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Four Big Questions for the Thunder

Can Oklahoma City be the team we all expected it would be this summer? Four big questions stand between the Thunder and a major playoff push.

The NCAA tournament had a bonkers opening weekend, but the NBA is in the midst of its own madness. The Thunder are at the center of it all; they have the sixth-best record (43-29) in the NBA, they’re in fourth place in the Western Conference, and they’re one of only four teams with top-10 offensive and defensive ratings. They defeated the Raptors in Toronto on Sunday, 132-125, to extend their win streak to six.

”I am a man on a mission,” Russell Westbrook said after the game. “We’ve got to take care of business. This time of year, you’ve got to turn it up a notch.” They’ll need to. They’re up only four games on the ninth-place Nuggets and have the NBA’s toughest remaining schedule, with only one game against a team not in or contending for the playoffs.

This gantlet stretch will serve as a litmus test for their postseason hopes. Fortunately, they’ve generally played up to the competition, posting the NBA’s fourth-best net rating against teams with a record over .500, according to data provided by NBA.com/Stats. The Thunder could snatch home-court advantage in the first round while also showing they have what it takes to battle deep into the playoffs. But they could slip and slide down to the 7- or 8-seed, where the Rockets or Warriors will be waiting.

Oklahoma City is built for the postseason; if there’s any time to start clicking, it’s now. We know that Westbrook and Paul George are awesome, but the rest of the rotation needs to click for this team to reach great heights. Here are four big questions about the rest of the Thunder as they head into the home stretch:

1. Can Carmelo Be a Playoff Difference-maker?

When Thunder general manager Sam Presti acquired Carmelo Anthony last September for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and Chicago’s 2018 second-rounder, I thought we’d get to witness the USA Basketball version of Melo—the efficient spot-up shooter and slasher who would feast against mismatches as a tertiary option next to Westbrook and George. That hasn’t exactly happened. Melo is third in shots per game on the team and is posting the lowest usage percentage of his career, but he’s having the worst statistical scoring season of his career—16.7 points on 43.9 percent from 2 (both career lows) while shooting only 36.3 percent from 3. And no surprise to Knicks fans, he’s not making up for it as a playmaker or a defender.

It’s not a simple adjustment for a 33-year-old to go from dominating the ball since he was a teenager to playing an auxiliary role alongside George and the NBA’s Triple-Double Machine. Breaking old habits and starting new ones—never mind transforming as a player—can take time. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s depleted reserve unit could have used a bench bruiser and rebounder like Kanter in this regular season.

But let’s remember one very, very important detail: The Thunder are built for more than the regular season. Westbrook couldn’t win it all alone last season. And even if George gets hot, the team needs a third wheel to keep up with the firepower of the Rockets and Warriors. Kanter had already proved to be a playoff zero against teams like Houston and Golden State. So even though things haven’t gone as smoothly as OKC might have hoped when it made the deal with the Knicks, Melo still offers more upside in a playoff series.

We have been at least starting to see glimpses of Team USA Melo this month. Anthony has been streaky from behind the arc this season, but the Thunder have made a point of late to funnel him spot-up 3-pointers. Last season for the Knicks, 19.6 percent of Melo’s field goal attempts were catch-and-shoot 3s, according to Second Spectrum; from October through February this season, that number nearly doubled, to 33 percent. In eight games this March, the number has risen to 47.9 percent. To put that into perspective, 37.6 percent of Klay Thompson’s shots are catch-and-shoot 3s, and they’re 66.3 percent of Kyle Korver’s. Carmelo’s evolution is coming at the exact time it needs to.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything different,” Anthony said last week. “I think my teammates are doing a better job of finding me in those spots. It’s a matter of just making shots.” For the full season, Melo is shooting 37.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and if you include the past four seasons to create a more significant sample size, the number is 39.7 percent. Melo’s gravity can create driving lanes for Westbrook or rolling lanes for Steven Adams. Westbrook has developed into a lethal passer, and when the defender collapses into the paint Russ can make any pass with accuracy; Melo doesn’t need much time or space to launch his shot. Most of Anthony’s 3-pointers come via basic spot-up situations, but the Thunder do occasionally get creative and use Melo as a screener.

This is a typical slip action that a handful of teams—like the Warriors with Thompson—run, and the Thunder have used it to great effect, albeit in a small sample. Anthony has hit eight of 19 3-pointers when slipping or popping off screens, according to data derived from Synergy Sports. It’s a useful play; I’m curious whether we’ll see more of it in the postseason.

Much like the Warriors tend to wait for the playoffs to utilize Kevin Durant as a screener for Stephen Curry, perhaps the Thunder are holding off with this Anthony-Westbrook action. It’s not as if Billy Donovan hasn’t saved his best stuff for the postseason in the past. In 2015-16, the Stache Bros lineups with Kanter and Adams played only 27 games and 127 minutes together in the regular season, compared to 108 minutes in 14 playoff games. During that same postseason, the Thunder’s small-ball lineup of Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Durant, Dion Waiters, and Serge Ibaka played only 46 minutes through the entire regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. Then, the team busted it out against the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and used it for 59 total minutes during the epic seven-game series. Donovan has been known to keep tricks up his sleeves, and nothing is stopping him from doing it again.

With that said, odds are opponents will try to switch most screens, so the Thunder will need Melo to turn back the clock as a post scorer. He hasn’t been the same player down low this season, scoring only 0.83 points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy, his worst performance since 2008-09. Anthony has seen a dip in his interior scoring largely because he’s getting swatted more frequently. More than 19 percent of the attempts the 15-year veteran has taken within 5 feet this season have been blocked, marking only the second time in his career that’s happened.

Growing old hasn’t been easy for Melo, but there’s still value in his isolation scoring. The regular season is so freaking long that it’s easy to forget that the game changes in the postseason. The pace slows in the playoffs, and it becomes harder for a team to run its regular offense. Even teams that rarely run isolations, like the Warriors, turn to it in key situations. That’s when having Melo on the court will bring the most value, because he can create a look against anyone, regardless of the situation. Melo needs to hit spot-up 3s, and it’d be nice if he cut more, but ultimately the Thunder might need Melo to be his most Melo in critical moments.

If the Thunder are running screens and teams switch, it can create mismatches, which can lead to doubles and then passing situations.

As Oklahoma City has developed chemistry, it has seen more and more of these pretty possessions. A light heavyweight in Anthony switching onto a featherweight in Milos Teodosic will always be an advantage for the offense. Melo’s post-ups have created 17 makes on 29 takes for teammates this season, per Synergy (which is another small sample, but the film confirms that he creates mostly open attempts). “You just make the simple play starting the ball from one side to the other—get it out of the post,” Anthony said recently of passing out of the post. “We made [the defense] scramble out of a double-team, and we got some good looks.”

But whenever I see a team double, like the Clippers did in the clip above, I think about Mike D’Antoni chuckling during an interview for a 2017 feature story on the Rockets and saying that he hopes “the other team is dumb enough” to do just that. In other words, the Rockets probably won’t sweat about Melo’s 0.83 points per possession on post-ups, especially against their super-switchy lineups, if the alternative is Melo passing out of the double into the hands of an open shooter. Melo’s scoring efficiency needs to be better, but at least he’ll be an asset in those moments at the end of the clock as a third go-to scorer.

That’s why, in my opinion, they’re the Western Conference team with the best chance of beating the Rockets or Warriors. The Blazers have been better this season, especially lately, but Melo still has room to grow. And maybe it’ll take the postseason style for it to be unleashed.

2. Is Corey Brewer the Wing OKC’s Been Searching For?

Andre Roberson’s season-ending rupture of his left patellar tendon caused a domino effect for the Thunder. They dropped four of five games after the injury, and their defensive performance fell off a cliff. George, who was badgering teams off the ball and drew some Defensive Player of the Year buzz, took on Roberson’s role to mixed results. The team lost its identity.

Presti was unable to find a replacement for Roberson at the trade deadline, but the buyout market provided a gift: Corey Brewer, an old friend of coach Billy Donovan from his time at Florida. Brewer doesn’t come close to matching Roberson on defense, but he’s a long-armed, versatile defender with fresh legs (he’s logged only 913 minutes this season). Donovan has assigned Brewer to everyone from DeMar DeRozan to Devin Booker to C.J. McCollum, which suggests Brewer will fill the Roberson role, thus putting George back on the second-best scorer.

Believe it or not, Brewer has made an immediate impact on the offensive end, too, by spacing the floor and providing a spark in transition. Oklahoma City’s pace clocks in at 104.6 (which would rank first in the NBA) with Brewer on the floor, compared to 98.7 (20th in the NBA) before his first game with the team on March 3. Raptors coach Dwane Casey called Brewer, 32, an “energy rabbit” before Sunday’s game. Sounds accurate.

Brewer, a career 28.2 percent 3-point shooter, is hitting an unsustainable 42.9 percent from 3 in eight games with the Thunder, but unlike Roberson, he can at least stand outside of the arc and force defenses to account for him. Roberson was a ghost; Donovan often had to put Roberson in the “dunker’s spot”—usually reserved for bigs on the baseline near the low post, where he’d be ready for cuts—to account for his weakness. Even a teeny bit more spacing could potentially open more attacking lanes for Westbrook, George, or Melo to penetrate the paint in the pick-and-roll or in isolations, leading to more layups or kick-out passes for 3.

It’s a scary thought that Brewer, a notoriously inconsistent player, is the answer. But the alternatives are Terrance Ferguson, Josh Huestis, and Alex Abrines. All three are young and have played like it this season. Brewer is a better player right now, especially on defense. “Coach Donovan makes me feel real comfortable. I won two national championships with the guy,” Brewer said. “Then I’m playing with three superstars, and Steven Adams. I just fit in.”

3. Can Playoff Steven Adams Return?

Speaking of Adams, he’s often too overlooked among Oklahoma City’s stars. The film industry gives out awards for things like Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Editing because, without the contributions of others beyond the stars and the director, it wouldn’t be possible to make great films. The same goes for Adams, OKC’s rock on defense and clean-up man on offense who will occasionally drop 25 points as he did on the Raptors on Sunday.

Adams can’t leap like DeAndre Jordan or pass off the short roll like Draymond Green, but he does a little bit of everything. No one wants to run through Khal Drogo on a screen, and Adams can finish rolls with power or with touch around the rim. We saw flashes of the Adams from Sunday back in the 2016 playoffs, especially when the Thunder shut the door on the Spurs with three straight wins in the West semifinals. Adams was a bruiser on the roll, showcased his feel with well-timed cuts, and ran the floor hard in transition. The difference now is he has added a little flip shot that he uses outside the restricted area.

Melo is the third wheel now, but with only one year left on his deal (it’d be a greater upset than UMBC beating Virginia if he didn’t pick up his $27.9 million contract option for 2018-19), it might not be long before Adams is ready for a greater offensive role. But he’s already worth every penny, even if it doesn’t always show up in the box score. No player has logged more screen assists this season than Adams, per NBA.com/Stats, and he led the league in box outs at the All-Star break.

Westbrook devastates defenses with his ferocious drives and athletic rebounds, but Adams helps make his life easier. “My whole mind-set is just to hit them as hard as I can,” Adams told NBC Sports in February. “It’s more just a psyche thing. Because no one likes getting hit.”

It’s so easy to forget that Adams is only 24 and getting better every season on both ends of the floor. He’s developed great chemistry with Westbrook and, in a different context, perhaps he’d get more touches in the post, where he’s reliable from either block as a scorer or passer. Adams is a supporting actor, but a very important one who offers hope for the Thunder’s future.

4. Is the Bench Deep Enough?

Oklahoma City’s starting five will make or break their postseason, but the bench needs to do its job by at least holding opponents to a stalemate when it’s in the game. Donovan has typically utilized an eight-man rotation in past postseasons, while sometimes sprinkling in a ninth player. If that remains the case this season, then it’s plausible that Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, and Patrick Patterson will be the top three players off the bench, with one of Abrines, Huestis, and Ferguson making occasional appearances. You can bet on Abrines being that ninth, considering his experience level overseas, and his prowess as a shooter. But it’s Grant who has turned into an integral reserve. The 24-year-old is a legitimate five-position defender who Donovan has used as everything from a small-ball center to a floor-spacing forward. At 6-foot-8 with long limbs, Grant is a squirrelly scorer who can dribble and finish with either hand while contorting his body like a gymnast soaring through the air. It’s not always pretty, but it’s effective.

“He’s a very multidimensional player,” Donovan said recently, per The Norman Transcript. “There’s been times here he’s been the 2-guard. There’s been times here he’s been the center, so I think it speaks to his flexibility and different ways he can impact the game.” In Oklahoma City’s 125-105 win over Golden State last month, Anthony sprained his ankle in the first quarter and Grant ended up playing 35 minutes. Grant was aggressive on offensive, hitting 3s and diving hard in the pick-and-roll, while playing gritty defense against multiple positions. If the Thunder end up with a playoff date against the Warriors, they’ll need him to produce similarly. It’s especially critical for Grant to do what he does because Patrick Patterson hasn’t resembled the plus-minus king that he once was in Toronto. Patterson underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee this past offseason and appears to be feeling the lingering effects, as his quickness has been sapped, rendering him a less impactful defender. But Patterson has at least been a little bit better over the past month, at least compared to his dismal early-season performance. In a bit role in the playoffs, Patterson offers some value with his ability to space the floor (36.7 percent from 3), while Grant serves as the rim-runner and defensive ace.Raymond Felton has been surprisingly solid considering he’s Raymond Felton. The starters will carry an even heavier load in the playoffs, so they won’t need much of the 33-year-old, but he’s at least proved this season that he can hit 3s off the catch. Felton, along with Brewer, Grant, and their other secondary players, gives the Thunder the ability to play a load of four-out or five-out lineups, which will help them set the tone for a series or shape-shift and adapt to the opponent.

The Thunder were always going to be slow starters this season considering how much changed last offseason. But the final 10 games of their tortuous regular-season schedule could very well wind up becoming a prelude to an interesting postseason. With uncertain free agencies and financial hurdles on the horizon, there’s no telling whether this core will stay together past this season, so savor every moment of it.