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Post-seasonal affective disorder

The Thunder limp toward NBA’s Western Conference

The NBA playoffs is my favorite annual tradition of ambient warfare.

Compared to the bracket-busting sugar rush of its college counterpart, the NBA’s postseason plays out every year as a months-long, droning slog. It’s laden thick with the sort of minor, modular adjustments that basketball heads lose their shit over—My god, Mike Malone just called for the Nuggets to run four straight Nikola Jokic-Mason Plumlee pick-and-rolls and it’s only the first round—but shy on moments of large-scale uncertainty. It’s rare in today’s NBA, with its high-powered SportVU camera system that measures players’ every movement across the floor, for the result of a championship or even a single series, to actually hang in the balance, unknown and unpredictable. Moments of tension—fateful, real, franchise path altering-tension—are few and far between. 

The last time the Thunder experienced such a moment of tension was Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. If you’re taking the trouble to read this, then you probably recall where you watched this particular game, as well as your state of mind that night. (For me it was the patio of Louie’s in midtown Oklahoma City, and complete panic.) We finished that night eight points shy of eliminating an historically dominant 73-9 Golden State Warriors team that Kevin Durant subsequently joined in free agency. That night was fateful, and it sucked.

This is a very long way of saying that, in all likelihood, history will soon repeat itself and the Warriors will win another championship this year, their fourth in five seasons. Steph Curry will grin and shimmy and chomp on his mouthguard in that obnoxious way and his Oracle Arena crowd of poorly-dressed venture capitalists will keep drinking our milkshakes until no joy is left in the NBA world. This also sucks.

Sorry to despair on you all, but the Thunder have given us good reason for it. After going into the All-Star Break with a solid grasp on the third seed in the league’s stronger conference and a clear-cut style of chaotic, bruising and inspired play, our beloved boys have stepped in doo doo. Once a legit MVP spoiler candidate, Paul George has slipped out of the conversation by shooting just 34 percent from the three-point line in March, about 10 percent down from his sizzling December and January numbers.

It’s not all on George, though—far from it. The Thunder starters’ offensive and defensive ratings pre-All-Star Break inspired confidence. Since then it’s been a horror show. Russell Westbrook keeps missing free throws; Terrance Ferguson’s three-point shot’s gone cold; Steven Adams stopped driving to the basket. It doesn’t help matters much that the Thunder’s schedule happened to be frontloaded with easier opponents this season. (Four early games against the pitiful Phoenix Suns make it difficult to assess exactly how good your team is.)

The starters have played more minutes together than any other five-man lineup in the NBA this season, so perhaps boredom is a factor. It’s a long season, after all. Or maybe it’s that their offensive schtick has become predictable and opponents have grown comfortable defending it. To my eye, though, they just look like they’ve tired from running their hallmark style of uptempo, aggressive play all season.

Just 7-13 since the break as of Monday, Vegas now places the Thunder at 45-1 odds to win this year’s NBA Championship, but there’s at least a glimmer of hope. The oddsmakers have pegged Oklahoma City as the fourth most likely team to win the Western Conference, ahead of the Jazz, Trail Blazers, and Clippers, who all have better records as of publication.

Four games remain on the Thunder’s regular season schedule, which leaves plenty of last-minute jockeying to be done amongst the Western Conference playoff teams. At this point it’s no longer a question of who will make the playoffs, but in what order they’ll meet their opponents. Here’s a quick look at how the Thunder match up against the four teams they’re most likely to meet in the first round.  

Denver Nuggets
The Thunder went 0-4 against the Nuggets this season, which is bad. In those four meetings, Denver seemed unbothered by the Thunder’s aggressive defense. 24-year-old Serbian center Nikola Jokic is both bull and bullfighter, gigantic but nimble. Nobody in the league seems capable of taking the ball away from him consistently. However, Jokić and Denver’s other leader in minutes-played, Jamal Murray, are 24 and 22 years old respectively, and have logged a combined zero career playoff minutes. Who knows how they’ll hold up under the microscopic scrutiny of a seven-game series? The only thing certain about a Thunder-Nuggets first-round matchup is that it would cause me severe heartburn.  

Golden State Warriors
The upside to playing the defending champions is that the Thunder obviously and badly want to whip their asses. Instant motivation right there. (Also, Golden State’s getting older and the DeMarcus Cousins project isn’t going as smoothly as team management probably hoped.) The downside is that the Warriors start five All-Stars, only take high-efficiency shots, run an offense that has elevated off-ball movement to a high art form and are massively confident drawing on a ton of experience playing deep into the postseason. The Thunder may take a pound of flesh off the Warriors, but at best they’ve got a puncher’s chance in a series. Better that series come at the end of the playoffs than the beginning.  

Houston Rockets
The Thunder went 2-1 against the Rockets this season as of publication, but Houston’s been on a recent tear. Nick Collison’s former pick-and-roll partner James Harden has hacked professional basketball, turning the 25-foot stepback three-pointer into a high-efficiency shot. George, however, is one of the few guys in the league who consistently gives Harden trouble and the Rockets look thinner in depth than the team that nearly knocked off the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals. The Thunder team that shot the lights out in December might actually be favorites in this series. This team? No comment.  

Portland Trail Blazers
This is where the Thunder should hope to land. They beat Portland in all four matchups this year—Russell Westbrook’s demonstrated antipathy toward Damian Lillard seems to be a strong motivating factor here—and the Trail Blazers are also limping into the playoffs, without their starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who recently suffered a gruesome injury to his leg that you absolutely shouldn’t Google. If the Thunder are capable of a surprise first-round sweep, Portland looks like a victim.

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