MINNEAPOLIS — The Thunder opens the second half of the NBA season in Minnesota tonight as a viable playoff contender with what appears to be an easier remaining schedule than all but two Western Conference contenders.
But there’s nothing easy about the last leg. The Thunder closes the season with a 14-game gauntlet that should feature: →Eleven games against teams likely fighting to improve their seeding or to make the playoffs. →Five sets of back-to-back games that include second-night tests at Boston, Denver and Portland. →A critical late-March homestand against the Spurs, Rockets, Lakers and Trail Blazers. "We’ve got to play good ball,” said Jeff Green. "When the time comes, we’ll deal with our record at the end of the season.” At the halfway point of the NBA season, Oklahoma City’s 23-18 record is better than anyone projected. The Thunder is one of the league’s first-half surprises. An analysis of Oklahoma City’s remaining games shows the schedule gets easier — kind of. Less than half (15) of the Thunder’s final 41 games are against teams with losing records. But that’s misleading. With Toronto and Charlotte playing better, the East has seven teams .500 or better. Memphis and New Orleans also have pushed above .500. A more accurate comparison is the Thunder has a better record than 22 of its final 41 opponents. Through Monday’s games, the combined winning percentage of Oklahoma City’s second-half foes is .494, an easier remaining schedule than nine of the 11 West playoff contenders. But there’s a catch: That final 14 is so tough that the Thunder could need a cushion when the critical four-game homestand against contenders opens March 22. Coach Scott Brooks doesn’t monitor schedule strength or standings. His only goal is for his team to play hard. "Our guys understand there’s a lot of basketball left,” Brooks said. "We just want to keep playing well, then we’ll see what happens come April.” Pre-season conjecture by media was the Thunder might be a playoff contender a year ahead of schedule — provided they didn’t get buried in the standings before Christmas. After Oklahoma City finished its pre-holiday schedule 14-14, the next challenge was whether a young team could take advantage of a softer schedule. That’s probably the most significant development the first half of the season. Road wins at Atlanta, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah and Miami were highlights.