When the Oklahoma City Thunder were novices to playoff basketball, home court advantage was a must. In their first playoff series against the Lakers in 2010, the only two games the Thunder won in the series were in Oklahoma City, with a third victory being stolen by a Pau Gasol tip-in as time expired in the 4th quarter. The next season, the Thunder rode home court advantage all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the higher seeded, and eventual champions, the Dallas Mavericks. The next season, the Thunder made a repeat trip to the WCF, where the met the higher seeded San Antonio Spurs. Three years worth of playoff experience helped the Thunder weather a 2-0 deficit in the series, and they eventually went on to win the next 4 games (3 of which were in OKC) to make it to the NBA Finals.
The Thunder are experienced enough to not get phased by road playoff games. But getting the highest seed possible is more of a psychological ploy than anything else. The opportunity to not only get the first two games at home, but also the deciding game, if necessary, gives a team a little more confidence moving forward.
Do the Thunder need to get HCA throughout the playoffs? Probably not. But the Thunder aren’t yet to the point where they are willing to sacrifice late season games in order to rest their weary starters. Resting Russell Westbrook is a given due to the delicate nature of his recovery from 3 knee surgeries in an eight month period. Other than Westbrook though, I think the rest of the players are gunning for as a seeding as possible. In order to achieve that, the next 6 games will be extremely pivotal to positioning the Thunder near the top of not only the Western Conference, but also the entire league.
The Thunder were in a similar position last season, with the same cast of characters playing similar parts this season. The Thunder once again trail the Spurs, this time by 2 games. They, of course, will need some help from other teams. The Spurs play 6 games between now and their April 3rd meeting with the Thunder. The combined winning percentage of those 5 team (they play Denver twice in that span) is .482. When you factor the home/road splits compared to where the games are being played (whether in San Antonio or on the road), that percentage jumps up to .495. That’s not an easy stretch for the Spurs.
In that same stretch, the Thunder only play 4 games: a home/road back to back against Denver (tonight) and Dallas. Then they play Sacramento on Friday and Utah on Sunday. That’s basically 4 home games in that stretch, as Dallas is a 50 minute plane ride from OKC and the stands will be peppered with plenty of Thunder fans. The Denver/Dallas B2B will be difficult as both teams attack the Thunder where they are weakest (perimeter defense) and score a lot of points.
Much like last season, focus will be the key word when it comes to this stretch. The team may be on high alert when it comes to the B2B, but then may let their guard down when it comes to the Sacramento and Utah games. The Thunder have a tendency to play down to their opponents, and Utah and Sacramento can give the Thunder problems, if allowed.
One major difference between last season and this season is the injuries. Last season’s team was completely intact when it when on its stretch run. The playoffs, of course, were a different story. This season, though, the Thunder will be missing Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins for all of the stretch and likely will be missing Westbrook for some of the stretch. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Westbrook will miss the Denver game and one of the Sacto/Utah games.
Much like last season, the Thunder will get a 3-day break before the Spurs game. And then, they will hit the road for another game the next night, this time against the Houston Rockets. Luckily for the Thunder, it’ll be easy to get up for both of these games. The question is whether Westbrook will be available for both of these games.
If the Spurs stay true to form, they’ll start to rest their core on differing night beginning in April. If the Thunder are able to take the conference lead and maintain, they should be able to repeat what they did last season. And this time, not only is the number one seed in the conference at stake, but also the number one seed heading into the playoffs.