When the postseason starts, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be looking to dispatch their first-round opponent with relative ease, a task that might present some challenges depending on the opponent.
Certain teams present issues for the Thunder, while others are terrified at the idea of playing versus OKC in the first round. An argument could be made that the Thunder are the cream of the crop in the Western Conference, given their gaudy record as well as their performance sans Russell Westbrook.
Prior to looking at the prospective opening round matchups involving the Thunder, we will first tackle what Westbrook means to the team, and then, we will look at Oklahoma City's weaknesses in order to understand why certain clubs could be problematic or not when facing them.
Russell Westbrook Effect
Needless to say, Westbrook is a big part of what the team does, and his presence is the difference between competing for a title or getting bounced in the second round as we saw in the 2013 playoffs.
Coming into the season, Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward blog projected Westbrook would be a top-five player, and an argument could certainly be made that he has met expectations on this front.
Despite averaging a career-low amount of minutes (31.4 per game), he is still putting up great numbers in points (21.3), assists (7.1) and steals per game (2.0).
Westbrook is a unique talent, and OKC still thrived in his absence. Indeed, Westbrook missed 27 games from late December roughly to mid-February, and the Thunder were victorious 20 times during that time frame by virtue of the production of Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka.
Have a look at the trio’s output during Westbrook’s time on the sidelines:
|Production of Key Thunder Players in Absence of R. Westbrook|
|Points per Game||Rebounds per Game||Assists per Game||Field-Goal%|
Oklahoma City’s record without its second-best player is a clear indication that the Thunder are a powerhouse and one of the teams with a shot at winning the title. And make no mistake, that is the one and only goal based on comments Durant shared with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
I feel individually, like stats and stuff, I feel like I did my job with that and I established myself. But it's about winning championships, and the first thing I got to get out of my head is ‘I.' It's like, ‘I want to win a championship.' It's not about that because one guy doesn't win it, two guys don't win it, three guys don't win it. So it's about the whole team, the whole organization winning a championship.
It's worth noting that the Thunder have struggled since Westbrook's return (4-5 record since his late-February comeback). To be fair, that may be more a case of correlation and not causation. The defense has fallen apart in his return, but that's mostly a product of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins being sidelined with injuries.
Both are solid defensive players that start for the Thunder. Naturally, their absences compromise the team's defense. When the pair will make their return, it will help make Oklahoma City more formidable, but the Thunder still have their warts.
The Thunder are far from infallible.
They are a bottom-five squad in turnovers per game, which allows teams to get out in transition for scores. In related news, Durant and Co. are a slightly below-average unit when it comes to yielding fast-break points, according to TeamRankings.com.
What’s more, Oklahoma City is great statistically on defense, but the collective focus varies from one game to the next. This is partly because of the personnel.
The Thunder seemingly have thoroughbreds at every position, and they can become a bit too reliant on their athleticism. Instead of emphasizing core principles, some players take themselves out of plays by gambling for steals, chasing for blocks or simply not paying attention to details.
Contesting every shot is impossible, but Brooks’ team certainly can do a better job. According to SportVU, no team has contested a lower percentage of its opponents’ jump shots than the Thunder. They’ve contested just 24 percent of opponent jumpers, a mark well below the league average of 31 percent.
Watch below how the Thunder simply lose Ray Allen of the Miami Heat for an open three-point shot with a mere screen:
These are the Thunder’s biggest weaknesses. Which teams are best equipped to take advantage of them in a possible first-round series?
Teams Thunder Don’t Want to See
The Thunder have particular weaknesses, and as a result, there are a few clubs they probably want no part of to start the playoffs.
Granted, teams are not separated by many games in the Western Conference, which means that technically OKC could open up the postseason against just about any of the teams on pace to make the playoffs. For the sake of simplifying things, we will rely on the Hollinger Playoff Odds.
We will be looking at the teams projected to start the playoffs on the road (basically the playoff clubs outside of the top four in the West standings).
Chief among them is the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers split their four head-to-head games against the Thunder this season, mostly because their strengths take advantage of the Thunder’s deficiencies.
Portland is a jump-shooting team that is not all that interested in attacking the paint, where Oklahoma City thrives defensively. Instead, the Blazers are quite content firing mid-range jump shots and three-point bombs.
In addition, head coach Terry Stotts places a strong emphasis on ball control, and his players are happy to oblige, particularly against Oklahoma City’s swarm of athletes. The Blazers have only committed 44 turnovers (11 per game) against the Thunder, and that’s limited OKC’s transition opportunities.
Consequently, the games have been quite close, and the Blazers will continue to throw monkey wrenches into the Thunder’s plans. It’s worth noting, Portland’s reliance on jump shots makes it a little unpredictable.
The Blazers are at the mercy of their jump shots, and those will not always hit the bottom of the net. In the event the Blazers are missing shots, they can still go to LaMarcus Aldridge for post-up opportunities, but Aldridge is a jump-shooting big man more than anything.
Aldridge is a great offensive player, but he will not always deliver in the low block as evidenced by his 39.2 percent shooting in post-up situations per mySynergySports.com (subscription required). The Blazers won’t necessarily defeat the Thunder, but they will certainly challenge them and possibly take OKC to seven games.
There is another team that is surprisingly well-equipped to replicate some of what Portland does against the Thunder: the Golden State Warriors. The Dubs are a bottom-five team in terms of ball security, but they have done a solid job of avoiding turnovers against the Thunder.
Golden State has turned the ball over 39 times (13 per game) in its three contests versus the Thunder, and the added possessions have allowed it to shoot lights out.
The Warriors have a tendency to rely a little too much on isolations, but they have shared the ball against the Thunder and dismantled their defense. Golden State is averaging 116.3 points on 48.3 percent field-goal shooting and 50 percent shooting from downtown.
What’s more, the Warriors have used the threat of the long ball to set up interior scores. The Thunder have tried to trap the pick-and-rolls and curls of the Warriors, which has resulted in players getting open near the rim.
With Golden State getting looks at the basket, the Thunder have been forced to foul players and send the Warriors to the line 25.7 times per contest, a figure that would put them in the league’s top 10 free-throw shooting teams if projected over a full season (Golden State is a bottom-third squad in terms of free-throw attempts).
With that said, Oklahoma City has won two of three games against Golden State, and the victories have come by a combined seven points.
Durant torched Golden State in one of those games with a 54-point explosion. Ultimately, the inability to contain Durant probably gives Oklahoma City the edge, but should these teams meet in the playoffs, we are probably looking at a series that goes the distance.
Teams Thunder Want to See
In their quest to win the title, the Thunder have a few opponents they would love to see in the first round given how easily Oklahoma City would dispatch them.
The Memphis Grizzlies fit the bill. One might be tempted to think Memphis will be a tough out because it consistently forces the Thunder to cough up the ball, but that might be the lone advantage at its disposal. The Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder in last year's playoffs, but that seems like it was practically an eternity ago.
OKC has turned the ball over 70 times in four games (17.5 per contest), but the Grizzlies have not been able to capitalize off those turnovers. Memphis has averaged 93.5 points on 43.2 percent shooting from the floor against the Thunder.
That simply will not cut it against a top-flight offense. The Thunder, for their part, have scored 100.5 points per game versus the Grizzlies on a sizzling 47.5 percent shooting. This explains why Memphis has only won once in four tries versus OKC. The Thunder would more than likely love to draw the Grizzlies in the playoffs.
It's worth noting, Memphis isn’t the only team with a 25 percent winning percentage against the Thunder. The Minnesota Timberwolves share it as well, albeit, for different reasons. Their defense is nowhere near being good enough to take down the Thunder.
Oklahoma City struggled in its first meeting with Minnesota in early November. OKC scored 81 points and was routed on the road. The Thunder responded by winning the next three meetings, and OKC averaged an impressive 111.3 points on 52 percent shooting.
The Wolves lack strong perimeter defenders to handle the tandem of Westbrook and Durant. As a result, the duo basically gets to do as they please every time they run into Minnesota.
If the Wolves had a lights-out offense, they might be able to give the Thunder a competitive series, but Minnesota lacks the long-range shooting to make a matchup with OKC interesting. In other words, the Thunder probably smoke them, a clear sign they would love to play the Wolves once the second season starts.
Granted, it would be a long shot for Minnesota to make the playoffs. They've spent most of the year with their record hovering around .500, and the Wolves would have to go on a big run in the final two months of the campaign while the teams ahead of them would have to go to end the season on disastrous notes for Minnesota to get in.
There are a few teams on paper that could give the Thunder some problems in the playoffs, but the sample size at our disposal is too small at this juncture to make a definitive statement.
For instance, the Phoenix Suns do some of the things that bother Oklahoma City. The Suns are a top-10 team in free-throw attempts, three-point percentage and forced turnovers.
Naturally, one would be inclined to think Phoenix can put a scare into the Thunder. And yet, the first time these teams met in early November, the Thunder defeated the Suns by holding them to 96 points on 40 percent shooting.
Fast-forward to early March though, and the Suns provided anecdotal evidence that they can hang with Oklahoma City. Phoenix scored 128 points in what may have been its best offensive showing of the year.
The Suns hit 15-of-27 (55.6 percent) three-point shots and converted 29 of their 39 free throws. With that said, it’s difficult to see this performance as anything other than an aberration.
NBA journeyman Gerald Green (has played for seven teams) scored a career-high 41 points and drilled eight bombs from long range in the win versus the Thunder. Green also attempted 11 free throws in that contest.
It took a wild out-of-body experience from Green for Phoenix to defeat the Thunder, which makes it difficult to state with any type of confidence that the Suns can give OKC a run for their money.
Phoenix is still worth keeping an eye on though. The same can be said about the Dallas Mavericks, who have only faced the Thunder once.
The Mavericks have a top-five offense and are amongst the best three-point shooting teams in the league. More specifically, they space the floor with Dirk Nowitzki, and power forwards with range have proven to be problematic for the Thunder.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe explains: “Ibaka still abandons stretch power forwards to chase blocks, even when other helpers have the situation covered.”
Dallas has the weapons to make OKC sweat defensively, but a prospective seven-game series involving these two teams would be decided by the Mavericks’ ability to limit OKC’s scoring.
Dallas is among the 10 best defenses in the NBA (statistically), but it has not demonstrated it has what it takes to limit the Thunder. In their lone meeting, the Thunder hung 107 points on 54.4 percent shooting from the floor.
Until Dallas flexes its muscles against Oklahoma City on this front, we will have to assume the Mavericks do not have what it takes to make the Thunder sweat.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of NBA.com and accurate as of March 12, 2014.