Oklahoma City Thunder 2020 Playoff Preview
Way back in October, in the before times, we all had Oklahoma City destined for the NBA lottery. Chris Paul would be moved, and general manager Sam Presti would settle in for a thoughtful, careful rebuild.
Instead, OKC won 61 percent of its games, earning the 5th spot in a very crowded Western Conference in the process. Chris Paul had arguably one of his best seasons, and now the Thunder represent one of the most intriguing dark horses with the playoffs looming.
CP3 wasn’t alone in having a surprising season for Oklahoma City. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander thrived, as did Dennis Schroder. Even Nerlens Noel played some great basketball.
Head coach Billy Donovan deserves massive credit here. This Thunder roster was full of new players and mismatching parts. And yet the Thunder have a chance to make some real noise in the playoffs.
Biggest Strength: Hard-nosed basketball
It should be no surprise that a team with Chris Paul at the helm plays stingy, smart ball. The Thunder are disciplined and careful, in a way that can be irritating and disruptive.
For example, the Thunder don’t post great rebounding numbers. This is by design. The team is too busy getting back on defense. OKC allows the fewest fastbreak points in the league, and by a healthy margin.
At the same time, the Thunder are quite smart about the charity stripe. OKC attempts the fifth-most free throws while committing the fourth-fewest fouls.
Nothing comes easy playing against Oklahoma City. The roster is full of strong-bodied, smart, switchy players that make it hard for opponents to execute well.
Against the potentially Russell Westbrook-less Houston Rockets, the Thunder have a good shot at grinding their way to a series victory.
Biggest Weakness: Wing defense
The three-headed monster of CP3, SGA, and Schroder create a fantastic, pugnacious backcourt. This could be a nightmare for James Harden. Meeting Steven Adams at the rim is a tough reward for getting past a tough three-guard line-up.
Where the Thunder lack, however, is on the wing. The Italian Stallion Danilo Gallinari isn’t much of a defensive stopper, and the promising Luguentz Dort is still too much of an unknown against the likes of a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.
The best of the best in the West have the personnel to take advantage of the cracks in OKC’s armor. Oklahoma City’s opponent shot chart confirms this.
Team’s X-Factor: Danilo Gallinari
Gallinari is a special player. He can be a dead-eye shooter, effective around the rim, and even an ok facilitator.
Last year as a member of the Clippers he really dazzled. Gallo averaged 19.8 points, 2.6 assists, and 6.1 rebounds, including a fantastic 43.3 percent shooting clip from three.
His numbers in OKC have dipped slightly, but that doesn’t mean Gallinari doesn’t have the chops to be one of the most pivotal parts of Oklahoma City’s offense.
It’s on defense where Gallinari will really need to shine. He has at times in his career proven an adequate on-ball defender, and he has the length and size to switch between the wing and the block. For OKC’s stinginess to shine, Gallo will need to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball.
Players to Watch: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Perhaps we’ve waxed too poetic about the Thunder. Maybe it’s the case that OKC was a nice story this year, and a rebuild really is right around the corner.
In that case, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander becomes the most fascinating member of the team.
While the performances of Chris Paul, Steve Adams, and Danilo Gallinari might define the club’s ceiling in the interim, SGA might be the future cornerstone of the franchise - how he performs during this postseason will be fascinating.
In his rookie year as a member of the Clippers, Shai performed pretty darn OK during the team’s six postseason games. He shot the ball well, and contributed consistently for a club also punching above its weight-class.
With the Thunder, the NBA sophomore has seen his playing-time jump nearly eight minutes, without sacrificing much in terms of efficiency. In short, SGA got better this season. A lot better.
How he performs during the playoffs won’t be make or break. After all, Shai just turned 22. But it will be exhilarating to see SGA come alive during the postseason, and could set the stage for what is to come for this Thunder franchise.
Estimated Playoff Run: Western Conference Finals
Ok, hear me out.
The Rockets simply don’t have what it takes to beat this Thunder team. OKC is too disciplined, too solid. James Harden alone won’t be able to will an under-sized, under-manned Houston club to four victories. An overly eager Westbrook coming back from injury could arguably hurt the Rockets, too.
On to the Conference Semifinals for the Thunder. Here they’ll meet a Lakers team that will have to sweat a little bit against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Importantly, Donovan and his team will get to watch the Lakers do battle with a Blazers team with similar strengths and weaknesses as OKC. There will be a bit of a blueprint for the do's and don’ts of beating the Lakers.
LA has very little to give in terms of guard-play, and this will demand LeBron to work hard on defense to stop the bleeding. This in turn will open up a mid-range game that is red meat for CP3 and the gang. The Thunder truly have a shot here.