Regular seasons do matter, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have certainly made the most of theirs. All the same, we should be careful about anointing them conference champs just yet.
There's a lot of basketball left to be played.
Yes, the Thunder are very good—and no, we shouldn't overreact to a 22-point thumping at the hands of the Miami Heat. Letdowns happen, even against the league's very best. But there are some chronic issues that pose a threat to OKC's ability to return to the promised land, issues that are correctable but potentially damning.
There's also, well, competition.
And then there's the wide-open question of how Russell Westbrook will jell with what's become a very well-oiled, Durant-centric machine.
In short, there are as many questions as there are answers—and it's time we start asking them.
A Deceptively Beatable Offense
Scott Brooks' offense continues to be one-dimensional, relying heavily on playmaking from the likes of Kevin Durant and—until Russell Westbrook's return—Reggie Jackson. That's not an entirely bad thing given Durant's MVP-in-the-making kind of season. Nor is it any surprise that the approach remains successful against the vast majority of defenders.
The problems emerge against the elite defenders, the kind of wing stoppers who can make Durant look mortal.
In LeBron James and Shane Battier, the Miami Heat have exactly that—which is why Erik Spoelstra's team held OKC to just 81 points in their latest encounter. Durant made just 10 of his 22 field-goal attempts and coughed the ball up five times. That's not a nightmare performance, but nor is it an exceptional one, especially by Durant's standards.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, the Heat can't prevent a return to the NBA Finals. But there are other defenders about whom to be worried—guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in San Antonio, Matt Barnes in Los Angeles, Chandler Parsons in Houston, Nic Batum in Portland and Andre Iguodala in Golden State.
Not all of these guys are elite defenders, but they're all long and most are at least very good defenders.
A quick glance across Durant's performances this season indicates that it's virtually impossible to stop him. But somehow holding him under 50 percent shooting at least gives you a chance to beat the Thunder. That happened against the Trail Blazers twice in December when—despite scoring 33 and 37 points (respectively)—Durant made just 23 of his 49 combined attempts.
Most players would take that kind of efficiency in a heartbeat, but it fell beneath Durant's 51 percent season average. Given OKC's extreme dependence on Durant, there isn't much room for good performances.
He always has to be great—especially against teams like Portland, who can light it up in their own rights.
Admittedly, this all feels like nitpicking. The Thunder own the league's best record and they've scored nearly 105 points per game despite missing Westbrook for 30 of those games. By any metric, that's a pretty effective—if not unstoppable—scoring attack. But it's not the only one out West and come the postseason, all bets are off.
Among playoff-bound teams, the Blazers, Clippers, Rockets and Suns all average more points than OKC—and the Spurs (and their respectable defense) aren't far behind. The real question is which team stands the best chance of executing in the half court when games slow down, as they're oft to do in the playoffs.
The Blazers have the most effective post-presence thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge and his ability to score from virtually anywhere in the mid-range. The Clippers have the best point guard (and arguably closer) in Chris Paul.
The Spurs are most adept at actually running plays in the half court and making the most of an intricate motion offense.
Against those odds, OKC indisputably has the best all-around scorer. There will be a lot of pressure riding on that scorer's shoulders, though—pressure that will be more evenly distributed for those other teams. There's also a lot to be said for the playoffs being a different beast entirely. ESPN's Michael Wallace picks the Spurs to tame that beast, albeit by the thinnest of margins:
I'm still leaning toward a presumably healthy San Antonio team, the defending conference champions, being slightly ahead of a presumably healthy OKC squad. Just by a hair. The issue with all of this is it's been quite a long time since we've seen either one of those teams relatively healthy and at full strength. But all things considered, the Spurs' balance, depth and experience qualify them as the favorites out West.
The Thunder are certainly more than a one-man show, but it's hard to argue they have the best eight-man rotation with inexperienced types like Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb playing significant roles. Besides San Antonio's uniquely deep attack, the Clippers and Blazers have made substantial strides improving their benches.
Until we see OKC's core in action come playoff time, any talk of a return to the NBA Finals is premature. The competition is pretty good.
The Westbrook Effect
Despite OKC's recent success sans Westbrook, his absence from the 2013 playoffs proves just how dearly he's missed when the most important games are on the line. But there's a very real sense in which his presence has become something of a double-bind for the Thunder.
Without him, seven-game series against the league's best teams are all but unwinnable. With him, however, there's the risk that Durant loses some of his rhythm. He has fewer touches and sees fewer shots. The offense becomes a dangerous two-headed monster, but there's an opportunity cost to sharing when one scoring option is playing at such a dominant MVP level.
It would be one thing if Westbrook were ready to defer in the same way Dwyane Wade has for LeBron James. But that isn't Westbrook's game. He wasn't built to defer. He wasn't meant to play off the ball.
He's best when the ball is in his hands—and so is Durant.
Optimists will correctly maintain that both are very good no matter what. They'll also note that, to some degree, Durant and Westbrook make each other better with their abilities to draw defensive attention and open up the floor for everyone else. There are lots of good reasons to believe this can work. It worked pretty well in the 2011-12 postseason.
But there are also reasons to be cautious.
That doesn't mean denying OKC's exceptional chances. It just means tempering our expectations, remembering that the success we've witnessed thus far isn't always replicated when it counts. Much as we've seen, we really haven't seen anything yet.