The second half of the season is upon us.
With All-Star Weekend in the rearview mirror, the Thunder will now embark on its final 32 games of the regular season starting Wednesday at Philadelphia. Already sitting atop the Western Conference standings at 27-7, the Thunder has enjoyed some pretty smooth sailing thus far. Oklahoma City is on pace for 52 wins, which in a traditional 82-game season translates to 65 victories.
It’s scary to think this team can perform even better.
With that said, here are five things to watch as we prepare for what is shaping up to be a fantastic final half.
1) Injuries. Once upon a time, the Thunder was a team blessed with extremely good health. That period came to an end last year. This season, OKC quickly turned into the walking wounded. Already, the Thunder has seen eight players miss a combined 57 games to injury or illness. By comparison, in all of last season, seven players combined to miss just 53 games. Eric Maynor has been lost to a torn ACL. Thabo Sefolosha has the sorest foot in the history of mankind. Ryan Reid busted his nose. Lazar Hayward busted up his eye. And Nick Collison, James Harden and Kendrick Perkins have all missed at least one game because of nagging injuries. Thus far, the Thunder has withstood the storm. But can OKC continue to hold on? How the Thunder deals with the unavoidable injury bug from here out could determine how it finishes in this home stretch. Some even have said that the league-wide injury issue will determine this year’s champion.
2) Rebounding. It’s no secret that the Thunder has had trouble rebounding. Through the first half of the year, the Thunder ranked ahead of only Washington, Sacramento and Golden State in opponent offensive rebounding. That inability to consistently close out defensive possessions with a rebound has prevented the Thunder from truly capitalizing on its standout defense through the first shot. The rebounding problem also is largely to blame for opponents taking nearly seven more shots per game than the Thunder. It’s become problem 1-A for OKC, and it will now be the main area the team will look to clean up before the playoffs begin. If the Thunder can do it, we could see it transform into a dominant defensive team.
3) Turnovers. Welcome to problem 1-B. Here we have another well-documented struggle. The Thunder’s turnover issue was downright ugly through its first 34 games. At the break, the Thunder was tied with New York for the most turnovers per game at 16.9. Only Oklahoma City didn’t force a great deal of turnovers. Opponents gave it away just 14.5 times against the Thunder, leaving OKC with a plus-2.4 differential in the giveaway department. The Lakers, at plus-3.1, were the only team with a worse differential and the only other team with a differential in the twos. Turnovers also explain how Thunder opponents have outshot OKC by such a wide margin. Russell Westbrook (4.1) and Kevin Durant (3.6) are the main culprits, as they are at the center of the offense but form the league’s top turnover duo. With Durant and Westbrook in the top 10 in both turnovers per game and turnovers per 48 minutes, the team’s improvement in this category will be directly tied to their ability to take better care of the ball. Both say they’re focused on having better ball security. But they each appear to have a long way to go.
4) Bench play. Quietly, the second unit is reaching the productivity level of the B Team we thought we’d see all year with Maynor at the helm. According to 82games.com, the lineup of Reggie Jackson, Daequan Cook, James Harden, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed is now the Thunder’s third most used five-man unit. It still has work to do to become one of the most productive, as its +15 plus-minus ranks seventh overall and fifth among lineups that have played at least 50 minutes. But you can see the improvement. After a slow start (which was to be expected with having to integrate the rookie), the unit is now threatening to surpass the production level of the group led by Maynor. Defensively, it already has. Offensively, the current second string is just 0.16 points per possession behind. But by comparison, it’s just 0.04 points per possession behind the lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. The second unit has always been most effective when everyone gets involved offensively. If the Thunder can get back to that instead of relying so much on Harden in isolations and running the two-man game with Collison, OKC will again have one of the best benches in the league — especially if the defense can maintain its current level.
5) Serge Ibaka’s scoring. Don’t look now, but Ibaka appears to be emerging as a consistent fourth scoring option. He recorded 113 points in the first 17 games, just a 6.6-point average. In those games, he scored six points or less 11 times and had only four double digit scoring games. But in the final 17 games, Ibaka totaled 167 points, good for a 9.8-point average. He scored six or less just five times and had eight double digit scoring games. Much of Ibaka’s scoring spike can be attributed to his work on the glass. In the last 17 games, he pulled down 67 offensive rebounds, or nearly four per game. In the first set of 17, Ibaka had only 38 offensive boards, or slightly more than two per game. By nearly doubling his damage under the offensive boards, Ibaka has created easy scoring opportunities for himself with putback chances. We see no reason why Ibaka can’t maintain his current clip — Detroit big man Greg Monroe’s 3.9 offensive rebounds currently rank fifth — though the Thunder’s second-ranked 47.5 percent field goal shooting poses a slight challenge. But Ibaka might not have to continue dominating the offensive glass. His scoring binge before the break brought confidence that very well spread to other spots on the floor.