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Chasing The Suns: Thunder's Time To Strike Has Arrived

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A lot can change in a few weeks.

No one knows that better than Oklahoma City. The Thunder entered the 2014-15 season as NBA Title favorites and within a month sat at 3-12 with about seven healthy players. It got so bad that some fans even suggested that they begin to tank and go after Duke's Jahlil Okafor with the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

But a lot has occurred since then. Kevin Durant came back, got hurt again, came back again and now looks unguardable. Russell Westbrook returned, played like an MVP, played a little worse, and now has made it clear that he won't be going to Berry Tramel's house next Thanksgiving. Oklahoma City traded a bunch of nothing to Cleveland for a disgruntled potential star in Dion Waiters; a deal that looks better by the day. Then the Thunder reportedly almost traded for Brook Lopez in a three-way trade with Brooklyn and Charlotte, then almost traded for Lopez in a straight swap with the Nets, then didn't trade for him after all.


All the while, Oklahoma City has nested outside of the Western Conference's top eight. OKC has spent most of its time in the No. 10 spot, right behind the bipolar Pelicans and the upstart Suns.

Phoenix has what the Thunder wants: the No. 8 playoff spot. The Suns are 25-18 and currently sit 3 ½ games (just two in the loss column) ahead of the Thunder (20-20). Phoenix finished last season 48-34 and is on pace for about the same record this season.

The Thunder (20-20) has a realistic chance to get above .500 for the first time all year on Tuesday night in Miami. Judging by OKC's past two performances (blowout wins over the Warriors and Magic), it appears that things are starting to click just in time for the season's second half.

Oklahoma City's goal is pretty clear and it has been for some time: catch Phoenix. Climbing higher than that is highly unlikely, barring an injury to a key player on an opposing team. San Antonio sits in the No. 7 spot, mostly due to Kawhi Leonard's hand injury. It's hard to imagine the Spurs hanging down there for long now that Leonard is back.

With half the season remaining, there's plenty of time to catch up. But Phoenix isn't just going to roll over and die. Assuming that the Suns win 48 games again this year, OKC will need to finish 29-13 to make the playoffs.

And if you look at each team's next eight games, the Thunder has a great chance to make up some serious ground.

Phoenix plays perhaps its toughest stretch of the season. The Suns host Portland, Houston, the Clippers, Washington and Chicago, then head to Golden State, return home to face Memphis and then travel to Portland to face the Blazers again. That's eight straight games against legitimate NBA Finals contenders.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has a few cupcakes on the menu. Five of OKC's next eight games are against either bottom feeders or underacheivers. Included in its next eight are Tuesday's game against the disappointing Heat (18-22) and a trip to Cleveland to watch David Blatt try to coach and Kevin Love try to play defense. The Thunder also plays the Timberwolves, Knicks and Magic (insert poop emoji here).

The three toughies in this stretch come at Washington, at Atlanta, and home against Memphis. But compared to the Suns' schedule, Oklahoma City is about to take a stroll in the park.

OKC doesn't have to make up the whole deficit in this stretch, but getting back within a game of Phoenix is a realistic goal.  Remember, a lot can happen in just a few weeks.

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