OKC Thunder: Shortened playoff format could work to Thunder's advantage
This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Sign up for our daily or breaking newsletters to stay informed. If local news is important to you, consider becoming a digital subscriber to The Oklahoman.
The Thunder’s last game of the regular season was originally scheduled for Wednesday: a Western Conference showdown between OKC and Dallas, two teams that could have been jockeying for playoff seeding.
Instead, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear how many more 2019-20 regular season games the NBA will play. Answers on the playoff format are just as illusive. But as the pandemic stretches deeper into the spring, it becomes more and more likely the postseason will be abbreviated.
For the Thunder, shorter playoff series could actually play to the expectation-shattering underdog’s advantage.
Instead of preparing for a seven-game first-round playoff series next week, the Thunder and the NBA are staring into an uncertain future. Holding any sort of postseason may prove untenable, depending on how the outbreak in North America unfolds. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that even when the NBA is given the all-clear, it could take 25 days for the league to ramp up to playing games.
Multiple reports have indicated the league’s commitment to crowning a 2020 champion and willingness to consider all postseason options. The NBA’s most recent reported conversations have one thing in common: a shortened early playoff series.
CNBC’s Jabari Young reported the league could even add a play-in tournament for lower seeds and a one-and-done tournament between the first round and the Finals.
Really, a wide range of options are being considered.
Already this season, the Thunder made a habit of proving others wrong. When oddsmakers set OKC’s win total in the low 30s, it won 33 before the All-Star break. But winning a first-round best-of-seven playoff series was still going to be a tall order.
Of the 14 teams with winning records, the Thunder has the third-lowest plus-minus (2.6). That means, on average, OKC had a 2.6-point advantage in the 55 games it’s played.
The team’s never-lay-down attitude also bore out in other statistical categories: the Thunder leads the league in clutch games (42) and has played just eight games that were decided by 20-plus points.
“We’re not a team that has a wide margin for error,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said multiple times this season.
He would clarify he believed that was the case for most NBA teams. But, statistically speaking, the Thunder have a smaller margin for error than most winning teams in the league.
Game-tying assists on full-court heaves, crucial forced turnovers in the final seconds, the kinds of plays that have made the Thunder so exciting to follow this season, can win single games. But not necessarily a seven-game series, when consistency and experience have the time to exploit an opponent’s narrow margin for error.
In the past three seasons, more balanced Thunder teams have suffered first-round exits. The front office spent big money on the last two, with deep playoff runs in mind. In contrast, this season’s team was constructed with a rebuild on the horizon.
But cut its first-round series down to three or five games, and pair it against the Jazz or the Nuggets? Then, this Thunder team has a real shot at getting deeper into the playoffs than any other in the post-Kevin Durant era.