At the break, Thunder busting expectations and underachieving all at the same time
The Thunder are ahead of schedule.
Perhaps you’ve heard.
Had you wanted to place a bet upon Oklahoma City’s win total this season, the number upon which you could play either side was 23 1/2 and, don’t look now, but the All-Star break has arrived and the Thunder have already won 28.
If you’ve been watching since the calendar turned, you may have heard the hype. Your favorite team has been climbing the charts ever since.
Because over the 2022 portion of the season, a span of 36 games, the Thunder were 15-21. Since, the mark is 13-8, a seventh-best in the NBA winning percentage of .619 behind the Bucks, 76ers, Nuggets, Celtics, Timberwolves and Cavs.
All good, right?
Because they really are surpassing expectations; really do claim a superstar in first-time All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, averaging 30.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists and whose 27.31 player-efficiency rating ranks sixth in the whole league; and really are threatening to become a modern-day professional Cinderella if only their win-loss record could measure up to the team they’ve already proven they can be.
I’ll make sense of that last little cryptic bit in moment.
First, take a look at this:
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Jan. 20, at Sacramento, OKC led 66-59 at the half and 72-67 as late as the 7:53 mark of the third quarter, yet gave up the lead up for good with 4:08 remaining in the third quarter, ultimately falling 118-113.
Jan. 25, playing host to Trae Young and the Atlanta, a team whose star and coach, Nate McMillan, had not been getting along, the Thunder again had every chance to win. Instead, the game tied 99-99 with 3:09 remaining in the third quarter, they were outscored 20-5 over the next 5:32, ultimately falling 137-132.
Jan. 30, at home to play Golden State, OKC could not handle the heat again, falling behind 63-48 by the half and 79-61 by the mid-point of the third quarter. Though an amazing rally ensued, one that would have tied the game had Gilgeous-Alexander converted a layup with 3:37 remaining, Kevon Looney blocked it and the Warriors exited 128-120 victors.
Finally, Monday, four days ago, welcoming New Orleans to town, a team that had busted a 10-game losing skid just four contests prior, OKC could not put the ball in the basket shooting 42.2 percent and 27.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. The 100 points it scored was a low going back 20 games, all the way to a 115-96 Dec. 31 setback to Philadelphia. Against all odds, Isaiah Joe had a chance to tie it with a hurried buzzer 3 but it didn’t fall, putting another loss in the books.
What those four games had in common was a victory in any would have propelled Oklahoma City to .500 for the first time in 782 days — Dec. 28, 2020 — two games into the late-starting 2020-21 campaign.
Given what Oklahoma City’s done since Jan. 1 statistically, the losses look like mental blocks.
The Thunder had won four straight when they rolled into Sacramento; the Hawks had lost two straight when they rolled into Oklahoma City; topping the Warriors is never easy, but the game was at home and Golden State’s just a .500 team; the Pelicans were visiting and had the Thunder beat them, would have been a .500 team, too.
That line up there about Oklahoma City needing results in line with what it’s already proven it can be?
Here’s the explanation:
Wins and losses aside, the be-all, end-all NBA statistic, the number that should tell you where every team ranks, is “net rating.”
Net rating is the difference, positive or negative, between “offensive rating” and “defensive rating.”
Offensive rating is the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions and defensive rating is the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions.
Couldn’t be simpler.
And the Thunder’s net rating since Jan. 1, a span of 21 games, is 7.1, second best in the whole league to Milwaukee, achieved via a best-in-the-league 120.6 offensive rating and an 11th-best-in-the-league 113.5 defensive rating.
Milwaukee has turned its net rating into an 18-6 new-year record, while five other teams with lesser new-year net ratings — Philadelphia, Denver, Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota — carry better new-year win-loss marks than Oklahoma City.
That shouldn’t be.
Nobody thought the Thunder would win 28 games by the All-Star break, yet their post-new year numbers say they should have won 30, 31 or 32.
They’re right there.
Knocking on the door.
A dynasty in waiting, perhaps, and if you don’t believe it, take a spin through NBA YouTube videos and you’ll find tens and tens and tens of them claiming Oklahoma City might well be.
But if the postseason began today, the Thunder would be the last play-in team from the West, only three games back of the fourth-place Clippers, a half game in front of the Jazz and Trail Blazers and 1 1/2 games on front of the Lakers.
It’s far too tenuous.
They’ve been right where they are for about a month, all while playing well enough to be in a much better spot.
Perhaps a few days away from competition will get them to understand.
It’s been a good season.
It can still be so much better.