The Western Conference playoff race looks locked up except for the eighth spot, with three teams fighting to get that last position. For months fans have wondered whether the Oklahoma City Thunder would regain form and snag the final spot, and their recent stretch of play proves that they will.
The Phoenix Suns have gone into freefall, going 3-7 in their last 10 despite having no significant injuries apart from Alex Len missing a few games. They’re now just a half-a-game ahead of the Thunder, and actually have worse odds of making the playoffs at this point with a tougher schedule and rumored chemistry problems.
The New Orleans Pelicans, who were playing some of the best basketball in the league just a week ago–including putting an end to Atlanta’s huge winning streak–are now sliding fast with Anthony Davis injured. The Jazz beat them in a close game, before the Pacers routed them on Wednesday night.
Sure, Davis is supposed to come back after the break. And the Pelicans could easily challenge the Thunder for the eighth spot for much of the rest of the season. But Oklahoma City looks great in its last four games, and shows no signs of letting up. Even with the occasional letdown if Kevin Durant sits ( such as the recent loss to the Knicks), OKC should challenge the Warriors as the eighth seed.
Though the recent stretch is short, the chances of the Thunder making the playoffs have improved dramatically. There’s now a 70.5 percent chance that OKC nabs the eighth seed, according to John Hollinger’s playoff odds. The Suns have a 21.1 percent chance, while the Pelicans have a 15.9 percent chance.
Some fans forget that the Thunder have made the Western Conference finals in three of the last four seasons, with largely the same roster. When healthy and clicking, the Thunder are one of the most dangerous teams in the league. And they’ve showed that lately with commanding wins over the Clippers and Grizzlies.
“I think they’re an elite team,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said after his team–second in the West–lost badly to the Thunder, 105-89. “When they’re healthy and fully loaded, and San Antonio is healthy and fully loaded, those are the two best teams in the NBA.”
The main issues for the Thunder are Durant’s health and making shots. Everyone knows that when Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing their style of ball, and making most of their shots, the Thunder are unstoppable. But have a game like the Thunder’s recent loss to the Grizzlies–where Durant shot 5-16 and Westbrook shot 5-16, and Dion Waiters shot 3-14–then Oklahoma City is vulnerable.
The Thunder are now 17-9 with Durant, and 11-16 without him. He was hobbling at one point during the win on Wednesday, but says it was just general soreness of his foot. The All-Star break should help him continue to heal.
“It comes and goes,” Durant told ESPN of the soreness. “It’s just part of the process. We knew that going into the surgery. We’re treating it pretty well. Just keep icing it, doing my treatment, but we knew it was going to happen. It’s off and on.”
The Thunder have a stellar 107.3 offensive rating with Durant on the floor, and he has a net rating of 6.8. When Durant’s on the floor, the Thunder score seven more points per 100 possessions, while he also has a minimally positive impact on defensive.
If Durant plays all or most of the rest of the season, the Thunder will get the eighth spot. If he misses a lot of games, then the Pelicans or Suns could easily sneak in.