NBA All Star Weekend has just appeared in the rearview mirror as we enter the part of the season when teams begin to get realistic about expectations. Forget what is mathematically possible, we already know which cellar dwellers are thinking about the lottery. We also know which teams are trying to creep into the playoff race, those that have their sights set on a title, and the one team in between: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Reigning MVP Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture in mid-October and, as a result, has played just 26 games so far this season. Add to that the 14 games missed by star point guard Russell Westbrook, and you have the reason why the Thunder have already lost more games than they did all of last year. Now OKC are aiming to become the first Western Conference team since the Phoenix Suns in 1997 to make the playoffs after starting 3-12. What makes this team intriguing though, is that should they make the playoffs, they would enter April with a much different mindset to the average 7th or 8th seed.
The Thunder parted for the All Star break on a three-game winning streak, and crucially within half a game of the 8th playoff spot in the West. Both Durant and Westbrook made headlines in New York for different reasons, but coach Scott Brooks and OKC will be encouraged nonetheless. In response to questions critical of Brooks, Durant launched a scathing tirade against the media in defence of his coach, who will hope that KD can take advantage of this chip on his shoulder. After all, he’s a bad motha*****r when he wants to be. On Sunday night, Westbrook stole the show with his performance on the court. He set a new record for points in a half and finished with 41 en route to being crowned All Star Game MVP. Both players will need to hit the ground running again, beginning on Thursday night with the visit of the Dallas Mavericks (36-19).
Mavericks win +180
Thunder win -220
(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change).
Though Westbrook and Durant are top-10 players in the league, other players in the Thunder rotation will have to step up and provide them with the necessary support to make this run. Chief among these is defensive ace Serge Ibaka, though he would be better served blocking shots and sticking to midrange jumpers instead of chucking up the maddening amount of 3pt attempts witnessed in recent months. Another player who is no stranger to maddening is the recently acquired Dion Waiters. Waiters has been unsurprisingly inconsistent since arriving from Cleveland as apparent insurance in case existing sparkplug Reggie Jackson bolts in free agency. Nevertheless, Waiters or Jackson could yet prove pivotal in swinging a game or two down the stretch if either can get a hot hand. The youth and energy of young bigs Steven Adams and rookie Mitch McGary have proven to be welcome alternatives to trotting out the corpse of Kendrick Perkins. McGary in particular was impressive in a pair of games before the break, and such play will again be needed as Adams faces a three-week layoff.
One other thing the Thunder have in their favour is their fixture list. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the final third of OKC’s season compares favourably to those of the Phoenix Suns (currently occupying 8th) and the New Orleans Pelicans (1 1/2 games back at the time of writing). It has been noted in more than one place that the West’s most impressive team thus far, the Golden State Warriors, will be watching the bottom seeds with bated breath. The prospect of working so hard and playing consistently well all year, only to be rewarded with a first round series against OKC would be gut-wrenching. Seldom does a potential 8th seed instill so much trepidation in the teams above it, so now might be the time to put some money on the Thunder. Come playoff time, all bets are off.
Betting Instinct tip – Now could be the time to back the Thunder to win the NBA Championship at +1200 with Intertops.eu