Can the OKC Thunder Secure Home Court in the Playoffs?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a dead heat in the race for home-court advantage. Can they surge past the competition, or will a dark horse competitor pass them by?

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the fourth-strongest schedule remaining as they look to cling onto their sixth seed in the Western Conference. While FiveThirtyEight gives the Thunder an 86 percent chance of making the playoffs, the playoff race in the West is far from over, as the third through tenth seeded teams are separated by only 3.5 games with roughly 15 games remaining for each team. 

On the bright side, the Thunder are not alone in having tough competition in the playoff hunt. The third toughest remaining schedule belongs to the San Antonio Spurs (7th in the west), and the fifth toughest schedule belongs to the Los Angeles Clippers (ranked 8th).  If we look at the remaining opponents for each team, it would seem that the Spurs have the toughest road ahead of them, based on Tankathon's handy chart, which I've made a very abridged version of here:

Team Tough Opponents Remaining
Thunder Rockets, Warriors, Raptors, Celtics, Trail Blazers, Pelicans
Spurs Rockets (twice), Warriors, Trail Blazers, Pelicans (twice)
Clippers Rockets, Raptors, Trail Blazers (twice), Pacers (twice)

Here's some more good news: while the Thunder have proven they can compete with the league's best, the Spurs and Clippers have struggled against top talent. While the Thunder hold a 20-18 record against teams with a .500 record or better, the Spurs and Clippers are 13-23 and 12-23 respectively. On the flip side, the Thunder are 19-11 against opponents that are .500 or worse while the Spurs and Clippers are both 24-6. So while each team has a very similar strength of schedule for their remaining games, it's important to remember that the Thunder have a tendency to not show up against lesser teams, making their schedule artificially tougher, for lack of a better term. Calling them the least reliable of the three teams is a safe bet. Consistently inconsistent, if you will. 

To their benefit, the basement dwellers of the NBA have engaged in full tank mode, and are prepared to lose every game possible, no matter the cost. The Atlanta Hawks, for example, have shut Kent Bazemore down for the season due to a bum knee. Although in reality, Bazemore's extended rest might have more to do with unforgivable acts, such as this: 

Taurean Prince hit a game winner of his own the other night, so I would assume his privilege of playing in close games has also been revoked. The Thunder won't have another game against a tanking team until April 11th against the Memphis Grizzlies, which is there last game of the season. While the Thunder have won all three meetings against Memphis so far this season, the Thunder will likely be resting their starters if they aren't fighting for home court advantage in their closing games. 

The most interesting plot twist, as we glean over projections, is that FiveThirtyEight has the Utah Jazz shooting all the way up from tenth to fourth place in the West (and Philly finishing third in the East)! Even better, it thinks that Utah, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City will all finish with 47 wins, leaving little room for error for all three teams. The Thunder won't play either team again this season, but the Jazz will play the Timberwolves again, and the Timberwolves lead their season series 2-1. Utah also has one game left versus San Antonio (projected at 45 wins), and Utah leads that season series 3-0. 

FiveThirtyEight has the Thunder finishing sixth, and I think that's a fair assessment. The Thunder are built to withstand a tough schedule, so they seem less likely to be knocked out of the top eight teams than the other competition. It'll be interesting to see if the Thunder have another gear in the first round of the playoffs, or if that anger can only be unlocked by the Golden State Warriors. 

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