The Oklahoma City Thunder have found themselves in a rough patch, losing ground in the Western Conference as other teams are closing in on them down the stretch.
Oklahoma City lost a close game to the red-hot Denver Nuggets, followed by an overtimer against the Memphis Grizzlies, and they've won a game against just one top-tier Western Conference opponent just once in their past five tries. They've shown weakness in an otherwise hardheaded championship race.
As the defending Western Conference champions, the Thunder came into the season as the favorites to win the West again. Sure, they had just traded James Harden away and the Los Angeles Lakers had thrown together a super team, but most level-headed folks valued consistency over newfound riches.
Talk to most people, and the only serious NBA Championship contenders are the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and these Thunder. However, the Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and even the Memphis Grizzlies have done their best to insert themselves into the situation.
What should be most concerning for the Thunder is that—while the Nuggets, Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies and Heat have made big strides this year compared to last year—Oklahoma City's improvements have not been comparable.
Oklahoma City's strides this year have been totally chemistry related. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook work well together, their offense is humming along even more than it was a season ago and, as far as player development goes, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson have shown quite a bit of improvement.
They're better than last year. But so is everybody else—and by a larger margin.
Taking the Heat as the finest example; the addition of Ray Allen has added another dimension to their offense, but Miami's improvement goes beyond the addition of a sharpshooting veteran.
Miami's teamwork this season is off the charts. The ability to get everybody involved and work as a cohesive unit has led to the team's current 23-game winning streak.
Their offensive efficiency of 112.6 points per 100 possessions is second only to the Thunder, but they've also got the best player on the planet. Plus, they boast two wins over Oklahoma City.
Looking over at the Western Conference, the Spurs have found the fountain of youth while simultaneously developing their young guys.
When you've got Tim Duncan looking like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Tony Parker playing like an All-NBA First Team point guard and Kawhi Lenoard improving daily—plus Gregg Popovich continuing to helm the boys—this definitely looks like an improved team.
The Clippers improvement has been pretty straightforward. They've added a strong bench, grew together as a team and they still have Chris Paul. Sure, Vinny Del Negro might still be coaching them, but he's got less of a say in running the offense than Ryan Hollins.
Memphis has turned back the clock, turning itself into the dangerous defensive juggernaut that it was when it took down the top-seeded Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
They showed just how well they can hang with the elite of the Western Conference, beating the Thunder 90-89 in a gritty, grimy overtime matchup.
If ever there was a message game, this was it.
They don't have a go-to scoring threat, but neither did the 2004 Detroit Pistons and things seemed to work out well for them.
Finally we break down the Denver Nuggets who, with a combined 18-6 record against Western Conference playoff teams, have proven themselves to be formidable opponents.
Sure, you could hold their two losses to the Miami Heat against them, but seeing as those losses came in the first nine games of the season—and that the Nuggets got off to a rough 11-12 start— it's easy to reason that they're a different team today than they were then.
They've gone 36-10 since that sub-.500 beginning and have been virtually unbeatable at home.
This isn't your daddy's run-n-gun, Nellie Ball style of fast-paced basketball. This is an all-out onslaught of athleticism that tires out defenses and suffocates offenses.
Oklahoma City still has a leg up on the Western Conference competition thanks to the fact that it has two top-15 players. Still, the rest of the conference is right there with them getting closer every day, and the Thunder should be looking over their shoulder.