Saturday’s win against the San Antonio Spurs should give the Oklahoma City Thunder hope that they might just be alright. Despite what it may seem, the Thunder badly needed that victory. There are still questions, but that performance should provide at least some renewed belief around a team that had, by all metrics, been fading.
But wait, you’re probably asking me: haven’t the Thunder now won seven of their last 10 games? They have, but let’s expand the data set and consider the opponents. Since Jan. 30, Oklahoma City has a .500 record, winning nine times and losing the same amount. On the surface, it might seem like this is just a rough stretch. But in that same 18-game sample size, Oklahoma City has only one win against a team in a playoff race.
Since Jan. 30, the Thunder had won games against: the Warriors (good!), the Grizzlies, the Grizzlies (again), the Kings, the Magic, the Mavericks (in overtime), the Suns, and the Suns (again). It’s better Oklahoma City is winning those games than not, of course, but four of those wins have literally come against the worst two teams (Memphis and Phoenix) in the league. In reality, this stretch of schedule should have given the Thunder a chance to gain ground in the West standings. Instead, they’ve been stagnant.
It all started with Andre Roberson’s injury.
Roberson was ruled out for the season on Jan. 28 with a ruptured patella tendon. From the moment he went down, we knew it wasn’t good news. Since then, the Thunder only have the league’s No. 18 best net rating — minus-0.1 per 100 possessions — after boasting a top-five rating before.
That stat has mostly fallen because of defense, which makes sense given Roberson’s elite status there. Oklahoma City was absolutely smothering with Roberson on the court and boasted the league’s fifth best defensive rating from the season’s start until his late January injury. Since then, they’ve fallen nearly four points per 100 possessions on that end, while their offense hasn’t improved.
That passes the eye test. Roberson’s minutes have gone to a conglomeration of Terrence Ferguson, Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant, and Josh Huestis. Though all have NBA talent, none have put it together consistently. That bunch has mostly been mediocre on both ends, which means Oklahoma City doesn’t even get much of an offensive boost for losing a player like Roberson, who provided negative spacing at any given time. (Roberson did many good things inside the arc offensively, it should be said. Even that has been hard to replace consistently.)
It was OK to give the Thunder time to figure their team out after Roberson’s injury, but now they’re running out of it. By beating bad teams, Oklahoma City sustained a 39-29 record, good for No. 5 in the Western Conference but just two games up on the No. 10 seed in a wild playoff race. However, the Thunder’s performance must start gelling now, because their schedule is about to become hellish.
Oklahoma City next plays the Kings and the Hawks, two teams firmly planted in The Great Tank-Off of 2018, but after that their schedule looks like this: vs. LA Clippers, at Toronto, at Boston, vs. Miami, vs. Portland, at San Antonio, vs. Denver, at New Orleans, vs. Golden State, at Houston, at Miami, and vs. Memphis. It’s the fourth-most challenging schedule left in the league.
Saturday’s game had promising signs.
Other than that random early February victory against the Warriors — nah, I can’t explain that either — Oklahoma City’s triumph against San Antonio on Saturday gives them something they really haven’t seen since Roberson went down.
The Thunder have added Corey Brewer, and he was great on Saturday: providing energy both ways while scoring 12 points on seven shots, including a couple triples. He appears to be the fifth starter that Oklahoma City badly needed.
The bench came through on Saturday, too. Patrick Patterson looked feisty and Jerami Grant finally hit some shots — 5-of-5 from the field, even including a triple. Abrines canned three long balls in four attempts. Even the non-aging Nick Collison came off the bench to score seven points in six minutes.
Thunder bench drops 50.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 11, 2018
Huestis 5 pic.twitter.com/woC8Kjpkrr
Oklahoma City’s reserves have been rife with inconsistency, and that’s still the team’s second biggest question headed into the season’s final stretch. (The first: can Carmelo Anthony find any semblance of a rhythm? He has the worst efficiency on the lowest usage rate of his career, but that’s a topic for another time.) We know that the Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams trio is magical. We don’t need to talk about them. Can anyone, literally anyone, join those three in contributing on a steady basis?
The Thunder will need wins like that against Western Conference playoff teams, even San Antonio has also been terrible lately, and they’ll need to play like they did to earn those victories. For a long stretch, they’ve barely treaded water. Maybe Saturday’s victory is a sign that the tides are turning.