The Thunder are back atop the West, but do they really want to face the Lakers in the first round?
By ANDREW GILMANFS Southwest
Three games to go, one-half game up in the standings and a lot of questions until the end of the season.
Thunder win the top spot in the Western Conference standings? Will San Antonio even try to challenge
OKC the rest of the way?
And, most importantly, why, if you're the Thunder, would you want to face the Lakers?
After the Thunder ran over and through
Golden State Thursday night, it sure looks like they are really pressing to earn that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, it looks like San Antonio's level of interest is diminishing by the game as witnessed by the lineup the Spurs ran out on the court at Denver earlier this week.
So, now with three games to go, including Friday night in Portland, against three teams below .500, a sweep to finish out the regular season is a likely outcome.
If that's what the Thunder wants.
In many ways, a No. 2 seed seems desirable. While it would be the surrendering of home-court advantage in the Western Conference Final, it would also mean avoiding the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
The Lakers finish with three home games, including one against the Spurs. They won't be able to catch Golden State or Houston for the No. 7 spot and they likely won't fall behind Utah and miss out on the playoffs. Utah has three games left, including two against Minnesota and one at Memphis.
The Lakers are 6-2 in their last eight games, have a Kobe Bryant playing at "Hero-Mode" intensity and also feature, despite their flaws, and impressive lineup of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers. It just seems like a team that would be better to be left alone.
In addition, while the Lakers have all sorts of issues on the defensive end, Golden State and Houston have no answers at all on defense and don't have the depth the Lakers do, as far as scoring options go. A matchup with Houston would be rich, mainly because of the James Harden storyline, but the Rockets would simply be overmatched. The Thunder are 2-1 against Houston this season and have scored 120 or more in all three games. OKC is 3-1 against Golden State and have scored 119, 119 and 116 in the three wins.
Of course, the Thunder have done just fine against the Lakers this season, too. They are 3-1 and scored 114, 116 and 122 in the victories. They also beat the Lakers a season ago in the Western Conference semifinals. But Los Angeles isn't the same team as it was earlier this season, even as late as March 5 when the Thunder last played the Lakers. They are playing better and Bryant is at his best.
Seems like a lot to make of a potential 1-8 matchup, but it is something to consider.
Serge Ibaka is playing great basketball. He has three or more blocks in nine of the past 10 games, he has scored in double figures in nine of the past 10 games and has seven or more rebounds in eight of the past 10 games. Ibaka has also picked his spots on 3-pointers, going three-for-five in the past five games.
It's not his fault, but Ronnie Brewer can't get any momentum. You have to wonder if he's upset with this opportunity with the Thunder where it looked like he could be a defensive presence. Instead, Brewer has become buried on the bench. He hasn't played more than seven minutes in a game since Feb 27 against the Hornets. In 12 games, Brewer hasn't played at all. And while J.R. Smith of the Knicks was going off on Sunday against the Thunder, it would have been interesting to see if Brewer could have stopped in. No one else did.
1. I don't think Kevin Durant wins the scoring title. Crazy to think of even as much as two or three weeks ago, but it looks like Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks will win it, ending Durant's three-year run. Anthony is averaging 28.7 points per game. Durant is at 28.3.
Here's why Anthony will take the title: Durant spent a good chunk of the fourth quarter Tuesday night in Utah trying desperately to get an assist that would meant a triple-double. Instead of scoring, Durant passed, and it ended up hurting the team. The Thunder went on to win, so no biggie, but it may have cost Durant an opportunity for more points. Actually, it did cost Durant an opportunity for more points. He finished with just 21 points on only 10 shots.
Meanwhile, Anthony has been on a tear. Thursday night against the Bulls, he scored 36 points – his third game in a row of exactly 36 points. Anthony took 34 shots Thursday night, had just two assists, none after the first quarter, and passed it, not assisted, but passed it just 12 times. Anthony has 12 assists in the past five games and has not scored less than 36 points in the past six games. Durant has 31 assists in his past five games and has taken no more than 21 shots in that same span.
Anthony is a scorer. An elite one. Durant is, too, but he seems a lot more interested in getting others involved as well.
And maybe the best example of Anthony's desire to win his first scoring title came Sunday in Oklahoma City. In the first 7 minutes of the game, Anthony had seven shots. The Thunder had that many combined.
2. Ridiculous April schedule for the Thunder. OKC hasn't caught any breaks in the past 11 days, facing five playoff teams in a row, including three in a row against the best teams in basketball. The Thunder get a bit of break the rest of the way with games against Portland, Sacramento and Milwaukee, but you have to give OKC credit for a 4-1 stretch against San Antonio, Indiana, New York and Utah.
It will be interesting to see if the Thunder can get up for these final three teams the same way they did in road wins at Indiana, Utah and Golden State.
3. The more and more I think about it, it's pretty obvious Kevin Martin's play is going to be a deciding factor for the Thunder.
When he produces, the Thunder win. When he doesn't, the Thunder often win, but man, it puts a lot more pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
He was outstanding Thursday night against Golden State, In just 19 minutes, Martin was 8-of-10 shooting, made four-of-five 3-pointers, scored 23 points and had three assists, a steal and just one turnover.
I think he needs to shoot more. Get himself involved. The more he's working, the more the Thunder become harder to defend. He took nine shots and made only two in 28 minutes at Utah and was pretty much invisible against San Antonio (one-of-six) and Indiana (three-for-seven). He's an elite scorer, but often times is hard to find. He needs to shoot early and often. And when he can go to the basket, as well as catch and shoot, like he did Thursday against Golden State, he's at his best.
Martin is averaging 14 points per game. He's a career 17.8 point-per-game scorer, but for the first time in his career, he's coming off the bench. The 23 points was the most he has scored since Jan. 25.
"We just have to go back to the basics. We're going to talk about it and we have been talking about it. The basics of rebounding is blocking out. It's not rebounding. The rebound comes after a block out. If you focus on rebounding there's too many athletes in this league that it's a 50-50 ball. You block out first and then you go get the rebound." - Thunder coach Scott Brooks after his team gave up 19 offensive rebounds.
22 – The number the Thunder outrebounded the Jazz by on Tuesday. The Jazz lead the league in rebounding.
1 – Finger wag in the general direction of the crowd by Serge Ibaka Thursday. Ibaka finished with three blocks in the win over the
3 – Number of games left this season for Durant, who will end the regular season, shooting better than 50 percent from the field, better than 40 percent from the 3-point line and better than 90 percent from the foul line.
3 – The total number of assists Durant has needed in the past two games for a pair of triple-doubles. He was one assist short against Utah and two assists shy against Golden State.
125 – Points the Thunder gave up against the Knicks on Sunday – a season high.
Just three more to go, including tonight in Portland. The Thunder wrap up the regular season with home games against Sacramento (Monday) and Milwaukee (Wednesday).
Tower of Power?
All in all, it's been a great April for the Thunder. They won at Indiana, beat the Spurs and won at playoff-caliber teams in Utah and Golden State. Only a loss to the Knicks stood out as a negative. If the Thunder end up winning the Western Conference's top seed, it would be hard to pick them to do anything except for end up in the Finals. However, a troubling stat looms as the playoffs get ready to start. The Thunder is just 8-11 against the best teams in the league (Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Memphis, New York and the Clippers).