With great achievement come great expectations. Just ask the defending Western Conference champion Thunder.
OKC boasts a 15-4 record, is riding a six-game winning streak and has won 14 of its last 16, which explains why the Thunder has risen to the top of some NBA power rankings.
This early success comes despite the seismic Oct. 27 trade that shipped four team members – James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward – to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks.
The two biggest reasons for the Thunder’s success has been Martin fitting in wonderfully and the impressive offensive contribution from Serge Ibaka.
Though the Thunder’s results to date might exceed realistic expectations, it’s not outlandish to suggest OKC could have even a better record. Here are some reasons why:
THE ODDS: According to those who set the betting lines, the Thunder has been favored to win every game except its season-opener at San Antonio, which was a two-point favorite and won on a 20-foot buzzer-beater by point guard Tony Parker. There’s a chance OKC will be the underdog only three more times this season (at Miami on Christmas Day, at San Antonio on March 11 and at Memphis on March 20). Of course, it’s ludicrous to expect the Thunder to win every game it’s favored to win (78-4), but keep in mind an upset is not an upset when your team is favored to win.
FAVORABLE SCHEDULE: OKC plays its next five games at home, which will complete a stretch of 16 home dates in the first 24 games. Getting off to a fast start was of utmost importance to the Thunder, which plays 11 of 16 games on the road in January.
GOOD HEALTH: OKC is the only NBA team to have the same starting lineup this entire season. In addition, several opponents have not been at full strength when facing the Thunder.
OKC lost games to San Antonio (Manu Ginobili inactive) and Atlanta (Josh Smith ankle) when neither was at full strength.
All but two victories have come against teams missing key players: Toronto (Kyle Lowry ankle injury after 16:45; Linas Kleiza hip), Chicago (Derrick Rose knee), Cleveland (Tyler Zeller broken cheekbone), New Orleans (Eric Gordon knee), Golden State (Andrew Bogut ankle and Brandon Rush knee), Los Angeles Clippers (Caron Butler shoulder, Chauncey Billups Achilles, Grant Hill knee), Boston (Avery Bradley shoulder), Philadelphia (Andrew Bynum knee), Charlotte (Gerald Henderson foot, Tyrus Thomas calf), Houston (Chandler Parsons shoulder, Carlos Delfino groin), Utah (Marvin Williams concussion), New Orleans (Anthony Davis ankle, Gordon knee) and Brooklyn (Brook Lopez foot, Reggie Evans flu).
Next up for the Thunder are home games against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at 8:30 p.m. and the Indiana Pacers on Sunday at 6 p.m., and both teams have key injuries.
The Lakers will be without starting point guard Steve Nash (leg) and backup Steve Blake (torn abdominal muscle). Starting forward Pau Gasol sat out of Tuesday night’s loss at Houston and will miss tonight’s contest at New Orleans with tendinitis in both knees. His status for Friday at OKC is unknown. Indiana rising star Danny Granger is out until at least February with a knee injury.
These are the breaks of the game. Sometimes the breaks are with you, sometimes not. The key is taking advantage when everything is smooth. Right now, things are going very smoothly for the Thunder.
- John Rohde