OKC Thunder performing like top-10 team through last 15 games

OKC Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris (12): Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
OKC Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris (12): Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

At the end of December TI took a look at the eight teams who resided in the fifth through 13th seeds with a view to their schedule heading into the trade deadline.  Several teams shifted up and down the ladder in the 20 days since that article with the OKC Thunder being in the mix as one of the most successful teams in that group.

The team who took the biggest dive is the Suns who dropped from fifth to 12th while the Kings and Warriors made the biggest jumps (each moved up three ladder rungs).

Arguably the biggest takeaway from examining where those eight teams are 20 days later is only one team increased their lead over the Thunder – the Kings and it was only by a half-game.

OKC Thunder performing like a top-10 club through the last 15 games

The bottom line is the OKC Thunder aren’t just flirting with being a play-in seed they have a legitimate shot of moving up to the sixth seed and avoiding the tournament altogether.

We can debate whether that’s the best move for the franchise with equally compelling reasons for either side of the argument. What isn’t up for debate is this iteration of the OKC Thunder has taken a step upward. Beating the best teams and winning on the road are qualities playoff teams seek to master – and the Thunder are doing those things with more and more consistency.

Another quality of this team is the quiet humility they exude. While the Grizzlies’ bravado is enjoyable that personality is distinct to them. It’s also a reflection of their star Ja Morant. Similarly, the OKC Thunder have seemingly adopted their leader’s demeanor. Sha Gilgeous-Alexander is the silent assassin that even when you prepare for him are unable to stop.

Despite pummeling the Celtics, and beating teams like the 76ers and Nets on their home courts there was no bravado or shade being thrown by the Thunder players.  Rather, they frequently state they are growing and learning and enjoying the process. That humility is endearing and makes this team even easier to cheer for.

Ultimately, the way this team is rolling they sure seem to be headed for postseason action. The only question is whether it’ll be via a play-in game or if they’ll continue the ascent and earn a cemented playoff berth.

The team’s recent play would indicate they’re more likely to continue ascending than drop outside the play-in berths. Isolating on the last 15 days the Thunder would rank in the top 10 for both offense and defense.

Specifically, they rank ninth offensively (116.6 points) and an impressive fourth on defense (111.1). The category which frequently is the most telling is net differential as it can highlight teams that may be strong on one side of the court but not the other.

When a team earns a plus ranking it speaks to more balance of a club and the OKC Thunder perform well in this regard too ranking fifth for their last 15 games.

Perhaps the biggest reason to believe this young squad is headed for the postseason is their performance against top teams. As per John Schuhmann, they played the sixth most difficult opponent list in the first half. He notes the OKC Thunder will face the second easiest group of opponents in the second half. The only team with an easier list of opponents is the Kings who currently sit fourth.

Considering the OKC Thunder were missing Chet Holmgren who they selected second in the 2022 draft it’s almost inconceivable they are sitting in 10th with a very good chance of moving higher. Holmgren will undoubtedly improve areas of the game the Thunder currently struggle with such as rim and paint protection as well as help with the rebounding effort.

In addition to Holmgren, the team has been thin upfront with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Aleksej Pokusevski, and other members of their front court being sidelined due to injury yet they’ve won anyway.

The OKC Thunder length is still very much in play however, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey have feasted on the opposing team’s backcourts.

Over the course of the next two days, the majority of the teams who surround the Thunder will be in action with each facing a tougher opponent than the Thunder (Pacers without Haliburton).

After Indiana, the OKC Thunder will be tested in the next five-game stint featuring the West’s fourth and top seeds (Kings, Nuggets), plus the Hawks, Cavaliers, and Warriors.

Yet, the scheduled segment following those five games could determine where the OKC Thunder will reside on the ladder at season end. It features numerous games against the teams grouped around the Thunder from the parity pack.

Again, the Thunder have demonstrated an ability to beat the best teams, are ranking top 10 in all three major categories and their best players have developed a rhythm that opposing teams haven’t been able to counter.

Sure, there are still areas Mark Daigneault needs his team to improve upon like how they start matches.

Yet, even with bad habits to break and needing to get more of their frontcourt healthy, it’s looking more and more likely that the OKC Thunder will be participating in the postseason.

Although the potential for the team to slide back out of the play-in tournament exists,  based on their recent play it feels far more like the OKC Thunder will be one of six teams awaiting the results of the play-in tournament.