If the goal of the regular season is to get home court advantage throughout the playoffs, then this is probably the most important stretch of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. With their win over the Portland Trailblazers and San Antonio’s loss to the Houston Rockets last night, the Thunder find themselves 1.5 games back of the Spurs for first place in the Western Conference. These next two weeks may be the most critical for the Thunder in their quest for home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.
Any time you’re playing catch-up, you always need a little help from the team that’s ahead of you. Luckily for the Thunder, the Spurs play an incredibly difficult slate of games before their meeting with the Thunder on April 4th. The Spurs next five games look like this: vs. Denver, vs. Los Angeles Clippers, vs. Miami, at Memphis, and vs. Orlando. While 4 of those 5 games are at home, the combined winning percentage of these five teams is .623. San Antonio is very good at home, but this stretch comes at a time when the Spurs play 6 games in 9 nights (to include the Thunder game). With San Antonio’s propensity for resting it’s veterans during these types of stretches, there’s not a lot of wiggle room in the schedule for the Spurs to do that without risking a game or two.
The Thunder, on the other hand, play 3 games in 4 nights beginning Wednesday: at home against Washington, and then a double dip on the road on back to back nights against Minnesota and Milwaukee. The combined winning percentage of these three teams is .406. Not exactly the gauntlet that San Antonio has to face during that same time period. After that short road trip, the Thunder get four days off before their game against the Spurs. While the Thunder will be well rested, the Spurs will be playing their 4th game in 5 nights. After the Spurs game, though, the Thunder will hop on a flight to Indianapolis to face the Pacers the next night.
The key word in the next 10 days will be focus, sprinkled with a little bit of luck. The Thunder should win their next 3 games easily. But the Thunder have been known to play down to the level of their competition, especially on the road. Even the game at home against the Wizards will be fraught with caution, as John Wall has completely recovered from the knee injury that caused him to miss the first 33 games of the season. In his last 9 games, Wall is averaging 25 points, 9.3 assists, and 2 steals per game, while leading the Wizards to a 6-3 record over that time against some stiff competition. The Timberwolves always give the Thunder problems, especially in Minnesota, regardless of who is on the active roster. And Milwaukee is chock full of players that can go off for 30+ points at any time (Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova).
All this is before they actually play the Spurs. The Thunder had an opportunity to take over first place from the Spurs two weeks ago, but decided to fall asleep at the wheel in the 2nd quarter of that game and never recovered. The Spurs are offensively great where the Thunder are defensively weak (dribble penetration and 3-point shooting). The Thunder have the ability to beat the Spurs, as shown in last season’s Western Conference Finals, but usually have to catch a couple jabs to mouth before they wake up. Hopefully, the Thunder comes into this game with a winning streak and the Spurs are coming off a loss or two.
The most important game in this whole stretch may be the Indiana game. If the Thunder accomplish their goal and take over first place after the Spurs game, they still have to regroup and come back the next night against one of the toughest teams in the league. This is where their focus comes into play. It would be a shame for the Thunder to gain control of the conference one night, and then give it away because of the lack of focus the next night. Trap games are usually reserved for games before rivalry games, but this may be a case of a post-trap game.
The Thunder needs to live by their creed of “one game at a time,” and treat every game with utmost importance for here on out. Do they need San Antonio to possibly lose a game or two? Yes. But that becomes a moot point if the Thunder doesn’t take care of their own business. In a time where it seems like every elite team is streaking and peaking, Oklahoma City has some how managed to tread water long enough to position itself into possibly getting the top spot in the West. Do the Thunder need to win the West to advance to the Finals? They didn’t need it last season when they were the number 2 seed and still beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. But, this is a different team, whose role players seem to respond a lot better at home than on the road. For that reason alone, the Thunder should be making every possible push to get home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It’s all about staying focused from here on out.