Why Oklahoma City Thunder are the team to avoid in the NBA Playoffs
It was late in November when the Oklahoma City Thunder were reeling at 5-10 and had occupied one of the lottery spots in the Western Conference, a predicted outcome. They were still fighting close battles but just didn't know how to close games.
Chris Paul was trying to take over games but was very streaky whereas the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari were also struggling with shooting accuracy. Dennis Schroder was a shadow of his current self.
Since then, Billy Donovan's men have gone on to record 27 wins, dropping only a further 11, a run that has seen the franchise becoming the first team in the league to beat its Vegas over/under threshold of 31.5 games.
OKC springs to life
If you've seen enough of Dennis Schroder over the past couple of seasons, you know that he can easily start at the point for more than half of the teams in the association. It was with his rejuvenation that things started to come together for the Thunder.
The 26-year-old guard finally started getting his shots on target and with that, Coach Donovan happily amped up his playing time in the rotation. Now when Chris Paul wasn't draining shots, Schroder and Gallo making the buckets.
This even took the pressure off Gilgeous-Alexander who was going through a rough patch in late November. He finally rediscovered his flow with the driving game and can now provide steady offense from most parts on the court.
Finally, Steven Adams also wore off the early season struggles due to issues with his left knee. The Kiwi powerhouse is now back to being his best inside the paint and is a double-double threat every night.
OKC's 3-guard lineup
The three players that have drawn the most attention so far this season are CP3, SGA and Schroder. Seeing the trio close out games for the Thunder has become common sight now and for good reason.
Firstly, nobody has more clutch points in the league this season than Chris Paul. The veteran guard knows how to read the game in trying situations and his ability to draw fouls and frustrate the opposition is second to none.
Schroder is a sneaky customer who will find his way to the rim for an easy layup if you overcommit or would rack up an open three if you take him lightly. Gilgeous-Alexander's rapid first step makes him difficult to guard whenever he decides to attack the rim.
Additionally, all of the three bring respectable defensive qualities to the table. Paul and Schroder are pesky while guarding the ball while SGA's length and agility allow him to match-up with most players.
As a result, the trio has the third-best net rating in all 3-man lineups that have played at least 30 games together this season. The triumvirate also has the best true shooting percentage of 67.6 in the aforementioned category.
The most clutch team in the league
The Thunder have played a league-high 36 clutch games this season, winning 23 of them, again the best number in the association. The franchise also has the highest scoring accuracy in the league with the players making 50.4% of their clutch shot attempts.
Back in December, the Oklahoma City Thunder enforced 26- and 24-point comeback victories in consecutive games against the Chicago Bulls and the Memphis Grizzlies respectively. During their 15th January matchup, the Thunder were trailing the Toronto Raptors by as many as 30 points in the second quarter. While the franchise did end up losing the game, the deficit was reduced to just three points late in the fourth.
If you were to look at the individual plus/minus stats in the clutch for a minimum of 20 such games played, you'd find all of the top five spots being occupied by OKC players with Schroder leading the pack. Simply put, this is a team that refuses to go away.
The role players are no pushovers either
OKC's rotation is completed by the likes of Terrance Ferguson, Lu Dort, Abdel Nader, Darius Bazley and Nerlens Noel. If there's one common theme among all these aforementioned players, it's the fact that all of them play hardnosed defense.
Ferguson, in particular, is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. He surely does pick up those fouls, but he also manages to restrict his matchup on most nights. Dort, on the other end, just bamboozles the opposition with his energy. Nobody covers as much ground as he does and given the fact that he can shoot from downtown, he's increasingly looking like the prototypical 3-and-D wing whose services OKC could enjoy for years to come.
Noel is an absolute behemoth in the paint on both ends of the court while Nader has a sweet driving game in addition to his ability from range. Bazley is a great rim protector and always looks to attack the paint on offense.
The tricky proposition of facing OKC
With a 32-21 record, the OKC Thunder currently occupy the sixth seed in the West and are most certainly a shoo-in for the playoffs. While they're not yet a team that could sweep the first round with ease, they'll give a lot of problems to whichever team they end up facing.
The team's ability down the stretch is matched only by the cream-of-the-crop franchises in the league such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. The presence of quality young players also means that the Thunder will drain their opponents off a lot of energy, something franchises looking for deep postseason runs absolutely want to avoid.
While I don't feel the Thunder could survive the likes of the LA Clippers or the Lakers in the first round, if the franchise manages to retain the sixth seed or do one further, things could turn really interesting, The likes of Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, and Houston Rockets have faced enough slumps to give the Thunder some hope of progressing further than the first round of the playoffs if such matchups do fall in place.Published 11 Feb 2020, 06:00 IST