How Far Can Oklahoma City Thunder Advance in the NBA Playoffs?
It's realistically unfeasible to see how any team could dethrone the Miami Heat from their championship reign right now, but I also believe that it's very possible the Oklahoma City Thunder will at least get a crack at it this postseason.
When news broke about Russell Westbrook's season-ending knee injury, plenty of doubts arose rather quickly about just how far the Oklahoma City Thunder could go in the playoffs without their second-best player.
These judgments, while swift and large in number, did have some validity, though. This is because the Oklahoma City Thunder, for every game of their existence, have never had a game where Westbrook was not suiting up.
That changed in Game 2 of OKC's first-round series against the Houston Rockets when Westbrook's right meniscus was torn along with many of the expectations of the Thunder being able to reach championship glory this season.
It was a devastating injury for the Thunder and the city of Oklahoma City in general, but it was one that they'd have to adjust to quickly, as playoff basketball waits for no one.
Part of these drastic adjustments meant installing second-year guard Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup and also a lot more ball-handling and shooting for Kevin Durant.
Fortunately for the Thunder, they were facing what seemed like a minimal threat in the first round. What the they found out against the Rockets, though, was that they're going to have to work a lot harder to reach the high expectations set at the beginning of the year.
Houston faced a 3-0 deficit in the series, but roared back with two straight wins to send the series back home for Game 6. This was a crucial game for the Thunder, not only to try to close out the series, but also to set a tone for the rest of the postseason. A tone that said that they may be hurt, but not broken.
Without Westbrook, the Thunder ended up closing out the series against the Rockets thanks to some gritty play by Durant and Kevin Martin in Game 6. While it was just one game against the lowest-seeded playoff team in the Western Conference, it was a telling view as to just how good this Thunder team can still be without its star point guard.
Following up that performance, the Thunder emerged victorious in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, who had just finished off a popular playoff contender in the Los Angeles Clippers. As a result, the Thunder are finally getting back some of the momentum they lost in their last series against Houston, and being able to grab a win in a thrilling fashion like they did against Memphis only increases that confidence.
It may seem like a formality for the No. 1 seed to take the first game at home in any series, but the Thunder have had to fight for just about every game since Westbrook went down, and it's not going to be any easier as they progress.
The path to returning to the NBA Finals is a bit daunting for the Thunder, since they would have to down a very tough Grizzlies team to play the winner of the San Antonio-Golden State series. While it's important to focus on the task at hand, OKC must also be prepared to look ahead at both of its potential challengers in the Western Conference Finals.
However, Memphis is certainly not a team to be ignored, especially since it's playing with one of the best frontcourts in basketball right now. The Thunder are going to have a tough time closing out Marc Gasol and crew, but, again, it's something that they are very capable of.
This is because of a man named Kevin Durant, who has a chance to prove himself as a lone superstar after playing every game of his career alongside Westbrook. Even though Durant is faced with the pressure of carrying this team, he's not without help.
That help includes the likes of Kevin Martin, who has turned around a so-so postseason with his performances in Game 6 against the Rockets and Game 1 against the Grizzlies. In both contests, Martin had 25 points and served as a major spark to a Thunder offense that needs points from just about anywhere it can get them.
Having a strong secondary scorer like Martin to complement Durant makes OKC that much more likely to win a closely contested series against an elite defensive team like Memphis.
Should the Thunder close out the Grizzlies, they'd likely be playing a rematch of last season's Western Conference Finals against a Spurs team that should make fairly easy work of an inexperienced Warriors team.
This seems like a logical place for Oklahoma City's season to end, but I don't think it will. While the Thunder will surely miss having the luxury of Westbrook being able to increase the tempo against a slower Spurs team, they still have a shot to take them by surprise.
My belief in the Thunder seems irrational, especially since Tony Parker won't have to exert nearly as much energy on defense. This means Parker is that much more of a threat on offense, where he could be a difference-maker.
What offsets this, though, is that the Thunder have one lone player who is downright talented enough to change the tides of a quarter, a game and even a series. Oklahoma City lost a great, emotional leader on the court in Russell Westbrook, but Kevin Durant is certainly capable of filling that role should the Thunder get another chance to reach the NBA Finals.
Durant has shown that once he gets going in a game, he is essentially unguardable. Whether it's knocking down shot after shot or driving to the rim and getting contact, KD can produce points instantaneously and without much assistance.
One man can't win a series, but Durant's proved that he can pretty much win a game by himself. Each game in the playoffs is more important than the last, and Durant's fully aware of this. Taking over the game isn't just something that he can do, it's something that he must do for the Thunder to survive and advance in a postseason where they've been demoted to underdogs.
Even if the Thunder are able to pull off an upset against a Spurs team that has gained the spot as the favorite in the Western Conference, they will almost certainly be pitted against a Heat team that's won six straight games against them.
What's tough about the NBA playoffs is that it discourages large-scale upsets. In a seven-game series where you have to beat a team four times, you're not likely to see the little guy progress too far in the bracket. The Thunder, who were only able to muster up one win against the Heat in the finals last year with Westbrook and James Harden suiting up, would be faced with their greatest challenge in franchise history.
That's a challenge that Durant and the rest of the guys on the roster would be willing to endure, though, and I firmly believe that he will carry them to that challenge against all odds.
How far will Oklahoma City make it in the playoffs?
So just how far can this Thunder team go? It all depends on how hungry the team is and how badly it wants to win among the clouds of doubt and adversity, and I think that hunger will bring OKC back to the NBA Finals, at the least. From that point on, anything could happen. It could be another dominant series by Miami, or it could be OKC shocking the NBA landscape. Whatever happens, the Thunder will only be there because of Kevin Durant and his motivation to be second no more.
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