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.
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