5 Keys to Watch as Oklahoma City Thunder Make Playoff Push

Lucas Parolin@@Lucas_ParolinCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2013

5 Keys to Watch as Oklahoma City Thunder Make Playoff Push

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder should feel pretty good about themselves right now.

    They are tied with the Clippers for the best record in the league (which will not be the case later tonight, as the two teams will face each other for the top spot in Los Angeles at 10:30 p.m. ET), are the current Western Conference champs and have one of the two best players in the league in Kevin Durant.

    But if you think they are going to pump the brakes, you have another thing coming.

    The Thunder’s second half of the season should be even more dominant, fast-paced and exhilarating to watch as the previous one. 

    Here what you should watch out for as OKC move into the last 41 games of the NBA season. 

Russell Westbrook

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    Kevin Durant is so good, but so good that we sometimes forget the guy holding the reins to the team’s offense.

    Russell Westbrook got a lot of heat in last season’s Finals (get it? Because they lost to the Heat?) for taking shots away from Durant and for poor decision-making at times. 

    As Bleacher Report has pointed out before, signs suggest that those troubles are all water under the bridge. He is still posting the best assists numbers of his career (8.3) while keeping his turnovers relatively low (3.4).

    But, as Dr. House would say: People don’t ever change, do they?

    As the playoff spotlight creeps closer, look for Westbrook to find that spotlight to be a bit too inviting yet again. The point guard is prone to wanting to take over in big moments. He shot the ball 20.9 times per loss this season, twice more than in wins. He also had a worse field-goal percentage, a low 35.1 percent, compared to 44.4 percent in wins.

    Russell Westbrook is a victim of his talent. He is hands-down one of the more athletic and talented players in the NBA.

    His curse, though, is to play with arguably the most athletic and talented player in the NBA.

    Unfortunately for him, there is only one ball.

Kendrick Perkins…Trade?

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    When Sam Presti snatched Kendrick Perkins from the Boston Celtics, he was once again hailed as one of the best executives in the NBA.

    Perkins' size and maturity was exactly what the young Oklahoma team needed to get over the hump and contend for a title. 

    While the trade definitely worked for the Thunder (and, so far, not so much for the Celtics), one does have to look at Perkins’ performance this year.

    The big man was never known to fill up the stat sheet. His career-high in the point column is 10.1 and he never grabbed more than 8.1 rebounds per game in a season. No eye-popping numbers right there.

    But, come on, Kendrick. Now, you are pushing it.

    Perkins’ numbers are his worst since the Celtics’ championship season in 2008. The most alarming stat is field-goal percentage, which is sitting at 43.5 percent a game. Never has he shot so poorly in the NBA.  

    Here’s another screaming stat: Kendrick Perkins is only the third-leading rebounder in Oklahoma. Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant both out-rebound him. Also, Nick Collison and Russell Westbrook grab more offensive rebounds than the big man.

    Kendrick Perkins is still one of the leaders of the Thunder locker room and is still hailed for his winning attitude, but he has to step up his actual game.

    If the Thunder want to make a run to the Finals again, they have to expect to play Western Conference powerhouses like the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies, who happen to feature big men like Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

    Oh, and don’t sleep on Sam Presti, either.

    Remember: he was the guy who pulled the strings to get Perkins to wear blue in the first place, in one of the most surprising trades in that NBA season. With quality centers on the market like DeMarcus Cousins, Pau Gasol and free agent Greg Oden, Presti could just as well drop the hammer once again.

    He is just that daring. 

Head-to-Head Matchups

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    Remember when the NBA schedule was so long, regular-season games didn’t matter? 

    Well, now some games matter!

    Right now, the powerhouses in the West seem to be (in no particular order): the Clippers, the Spurs, the Grizzlies, the Thunder and the Warriors (on the outside-looking-in).

    So far, Oklahoma is 3-2 against these teams. 

    By the end of this month, they will have played the Clippers (tonight), the Warriors (tomorrow) and the Grizzlies (on January 31).  Also, the Thunder will play the “elite four” a combined six times before the end of the regular season.

    Needless to say, beating these teams translates to not only home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, but also an easier path to the Finals.

    Can you say "must-win games"?

The One Game Against the Heat

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    Clear out your calendar on February 14. Call in sick now. Break up with your significant other before that day approaches, so you don’t have to spend Cupid’s day with him or her.

    The Thunder will face the Heat for the final time this season on that day. That is, unless they happen to meet each other in the Finals again.

    This game has all the right ingredients to be one of the most exciting games of the year, as well as one of the most important. We will get a sneak preview of what the first weeks of June might look like, and we’ll still get the chance to watch the two best players in the world go head-to-head. 

    Also, this game might just as well decide the home-court advantage come June.

    Really, give your girlfriend a call. Things just aren’t working out and you need more space.

Kevin Durant

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    Now, we wouldn’t be talking about the Thunder without mentioning him, would we? 

    It’s crazy, but Kevin Durant actually got better. He is scoring more points, dishing out more assists, stealing more, making more shots and free throws and walking on water. 

    OK, he didn’t do the last part, but it does seem that way. 

    As the second half of the season approaches, though, Durant might want to take it a little slow.

    Even though he is one of the premiere athletes in the world, he has been playing basketball with virtually no breaks since last season. He lead the Thunder to the Finals and then participated in the USA team’s gold-medal win in the London Olympics. Now, he has to grind out yet another 82-game season. 

    Not to say Kevin Durant is going to run out of steam. He is only 24 years old, after all, and is definitely more than motivated to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time.

    He might just take Tim Duncan’s “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” approach to the season, that’s all.

    Which would still probably mean he would drop 25 points a night.