10 Things to Watch for During OKC Thunder's Final Games
The current No. 2 seed in the Western Conference won't settle for anything less than winning the NBA Finals. After getting close two seasons ago in a 4-1 series loss to the Miami Heat, they're working to finish the job this time around.
Their quest to do so begins now.
The focal point is obviously Kevin Durant, the three-time NBA scoring champion, who will without question be the catalyst for any measure of success.
In apropos fashion, this discussion on what to watch for as the Thunder conclude the 2013-14 campaign begins with him.
Durant's Case for MVP
Durant is among a rare breed of superstars who can do anything he wants to on a basketball court. No. 35 can score at will from all three levels and create offense for his teammates by demanding double teams and finding open guys.
But in order to solidify his case for 2014 NBA MVP, he'll have to do more of the above and win as the Thunder's regular season comes to a close.
He'll likely cruise to his fourth scoring title as he's averaging a league-leading 32.2 points per game, well ahead of Carmelo Anthony's 28.1 and LeBron James' 26.8. He's also shooting the best free-throw percentage among the three with a mark of 86.8.
If Durant doing more from a production standpoint comes at the expense of the team winning, he won't force the issue. It's not in his nature.
But the above numbers show that when Durant is scoring, he's carrying his team to victories. Expect his high scoring output and Oklahoma City prevailing to be mutually inclusive.
Those factors could put an exclamation point on his status as the league's most valuable player.
Russell Westbrook's Health
The Thunder dodged a bullet with the news that Russell Westbrook's re-aggravation of his troubled knee isn't going to keep him out for any sustained period. It could have been much worse, and given their good fortune, the Thunder aren't likely to take any major gambles with their floor general's body.
Because of that, Westbrook will be on a minutes limit and won't play in back-to-backs for the remainder of the regular season, according to Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman.
When he plays, it'll be important for the team medical staff to monitor his progress and make sure he's back to form come the postseason. Reggie Jackson has been strong enough in his absence that they don't have to take any unnecessary chances with their All-Star.
Reggie Jackson's Bid for 6th Man of the Year
Reggie Jackson is eligible to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award if he starts six games out of the final 13.
He's drawn spot starting duty for the incumbent Westbrook, and may have to relinquish consideration of the award because of it.
Either way, he's been brilliant, demonstrating the ability to be a viable second option behind Durant when the Thunder needed a scoring punch in the backcourt with 16.8 points per 36 minutes, a career-high.
With Westbrook on a minutes watch and battling an injury, Jackson will have an opportunity to further improve his numbers. In essence, he'll be a necessary component of the final push toward the postseason.
If he succeeds in this role and does it primarily as a reserve, then the voters would be hard-pressed not to give him a look among other frontrunners like Markieff Morris and Taj Gibson.
Morris and Gibson each have more win shares with 5.4 and 4.8 against just 3.9 for Jackson, but neither of the former plays alongside the NBA win shares leader in Durant. Jackson will have more opportunity to affect games and thus build his case for the league's top reserve, if he nets enough games off the bench to be among the pool of candidates.
Will KD Get His 15th Technical Foul?
Anytime one's mentioned in the same breath as DeMarcus Cousins, it's either impressive or awful—there is no in between.
Like Boogie, Durant is playing with fire this season as he's netted 14 technical fouls. Fortunately, he had his latest rescinded, leaving Cousins as the NBA leader with 15.
Should Durant acquire two more before season's end, he'll be suspended one game.
That could be costly as the Thunder continue to chase the San Antonio Spurs, who as of Monday, are two games ahead of OKC for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference.
As the games intensify, so too will Durant's focus and determination. It's important he stay level-headed enough to keep his composure when things go wrong.
If he doesn't, it could allow a team like the Los Angeles Clippers to leapfrog OKC.
Will Scott Brooks Play His Young Guys?
Head coach Scott Brooks has a reputation for lacking trust in his young players and relegating them to the end of the bench as games grow in importance.
Right on cue, Derek Fisher (17.1 minutes per game) and Caron Butler (27.7 mpg) are playing heavy minutes down the stretch as playoff seeding becomes the focus. That fact could prove detrimental to their readiness come the playoffs when their experience will be most valuable.
In addition, it could impede the progress of young players who may need to step up in the postseason if any more rotation players get banged up.
Will Brooks change course and give his bench more opportunities?
Will They Triumph in a Playoff Atmosphere?
The Thunder will face five teams currently situated in playoff spots in their final 13 games. Of those five contests, four will be on the road with an April 3 home tilt against the Spurs as a key game among them.
Oklahoma City isn't sneaking up on anyone and each figures to have major implications.
Consequently, the environment at each stop will be hostile with each opponent gunning for the Thunder with their best effort. If they can come away with more wins than losses in this sequence, it'll show a level of preparedness for the postseason necessary to go all the way.
Competing Against the Bottom
Getting up for the big games is easy, but seven of the Thunder's final 13 games are against sub-.500 squads, three of which are scheduled against teams eliminated from playoff contention.
It's important OKC avoids lapses against these opponents and maintains a high level of focus. These are the games it has to win in order build momentum.
The Jeremy Lamb Conundrum
Jeremy Lamb has been positioned to have a breakout season this year with career-best averages of 8.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 20.2 minutes.
In March, however, those numbers have dwindled to 4.0, 1.8 and 11.8.
Brooks has taken Lamb almost entirely out of the rotation. The mysterious move could hurt the youngster's confidence to the point he's rendered virtually useless in the postseason.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
The final stretch of games is a chance to build Lamb up again. His ability to score helps ease the burden of scorers like Durant, Serge Ibaka, Jackson and especially Westbrook.
Will They Protect at Home?
The Thunder have arguably the best home-court advantage in the NBA. The Loud City moniker isn't a farce, and it's time to see if the crowd reflects the major implications surrounding the team.
OKC is 25-7 at home through March 23, but four of those losses have come since Feb. 20. If they want to thrive in the postseason, the business of protecting their home floor when the stakes are high begins in the final 13 games.
Will Serge Keep Surging?
The Spaniard needed to step up this season in Westbrook's absence. The point guard's ability to create shots for both himself and others can't be understated.
Fortunately, Ibaka's answered the call with career-bests in points and efficiency.
He's posted 15.2 points per game coupled with a 19.5 player efficiency rating in 68 games played. If there's been a detriment, it's been that his blocks have diminished as he's swatted 2.8 per 36 minutes, down from 3.5, 4.8 and 3.2 in the three years prior.
Ibaka will have to assert himself on both ends, and as Westbrook is worked back into the mix, he can't let up. How this dynamic ends up working will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the Thunder's stretch run.