After a record-setting week by Russell Westbrook, can the rest of this Oklahoma City Thunder team ramp up their momentum as we head into the playoffs? As it stands now, they’re just barely hanging onto a sixth seed in the Western Conference with the Spurs and the Clippers only a half a game behind. This is it, folks. The NBA Playoffs start next week! Tickets are now on sale and the Thunder play their first game on April 13th.
If the postseason started today, OKC would be facing the Houston Rockets in the First Round of the Western Conference Playoffs. That is no easy task, but hey, it’s better than the Warriors, right? With games like the one Westbrook had against the Lakers last Tuesday, maybe the Thunder are feeling themselves right now? What are their chances in the playoffs? It’s just a good time as any to start playing games that really matter. So… do they have the potential to go deep?
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As it stands now, depending how the cards fall over the next few days, the Thunder could end up with anything from a five- to an eight-seed. They really don’t want to be eighth because that means a first-round matchup with the dynasty that is Golden State. The Thunder are coming off three wins in a row – against the Lakers, Pistons, and Timberwolves – and of course, nothing is set in stone yet.
Back at the beginning of the season, some sports gurus thought that the Thunder might actually have the best shot at unseating the Warriors. OKC is certainly deeper this year than they were in 2018 but things are a little more up in the air now as their seeding doesn’t exactly set them up for success.
Arguably the biggest star of the Thunder, Russell Westbrook, is the primary ball handler and playmaker. He pretty much sets the tone for each game, good or bad. However, Westbrook also gets a lot of criticism for his attitude. He takes ill-advised shots during clutch moments, commits turnovers, has petulant interactions with the press, and can be hard for other stars to play alongside. He’s one of the reasons Kevin Durant left the Thunder to join the Warriors. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a critical piece of this team’s success.
Last week, Westbrook became the second NBA player ever to put up over 20 points, assists, and rebounds in a single game. Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player to ever accomplish this feat. Then against the Pistons on Friday, Westbrook solidified his third consecutive season averaging a triple double. The man makes it look easy. While Westbrook said he was just taking things a day at a time, his teammate Paul George was more impressed, saying, “You’ve got to be wired a certain way on a nightly basis to compete at that level. He’s special.”
MVP-candidate George has often carried the team with his offensive skills as well, particularly when Westbrook isn’t shooting his best (which to be honest, has been pretty often this season). Lately, George has encountered some shoulder problems, which could be a real issue going into the postseason. He’s also been struggling with foul trouble; he racked up five fouls in their game against the Timberwolves. While he did manage to score 27 points, he only shot 36% from the floor.
Big man Steven Adams also fouled out… with five minutes left to go. If you’re sensing a pattern, and at least an area where the Thunder could use some work, you’re not alone.
The good news is that the entire team is showing resilience and the Thunder defense seems to be on the up and up, even if they do need to learn to defend without fouling. Against the Timberwolves, they dominated the glass and shot 54% from the floor, 43% from beyond the arc, and 84% from the foul line.
Players like Terrance Ferguson are also providing a huge boost to the Thunder. If this young shooting guard can get hot before the end of the season, it could give them the momentum they’re seeking in the playoffs. Power forward Jerami Grant has also been impressive as of late, posting consistent numbers in recent games. George calls him their “X-factor.” Backup point guard Dennis Schroder can also be electric off the bench, which gives Thunder fans hope that their team can keep it together even when Westbrook isn’t on the court. Schroder shot over 50% from the floor and put up 21 points in the Wolves game on Sunday!
The NBA took Monday off for the NCAA Tournament, but on Tuesday teams were back in action. The Thunder faced the Rockets and just snuck by with a one-point win, Westbrook and Paul leading the team with 29 and 27 points, respectively. It was a huge win for OKC and a look at how strong they could be in the playoffs.
According to Westbrook, “Each game is important right now to be able to get our rhythm, get our groove going into the postseason. Regardless of what seed we’re in, it really doesn’t matter. Just going out and playing our best basketball until the end of the year.”