Coaches often say players make their own breaks. That’s why my favorite sports cliché is winners make plays, losers make excuses.
But it sure doesn’t hurt to catch a break now and then, whether it’s a friendly call from a referee or opponents losing games to improve your place in the standings.
The Thunder has caught countless breaks. Opposing teams have had star players miss games due to injuries. Oklahoma City’s five starters have missed a combined two games.
OKC also is catching breaks from Western Conference playoff contenders, who have been losing at such an alarming rate it’s made the Thunder’s nine-game winning streak resemble a spree of fourth-quarter, 3-point daggers.
Houston has been unable to sustain momentum. The trade for Kevin Martin hasn’t helped so far. Martin has shot 28.6 percent (8-of-28) in his two games, both losses, since last week’s trade. Losing to Indiana and Philadelphia at home, the Rockets, 4-9 the past month, are playing themselves out of the race.
New Orleans’ playoff chances all but evaporated when Chris Paul suffered a knee injury. Darren Collison, averaging 20.3 points and 9.3 assists in the 10 games since Paul underwent surgery, has filled in nicely. But 15 of the Hornets’ next 18 games are against Cleveland (twice), Denver (twice), Dallas (twice), San Antonio (twice), the Lakers, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Portland and Memphis.
Memphis showed signs their starting five might be enough to stay in the race. They won 11 consecutive home games at one point. But Memphis is 3-8 since Feb. 2. Since West playoff contenders probably will need 45 to 46 wins, it’s doubtful the Grizzlies can get on that type of roll.
OKC is even catching breaks among teams they’re battling for playoff seeding.
Injury ravaged Portland, 5-8 the past month, has struggled since All-Star Brandon Roy suffered a hamstring injury. The Trail Blazers face one of the easier schedules. But if OKC continues its current pace, finishing 50-32, since the Thunder probably will own the tiebreaker, Portland would have to go 19-5 the rest of the season to finish in front of the Thunder.
San Antonio posted a huge win at Denver on its annual rodeo road trip but finished with losses at Philadelphia and Detroit to finish the trip 4-4. The veteran Spurs are capable of making a late-season charge. But their schedule is brutal with 20 of the final 28 games against Cleveland (twice), Lakers (twice), Orlando (twice), Boston, Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma City (twice), Phoenix (twice), New Orleans (twice), Miami, Houston (twice) and Memphis (twice).
Phoenix has a manageable schedule. But after getting off to a 14-3 start, the Suns have gone 20-20 the past three months, failing to build on early-season momentum. Now Steve Nash, 36, is banged up. Battling back and abdomen injuries, Nash isn’t expected to play Tuesday night.
Utah has been as hot as any team in the league, going 16-3 the past six weeks. But Deron Williams missed Monday’s game due to an ankle injury. Atlanta gave OKC another assist by defeating the Williams-less Jazz Monday night.
Give the Thunder credit. They’ve made their own breaks by playing standout basketball for two months, going 20-7 dating back to a pre-Christmas win at Phoenix.
In the midst of the easiest portion of their schedule, the Thunder can put some distance between them and the Hornets, Rockets and Grizzlies to nail down a playoff berth and be a viable contender for the No. 4, 5 and 6 seeds.
Especially if they keep winning and catch more breaks.