The playoffs approach, and the Thunder has a championship-caliber roster. But the NBA postseason is not a crapshoot of a few capable squads. Not all teams, not even the elite few, are created equal.
Several factors help determine the eventual king. Momentum. Seeding. Matchups.
Which for the Thunder means uh-oh, uh-oh and ho-ho. A silver lining has emerged.
The Thunder is 4-5 since that April Fool's Day rout of the Bulls. A team that once seemed slump-proof now has stagnated twice. A 5-5 stretch immediately after the All-Star break, now this. Even in victory, the Thunder struggles, like its narrow escape at Minnesota against the injury-depleted T-Wolves, who haven't won in April since 2009.
Spurs mastermind Gregg Popovich often talks about finding the right rhythm for his team, going into the playoffs. Says how his team is playing is more important than where it finishes.
Maybe so. If so, the Thunder flunks. The Spidermen have run hot and cold for more than a month. Their rhythm is off beat.
The data doesn't totally support Popovich.
Going back to 2000, five of the 12 eventual NBA champs played at a winning percentage above .700 in April, two had losing records and five had winning percentages between .500 and .700. Four of the 12 NBA Finals losers played above .700 in April, three had losing records and five had winning percentages between .500 and .700.
So teams with differing kinds of stretch-run momentum have excelled in the playoffs.
Plus, seeding seems to be a better indicator of playoff success. Of the 28 champs crowned since advent of the 16-team playoff format, 18 were No. 1 seeds (64 percent). Of the 56 conference champions, 32 were No. 1 seeds (57 percent). That's a better ratio than the rhythm/momentum crowd.
Not that it's any better news for the Thunder, which once owned a hefty lead in the Western Conference. The Thunder likely has squandered homecourt advantage in a potential West finals against the San Antonios. Going into Tuesday night, the Spurs and Thunder were in a virtual tie atop the West, but San Antonio owns the tiebreaker.
The Thunder's final five games: at Phoenix, Sacramento and the Lakers, followed by home games against Sacramento and Denver.
The Spurs' final seven games: at the Lakers (Tuesday night); at Sacramento; home against the Lakers, Cleveland and Portland; then at Phoenix and Golden State.
For the Thunder to finish ahead of the Spurs, it must lose at least two fewer games than San Antonio the rest of the way. Tall order.
But hope has emerged as the Thunder slowly slips. If OKC finishes as the No. 2 seed, its matchups look much more promising.
Don't underestimate matchups. Every team is equipped to combat certain teams better than others. I don't claim to know the league-wide matchup problems, but I know the Thunder's.
The Thunder clearly wants to avoid Memphis. The Grizzlies were a tough out in the 2011 playoffs, upsetting the top-seeded Spurs, then taking the Thunder to seven games in the West semifinals.
Defensive Doberman Tony Allen is a nightmare for Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook or James Harden or whoever he decides to guard. Plus these Grizzlies have scoring punch with both Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph healthy; they have spent precious little court time together in the last 12 months.
The Thunder, too, should want to avoid the Clippers, who bring out the worst in OKC. The Clips have won three of four from the Thunder this season, including two blowout victories. Chris Paul seems to get in Westbrook's head, and even Durant lost his composure Monday night, when the Thunder scored just 25 second-half points against a team not known for defense.
Thus the good news. The Clippers and Grizzlies likely will finish fourth and fifth in the West. If the Spurs finish No. 1, the Thunder's worst matchups are on the other side of the bracket.
The Boomers would feel much more comfortable with a road that includes some combination of the Nuggets, Mavericks and Lakers to reach the West finals.
The Clippers still could catch the Lakers, and heck, Popovich is diabolical enough to tank the West lead and let the Thunder have the more treacherous path.
Which is more valuable, a more desirable bracket or homecourt in a West finals vs. the Spurs? Scotty Brooks never would say. Popovich probably would start talking about rhythm.
But at least Thunder Nation has found something to hang its hopes on in this spiraling season.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.