The Oklahoma City Thunder have not stopped proving people wrong.
Coming into the season, they were considered to be a lottery team, with former franchise cornerstone Russell Westbrook traded to the Houston Rockets. But the Thunder, led by a three-guard trio of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, have shown otherwise.
With their win Sunday against the Boston Celtics, the Thunder extended their win streak to three games and moved into the Western Conference’s fifth seed.
The Thunder have 18 games left in the regular season, and while they haven’t officially clinched a playoff spot, their performances make them potential spoilers for higher-seeded teams in the postseason.
Chris Paul isn’t done being a top-tier point guard yet
Paul, 34, is playing his 15th NBA season, and after a down year last season with the Rockets, questions emerged of how much time he had left in his career.
With the performances he’s had this season, Paul has shown he has more to give than most people thought. Sunday night’s game against the Celtics was simply another example of Paul’s resurgence. He scored a game-high 28 points, dished a team-high seven assists and grabbed six rebounds.
It was the 22nd time this season Paul scored 20 or more points; last season Paul had 18 such games.
Paul was an All-Star for the first time since the 2015-16 season, his second-to-last season with the Los Angeles Clippers. He has been instrumental in OKC’s success, using his veteran leadership to help close games.
According to NBA.com stats, the Thunder and Brooklyn Nets are tied for first in points scored in the last five minutes, while there also being a five-point difference or less. Both teams are averaging 10.6 points in that span, and Paul averages 3.4 points within the last five minutes of games.
The Thunder play to their strengths of midrange scoring
In the age of analytics, the midrange shot is not viewed as an ideal jumper, with teams prioritizing 3-pointers, layups, dunks and free throws.
But for the Thunder, scoring in the midrange is part of what makes them successful. According to NBA.com stats, the Thunder are tied for fourth in percentage of points scored in the midrange at 11.9%. The only other current playoff team that ranks in the top five are the Indiana Pacers; the Pacers are second in the NBA for the category.
Paul and Schroder drive the Thunder’s midrange success. According to NBA.com stats, Paul scores 24.8% of his points in the midrange; Schroder scores 19.2% of his points in that area.
With both of those players crafty in that area, they make it tough for defenses to check them. Paul has been effective scoring in the midrange throughout his career, using his dribble to routinely get to his hot spots.
The Thunder don’t let teams knock down many threes
The Thunder don’t boast an elite defense, but their play on that end remains solid, especially when it comes to defending the 3-point line.
OKC gives up a 34.4% opponent 3-point field goal percentage, per NBA.com stats. That ties them for sixth in the league for the category with the Miami Heat.
Matchups in the postseason are so crucial. With the Thunder ranked fifth, they’d currently play the Utah Jazz in the first round.
That’s a relatively even matchup, but the difference would likely come down to whether the Thunder could keep the Jazz from making a bevy of threes. The Jazz rank second in 3-point percentage behind the Heat, shooting at a 38.3% clip this season.
The Thunder are 1-1 in the season series against the Jazz this season. During their win over Utah in December, the Thunder held the Jazz to 25.8% shooting from deep.
OKC will play the Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday, with tipoff set for 8 p.m. EST.