Nobody wants to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs

David Friedman Columnist

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    Russell Westbrook, the current MVP. (Wikipedia Commons)

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    Despite being without the services of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for extended time, the Oklahoma City Thunder have overcome a 3-11 start to surge past the Phoenix Suns for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff position.

    As of Saturday night, with 27 games remaining on their schedule the 30-25 Oklahoma City Thunder have a 1.5 game lead over the slumping Suns.

    The Thunder are not only getting healthy and performing better at the right time, but they fortified their roster just before the trade deadline. In a three-team deal with Detroit and Utah, the Thunder acquired centre Enes Kanter, small forward Kyle Singler, point guard D.J. Augustin and small forward Steve Novak while only giving up disgruntled reserve guard Reggie Jackson, declining centre Kendrick Perkins and seldom-used power forward Grant Jerrett.

    Kanter is a talented scorer who was selected third overall in the 2011 draft. He is just 22 years old and he is steadily improving.

    Augustin, an excellent penetrator who finishes very well in the paint, will replace Jackson as Westbrook’s backup and could also play alongside Westbrook when the Thunder use a small line-up.

    Singler is an excellent three-point shooter who can provide depth behind Durant. Novak is a three-point specialist who ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy has called the world’s best pure shooter.

    These moves stayed true to the Thunder’s consistent policy of not overpaying players and not keeping players around who are not satisfied with their roles. In recent years, they have discarded talented players James Harden, Jeff Green and now Reggie Jackson while actually improving their overall roster in terms of balance and depth.

    Durant is thrilled with his new teammates: “They brought in some great players. Kanter is a 22-year-old centre, young piece that can really play. DJ is my brother, I played with him at Texas. [Plus] Novak and Kyle Singler, so I love the pickup of those guys. And me as a leader, I’ve got to make them feel comfortable the second they walk through the door.”

    Oklahoma City was trending upward even before making roster fortifications. The Thunder beat the Memphis Grizzlies 105-89 on February 11. Durant (26 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Westbrook (24 points, nine assists, nine rebounds) dominated, while Memphis shot just .372 from the field, including .167 (2-12) from three point range.

    Memphis Coach Dave Joerger lamented, “They just put five guys in the paint, and we didn’t make a shot. We couldn’t get in the paint, couldn’t make a shot, couldn’t make a play. It’s one of those things.”

    Oklahoma City’s crisp execution of that plan against Memphis is no one game fluke. In The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face, I predicted Memphis’ first round demise last year and correctly identified the reasons for that impending demise.

    Memphis shot .417 from the field against Oklahoma City in the 2014 playoffs, including .290 from three point range. Durant averaged 29.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 1.6 bpg in that series, while Westbrook added 25.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 8.0 apg.

    Newly crowned All-Star Game MVP Westbrook came out firing in Oklahoma City’s first game after the All-Star break. He delivered 34 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and two steals as the Thunder pounded the Dallas Mavericks 104-89. The Thunder rolled even though Durant had a pedestrian performance (12 points, six rebounds, five assists) and despite the fact that their new players had not yet arrived.

    The Thunder extended their winning streak to five in a row with their 110-103 win at Charlotte on Saturday night. Durant sat out due to a nagging foot injury and Westbrook again stole the show, this time producing 33 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.

    There is often discussion right before the playoffs about “the team nobody wants to face.” I have found that the team given that label, like Memphis last year, usually loses in the first round. But this season figures to be different.

    Oklahoma City are legitimately a team that nobody wants to face and if they can stay healthy I seriously doubt that they will lose in the first round. Look out Golden State!

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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    The Crowd Says (28)

    • Roar Rookie

      February 23rd 2015 @ 9:11am
      Squidward said | February 23rd 2015 @ 9:11am | ! Report

      I’d be worried about my team playing Miami if they come 7/8 in the east playoffs too after the trade deadline they had

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2015 @ 9:30am
        Ryan O'Connell said | February 23rd 2015 @ 9:30am | ! Report

        They’re far less scary without Bosh though.

        • Roar Rookie

          February 23rd 2015 @ 11:46am
          Squidward said | February 23rd 2015 @ 11:46am | ! Report

          Well there you go!!!
          That’s changed my opinion after finding that out now

        • Roar Rookie

          February 23rd 2015 @ 7:35pm
          William Dalton Davis said | February 23rd 2015 @ 7:35pm | ! Report

          It’s really serious isn’t it? Blood clots in his lungs or something.

          • February 23rd 2015 @ 9:25pm
            Clark said | February 23rd 2015 @ 9:25pm | ! Report

            Out for the season. Depending how testing and procedures go, the is a chance he may not play again

    • February 23rd 2015 @ 9:50am
      Swampy said | February 23rd 2015 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      Heat looked great for 4 days then it all fell apart.

      This article smacks waaay too much of fandom of KD & Westbrook.

      I agree no one wants to play OKC in the first round but (it is looking less likely they will be 8th – more like 5-7 seed) is there any matchup in the first round that any team would ‘want’ in the west?

      OKC up to 6th might see Spurs and Dallas at 7 & 8 (not necessarily in that order). Who’d want the defending champs at 8th? The west is just ridiculous from 1-8. It’s anybodies.

      I wouldn’t slag off Memphis either and crow about predicting their demise. With a healthy team they are a horrible matchup with home court advantage.

      • February 23rd 2015 @ 12:19pm
        Swampy said | February 23rd 2015 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

        KD another foot procedure…

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2015 @ 5:26pm
        David Friedman said | February 23rd 2015 @ 5:26pm | ! Report

        OKC may pull ahead of the Spurs for 7th but even that would require them gaining four games on the Spurs in the final 25 or so, which is not so easy unless the Spurs just collapse. It is very doubtful that OKC can move past seventh. The Clippers and Mavs are currently sharing 5th-6th, 7.5 games ahead of OKC. Even if those teams win just half of their games the rest of the way OKC would have to go 20-5 to pass them; if those teams play .600 or better then OKC would have to go 22-3 to pass them and if they continue to win roughly two thirds of their games then it would be mathematically impossible for OKC to catch them.

        So, the first point to understand about my article is the premise that OKC is likely going to be the seventh or eighth seed, not fifth, sixth or seventh.

        The second point is that at the end of almost every season we hear some overheated commentators declare that one of the seventh or eighth seeded teams is a team that “nobody wants to face”–and this usually turns out to be rubbish, as I pointed out last year in an article titled “The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face.” This year, though, OKC figures to be an unusually dangerous seventh or eighth seeded team. They have enough talent, experience, depth and balance to beat any Western Conference playoff team. The last time that they were healthy during the playoffs they advanced to the NBA Finals.

        The third point–not explicitly stated, but implied–is that the current top three teams in the West have weaknesses that OKC could exploit in a playoff series. Golden State’s nucleus has no championship level experience and their frontcourt is small. Memphis has no outside shooting (as mentioned in the article). Houston’s leading scorer is James Harden, who historically performs poorly in the playoffs and who has yet to lead Houston past the first round.

        A healthy OKC and a healthy Spurs team are the only West teams that I think could beat anyone. The other West teams all have weaknesses and/or do not match up well with certain squads.

        Therefore, this could be a season in which certain teams earn 1-2-3 seeds but fall in the playoffs to OKC and/or the Spurs, teams with Fiinals experience and more well-rounded rosters. That conclusion has nothing to do with “fandom” and everything to do with analyzing how these various teams are constructed and how they match up with each other.

        • February 23rd 2015 @ 9:28pm
          Clark said | February 23rd 2015 @ 9:28pm | ! Report

          The thing is that Memphis is so dominant defensively and in the paint they don’t need to rely on jumshots like Houston need to. The thing though is that their scoring from outside is not bad in terms of accuracy, they just don’t take that many attempts, I think they are last in 3 point attempts.

    • February 23rd 2015 @ 12:18pm
      Joe said | February 23rd 2015 @ 12:18pm | ! Report

      This is a dumb article. Of course OKC is a formidable opponent in any playoff series & they’re gonna be tough to beat in a 7 game series.
      But you can say the EXACT same thing about ANY Western Conference team,if they’re 100% healthy come playoff time.
      Take your pick between the Spurs Mavs Rockets Warriors Grizzlies Blazers & Clippers in addition to OKC,cause they’re all extremely dangerous (assuming all players are available)

      • February 23rd 2015 @ 12:20pm
        Swampy said | February 23rd 2015 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

        +1

      • February 23rd 2015 @ 1:27pm
        astro said | February 23rd 2015 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

        Think the point that OKC is significantly more dangerous post trade deadline, is valid.

        Kanter, Singler, DJ makes them very deep…Ibaka, Kanter, Adams is a strong front court rotation, and big enough to take on any of those teams in the West.

        They would always be formidable with KD and Russ, but they’re much more threatening now…assuming KD gets healthy!

        • Editor

          February 23rd 2015 @ 3:38pm
          Tristan Rayner said | February 23rd 2015 @ 3:38pm | ! Report

          Yep, they’re probably one of the deepest teams now. A not-quite-there KD seems to be the issue with a lingering foot problem that’s really stopped his rhythm.

          I still think they’re too reliant on Westbrook though, and that’s a huge risk. They’re productive without him, but not devastating.

      • Columnist

        February 23rd 2015 @ 5:38pm
        David Friedman said | February 23rd 2015 @ 5:38pm | ! Report

        Joe:

        What evidence do we have that Houston, Portland, Dallas and the Clippers are as dangerous as a healthy OKC team in a seven game series? Harden has yet to take Houston past the first round. Portland’s only playoff series win in recent memory is against Houston. Dallas has improved this season but the last time the Mavs won a playoff series was 2011. There is a lot of hype about the Clippers but in the past three years they have won exactly two playoff series. I don’t buy the idea that those are teams that nobody wants to face. In fact, I am pretty sure that Golden State would rather face any of those teams than a healthy OKC, particularly in the first round; if Golden State finishes with the best record then they will be perceived as failures if they lose in the first round and OKC is the last team that I would want to see in that circumstance if I were Golden State. If Golden State wins a series or two and loses to a hot OKC team then it could be argued that Golden State had a good run but a first round loss will be tough to stomach under any circumstances after the kind of regular season that Golden State is putting together.

        • February 23rd 2015 @ 9:30pm
          Clark said | February 23rd 2015 @ 9:30pm | ! Report

          Clippers are so over rated it’s not even funny. They get bailed out by Jamal Crawford on numerous occasions, but De Andre Jordan is putting in work this season, still hasn’t improved that free throw shooting though

          • February 24th 2015 @ 3:54pm
            Jack said | February 24th 2015 @ 3:54pm | ! Report

            They are improving, they are becoming a better team wihtout Blake with Deandre stepping up and when it is their day they can beat anyone and have a good record

    • February 23rd 2015 @ 3:14pm
      express34texas said | February 23rd 2015 @ 3:14pm | ! Report

      OKC looks better now, only if Durant is playing at least near his usual level, and that doesn’t look to be the case. It’s super tough for a non #1-2 seed to make the finals. Even if OKC plays lights out for the rest of the season, it’ll be tough for them to get higher than 8th. They’ll be tough, but they’re in huge trouble being seeded that low. The West has 8 of the top 9-10 teams in the league. Nobody wants to face any other team. But, sucks for GS to be so good now if they get OKC and lose.

      OKC was favorites by many last year. For Memphis to take that series to 7 games(up 3-2 after game 5) proves they were a team none of the contenders wanted to face. Plus, Memphis beat OKC in 2013 playoffs, and lost 4-3 in 2nd round to OKC in 2011. OKC has trouble with them, despite having 2 big-time players and a deep team.

    • Columnist

      February 23rd 2015 @ 6:03pm
      David Friedman said | February 23rd 2015 @ 6:03pm | ! Report

      It is not true that “nobody wants to face any other team.” If I were Golden State, I would much rather face Houston, Portland, Dallas and the Clippers than a healthy OKC squad. Matchups matter during the playoffs and so does experience. OKC has proven that it can advance to the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, while most West teams have not proven that (except for the Spurs, obviously, and the Mavericks, though the Mavericks did it four years ago with a much different team and a much younger Nowitzki).

      All three of Memphis’ wins in the first round last year came in overtime; yes, the series went seven but Memphis could easily have been swept, especially considering that three of OKC’s four wins came by double digits, including the final two games of the series. Sorry, but the numbers and the eye test do not suggest that Memphis was a team that nobody wanted to face and the Grizzlies were certainly not a team that OKC did not want to face. The Grizzlies struggle to score in the postseason when teams pack the paint and dare Memphis to make an outside shot and that will likely be the Grizzlies’ downfall again in the 2015 playoffs.

      • February 24th 2015 @ 4:46am
        express34texas said | February 24th 2015 @ 4:46am | ! Report

        GS might want Houston or Portland, etc. over OKC, but they still don’t want to face them, especially in the first round. Look at what’s happened to SA in recent memory in 1st rounds. They lost as a #1 seed to Memphis who didn’t have Gay, and then they barely squeaked out of 1st round last year. OKC has only proven that they make it to the finals with Westbrook, Durant, and Harden(who is now in his 2nd straight year as an MVP candidate), and when fully healthy. Both of those things are currently not true. While Durant/Westbrook have been top 5 players for several years now and have a good cast at the same time, they’ve underachieved so far.

        Why do you diminish Memphis so much? Who cares if their wins were in OT or not? Memphis was up 3-2 and game 6 was in Memphis. You could easily say it was Memphis’ series to lose at that point and they blew it not winning in 6(OKC was lucky to get out of that series). So, how little you think of Memphis pushing a top 2-3 team like that, yes, but the #’s and eye test prove they were team nobody, at least OKC, wanted to face. OKC should win beat Memphis every team and much easier than they have in the past; however, this hasn’t happened. No other team has 2 top 5 players. Durant/Westbrook are much better than anyone Memphis has. While OKC’s cast looks better now, it’s still been really good for 4-5 years now.

      • February 24th 2015 @ 1:25pm
        Joe said | February 24th 2015 @ 1:25pm | ! Report

        So how do you come to the conclusion about what opponents teams prefer to face come playoff time?
        You state if YOU were Golden State YOU wouldn’t want to face OKC,instead preferring a Portland, Dallas etc.
        But thats YOU saying that as if you’re the Warriors head coach. Did you contact Steve Kerr & he specifically said to you “i want to avoid OKC in the playoffs!!”
        For all you know Steve Kerr wants to avoid Memphis at all costs,& would take OKC in a heartbeat in a 7 game series rather than a bruising matchup vs the most physical team in the West.
        Your headline of “nobody wants to face OKC in playoffs”,is presumptuous
        Again, have you specific information from Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers & co. about their playoff matchup preferences ?
        You personally (if you were a coach in the Western Conference) would like to avoid OKC,but to throw out a headline declaring NOBODY wants to face OKC,unless you have specific information from all Western Conference coaches on this,you’re just making stuff up

        • Columnist

          February 24th 2015 @ 4:43pm
          David Friedman said | February 24th 2015 @ 4:43pm | ! Report

          Joe:

          I have interviewed Kerr, Popovich, Carlisle and Rivers at various times, though I have not asked them that specific question about this year’s playoffs. I think that I have some idea which matchups they would prefer and which matchups any top coach would prefer in general, based on the reasoning I outlined in my article and in the handful of comments that I have posted in this thread. If you are convinced that every team 1-8 in the West is equally situated to challenge for the championship then of course you are entitled to that belief and I am pretty sure that nothing anyone says will dissuade you from thinking that way.

          I noticed that in your two comments you have done some shouting (in all caps) and some name-calling but you have yet to supply any actual analysis supporting your beliefs or explaining why you disagree with mine. It is a lot easier to call someone or something “dumb” than to actually craft a cogent explanation of why something is or is not true.

          • February 24th 2015 @ 5:00pm
            joe said | February 24th 2015 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

            My point is you’re making a blanket statement claiming nobody in the West wants to face OKC
            You personally wouldn’t want to face them,which is a fair statement.But to have a headline claiming nobody wants to face them is ludicrous.
            OKC is a talented team but every team in the West is talented from 1 thru 8.
            Assuming all teams are fully healthy come April the Spurs are still the number 1 team IMO,Memphis,OKC & GS are right behind them
            The Clippers are fools gold,a flashy regular season finesse team that dosent have the interior game to grind out wins in multiple playoff series vs elite teams
            Dallas is the wild card,Rick Carlisle is a heck of a coach & they have players with championship pedigree to make a run

            • Columnist

              February 25th 2015 @ 6:40am
              David Friedman said | February 25th 2015 @ 6:40am | ! Report

              The point of the title is that it is a play on words relating to a phrase often uttered by commentators before the playoffs: “Nobody wants to face” team X. As I indicated in the article, most of the time this statement is just hype and the team that supposedly nobody wants to face loses in the first round. This year, if OKC lands in the seventh or eighth spot and gets/stays healthy the Thunder are legitimately a team that nobody would want to face, particularly in the first round. Do you really think that a healthy Thunder team armed with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and the new acquisitions is just like a regular seventh or eighth seed? Do you really think other teams would not be more concerned about OKC’s talent, depth and experience than they would be about teams like Houston, Portland and Dallas that have the weaknesses I mentioned in previous comments?

              Saying repeatedly that every team from 1-8 is talented is not analysis. You are just stating an opinion unsupported by facts/analysis. I support my conclusions with facts and analysis.

    • February 23rd 2015 @ 6:23pm
      Swampy said | February 23rd 2015 @ 6:23pm | ! Report

      I’m sure we all appreciate your responses David – cheers. I love it there are writers willing to put opinions out there for fans such as myself to read and discuss.

      I agree with what you say about okc but the reality is they can’t stay healthy and there is a huge chance that will end up derailing them.

      Okc will catch the Spurs at least and I will say they will catch the Mavs also. They are only 4 losses behind the Spurs who are currently really struggling to nurse themselves to the playoffs.

      I’d say Memphis would be delighted at the chance of a rematch with OKC. Unfinished business from last season.

      • Columnist

        February 24th 2015 @ 6:40am
        David Friedman said | February 24th 2015 @ 6:40am | ! Report

        Swampy:

        Thank you!

        Yes, health could very well derail OKC. I actually submitted my article before hearing the news about Durant’s most recent foot procedure. This could be a chance for Westbrook to make a late run at MVP if OKC continues to do well but of course it will be very hard for OKC to advance in the playoffs–particularly as a seventh or eighth seed–without Durant playing at a high level.

        Memphis might like the chance for revenge against OKC but if Durant returns for the playoffs at anywhere close to his normal form I would take OKC again, even without home court advantage. Pack the paint against Randolph and Gasol and just dare anyone else to make a shot outside of the paint.

        • February 25th 2015 @ 5:52pm
          eee said | February 25th 2015 @ 5:52pm | ! Report

          Westbrook is absolutely trying his hardest to! Killing it for me in fantasy – I love watching him play more than anyone

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