The home stretch is here.
The first full year after a lockout-shortened season didn't just feel like a six-month marathon, but with it brought ample time to scrutinize and criticize all of the flaws, big and small, that have been seen in the Thunder. Some were obvious, others not so much. But all figure to play a role, for better or worse, in what happens this postseason.
With 10 games remaining, the next three weeks will be the final chance the Thunder has to shore up some of its issues before the playoffs. As OKC gears up for the stretch run, starting with Friday's game at Minnesota, here are 10 things to watch in the final 10.
Kevin Martin: K-Mart's performance always has been, and figures to continue to be, a barometer of success for the Thunder. Oklahoma City is 33-8 when Martin scores at least 15 points but just 19-10 when he scores less than 15. His offensive contributions often are the difference between the Thunder being balanced and bland. After a recent slump, Martin looks to be back on track. But whether he can sustain his scoring effectiveness and efficiency could be one of the biggest factors in how far OKC goes. Keep an eye on how much the Thunder is able to keep Martin involved.
Turnovers: The good news is the Thunder has trimmed 1.3 turnovers from its league-leading average from last season. The bad news? Oklahoma City still ranks second-to-last in the category at an even 15.0 per. The Thunder showed in last year's postseason (11.6 turnovers) that it can clean up its sloppiness. But erratic ball security still has a way of creeping in and catching up to OKC.
Margin of victory: Oklahoma City is winning at a near historic rate. The Thunder has outscored opponents by an average margin of 9.4 points, which currently is tied with the 1985-86 Celtics for the fifth-highest margin of victory in league history. The 1995-96 Bulls won by a record 12.2 points on average. Though that record is out of reach, the Thunder is seeking to become the seventh team to win by an at least 9.3 points and go on to win the title.
Consistency: This one might be a bit blurred. In this case, it's not about statistics or winning streaks. The Thunder has long had the stated goal of maintaining a standard of performance night in and night out, no matter the opponent, whether at home or on the road. It's an unwavering style that the Thunder wants to become its identity. Achieving that goal has been a struggle at times this season. But there will be plenty of chances down the stretch to display the proper focus. Five of the final 10 are against teams below .500.
Defense: Kendrick Perkins said one of the team's main goals from here out is to not allow more than 24 points in any quarter. Talk about setting the bar high. That seems like a tall task for a Thunder team that has been inconsistent defensively throughout this season. It wasn't long ago, remember, that the Thunder in 10 of 11 road games from mid-January to the start of March allowed 108.7 points on 47 percent shooting. Six of these final 10 games will be played on the road. Shoring up that troubling trend seems a good place to start.
Ball movement: It's become a broken record. The Thunder is at its best when everyone on the court is a threat to score. Sharing the ball is the only way that happens. OKC is 23-2 when at least five players score in double figures and 36-3 when it has more assists than the opponent. Conversely, the Thunder is just 15-14 when its opponent has more assists. After finishing last in assists a year ago, the Thunder now ranks 20th with 21.5 per game. But the ball, as coach Scott Brooks says, still has a tendency to get “sticky.”
Communication: Again, there are no metrics for this category. You'll just know it when you see it. If there are missed assignments and broken coverages, chances are the Thunder did a poor job of communicating. If rotations are swift and players are on one accord, the communication is where it needs to be, which will only help the team's defense.
The big six-0: The Thunder needs to go at least 7-3 to record its first 60-win season in the franchise's Oklahoma City era. Even if this Thunder team will be judged solely on its postseason performance, it's impossible to ignore how impressive a 60-win season would be. Let the countdown begin.
Rebounding: Historically, this is one of the Thunder's biggest problem areas. The good news is the Thunder understands this and is putting the proper attention on remedying the issue. OKC is 37-8 this season when out-rebounding opponents and 13-11 when the opponent wins the battle of the boards.
Bench production: It's taken all season, but after having a negative scoring differential for most of the year the Thunder's bench has finally pulled even in the category. The second unit still is a work in progress and questions remain about exactly what we'll see in the playoffs (Ronnie Brewer anyone?). But we've seen enough progress to believe the bench won't be so bad that it costs the Thunder a series. But these last 10 will provide an indication on how much better the bench can be.