NBA

NBA Playoffs: Are the Thunder in Trouble?

NBA Playoffs: Are the Thunder in Trouble?
Head coach Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on hand, the Oklahoma City Thunder are — without a doubt — one of the most talented teams in the NBA. Even though they finished in third place in the Western Conference behind the powerhouse Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, many thought they had an outside chance to challenge those two for a trip to the NBA Finals.

To do that, however, they have to get through their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, which felt like a safe bet prior to their Game Two loss on Monday night. In Game One of the series, Oklahoma City cruised to one of the largest victories in postseason history, winning by an ugly score of 108-70.

Playing in front of their hometown fans on Monday, though, the Thunder let the game slip out of their hands in the waning seconds to suffer one of the largest upsets in postseason lore (they were favored by 14 points in the game). Just like that, Dallas now has home court advantage as the series shifts to their home floor, putting the Thunder in a precarious and desperate situation.

If Oklahoma City plays its game, there is no reason why they can’t put that shocking defeat behind them and win this series with relative ease. However, with the inconsistencies that appeared at various points throughout the season, it’s a tough sell to believe that the Thunder can play up to their potential night in and night out. With that, we have three reasons why OKC is in legitimate danger of losing this series against the Mavs.

The pride of Dallas

NBA Playoffs: Are the Thunder in Trouble?
Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Overall, the roster of the Mavericks doesn’t stack up to that of the Thunder at all. Outside of NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas’s starting lineup currently includes the likes of afterthoughts, Deron Williams, Zaza Pachulia, and Raymond Felton. In Game Two, though, the recipe of longtime vets managed to lead the team to the upset.

Nowitzki was his usual productive self with 17 points and four rebounds, but it was the play of Felton and Williams that fueled their win. Felton ended up 21 points and 11 rebounds in a team-high 42 minutes of action while Williams found the touch from long range, hitting three three-pointers to fuel his 13 point, five assist night. Both Felton and Williams struggled mightily in the Game One blowout loss, but if they continue to play like they did on Monday, good things could come Dallas’s way.

Simply put, Dallas is a team full of veteran players who have found success at one time or another in this league. Well-coached by Rick Carlisle, this a prideful bunch that is ready to prove their doubters wrong. Sometimes, that chip is enough to propel an undermanned team to a surprising upset.

The uncertainty of Durant

NBA Playoffs: Are the Thunder in Trouble?
Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant | Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

We all know that Kevin Durant is potentially headed for free agency this summer, as he will be one of the biggest stars to hit the open market in a few seasons. Maybe, just maybe, that situation is weighing on the scorer’s mind as the pressure of the postseason becomes heavy and tough to deal with. With the way Durant played on Monday night, it certainly looked like his head wasn’t on the court.

Usually an efficient scorer, Durant had one of the worst shooting nights of his life, going 7-for-33 from the field. The 26 misses from the floor were the most he’s ever had in an NBA game, either in the regular season or postseason. Dallas played pretty solid defense against him, but it was shocking to see one of the most dominant scorers in the history of the playoffs struggle so mightily.

If Durant shoots like that on a nightly basis, the Mavericks will have a great chance to win the remainder of the games during this series. Even though it’s highly unlikely that he will play that poorly, free agency has to be somewhat on Durant’s mind.

Remember back in the 2010 playoffs when LeBron James was an impending free agent? His top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers lost in the second round of the playoffs and James went on to join the Miami Heat the next season. It was obvious that LeBron was thinking ahead to that summer and the same situation could occur with Durant this season. If the Thunder fail to make it past the first round, it wouldn’t be surprising at all the see the face of their franchise leave town.

Fourth-quarter meltdowns

NBA Playoffs: Are the Thunder in Trouble?
Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

All season long, the Thunder have had serious issues closing out games in the fourth quarter. On 14 separate occasions during the regular season, they lost a game in which they held the lead going into the final period — more than any other team in the league. On Monday, that statistic came true again. Granted, they were only up by three points entering the fourth in that one, but it’s still indicative of the problem Oklahoma City has been having all season long.

Critical turnovers by Westbrook, untimely misses by Durant, and defensive lapses have all contributed to Thunder’s fourth quarter woes and if they can’t figure it out soon, it will surely come back to haunt them. When you give an underdog team like Dallas hope late in the game, their confidence skyrockets and the level of intensity picks up significantly. With things headed to Dallas for Games Three and Four, OKC can’t afford to let up in the fourth when they have a lead, otherwise they could be headed back home in a deep hole.

It’s surprising that the Thunder struggle as much as they do in the fourth quarter given that they do have two great scorers who can take over a game. It could be an indication of a “power struggle” of sorts between Westbrook and Durant, but no matter who’s closing out the game in the final minutes, this is an issue the Thunder have to fix immediately if they want to be taken seriously in the Western Conference.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com

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