Oklahoma City Thunder: Are they legit contenders?

(Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the best teams in the regular season, but are they a true contender come playoff time?

The Golden State Warriors arguably have one of the best starting fives in NBA history with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, and that’s exactly why most think not a single team in the Western Conference can stop them from winning their third straight title.

That’s right. They’re the clear-cut favorites to win it all in the eyes of many.

But with the way the Oklahoma City Thunder have been balling this season, it looks like they could be one of the teams that could possibly make it to the conference finals and give the Warriors a run for their money.

Or could they?

It’s one thing to be one of the top teams in the regular season, but it’s another thing to continue that level of play in the postseason.

The playoffs are a different ball game. It’s where stars are born. The intensity rises to another level. The competition is fierce and more physical. Attention to detail and execution must be at an all-time high.

Oh, and let’s not forget there’s more pressure. Palms get sweaty and backsides get tight when pressure comes knocking.

Last year’s Thunder team suffered a first round exit at the hands of the Utah Jazz. The loss left people wondering whether the team had enough talent to be a legit contender.

This year, they’ve again positioned themselves nicely as one of the top five teams in the West. They’re currently the 3-seed, but both the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets are right on their heels.

The Trail Blazers have the same record (39-24) after their win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday and the Rockets are just one game back at (38-25).

Paul George has played himself into the MVP debate and Russell Westbrook is on pace to average a triple-double for the third straight season. Jerami Grant’s game has taken strides, and key additions to the roster like Dennis Schroder and Markieff Morris have added more depth, which could be an advantage in the playoffs.

Four of the five teams that are considered contenders are in OKC’s division. So far this season, its record against those teams are the following: 0-3 against the Nuggets, 3-0 against the Blazers and 3-0 against the Jazz. Its record is 23-18 against the Western Conference, including 16-14 against teams over .500.

OKC’s record against the Rockets, who are in the Southwest division, is 2-1.

Truth is, as currently constructed, the Thunder have the ability to beat any team in the Western Conference playoffs outside of the Warriors. They can disrupt you defensively, ranking seventh in the NBA with a defensive rating of 105.6. They also allow 110.9 points a game, which ranks 13th.

The team can score with the best of them too. OKC averages 115.2 points per game. That ranks third in the league behind the Warriors (118.6) and surprisingly, the New Orleans Pelicans (116.0).

Their MVP candidate, Paul George, is the best player out of all of the other team’s best players; primarily because he plays both ends of the floor.

If he can play at an MVP level in the postseason (something he hasn’t quite done yet), he can help lift the squad to the Western Conference Finals. George averaged 24.7 points and 6.0 boards on 40.8 percent shooting in last year’s playoffs, but in order for the team to make a deep run he must increase his scoring average to at least 30 points per game, in addition to shooting a better percentage from the floor.

Westbrook seems to have gotten comfortable with taking a backseat to George and allowing him to flourish. He’s let him take on more of the scoring role, while he focuses on running the team with fluidity. He leads the team in both assists (10.8) and rebounds per game (11.2).

On the other hand, his shooting woes from both the charity stripe (65.4 percent) and 3-point range (26.6 percent) can pose a problem. It’s something that he must improve on if the team wants to advance. Teams will dare him to shoot until he becomes consistent. In the playoffs, big-time players must knock down big-time shots.

Yes, the Oklahoma City Thunder are legit contenders in the playoffs. And yes, the Western Conference Finals are a possibility. Their grit and toughness on defense, paired with the star-power of PG-13 and Russ should be more than enough. Of course, the “others,” as the great Shaquille O’Neal calls role players, have to show up — period. There’s no room for error.

There’s still an APB out on some players.

However, they’re no match for the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors. With that being said, if OKC wants to reach the NBA Finals, it’ll have to add another star or superstar to the roster. A player like Bradley Beal would be a perfect fit.

And why do they need another star player, you ask?

Next. The 50 greatest NBA players of all time (updated for 2017-18). dark

Because the Warriors’ entire starting five is filled with them.