Ahead of the NBA playoffs, FOX Sports will find the best-case scenario for all 16 qualified teams and make the case for why each could win the title, no matter how improbable it might be.
As long as the Thunder have two of the best players in the NBA on the same squad, they’re going to be all right.
The accolades of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant don’t need to be rehashed, but if they can lead Oklahoma City to its first NBA championship, the duo would be arguably the best to win a title with both players in their primes since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won three straight in the first three years of the new millennium. (Sorry, Dwyane Wade, but your prime had ended by LeBron’s second year in Miami.)
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Golden State and San Antonio might have deep lineups, but rotations and possessions get tighter in the playoffs, and that’s when star power is critical. With the Thunder, you can hone in on one, but you’re just picking your poison.
It’s not a two-man show either. Among the 14 best three-man lineups in the NBA, seven belong to the Warriors and the Clippers have one. The other six belong to the Thunder, and only two of those have both Durant and Westbrook on the court.
Together they’re lethal. Apart, they’re equally deadly.
Pick your poison.
If the Thunder were in the Eastern Conference, they’d be title favorites. But they’re in a Western Conference with two of the best teams of all time, so they’re being overlooked.
Presuming that the Thunder don’t stand a chance is an easy conclusion — the team is predictable with isolation plays late in games, which makes them the only playoff team with a negative plus-minus rating in clutch situations (within 5 points with less than 5 minutes left) and they have made the fewest passes in the NBA this season — but the Thunder also have a secret weapon up their sleeve for the playoffs: one of the best lineups in the NBA.
The five-man unit of Durant, Serge Ibaka, Westbrook, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow inexplicably has played only 39 minutes together this season, but when they’re on the court together, they’re lethal, putting up a 141 offensive rating to go with a 101 defensive rating with a 110 pace. That’s a number that only the Warriors’ "death" smallball lineup can boast.
Add in the Warriors’ issues in defending Durant (36 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game in three matchups this year) and Westbrook (25 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds per game) with the Thunders’ quasi smallball lineup (it’s hard to be fully smallball when your center is 6-foot-10 and your power forward is 6-foot-11), and the Thunder might be the foil for the greatest regular-season team of all time.
It’s not like the Warriors or Spurs will be able to watch regular-season tape of the Thunder’s smallball lineup — coach Billy Donovan busted it out only in emergency situations, so the Warriors and Spurs never faced it.
Not sure if you’ve heard, but this is the final year of Durant’s contract, and while the Thunder really want to keep him, it might be hard to do that without a deep title run this year.
There’s always a sense of desperation in the playoffs, but perhaps no team will feel the existential pull the playoffs create quite like the Thunder. Yes, there was that Finals berth in 2011, but if they don’t put it together a serious title run this year, the team’s window easily could close with Durant exiting town. If that happens, there’s no reason to believe it will open again anytime soon.
The context could drive the Thunder to find another level come the playoffs, or they could crumble under the pressure. But a little bit extra from the next-best team in the NBA easily could push them into the top tier with the Warriors and Spurs. Beat both of those possible contemporaries in the Western Conference playoffs and a title is a foregone conclusion.