The one team poised to make a run for the NBA Finals, that no one seems to mention, is the Thunder. Oklahoma City has been stuck in the middle of the Western Conference pack for the last few years.
After Kevin Durant left, Russell Westbrook was left with little-to-no help. Before Kevin Durant left, the Thunder were up 3-1 on the Warriors in the conference finals. Had that Thunder team closed out the series, who knows what Oklahoma City would have done against the Cavaliers.
But, three years later, the Thunder have a roster with equal talent to that one in 2016. Can Westbrook get back to the NBA Finals? Can Paul George finally get to the Finals? A lot of different factors will determine the answers to those questions.
The Thunder could face a tough playoff schedule, or they could flat-out choke. The tough schedule is the likelier of those two choices, as the Rockets, Nuggets, Warriors, Trail Blazers and Jazz are all ahead of the Thunder in the current standings. Oklahoma City shot itself in the foot, currently at the sixth spot in the west (as of Monday) after being in third place halfway through the season. And, really, 47 wins seems like a disappointing win total for the Thunder.
Despite these things, though, they are still quite possibly the most dangerous team to threaten the top three in the west (Warriors, Nuggets and Rockets). What will really help the Thunder is its defensive prowess. While the Thunder are 15th in the NBA, giving up 111 points per game, they are first in the league with 9.4 steals per game. On top of that, the Thunder are third in the league with 47.9 rebounds per game.
Leading the defensive fortitude is George himself. What will really hurt the Thunder is the likely absence of Andre Roberson, who is a great defensive player. But George has had a tremendous year that has put him in the MVP conversation. Not only that, but some have argued he should be Defensive Player of the Year. The main reason: He averages a career-high 2.2 steals per game this season.
Alongside him is his running partner, Westbrook, who averages two steals per game.
Westbrook is the fearless leader of the team, and getting to the Finals is something he wants. George is in the same boat, after being denied by LeBron James so many times.
And, now, the new team has to get past the Houston Rockets and James Harden. As it currently stands, the Rockets and Thunder will meet in the first round.
Houston cannot just ride off Harden’s scoring forever, and meeting a defensive team like the Thunder in the first round may be its Achilles heel. Beyond Westbrook and George, the Thunder boast the always-handy Steven Adams in the middle. And, leading the second unit and giving Westbrook some much-needed rest, is Dennis Schroder. Schroder’s play this season put him in the conversation to be the Sixth Man of the Year.
If Roberson is out for the playoffs, the Thunder will miss him dearly. What the Thunder do have is a defensive advantage they can use, even without him, to try and stymy James Harden and eventually the Warriors or Nuggets.
The top of both conferences, let alone the west, is tough. No matter how far the Thunder get, a tough opponent will be awaiting them. But, they have a good defensive strategy and the right stars to lead the way to make a deep run.
“From Our Haus to Yours”