By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY – For many analysts and fans of basketball, the 2016 NBA playoffs are a forgone conclusion. With the record setting year the Golden State Warriors have had, they are to many the heavy odds on favorite to win their second title in a row.
And if somehow the Warriors falter, the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers are waiting in the wings.
Then there is the Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27). For 82 games in the regular season it was impossible to tell which team was going to show up for each contests. One night they could be an offensive juggernaut and run a team off the floor. The next, they would implode and watch double digit leads disappear.
Yet, through it all, the Thunder still enter the postseason with the No. 3 seed in the tough Western Conference and seemingly have a belief that they have the capability to put it all together in time to win 16 games over the next three months.
“I think we have the deepest team in the NBA,” Enes Kanter said. “I know people are talking about the San Antonio’s, the Golden State’s. I think we can only worry about ourselves because I think this team has something really special. I think this team can beat any team on any floor. We just need to focus on us and play our basketball.”
The Thunder postseason begins at 8:30 p.m. Saturday when the Dallas Mavericks (42-40) pay the Chesapeake Energy Arena a visit. Game 2 is Monday at 7 p.m. before the series moves to Dallas for Games 3 and 4 April 21 and 23.
Oklahoma City racked up a 4-0 record against Dallas this season. Two of the wins were by three points while the other two were double digit victories.
The I-35 rivals have faced off in the playoffs twice. But they haven’t seen each other in the postseason since 2012 when Oklahoma City won 4-1 on their way to an appearance in the NBA Finals.
Dirk Nowitzki is still the back bone of the Mavs, but his supporting cast has changed. He now has Deron Williams, the feisty J.J. Barea and Wesley Matthews running shotgun with him. They will be without an injured Chandler Parsons throughout the playoffs.
The Thunder have also went through a roster upheaval since the last time they were in the playoffs. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are still the core of the squad, but the additions of Kanter, Dion Waiters, Steven Adams, Randy Foye, Cameron Payne and Anthony Morrow have made Oklahoma City more diversified offensively.
Scoring points has not been a huge problem for the Thunder, who are second in the league at 110 points per game. They are also the only team who have a pair of players ranked in the top 10 in scoring. Durant is third in the NBA in scoring at 28.2. Westbrook is at no. 10 with a 23.5 average.
Where Oklahoma City has had issues is defensive lapses and late game meltdowns. They were one of the league leaders in games lost after taking a lead into the fourth quarter.
However, of late, the Thunder have started to not be solely dependent on Durant and Westbrook and have gotten solid contributions from others players.
Kanter in particular has seen his scoring and rebounding numbers improve in the final two months, despite coming off the bench. On the season he averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds. In the last 10 games that has shot up to almost 15 points and 10 boards a night. His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is 24.09, which ranks him, along with Durant and Westbrook, in the top 10 in the league.
With this being his first playoff run with the Thunder, Kanter may be out to show he is worthy of the big contract he signed in the offseason.
“I am super excited,” Kanter said. “I made the playoffs before with Utah, but San Antonio beat us 4-0. I was playing behind Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap and Derek Favors. But now we have a really special team and we can do some really special things together.”
Durant is also excited about this playoff run. With this being the final year of his current contract with Oklahoma City, it could be the last title chase he makes in a Thunder uniform.
But Durant says he is not thinking about the future. It was missing the playoffs last year that has been occupying his mind.
“I just remember this time last year everybody was going home and I was up here by myself with a cast on, Durant said. “Fast forward a year and to be in this position to win a championship, there is no greater feeling. It’s been a long year. I’m excited we are here again. I look forward to playing.”