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NBA Saturday: Can Thunder Still Make Playoffs?

With Russell Westbrook back and Kevin Durant close to returning, can the Thunder make a postseason run?

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After missing 14 games because of a fractured right hand, Russell Westbrook returned to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup last night, sparking his team to a convincing 105-78 win over the struggling New York Knicks.  Westbrook was sensational, scoring 14 points in the first quarter, making 12-of-17 shots overall (including 3-4 from three-point range), while adding eight assists and seven rebounds in just 23 minutes of action.

Westbrook’s return is a significant boost for a struggling Thunder team that has been without its two superstars for the first time since this team was constructed.  Despite the best efforts of up-and-coming guard Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the team, the Thunder simply could not compete at a high level without Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

The good news for the Thunder is that, based on last night, Westbrook looks as explosive as ever.  More good news is that Kevin Durant has reportedly made significant process in his recovery from foot surgery and could rejoin the Thunder as soon as Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.  The bad news is that the Thunder went 5-12 through the first 17 games of the season and are currently ranked 13th in the Western Conference.  Thus, the question is with Westbrook and Durant (almost) back, can the Thunder make a run and jump back into the playoff race in the Western Conference?

The short answer is yes, but it won’t be easy.

Here is a list of the eighth seed records in the Western Conference over the last 10 seasons:

2013-14: 49-33
2012-13: 45-37
2011-12: 36-30*
2010-11: 46-36
2009-10: 50-32
2008-09: 48-34
2007-08: 50-32
2006-07: 42-40
2005-06: 44-38
2004-05: 45-37
*Note: This was the lockout shortened season where each team played 66 games instead of the standard 82.

As you can see, based on the last 10 seasons, the Thunder at a minimum need to win 42 games, but more likely will need to win closer to 46-48 games.  Yesterday, Kevin Pelton of ESPN (Insider) wrote that simulating the remainder of the season 1,000 times yields an average of 47.4 wins for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, which supports the idea that the Thunder will need to win somewhere between 46-48 games to make the postseason.  Unfortunately for the Thunder, this season’s crop of Western Conference teams is particularly talented, and, like last year, a team that wins as many as 48 games (like the Phoenix Suns last season) could be left out of the playoffs.  As it currently stands, there are 12 Western Conference teams that have legitimate playoff aspirations, with just the Lakers, Jazz and Timberwolves seemingly out of the mix at this point.

To win 48 games, the Thunder would need to go 43-22 (66.2 win percentage) the rest of the way.  Last season, Westbrook played in 46 regular season games as he struggled with a recurring knee injury, while Durant played in 81 games.  When Westbrook and Durant both played, the Thunder went 34-12 (73.9 win percentage).  Without Westbrook, the Thunder went 25-11 (69.4 win percentage).

Assuming that Durant returns on December 11 against the Cleveland Cavaliers (which is a conservative estimate based on the most recent reports), the Thunder will theoretically have 61 games with Westbrook and Durant available (of course both could miss additional time with recurring injuries, as we have seen with Derrick Rose this season).  At this point, the Thunder will likely have a record around 7-14 (assuming they go 2-2 against the Pelicans, 76ers, Pistons and Bucks before Durant hypothetically returns against the Cavaliers).  In an ideal scenario where the Thunder reintegrate Westbrook and Durant and neither player is substantially limited by their injuries, we could apply their 73.9 win percentage from the 46 games they played together last season, which would result in a 52-30 regular season record (continuing with the assumption that the Thunder are 7-14 when Durant hypothetically returns against the Cavaliers).  This record would almost assuredly qualify the Thunder for the playoffs.

However, this is a best case scenario in which we assume that both Westbrook and Durant don’t miss any more games and they perform at the level they did last season in the 46 games they played together.  The more likely scenario, however, is that Durant will play under a minutes restriction, he will be given nights off (like on the second night of back-to-back games), and both he and Westbrook will miss at least a few games for other reasons (though before Westbrook’s knee issues both he and Durant were remarkably durable and rarely missed any games).  In this less than perfect scenario, the Thunder will have to find a way to win without one or both of their superstars on some nights, which could be fatal since the margin for error is very slim at this point.

There are numerous variables to consider when trying to project whether or not the Thunder have a realistic shot at making a playoff run.  Some of those factors were mentioned above, and some that weren’t include, but are not limited to, how long it takes Durant and Westbrook to get into optimal game shape, whether other players will miss significant time because of injuries, whether the Thunder make a significant mid-season trade that substantially changes the dynamic of the team, and whether the other Western Conference playoff contenders exceed expectations and make it so that the eighth seed will need to win more than 50 games.

Considering all of this, the Thunder are going to need Westbrook and Durant to be at full strength very soon to keep the Thunder’s playoffs hopes alive.  If they can, the Thunder will become one of the most dangerous low-ranking playoff teams ever, and a nightmare match up for whichever top-seeded team goes up against them in the first round.  But as explained above, the Thunder cannot afford for their two superstars to miss many more games since they already dug themselves such a big hole in the first few weeks of the season.  Making the playoffs won’t be easy for the Thunder by any means, but it’s still possible.  And if Westbrook keeps playing like he did last night, making the playoffs for the Thunder may not be such a pipe-dream after all.

Sacramento Kings Protest Denied By Adam Silver

On November 13, the Memphis Grizzlies overcame a 26-point deficit and beat the Sacramento Kings at the buzzer with a Courtney Lee layup.  Lee’s game winning shot drew controversy, however, as the Kings believed that time expired before Lee got the shot off and that the officials misapplied NBA rules during the review process.  The Kings filed a petition with the league to review the play and determine whether Lee got his layup off before time expired.  On Friday, the NBA announced that the petition had been denied and the result of the game would not be changed.

Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports reports that there are at least a few Kings officials who are upset by Silver’s ruling.

“The referees had a duty to count frames on the replay and they didn’t,” one Kings source said.  “We felt and still feel strongly that there was significant error in this decision.”

Kings center Ryan Hollins, who guarded Vince Carter, who was inbounding the ball, claims that he tipped Carter’s pass, and thus the shot clock should have started much sooner than it did.

“I hit the ball,” Hollins told Yahoo Sports.  “No question about it. You see the trajectory.  You even see my reaction afterwards.  Even if you can’t conclude that I hit the ball, the shot still didn’t get off with the correct call.”

The referees ruled that Hollins did not touch the ball, and the league office determined there was not enough video evidence to overrule that determination.

With the ruling, the Kings record stays at 9-7, good for the ninth seed in the Western Conference.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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