It was a solid first half of the season for the Thunder under new head coach Billy Donovan, as the former Florida Gators headman led OKC to a 40-14 record while providing fans with a plethora of memorable games to chat about and reflect on. The Thunder schedule resumes on Friday when OKC hosts the Pacers (28-25), but the matchup against Indiana is just the start of a pivotal final stretch to the season.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on:
Tougher roads ahead
According to ESPN’s NBA RPI Rankings, through the first 54 games the Thunder are tied for last in the strength of schedule percentage (.481) in the NBA, but the road throughout the rest of the season promises to be a bit more rocky when it comes to teams the Thunder are facing.
For starters, OKC will open the gates against a very good Pacers team on Friday, and then turn around and play LeBron James and the Cavaliers (38-14) two days later before playing Dallas (29-26) and Golden State (48-4) later in the week. The tough schedule doesn’t end there for the Thunder as they have play at the Warriors later in the month while also facing the Spurs and Clippers three more times before season’s end.
Can the Warriors be stopped?
After OKC’s seven-point loss to the Warriors back on February 6, many talking heads throughout the nation pegged the Thunder as the team most capable of dethroning the defending champions if they were to meet in the playoffs.
Some of the other top teams throughout the league such as the Cavs and Spurs have failed to keep the game close while playing the Warriors, but the Thunder were able to claw back from a 20-point deficit in their matchup and tie the game late in the fourth quarter before Goliath eventually pulled away. That narrow loss felt like a moral victory in a way (don’t expect to hear that from Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook), and if it weren’t for a scoring drought down the stretch OKC could’ve escaped the Bay area with a win.
Even respected coaches such as Greg Popovich have claimed the Warriors are near unsolvable, and also said he’s never spent so much time trying to figure out one team in his entire career. When the roster is littered with all-star players such as reigning MVP Steph Curry along with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, it’s not surprising to see so much success.
One advantage OKC has is the dominant duo of Durant and Westbrook, who can somewhat counteract the Warriors’ attack. Golden State normally has the two best players on the floor on any given game, but not when the Splash Bros are playing against the Thunder Buddies. That’s where the play of Serge Ibaka becomes so vital so he can take some of the pressure off Durant and Westbrook.
The Thunder should feel optimistic about their chances moving forward, and we can all agree the upcoming OKS/GSW matchups will be highly anticipated and must-see TV.
Drowning out the free agency chatter
The free agency speculation surrounding Kevin Durant has vamped up a lot over the last month, and there’s little doubt there will be rumors sprouting out of thin air throughout much of the rest of the season.
Durant is one of the world’s best players, and that fact along with the ever increasing NBA salary cap means that just about every team in the league wants to see KD sporting the jersey of their respective teams in the future. There will be tons of talk the rest of the way, and it’ll be interesting to see if Durant and his Thunder teammates will be able to block out the distraction the rumors will bring.
With a mature core at the heart of the Thunder roster it shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but it’s a lot easier said than done.