Stars Playmaking Key To The Thunder’s Playoff Destiny

Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

Since the All-Star break, it’s been a confusing time for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They struggled out of the gate, going 4-8 in a stretch where their critics concerns were justified. They weren’t closing games and they weren’t defending. Were they not a contender after all?

However, March saw what could be described as a turning point for the Thunder. After initially struggling in losses to the Clippers, Warriors, Timberwolves and Spurs, the team managed to put those concerns in the rear view mirror. The defence was more engaged, role players were stepping up and the offense was firing on all cylinders. Fourth quarters concerns? Hard to have when you’re so far ahead after three quarters that your starters get key rest.

In this time, the Thunder have obliterated almost all of the opponents that they have faced. The Blazers, Celtics, Sixers, Jazz, Raptors and Nuggets have all been put to the sword, displaying what Oklahoma City can do at their very best. Ball movement was impressive and swift, defense was swarming (though not without it’s imperfections) and every player was doing his part.

Now it must be said that at this stage of the season not too much can be taken from all of these games. Players are resting, or are mentally already preparing for the playoff push or alternatively, their imminent offseason if their team is lottery bound. It’s about resting, getting healthy and fine tuning before the real games begin in late April.

But a noticeable trend has emerged that is worth monitoring. The playmaking of the Thunder’s two key men, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have been noticeable. Westbrook’s assist numbers this season after all are well documented, he’s second in the league racking up 10.4 per game.

Meanwhile his star forward teammate has upped his production since the break. After averaging 4.5 assists per game before the All-Star break, Durant has elevated that to 6.0 assists ever since. This includes 6.5 assists per game in the month of March.

Why is this so valuable though? Looking further into the numbers explains the value of their playmaking:

  • Since March 1, the Thunder are 9-2 (.818) when Durant registers 6 assists or more. They are 20-7 overall (.740).
  • Since March 1, the Thunder are 9-1 (.900) when Westbrook registers 10 assists or more. They are 34-12 overall (.739).

Considering the Thunder are 54-25 (.684) for the season, it shows that the Thunder are simply better when Durant and Westbrook are firing. Not only that, this does not mean solely with their scoring. It’s blatantly clear on any given night they’ll average close to 55-60 points between them, if not more.

Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

For a long time it’s been spoken of how important the role players on the Thunder’s roster are, and that remains true. The key to their importance though, is how much their star men can involve them. Serge Ibaka pretty much said exactly that when he spoke about it recently followed the team’s huge road win over Toronto.

"“I’m gonna tell you the truth, it’s hard sometimes when you play hard, you play you’re (butt off)…You play so hard on defense, then you come to offense and you’re going to be out there in the corner for 4, 5, 6, sometimes 8 minutes and you don’t touch the ball. We human, man. It’s hard.”"

What those comments allude to is while it’s very easy to play with two such gifted superstars, it can also be difficult in the sense of always feeling involved. Durant and Westbrook can single-handedly (or together) take over games, but how does that impact their teammates?

Dion Waiters needs to feel the ball in his hands to keep rhythm, as do pinpoint shooters like Ibaka and Anthony Morrow. Randy Foye and Kyle Singler (who has been a dumpster fire lately) are no different. Everyone needs to feel involved, from running pick and rolls with the big men to moving the ball quickly around the perimeters to open shooters.

It’s all well and good to want your role players to do their bit, but just expecting them to step in at random moments without keeping them regularly in touch with the game is a very difficult thing to do.

It seems Durant and Westbrook realize this. Whilst criticism of the Thunder’s defensive issues, late game execution and rotation will continue, the team’s stars seem to have clued into the fact that keeping the team involved is what’s best for them. When everyone is moving the ball crisply and kept sharp by their involvement, naturally everything else improves.

It’s no coincidence that the Thunder have been at their best in the games their stars are making plays for their teammates. The defense becomes more engaged because it’s easier to motivate players to defend when they are getting the ball offensively.

The question now heading into the playoffs is, have they realized it too late? It could be key in the Thunder’s playoff destiny.