The Oklahoma City Thunder have passed the first two major tests in their playoff push with aplomb — beating the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday and winning, 132-125, over the Toronto Raptors Sunday. While the Thunder still have the league’s toughest remaining schedule by win percentage, their chances of making the playoffs look healthier than ever.
According to FiveThirtyEight, in fact, the Thunder are all but locked in — they grade their odds at 99 percent. With a four game lead on the No. 9 seeded team, and just 10 games left in the season, Oklahoma City probably only needs about four more wins to ensure their spot.
The schedule is still hard — their next nine games are all against teams in the playoff hunt, only for the final game of the year to come against the Memphis Grizzlies. Some games look easier now than on paper: the Boston Celtics are injury ravaged, and that’s Oklahoma City’s next opponent; Kawhi Leonard still might not be back for the San Antonio Spurs on March 29; who knows how hard the Golden State Warriors (April 3) and Houston Rockets (April 7) will be trying.
The Thunder hadn’t been beating good teams consistently over the past couple months, but Sunday’s win was clearly that. Russell Westbrook was dominant — and amazingly, if he averages 12 rebounds the rest of the season, he’ll average a triple-double for his second consecutive season.
It feels like there have been more negative conversations about Westbrook than positive ones ever since his MVP award last summer, and some of them are deserved. But Westbrook is a special player, a nights like Sunday are a good reminder just how special he really is. But he isn’t the only reason for Oklahoma City’s resurgence.
Corey Brewer has given the Thunder a clear spark
The Thunder snagging the smiley journeyman with boundless energy has given them a much needed boost. Since Brewer entered the starting rotation March 8, Oklahoma City hasn’t lost.
In that span, Brewer is averaging about 15 points, nearly three steals, and shooting more than 50 percent from the field and on three-pointers. Clearly, those numbers aren’t sustainable. Brewer is a career 28 percent shooting from deep. But the Thunder have been missing a reliable wing since Andre Roberson went down, and Brewer already might be more trustworthy than their hodgepodge mix of Josh Huestis, Alex Abrines, and Terrance Ferguson.
Roberson’s loss was huge — Oklahoma City had the fifth-best net rating (3.9) before he went down, and just the 16th best (1.2) since. Since then, the Thunder’s defense has tumbled off a cliff, something that hasn’t exactly changed over this current win streak, not with Toronto scoring 125 and Los Angeles dropping 113.
But Brewer’s shot is somewhat better, and he’s a willing defender who usually won’t screw up, which makes him a great fit in the starting lineup and on this team. Can Oklahoma City beat, say, the Warriors playing heavy minutes to Brewer? Probably not, but he makes them a better team than they were before signing him.
A March swoon would have likely sunk the Thunder’s playoff chances for good, but now they look relatively certain to make it. That bodes well, since Oklahoma City sure didn’t trade for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony last summer to miss the postseason. Only a nightmare scenario would cause that to happen now.