountain. They're steps up a mountain to a bigger goal further along. Golden State can get fired up and beat the Lakers. The Knicks knocked off the Heat in Miami. Oklahoma City isn't on their way to a nightclub to celebrate anything just yet.
Let's go to the checklist:
Defense: a great fourth quarter if not a great game.
Rebounding: A 38-34 win on the boards which is strong on the road against a tall and long Lakers team that should have been bringing their best.
Closing: Oklahoma City finished on a 16-2 run after trailing by a point with just over three minutes to go.
It would be great to have more games to stick in the sample size since the team traded for physicality at the deadline. Two recent regular season games with #4 Denver may have seen the Nuggets going at less than full speed because they were trying to launch OKC up into the #3 spot. These two "exhibits" are as good as we're going to get for evaluating championship potential.
Well, that and tonight's blowout win over the Nuggets...
OKLAHOMA CITY 106, DENVER 89
2-Point Shooting: Denver 38%, Oklahoma City 50%
Rebounds: Denver 31, Oklahoma City 54
The game was decided early, when Oklahoma City played great defense and dominated the offensive boards to build a 31-15 lead after the first quarter. Shooting percentages were close at the time...but OKC kept giving themselves extra chances. A 12-2 start to the second quarter made it 43-17...and you could pretty much switch over to American Idol from that point forward.
Denver had a couple of mini-runs to get within 12 once...and 10 much later on. The Thunder didn't panic and took care of business.
I don't mean to suggest this series is over yet. Nobody's broken serve. It's just that Denver and Oklahoma City were playing the best basketball in the West entering the postseason. Oklahoma City has shown an ability to pull away with hustle, or to close well if it's tight.
And, after getting rid of some early nerves, the Thunder are up 181-148 on the scoreboard since the 9-minute mark of Game One's second quarter...versus a team that's been dominant when going all out since the All-Star Break.
Part of the "best in the West" equation is showing that you're better than the teams ranked ahead of you...
SAN ANTONIO 93, MEMPHIS 87
2-Point Shooting: Memphis 43%, San Antonio 45%
3-Point Shooting: Memphis 3/14, San Antonio 7/17
Rebounds: Memphis 47, San Antonio 48
Turnovers: Memphis 14, San Antonio 18
1's and 2's: Memphis 78, San Antonio 72
Manu Ginobili returned to the lineup...and the Spurs still had to sweat the ending! Manu got the leading scorer credit in the wire service game write-ups. And, he won the "player of the game" award on the Spurs local telecast (I live in their viewing area, so I was blacked out of the NBA Network broadcast). But, you can't say he played well. He was 5 of 13 from the floor (missing all his trey attempts), a shaky 7 of 13 from the free throw line, and he turned the ball over five times.
I included a few extra stat lines above to reflect back on the series preview. Memphis isn't very good from long range. They made 4.6 fewer treys per game than the Spurs during the regular season, and were minus four here. That's minus 12 points in a game they only lost by six. Memphis is great at forcing turnovers. They really stepped that up here and forced 18 from the Spurs. And, this is now the second straight game where the Spurs were outscored in the sum of on 1's and 2's. That's odd for a home team in a 1-8 seeding matchup (Chicago beat Indiana by 17 and 9 in their first two games).
Add it all up...and San Antonio was neck and neck tonight with the #8 seed, in a must-win game after getting stunned in the series opener. Who would you make the favorite on a neutral court right now between San Antonio and Oklahoma City?
The Lakers game with New Orleans was a late starter, and I'll just save that for Thursday night's report. We know that the best the Lakers are looking at is 1-1 after two games in the series. We know that Oklahoma City sent a message to the Lakers way back in Exhibit B. I can't say I'm ready to make OKC a neutral site favorite over the Lakers. They are in better form lately.
Dallas? Let's say I'm skeptical about the Mavs but open-minded. We'll know more after seeing what Dallas does in their next two games in Portland, and what Oklahoma City does in two games at altitude in Denver. The Mavericks didn't impress down the stretch vs. playoff caliber opposition. They do seem to have fresh legs at the moment.
For now...the Thunder may not be best in the West just yet. They're darned sure closing in on it.
Back late Thursday...