State of the Thunder: Seeing a familiar face

Taking a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder as they head into the playoffs starting Sunday against Houston.

How’d they finish?

Really well, actually. The Thunder got through a tough portion of April with wins over San Antonio and Indiana on back-to-back nights and then leapfrogged the Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference. At 60-22, Oklahoma City finished with its best record since relocating from Seattle in 2008.

The Thunder finished 7-3 in their last 10 games, and that includes Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee when Kevin Durant and others didn’t play, due to the top seed already having been secured.

Are they healthy?

Don’t worry about Wednesday’s game against the Bucks. It was not an indicator of the team’s health. Everyone is fine and the Thunder will go into their game Sunday against Houston in good shape.

What’s the problem?

At this point, the biggest issue for the Thunder is playing with expectations. A season ago, they made the Finals. This time around they are expected to get back. That’s not easy to deal with. Oklahoma City has home-court advantage, a dynamic scoring punch with Durant and Russell Westbrook and a 60-win season. Everyone is expecting greatness. Coming through with it isn’t simple.

First-round matchup

The Thunder are 2-1 against the Rockets this season, winning once in Oklahoma City and splitting the two games in Houston. The Thunder haven’t had any problem scoring against the Rockets, going for 120, 124 and 119 points.

Road to the Finals

A season ago, the Thunder beat defending champion Dallas in the first round, the Lakers next and then the Spurs to get to the Finals. This year doesn’t look quite as tough, but there is a potential problem in the second round if Memphis is able to get by the Clippers. While the Thunder haven’t really had any issues with Houston this season and have gone 2-1 against the Clippers – a team that doesn’t match up well against Oklahoma City – the Grizzlies are tough.
OKC is just 1-2 against Memphis this year and struggles against the Grizzlies’ defense. Two seasons ago, the Thunder and Grizzlies went seven games in the Western semifinals. No chance a series with Memphis this season goes any less than six games.

And that’s just the conference semifinals. If the Thunder get past Memphis or the Clippers, expect the Nuggets or the Spurs in the Western finals. The Thunder are 2-2 against San Antonio and only 1-3 against Denver. The Thunder solved the Spurs last year in the playoffs, but Denver, not so much.

Denver is the one team in the West that runs as well as the Thunder, defends and isn’t afraid to play the same up-tempo style. A matchup against the Nuggets would have to be considered less desirable than playing against the Spurs.

Reasons the Thunder can win it all

1. Kevin Durant: Yeah, he’s that good, and he’s good enough to lead the team back to the Finals and beyond. Durant is only the sixth player in history to finish the season shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line. He’s well-rounded and a threat from every spot. 

But beyond Durant’s raw numbers is a team-first attitude. Durant had every opportunity to take the scoring title back from New York’s Carmelo Anthony, but he seemed less interested in scoring than in winning and getting ready for the playoffs. He sat out Wednesday’s finale. Not saying he would have scored the 70 points to surpass Anthony, but Durant didn’t even concern himself with it.

2. Home court: No other arena is as loud as Chesapeake Arena and the Thunder have been great at home the past three seasons, including this year’s 34-7 record, which includes Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee in a game that didn’t matter.

Overall, the Thunder have struggled against the West’s top teams. Every home game will make a huge difference. The Grizzlies have beaten the Thunder twice this season in Memphis, but a seven-game series means Oklahoma City gets that final shot.

No team is better at home than the Nuggets are, going an NBA-best 38-3 at home, but they are ordinary on the road, going just 19-22. They are the only team in the top five in the West that has a losing road record.. Again, you’d have to like the Thunder’s chances in a Game 7 in OKC.

3. Been there, done that: Every season since the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City has been better than the previous one. Every year, OKC has gone just a bit farther. It’s been a natural progression of success, adding a piece at a time. Last year, the Thunder made it to the Finals. Anything less than that and it will be seen as a disappointment. The fact that all the major players on the Thunder have been in the playoffs, have played meaningful games and been in pressure situations, helps. Experience matters.

Reasons the Thunder will fall short

1. James Harden is wearing red and yellow: Harden was a star during his time in Oklahoma City and he has helped get Houston to the playoffs in his first season with the Rockets. The Thunder will miss him in the playoffs, because Harden wasn’t just a great player off the bench, he was a go-to guy late in games. He didn’t start, but he always finished and gave the Thunder what they are missing now – a viable third scorer.

Yes, the Thunder have options like Serge Ibaka and others, but they don’t have a create-your-own shot skill player other than Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. And while the Thunder won’t need the extra help in the first round or maybe not at all in the Western Conference, they will need it if they get back to the Finals.

2. Bench production: You know Kevin Martin is a big-time scorer. You want to believe Martin can save the day and you want to say Martin will be a consistent contributor, but the fact is, he’s not. Past that, where will the production come from the bench?

The Thunder rank 22nd in the league in bench points. And while Martin is getting 14 points per game, there’s not a lot else. Maybe that’s a good thing in the sense that it will mean more minutes for Durant and Westbrook, but if the Thunder get into foul trouble, it could be problematic. Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet will get some minutes, but they are primarily used for defensive purposes. Derek Fisher will also see about 10-12 minutes per game. But none are scorers. Only Martin and Reggie Jackson can provide any sort of offensive spark off the bench.

Count on fewer bench minutes, a shorter rotation and more of an emphasis on Durant and Westbrook carrying the offense.

3. Too many jumpers: The absence of Harden leads to another point. While Harden is an accomplished shooter, he also gets to the basket when he needs to. No one has the speed of Westbrook and Durant’s portfolio is full of an assortment of scoring options, but what happens when those two can’t get to the rim? Too often the Thunder offenses slows and then stagnates when they don’t rotate the ball. It leads to too many jumpers.

Jackson is the Thunder’s next-best threat to be creative on offense, but don’t expect him to carry the team if Durant and Westbrook start to struggle or don’t move toward the basket.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman