The Oklahoma City Thunder are getting hot at just the right time.
The Thunder are on the verge of propelling themselves to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and they've now started playing like they were at the beginning of the season.
But Oklahoma City still has some flaws. These are problems within the structure of the team that opponents can exploit in the playoffs, and ones they'll have to shore up to guarantee a spot in the NBA Finals.
It sounds so nitpicky, something you could say for any team, but the Thunder desperately need to stay healthy if they want to make a run at a championship. And Scott Brooks knows that.
Brooks—and the entire Thunder organization—has prioritized health over all else down the stretch in the regular season.
The Thunder allowed Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha to take their time in returning from groin and calf injuries, respectively. Both of those guys went down in February and didn't step on the court again until the second week of April.
They have sat Russell Westbrook for one game in each of their final five back-to-backs, usually on the first night, all while limiting his minutes during the games in which he actually plays.
So, what if Westbrook isn't ready to play major minutes in the playoffs? What if he can't run for all that time? After all, Brooks has alluded to Westbrook's minute restrictions carrying over into the postseason (though he has played 33 minutes in both the Clippers game and the previous contest against his Sacramento Kings, tied for his highest single-game totals since December).
If the Thunder don't have a 100-percent Westbrook, they're in trouble at some point down the line. But Russ continues to look like himself everyday, and the team will only grow more comfortable with the familiarity a returning Sefolosha brings.
The Thabo Presence
Marzipan doesn't get enough credit.
People ask for vanilla. They ask for chocolate. But no one ever actively orders marzipan.
If I offered it to you, you probably wouldn't turn it down. Actually, you secretly like it. Marzipan just never crosses your mind. You never think about it—it's just weird almond paste.
Thabo Sefolosha knows how marzipan feels.
We love the ingredients he brings. He shoots the three, plays more than adequate defense, always hustles and has a high basketball IQ. But we never remember him.
Sefolosha is the forgotten starter on this team, but if you offered him to any other squad in the West, it'd happily take him.
In the time the Thunder shooting guard was out, Oklahoma City seriously struggled to defend the three. OKC allowed 25.9 three-point attempts per game, and opponents shot 39.5 percent against them: third-worst in the NBA.
Now, just like with Westbrook and Perkins, we have to wait to see exactly how healthy Sefolosha will be for the rest of the year.
Leg injuries can linger. Calves, hamstrings, quads—those aren't muscles with which you want to mess around. So we'll have to follow exactly how Sefolosha reintegrates himself into the Thunder defense. If it's successful, OKC can relieve some of its stress heading into the postseason.
The Corner Three
Take a look at the teams who lead the NBA in corner-three attempts. That statistic almost always correlates with wins. Just check who ranks in the top 10:
If the season ended right now, nine of those 10 teams would be in the playoffs. Sorry, Lakers. And this isn't a fluke.
In March of 2009, John Hollinger wrote a piece on the three-point attempt's direct relationship with win totals. And remember, we're talking about the number of shots, not percentages. Here's a tidbit from Hollinger's PER Diem:
In fact, few stats correlate better with winning than 3-point attempts. If you tell me only how many 3-pointers a team has chucked up this season and provide no other information, I can tell you whether it is a winning team and be right eight times out of 10.
Check this out: The teams in the top 10 in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt have a combined winning percentage of .593 … and those in the bottom 10 have a combined winning percentage of .400.
That's no accident. Three-point attempts have correlated highly with winning for the past several years.
Those numbers are from 2009, so they're not necessarily relevant to today's game. But the concepts still hold true, and in that exact article, Hollinger correctly forecasts that three-point attempts will continue to rise and rise as teams exacerbate this trend.
The corner three, that's the most efficient type of long-range shot.
It's the closest attempt, from only 22' as opposed to 23'9" from the top of the arc. It's also an assisted, in-rhythm look, meaning you actually had proper ball movement to get the attempt, and because of that, it's often more open than your average three-pointer.
But even with all the winning the Thunder do, they're missing this singular aspect, one that almost every great offense possesses.
So many playoff teams employ trap-heavy defenses. How do you beat that strategy? Get the ball to the corners, where you can often find yourself with open looks.
The Thunder, though, just don't have that personnel.
(I know what you're thinking. No, Perry Jones isn't allowed to play. He's under 30 years old.)
Actually, that's possibly why they signed Caron Butler, who has shot 42 percent from the corners over the past two years. And after Sefolosha's slow shooting start to the season, he's picked up the pace a bit.
If Oklahoma City can get some corner production out of those two guys, the offense could be different. But that's something we've yet to see happen. If the Thunder can't find accuracy on corner threes, their offense may become predictable enough to stop in the postseason.
Reggie Jackson, get your game together.
Jackson tends to have noticeable off plays, even off nights.
He has shot worse than 40 percent from the field in 30 games this season. He's failed to get to the line in 20 of them. And we're talking about a player who should be attacking the rim.
We know Jackson can play, the problem is that it's only on occasion.
The Thunder could use those points. Actually, they need his production.
Oklahoma City is 31-4 in games when Jackson drops 14 or more. 31-4! That doesn't even sound real.
But there's a reason the numbers turn out like that: OKC hasn't gotten a ton of production off the bench this year.
Nick Collison and Steven Adams aren't scorers. Derek Fisher is good for the intermittent fourth-quarter three pointer, but not much more than that. Jeremy Lamb, meanwhile, has fallen off in the second half.
OKC's bench players not named Jackson are combining for just 19 points per game, according to Hoopsstats.com. His scoring is key to the Thunder making a run.
In the end, that's what all these points come down to: consistency.
Sefolosha and Butler need to hit their corner threes on a game-to-game basis. Thabo needs to do the same in maintaining his defensive presence. And Westbrook has to assure that his health doesn't keep him off the court for more than 13 or 14 minutes a game.
It's like marzipan—always the same. The opposite of a box of chocolates. Maybe that steadiness is all the Thunder need to win everything.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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