The Oklahoma City Thunder are 43-20 - still marginally ahead of the surging Los Angeles Clippers in the battle for third place in the Western Conference.
Yet, they clearly aren’t in championship form with 19 games remaining until they begin what could be their final postseason run with Kevin Durant. The Thunder’s defeat Thursday night at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, their second loss in five days to the defending world champions, was their seventh loss in their last 11 games. The loss also further blemished their record against the better teams in the league.
Against The League's Top Teams
The Thunder have now been swept by the Warriors (0-3) and Cleveland Cavaliers (0-2), the teams that squared off in last year’s NBA Finals and are heavily favored to reach this year’s Finals. Overall, OKC is 3-9 against the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors - teams currently in the top four of their respective conferences.
Regular season wins and losses are forgotten once the playoffs are underway, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it has been a while since the Thunder have earned a signature victory. They opened their season with a 112-106 victory over the retooled Spurs. Since then, however, the victories over really good teams have been few and far between.
The order of the team’s schedule is part of the reason why. Some of the Thunder’s games against teams currently atop the East were played early in the season (Durant missed the game on Nov. 15 against Boston). Their slate after mid-January was back-loaded with rubber matches with the East's top teams and a bunch of games against the premier teams in the West. In fact, OKC still has three more meetings with the Spurs and two games against the Clippers left on their schedule.
But the games Durant, Russell Westbrook & Co. have already played against the NBA’s best encapsulated some of the issues that have been magnified by their recent struggles - like an inability to close out games after building sizeable leads, a lack of involvement from players other than Durant and Westbrook when games are in the balance, and the team’s two stars clanging potential game-winning or game-tying shots at the buzzer.
The Thunder, after leading by as many as 22, blew a 16-point fourth quarter lead in a loss on Wednesday to the Clippers. They needed last-second heroics from Durant to avoid losing to the Clippers on Dec. 21st.
Last Saturday, OKC was so close to handing the Warriors their first loss to a team with realistic title hopes until Durant fouled Andre Iguodala with 0.7 seconds left in regulation after a Thunder turnover. Iguodala sank two free-throws and sent the game into overtime, opening the door for Stephen Curry to break the Thunder’s hearts in epic fashion. The Warriors didn’t need late-game magic on Thursday. They torched OKC for 121 points on 54 percent shooting in a blowout win.
Finishing The Season
Now the Thunder are on a two-game slide after wasting fourth quarter leads against Western Conference heavyweights. Needless to say, when you have Durant and Westbrook, you can potentially win any game. But even big performances from them often have not been enough for the Thunder to prevail against teams they may have to deal with in the postseason. That has to be a big concern. Fortunately for the Thunder, they will have multiple opportunities down the stretch to knock off top teams and build some much-needed momentum. But if they fail to do so, it will cast even more doubt on their title hopes and amplify the pressure on a team that, barring a championship run, is headed for an uncertain offseason in light of Durant’s impending free agency.
Maybe it is unfair to call this a championship-or-bust campaign for the Thunder. The Warriors, Curry in particular, have been otherworldly in the regular season, and they figure to be unstoppable in the postseason. But to their credit, the Thunder for the most part hung tough against the Warriors this year. They know the pieces are in place to compete for a title. They just have to figure it all out. Yet, the clock is ticking, and the NBA Playoffs start April 16th.
“We want to be a great team. We're fooling ourselves. If we just want to be a great team, the way we're playing, we're fooling ourselves,” Durant said after Wednesday night’s loss to the Clippers, according to ESPN. “We want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, that's cool, but we're fooling ourselves with the way we're playing."
With only 19 games left in the season, the Thunder will have to buckle down and finish strong. It's time to see what this Thunder team truly is made of.