Sure, they've got the third-best record in the NBA and have already sewn up their fourth straight postseason berth, but Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder are going through a bit of a rough patch right now.
On Tuesday, Durant missed 13 of his 23 shots and had more turnovers than assists as Oklahoma City was outlasted — and, in the fourth quarter, outfoxed — by a red-hot Denver Nuggets team playing the second game of a back-to-back after going to overtime in Chicago the night before. Then, on Wednesday, OKC fell again, as Marc Gasol tipped home the winner to push the Memphis Grizzlies past the Thunder in overtime, marking just the third time this season that the Thunder have followed a loss with another loss.
And who did Gasol bull under the basket to gain offensive rebounding position? Yep, it was Durant, who scored a game-high 32 points but shot 3 for 10 in the fourth quarter and OT, and just 11 for 28 from the floor overall — the 11th time in 69 games this season he's hit fewer than 40 percent of his shots — and again had more turnovers than assists. (A 7-for-25 night from Russell Westbrook and a virtual no-show from Serge Ibaka sure didn't help, either.)
Luckily for the Thunder, they can get off the schneid on Friday night when they travel to Central Florida to take on the Orlando Magic, who have the league's second-worst record and could be without starting center Nikola Vucevic, who missed Wednesday's loss to the New York Knicks with an illness. But Durant doesn't sound like he's taking a win over a lowly opponent for granted ... in fact, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, he sounds surprisingly intense about it:
“We'll get a win in Orlando,” Durant said. “Simple.”
That wasn't the shocking part.
“It's a must-win game,” Durant added. “A must-win game.”
Realistically, it's kind of hard to consider any late March contest being played by a team that's won 72.5 percent of its games and is assured of a playoff appearance a "must-win." I mean, I get that Durant isn't pleased with having lost two straight, that he wants to avoid losing a third for just the second time this season, that he wants to see his team's execution and precision return to an elite level, and all that ... but it seems a bit over-the-top to consider a Friday night visit to the Amway Center as anything approximating a make-or-break game for the Thunder. I appreciate your vocal leadership, but maybe take a deep breath, KD.
Then again, while "must-win" overstates the importance of Friday night's game just a tad, the underlying sentiment — that Oklahoma City must get back to playing top-shelf basketball and resume doing the things that elite teams do — is valid.
The Thunder's overall numbers since the All-Star break still look quite good — an 11-5 record, the league's third-best offense and defense in terms of points scored and allowed per possession, still getting to the line a ton, still doing a good job of scoring on the break and preventing opponents from doing so, etc. But of those 11 wins, six have come against current lottery teams (the Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks), one came against the slumping Chicago Bulls and one came against the New York Knicks without Carmelo Anthony in a game New York had a chance to win in the closing seconds.
They've lost their last three games against Western Conference playoff competition — the two earlier this week, plus last week's 12-point defeat to a Tony Parker-less San Antonio Spurs squad — and are just 2-5 against the West's top eight since the All-Star break. In those seven games, Durant's league-leading scoring has continued apace, averaging 27.7 points per game, but his shooting has flagged significantly, hitting just 41.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and only one-quarter of his 28 tries from beyond the arc.
And those of a mind to poke and prod could raise questions about those two Thunder wins, too. One was a somewhat controversial victory over the Los Angeles Clippers that saw Ibaka get away with a clear low blow on Blake Griffin — a foul for which the NBA later said Ibaka should have been ejected — and then come back to play a major part in several late-game plays, including a big and-one layup that fouled Griffin out, that helped OKC hang on for the win. The other was a whitewashing of the Los Angeles Lakers fueled, in large part, by an historic and NBA-record-tying avoidance of turnovers, which looks like a pretty major outlier for a Thunder team that has coughed it up on the league's second-highest share of possessions this year, trailing only the Houston Rockets, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
Over the course of the full season, the Thunder have gone 13-10 against Western Conference playoff teams, but the bulk of those victories have come against the lower half of the prospective postseason bracket — as Mayberry notes, OKC "is just 3-7 against San Antonio, Denver and Memphis, the three teams that join the Thunder with the top four records in the Western Conference," and has dropped both its games against the East-leading Miami Heat. That relative lack of success against elite competition, even in the midst of what could well be a 60-win season, does seem like cause for concern.
A win over the moribund Magic on Friday wouldn't solve those problems, of course, or really even answer any of the key questions facing the Thunder. Those biggies — How much will OKC miss James Harden when the games matter most? Can Serge Ibaka (who seems to be spending more and more time on the perimeter these days) reliably be the Thunder's third-best player on both ends of the floor in big moments? Can Kevin Martin, whose shooting has fallen off a cliff in March (40.7 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3, well below his marks in every other month this season), provide the same level of off-the-bench punch in April and May as he did before Valentine's Day? — won't, and can't, be answered until after we've drawn a line underneath the 2012-13 season and turned our attention to our tournament.
And it's worth remembering that, struggles against top-tier competition aside, the Thunder still have a real shot at getting the top overall seed in the Western Conference. Yes, they're 2 1/2 games behind the Spurs right now, and three back in the loss column, but as Matthew Tynan of Spurs blog Pounding the Rock noted, the Thunder have a much more favorable closing schedule than San Antonio, and when the two teams face off for the final time this regular season on April 4, the game will be in Oklahoma City and the Spurs will be playing their fourth game in five nights, with the first two coming against the Heat and Grizzlies. Opportunity abounds; it's not as if the sky is falling, here.
But this is now a team whose development, evolution and success will be measured not merely by rolling up regular-season wins or merely making the playoffs, but by returning to the NBA Finals and, if not winning, then at least by turning in a significantly better showing than what they managed against Miami last summer. That makes it hard not to wonder if the reading-between-the-lines matter of OKC's struggles against the league's best — the teams the Thunder could face in the second round, the Western Conference Finals and the Finals — is one of the season's most important storylines to watch.
If excellence is a habit rather than a switch you flip, the Thunder would do well to get back to doing what excellent teams do, which includes mopping the floor with also-rans like Orlando. And it'd behoove them to do it as soon as possible ... especially considering the Nuggets' 14-game winning streak has cut OKC's Northwest Division lead down to just 2 1/2 games, and both Denver and Memphis own head-to-head tiebreakers over Scott Brooks' squad. "Must-win" might be a bit of an overstatement, but — amazingly — maybe not as much of one as you'd think.
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