The Oklahoma City Thunder were 4-12 prior to Russell Westbrook re-uniting with the his team last Friday. The explosive point guard was injured in just the second game of the season and missed the next 14 games with a broken right hand, which also happened to be his shooting hand. Combine that with the foot injury of Kevin Durant, which people thought would keep him out until Christmas though he's returning tonight, and most people had written off the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season before it even began.
But the dogmatic Westbrook returned sooner than expected and his arrival changed the entire complexion of the team. In only his first game back, Westbrook shed any signs of rust by exploding for 32 points against the New York Knicks in nearly a 30-point victory.
Sure, it was the lowly New York Knicks that Westbrook was going up against, but you cannot take away the fact that Westbrook was 12 of 17 from the field, including 3 of 4 from downtown. Additionally, Westbrook had seven rebounds and eight assists, and all of this in just 23 minutes of playing time. However, it wasn’t only his individual accolades that were impressive in his first game back. What was really impressive about Westbrook’s return was how he brought a winning culture to a team that was quickly losing its identity.
To give you an idea of just how important Westbrook’s return really was, his first game back marked the second highest scoring game of the season for the Thunder, who struggled mightily on the offensive end. In fact, as of right now, they are ranked 30th in scoring, which is worse than the neophyte Sixers, who are barely better than a D-League team. Contrast this to last year when they were ranked fifth in the league when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were both healthy. They are also currently ranked tied for 29th in assists this year, which is second to last in the league. And lastly, they are 27th in the league in free-throw percentage, in contrast to last year when they were first place in the league.
The silver lining, of course, is that Westbrook’s forte is in scoring, assists, and capitalizing on the free-throw line. Furthermore, scoring champion and MVP, Kevin Durant is practicing already and will return tonight. So, the question is, has the damage already been done in the loss column in the cutthroat West?
If the Thunder went undefeated for the rest of the season, they would be a shoe-in for the playoffs, but that is highly unlikely and even unnecessary. In the 2012-2013 season, the Thunder went 59-23 during the regular season, which means that they are already halfway there in the loss column. However, the Thunder still have some flexibility and breathing room in the loss column.
With about sixty-five games left of the regular season, the Thunder have about half of their games at home (32) and half of their games on the road (33). Everyone knows that the Thunder are nearly invincible at home, so their crucible of fire will be on the road. Over the past five years, it has taken an average of 47 victories to make the 8th seed in the playoffs. Therefore, the Thunder will need to go 42-23 in the next 65 games to make the playoffs, which is about a .646 winning percentage. That may sound unachievable for most teams, but this is a very possible feat for the Thunder, especially since Durant is returning as well.
Having said that, last year, it took the Dallas Mavericks 49 wins to barely slip into the playoffs past the playoff-hungry Phoenix Suns, who finished 9th seed in the West with 48 wins. What may be even more concerning is that the Phoenix Suns, and now the Sacramento Kings, want to take over the vacancy that the Thunder have temporarily left behind with their playoff spot now up for grabs.
The Western Conference can only be described by Darwin’s survival of the fittest schema. Only the strong survive in the West. Show one sign of weakness or one sign of vulnerability, and every team in the conference will be glad to take your place. However, the Thunder have a way of showing resiliency in the midst of adversity. Even though they were without Westbrook and Durant for the season so far, they still showed tenacity on the defensive end, ranking tied for second in shooting defense and third in three-point defense.
The Thunder couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean without Westbrook and Durant, but defense is what wins championships, and the Thunder have that. And with offensive help on the way with Westbrook and Durant, they could easily become the 8th seed that nobody wants to play in the playoffs. In fact, they could become the most feared 8th seed to ever win a NBA Championship. That is, if they make the playoffs.