From the moment Russell Westbrook and Paul George were traded away from Oklahoma City, and Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander joined the organization, I knew the Thunder had more than a 0.2% chance to make the playoffs. Not because those three players have more value than Westbrook and George, because they don’t. That’s why OKC got a boatload of draft picks in addition to what they were already getting.
This team was destined to be better than expected because of something my parents taught me at an early age. Teamwork with slightly above average talent means more than two all-stars with limited team chemistry any and every day.
Sam Presti made the Thunder better by taking the unpopular risk of flipping Westbrook and George immediately for Paul, Gallinari, and Gilgeous-Alexander, and somehow improved. This season, instead of them being a possible playoff threat due to the reputation and potential of their big names, they’re a legitimate threat to any team in the playoffs based on the way they’ve performed all season.
With the Thunder sitting in the fifth spot in the Western Conference, they have a good chance to jump up to the third seed or as low as the sixth. Regardless, the only team the Thunder may want to avoid is the Denver Nuggets. When it comes to the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, the Thunder will be the team to knock them out in the first round. To avoid his fourth-straight first-round loss in the playoffs, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets should be ducking and dodging the Thunder because my prediction is that Oklahoma City defeats Houston 4-2 in a playoff series.
When thinking about it, you know this isn’t that bold of a statement. Anyone that argues this topic must be solely singling out the big names and not looking at how the respective teams have looked all season. Houston looked like the Thunder from the last few years: talented but inconsistent and a bit unorganized in their play. One game they’ll look like the biggest threat to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers in the playoffs, then the next game they’ll look like a team that’s barely better than the Dallas Mavericks.
When I think about the specific matchup against the Thunder, I see it as the Thunder having the clear upper hand. The most obvious advantage they have is the battle in the paint between 7-foot Steven Adams, proclaimed by his peers as the strongest man in the NBA versus P.J. Tucker, who’s proven himself as a solid defender, but a clear mismatch against Adams.
Secondly, and this will hurt both Houston and Oklahoma City fans but think back. What caused the Thunder to get bounced in the first round by the Portland Trail Blazers (other than Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater)? Westbrooks inferiority to a smarter, more under control point guard. If Westbrook had a hard time out-strategizing Lillard, how much will he struggle against Paul?
I could continue, but the last mismatch that I notice is Oklahoma City’s defensive identity. Never would I have imagined that an undrafted G-League player could play as big of a role as Luguentz Dort on a playoff team this quickly, but it’s happening. OKC’s entire identity is defense. Most team’s issue with the Rockets is that they can’t handle the one-two punch of Westbrook and Harden, but the Thunder’s entire backcourt contains lockdown defenders in Paul, Dort, and SGA. Don’t forget, OKC’s smartest defensive mind, Andre Roberson is coming off the bench. Oh, I didn’t mention OKC’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroder who also holds a (102.9) defensive rating and has the highest defensive win shares of any defensive player in the league with (0.145).
Oklahoma City is Houston’s kryptonite, and the writing is on the wall. In two of the games since the restart, OKC held Donovan Mitchel to 13 points on 5-15 shooting and LeBron James to 19 points on 7-19 shooting and 0-5 from three. OKC is simply a better team than the Utah Jazz, and matchup wise, will cause significant problems for the Rockets that have struggled all season, to begin with.