The Oklahoma City Thunder might be the most confusing team heading into the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Their talent and play this season have shown they can get to the Conference Finals, as well as lose in the first round. Will we get good Thunder or bad Thunder? Is Paul George’s alleged injury going to hinder him? Will some efficient version of Russell Westbrook show up? All thought-provoking questions that will have to play out when the games begin.
From being a team that could finish in the top four of the Western Conference, we saw the Thunder slip in a major way with only six wins and 10 losses in the month of March. However, they somewhat redeemed themselves by going undefeated in April (5-0) and by not slipping to the 8th seed.
They face the Portland Trail Blazers who are forced to compete without starting center Jusuf Nurkic who suffered a season-ending leg injury. The newly acquired Enes Kanter will have to step up huge in Nurkic’s absence for Portland to survive and advance. This should make for an intense and competitive series, as two of the stars (Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard) have shown some animosity towards each other just this season:
Game 1: @ Portland (Sunday, Apr. 14 – 3:30 PM EST, ABC)
Game 2: @ Portland (Tuesday, Apr. 16 – 10:30 PM EST, TNT)
Game 3: @ Oklahoma City (Friday, Apr. 19 – 9:30 PM EST, ESPN)
Game 4: @ Oklahoma City (Sunday, Apr. 21 – 9:30 PM EST, TNT)
Game 5: @ Portland (Tuesday, Apr. 23 – If Necessary)
Game 6: @ Oklahoma City (Thursday, Apr. 25 – If Necessary)
Game 7: @ Portland (Saturday, Apr. 27 – If Necessary)
How Can They Succeed?
Steven Adams has the opportunity to dominate the backboard and get some good looks from the low post. The Thunder as a team averaged 12.6 offensive rebounds per game for the season, good for first in the league. With Russell Westbrook’s overall shooting numbers taking a dip from last season, the Thunder will need Adams to clean up the glass.
The Thunder are tied for first in the league in second-chance points with Denver at 15.5 points per game. In a league that has seen a true three-point revolution, possessions and opportunities are a commodity. If they can collectively control the backboard, extend possessions, and get more attempts at the basket, those low shooting percentages may be nullified.
Who is their X-Factor?
Terrance Ferguson. Opponents in the playoffs will without a doubt attempt to shrink the floor and force the Thunder to take outside shots. The young and athletic guard has shown flashes of brilliance from behind the arc. Consider his 7-for-10 three-point barrage against the Spurs back in January:
He has only shot 36.6 percent from three for the season, but they should hope his 70.6 percent field-goal and 50 percent three-point field goal splits against Portland is good enough to get them out of the first round and remains consistent throughout the playoffs.
How much can you trust a 20-year-old guard to help make a deep playoff run? History says it’s rare, but if they want to go far, he’ll be a part of it.
One positive stat in their favor
The Thunder averaged the most steals per game in the league this season at 9.3 and they were second in the league in points off turnovers at 19.2. You know the saying, “defense wins championships”. Although the task to get through a stacked Western Conference is tough, the Thunder can always fall back on their defense if their shots are not falling. They have high aspirations this season and at times they seemed to have figured it out. The foundation and principles they have set on defense will ultimately determine their fate if they can bring that same level of intensity to the playoffs.