Something positive: The Oklahoma City Thunder leads the NBA in having recorded victories after trailing at halftime.
Something not so positive: In 17 of its first 20 games after the February All-Star break, the Thunder trailed at halftime. Against even some of the NBA’s weaker teams, double-digit halftime deficits were common.
It was a maddening trend. In spite of having All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George and being outfitted with a supposedly improved roster overall, Oklahoma City consistently, inexplicably lacked first-half effort.
And when there was a garbage opening half, there frequently was a garbage result.
Two periods symbolize the feast-or-famine nature of 2018-19.
From Jan. 19 (when OKC recorded a fantastic road win over Philadelphia) until Feb. 11, the Thunder prevailed in 11 of 12 games. On Feb. 11, the Thunder’s record was 37-19. There were realistic possibilities of a 54-win finish and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference postseason.
From Feb. 14 through March 31, the Thunder was 6-14. There were losses to New Orleans, Minnesota, Sacramento, Miami, Memphis and Dallas — none of which qualified for the playoffs.
If Oklahoma City had gotten victories in four of those six games, there would have been a 53-29 regular-season record. The Thunder would have secured the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. There would have been homecourt advantage in the first round, with the first two game played at OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Instead, there was a 49-33 record, resulting in the No. 6 seed and a first-round clash with the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
Sunday’s Game 1 and Tuesday’s Game 2 are in Portland.
The OKC regular season did end with a five-game win streak, and the final home game was a classic triumph over the Houston Rockets, but can this Thunder team suddenly can be trusted to consistently grind at the defensive end and make smart decisions offensively?
I am of the belief that Oklahoma City absolutely is better today than it was two weeks ago, but I can’t pick the Thunder to advance. For the third consecutive year, I expect to see an OKC elimination in the opening round.
The prediction here is that Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers — overcoming the terrible, season-ended leg injury sustained by big man Jusuf Nurkic on March 25 — win the series in seven games.
The Thunder remains guilty of too many 3-point shot attempts and too many defensive breakdowns. George was great during two-thirds of the regular season, but he hasn’t quite been the same since sustaining a shoulder injury.
On paper, an OKC-Portland matchup is favorable for the Thunder. During the regular season, Oklahoma City was 4-0 against the Blazers.
During the 2017-18 regular season, Oklahoma City was 3-1 against the Utah Jazz. When those teams were matched in the first round of the playoffs, OKC had homecourt advantage.
It didn’t matter. The Jazz prevailed in six games.
Instead of crumbling after the Nurkic injury, the Blazers won seven of their final nine regular-season games. They enter the playoffs with momentum and confidence — and with the homecourt advantage that OKC would have had if not for so many bad losses to non-playoff teams.
A loss to Houston on Tuesday would have been Oklahoma City’s 15th home loss of the season. Not since the 2008-09 season — the first Thunder season — has Oklahoma City had more than 14 home losses in any season. That’s another reason to pick Portland. In its home gym, OKC just isn’t as tough as it used to be.
Westbrook was tremendous during the final 30 seconds of that Houston game. With 9½ minutes left, OKC trailed by 14 points. The Thunder saved itself with lock-down defense. In the fourth quarter, the usually potent Rockets managed only 18 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
Of the 18,203 fans who attend Thunder home games, a significant percentage are there for every game. Those people endured a lot of uninspiring basketball during the past two months, so it was cool that they got to experience a dramatic, entertaining victory at the finish line of the regular season.
As the playoffs begin, that’s the great mystery: Over the entirety of the Portland series, can the Thunder sustain the effort, decision-making and execution that resulted in such an impressive fourth period against the Rockets?
If so, OKC can and should beat Portland in the first round. The Thunder has the talent advantage in this series, but OKC is cursed by bad habits. First-round playoff exits are a bad habit.