The other is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have two of the supposed best closers in the game in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder are 43-20 and third in the Western Conference. They are on pace for another 55-win season, a threshold they reached for four straight years until last season’s injury-addled campaign. They remain, IMHO, one of five teams with a legitimate chance at winning the NBA championship in June.
But since the All-Star break, the Thunder are just 3-6. They have allowed at least 115 points five times in that stretch. They have had meltdowns against Indiana, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers, a nationally televised debacle that saw the Thunder shoot 1-of-14 with three turnovers down the stretch, wasting a 16-point lead.
“Did we beat ourselves, or did they beat us?” first-year coach Billy Donovan said. “The biggest decision that we have to make collectively, from an accountability standpoint, is that there’s got to be a whole level of sacrifice by everybody.”
Donovan still hasn’t solved Oklahoma City’s perpetual conundrum of overt reliance on Durant and Westbrook. It is a tremendous task, because it requires getting two of the NBA’s top five players to not immediately default to taking over games, which both know they can do at any time. Durant has scored at least 20 points in 48 straight games, and the Thunder are 10-0 when Westbrook has a triple-double.
But the Thunder also are 15th in defensive rating, 18th in points allowed and 26th in turnovers. Since the calendar changed to 2016, their signature win is a 25-point victory over Miami. They are a collective 2-6 vs. Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the Clippers.
“If we just want to be a great team, the way we’re playing, we’re fooling ourselves,” Durant said. “We want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, that’s cool, but we’re fooling ourselves with the way we’re playing.”
There is a school of thought that sees the Thunder as one of the deepest teams in the NBA. But their depth is misleading. They bring former starters such as Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters off the bench because their middle-of-the-road defense would become a sieve if they didn’t start Steven Adams and Andre Roberson.
But should Durant and Westbrook “sacrifice” and throw the ball to Adams and Roberson? Adams is coming along nicely but still is not a true threat to score. Roberson has scored in double figures three times this season and has a 7.90 PER.
It would help if the Thunder were getting a little more from Serge Ibaka, whose numbers have been in decline for the last two years. Ibaka was supposed to be an emerging two-way player giving the Thunder a “Big Three” by now, but he has the same defensive rating as Kanter (105).
GM Sam Presti knew he needed an upgrade, so at the deadline he acquired veteran combo guard Randy Foye from Denver for Steve Novak and D.J. Augustin, two players who were not in the rotation. Foye solved the problem of entrusting the postseason backup point guard minutes to rookie Cameron Payne, who has shown flashes of being a player. But Foye (.308 FGs) is doing the same thing in Loud City that he did in the Mile High City – missing shots with alarming frequency.
The trade left the Thunder with an empty roster spot, but they were unable to land buyout recipients such as Joe Johnson, Ty Lawson, David Lee, Marcus Thornton, Kris Humphries or Kevin Martin. To be fair, only Johnson or Martin may have moved the meter, and neither would help on the defensive end. So over the weekend, Presti filled the spot with 38-year-old backup center Nazr Mohammed.
“You may not have noticed that I have been in what I call semi-retirement,” Mohammed wrote on his blog.
Mohammed isn’t going to move the meter on the court. In fact, he may not even get on the court. But he has been around the NBA block. He has a championship ring with San Antonio in 2005 and has been on a lot of good teams, including the Thunder in 2011 and 2012 when they reached the conference finals and NBA Finals, respectively.
Mohammed’s experience and calming effect may be a helpful tonic for the Thunder, who still careen off the rails way too much for an elite team. If you don’t think so, check out Durant’s remembrance of Mohammed’s first time around with OKC.
“Numerous times during that lockout year (2011-12), we were going through the same thing we are going through right now,” Durant told the Daily Oklahoman. “Lost a few games in a row, we were struggling a bit, locker room was down. We were expected to be a contender. Nobody knew it from the outside, but the inside we were going through it a bit.
“And after every game, Nazr would invite all of us to his house. It would be Reggie (Jackson), Lazar Hayward, Royal (Ivey), myself, D-Fish (Derek Fisher). We would just all hang out at his house after every game. He opened his doors for us and his wife was amazing just letting the boys hang out. It was just cool, man. It was something I always thought about when he left and all the other guys left. Just going through a tough time and he was always a guy to lean on, someone you could talk to about anything. Like a big brother.”
Outside of perhaps Nick Collison, the Thunder don’t really have anyone like that on their roster. Veterans like Ivey and Fisher and Kendrick Perkins used to serve that role but aren’t around anymore, replaced by twentysomethings who have no clue what the next three-plus months are about. Neither does their coach.
Perhaps Mohammed’s presence can settle the Thunder, who are trying to hold off the Clippers for third in the West and the chance to avoid the Warriors until the conference finals. They still have five games against the “Gang of Four” – two vs. the Clippers and three vs. the Spurs. Oklahoma City hosts LA on Wednesday and visits San Antonio on Saturday, needing a signature win.
“I think the best thing for this team is adversity. It needs adversity,” Donovan said.
Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder have had plenty of adversity. They have lost in the Finals and were supposed to be the next big thing but have never gotten back. They have endured endless, warranted criticism for the James Harden trade. They have had championship dreams scuttled by untimely injuries. They have had to answer questions about Durant’s impending free agency for nearly two years. Just in the last month, they have lived through an assistant coach’s wife and a part owner dying in car crashes.
The Thunder don’t need any more adversity. First, they need to calm down. Then they need to step up. And Mohammed may be able to help with the first part.
TRIVIA: The San Antonio Spurs are headed to their 19th consecutive postseason, the longest current streak. Which team has the second-longest current streak? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: The Reno Bighorns had to forfeit a D-League victory over Bakersfield on Feb. 16 because they used Sacramento Kings rookie Duje Dukan, who was under NBA contract and thus ineligible to play in the D-League during the All-Star break. The NBA notified all teams of this restriction on Jan. 15.
“All I did was I pointed to (James) Dolan, and told him, ‘Look, the owner’s right there. Ask for your money back.'”
TANKS A LOT!: Don’t look now, but Philadelphia’s tank is rolling again. The 76ers have lost 12 straight games, allowing 115 points per game. Starters Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Nik Stauskas are out with injuries, somewhat forcing team consigliere Elton Brand to take the court the last two games. The Sixers play the Nets twice in the next eight days. If they don’t win one of those, they could find themselves on another historic slide.
LINE OF THE WEEK: James Harden, Houston at Toronto, March 6: 43 minutes, 11-20 FGs, 3-7 3-pointers, 15-19 FTs, five rebounds, 14 assists, one steal, one turnover, 40 points in a 113-107 win. Yes, Harden had this impersonation of a turnstile. But he also scored 18 points in the fourth quarter for his fourth 40-10 game of the season, as many as the rest of the NBA combined. It was also the second straight game in which the Raptors allowed an explosion by an opponent; Portland’s Damian Lillard dropped 50 in a loss two nights earlier.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Garrett Temple, Washington vs. Cleveland, March 4: 27 minutes, 0-5 FGs, 0-4 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, zero rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, one block, three fouls, zero points in a 108-83 loss. Temple is no superstar, but this empty performance capped a 10-game stretch in which he shot 14-of-57 from the field. The next night, Bradley Beal started in his place – and suffered a hip injury.
TRILLION WATCH: Charlotte teammates Tyler Hansbrough and Jorge Gutierrez had 2 trillions Wednesday at Philadelphia, as did Minnesota’s Damjan Rudez on Saturday vs. Brooklyn. Orlando’s Andrew Nicholson had a 3 trillion Friday at Phoenix. But Friday’s Utah-Memphis game featured a 3 trillion from Grizzlies guard Jarell Martin and a 6 trillion from Jazz forward Joe Ingles, who crashed the season leaderboard. Milwaukee rookie Rashad Vaughn still leads the pack with his unfathomable 12 trillion vs. Atlanta on Jan. 15.
GAME OF THE WEEK: LA Clippers at Oklahoma City, March 9. The Thunder have a chance to get right back on the horse after last week’s brutal collapse at LA. The season series is even at one game apiece and could be a huge factor in determining the third seed in the West.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Brooklyn at Philadelphia, March 11. This is the finale of a nine-game road trip for the Nets, who actually have won three games thus far but just allowed Minnesota to shoot a spiffy 68 percent from the field. The Sixers have not won since Feb. 6 – vs. the Nets.
TWO MINUTES: With about a quarter of the season remaining, Golden State’s six losses have come to teams that are a collective 56 games under .500. When the Chicago Bulls went 72-10 in the 1995-96 season, their losses were to teams a combined 90 games over .500. The Bulls also had their inexplicable loss, dropping a 109-108 decision on March 24 at Toronto, an expansion team that went 21-61 in its first season. The Warriors have to go 18-3 to break the Bulls’ record. Just six of their games are on the road, but they do still play the Spurs three times, the Clippers, the Grizzlies twice and the Celtics. … In Sunday’s loss at Detroit, not only did Portland center Chris Kaman play – he had played just 70 minutes this season and 24 since Nov. 15 – but he made a 3-pointer, his first in 729 career games. Kaman had been 0-of-23 from the arc. … The Suns have suddenly won three of five after losing 28 of 30, and center Alex Len has been a big reason why. Len is finally playing like a fifth overall pick, averaging 19.0 points and 12.4 rebounds in 31.3 minutes over his last eight games. … Another former high draft pick who has been coming on lately is Bucks forward Jabari Parker. The second overall pick two years ago, Parker did not score 20 points in a game this season until Jan. 13. But in 10 games since Feb. 11, Parker is averaging 21.4 points on 52.6 percent shooting with 7.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 40.3 minutes. … Before Saturday’s loss at Cleveland, Boston had been 19-6 since a 19-19 start, climbing to third in the East. The Celtics are still riding a 13-game home winning streak. But guard Isaiah Thomas says opponents still treat his team dismissively. “Teams in the NBA they still don’t respect us. And we know that,” he said. “We go into every game with a chip on our shoulder and knowing that we gotta earn the respect. We gotta earn what we get and take what’s ours.” Memphis and Houston visit TD Garden this week. … It seems it’s always something in Sacramento. In Monday’s home loss to Oklahoma City, Kings guard Rajon Rondo refused to properly handle the ball from the referee prior to an inbounds at the end of the first half, not once but twice. With coach George Karl watching with an apoplectic look on his face, the Kings were called for two technical fouls for delay of game. Kevin Durant sank both free throws. “It’s lovely. That’s lovely,” Durant said. “That’s like Christmas. You know coming in here, this team, they have a little hot head so you know at some point you’re going to get free points.”
Trivia Answer: Atlanta with 8. … Happy 57th Birthday, Sam “The Slam” Williams. … Alvin Gentry is right. The Pelicans aren’t in the playoff race.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.