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Why Thunder fans should be concerned, and why they shouldn’t

OKC’s record looks worse than the team actually is.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder got crushed by the Portland Trail Blazers, 117-106, on Tuesday in a game that felt way worse than its final score.

The Blazers were without Damian Lillard and it still didn’t matter, as it’s clear the Thunder can’t survive defensively when Andre Roberson is out of the lineup.

C.J. McCollum, who would have been Roberson’s assignment, went off for 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting, and Shabazz Napier had 20 points on 10 shots. The game was completely one-sided through the second half, and Russell Westbrook appeared to be so frustrated he didn’t even speak to the media after the game.

Things had been a lot better for OKC in the last month. The team won 12 out of 15 games in one stretch as Steven Adams emerged into a Big 4 with Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Westbrook. But inconsistent play in the early stages of the season, and now a decline without Roberson, has pushed the Thunder back to No. 6 in the Western Conference at the halfway point in the season.

There’s plenty of time left in the season, but a 22-19 record couldn’t have been what Oklahoma City had in mind at the beginning of the year.

Why the Thunder should be worried

OKC has yet to separate themselves from the middle-tier teams of the West. Winning seven of their last 10, the Timberwolves are starting to gain steam as the No. 4 seed many thought OKC would occupy.

That leaves the Blazers, Thunder, Nuggets, and Pelicans within 1.5 games of each other as the bottom four seeds in the West. No team can afford to drop to No. 7 or No. 8, as that’s a sure-fire to go home quickly to the Warriors or Rockets in the first round, but OKC is finding themselves in the danger zone.

The Thunder dropped one they should have been able to win over the Blazers Tuesday night with Damian Lillard out, and it could come back to hurt them in a few months. Things will only tighten when Paul Millsap returns for the Nuggets, who are persevering through the injury he suffered in late November, and Lillard returns to full strength soon as well.

A first-round exit in the playoffs would be devastating for a team with championship aspirations, especially with no guarantees Anthony and George stay long-term.

Why the Thunder shouldn’t be worried

According to Basketball Reference, the Thunder have the fifth-best net rating in the league, outscoring opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions. Only the Warriors, Rockets, Raptors, and Celtics are better.

The Thunder also have the fifth-best points per game differential, outscoring opponents by 3.6 points per game. Only those same four teams are better, despite OKC having an inferior record to 12 teams in the league.

The Thunder’s record makes them appear way worse than they are because they’ve lost so many games by one or two possessions.

Nine of OKC’s 19 losses have come by five points or less. That reflects some on Billy Donovan’s coaching and the team’s struggle to balance three alphas, but it means the Thunder have made a game out of most of their losses.

Ken Pomeroy’s advanced college basketball stats have a “luck” category, which helps promote teams who rack up a lot of close losses like OKC has. Those are often the teams who pull off “upsets” in the tournament.

My bet is that Ken would pick a team like OKC to outperform its regular season record in the postseason.

It isn’t all gloom for OKC, which remains an elite defensive team as long as Roberson is in the lineup. But they need him back soon, because falling back into the No. 7 seed and playing the Rockets in the first round is a very real threat.