The Oklahoma City Thunder are heading to the playoffs though without much in the way of momentum. OKC and San Antonio are tied for 7th and 8th meaning they’re in a ‘pick your poison’ situation. They can finish 8th and play Golden State in the first round or they can finish 7th and play Denver in the first round–with the Nuggets having home court advantage. In theory they could run down the 6th place LA Clippers who are 2.5 games ahead or the 5th place Utah Jazz who are 3 games ahead but both of these teams are in much better form.
The Thunder have lost 7 of 10 SU and really haven’t been the same team since Russell Westbrook’s hissy fit in Utah on February 22. Since then, the Thunder are 7-13 SU and a brutal 5-15 ATS. Given their current form they’re fortunate the standings are such that they can’t fall out of the playoff picture. Were the season a few games longer they’d have to be worried about Sacramento who are 6 games back and playing better basketball. OKC hasn’t been anything special at home this year going 24-14 SU/18-20 ATS. The Thunder’s 14 home losses are the most by any playoff bound team in the West and only 2 teams in the East have more (Brooklyn and Miami).
In the other corner, we have the Los Angeles Lakers who may be the most famous playoff non-qualifier in the history of the NBA. Obviously, LeBron’s first year in the Purple and Gold didn’t go as planned and a brutal run of 1-10 SU/ATS to start the month of March provided the denouement. Something funny has happened since their elimination–they’ve been playing better. Los Angeles is now 4-1 SU/5-0 ATS since being eliminated from postseason play. This isn’t an indictment of LeBron or anything–there are two dynamics at work here. First, the pressure is off. The playoffs aren’t happening so the team is playing ‘looser’ basketball. With the exception of LeBron and Rajon Rondo there’s not much in the way of playoff experience on the Lakers and it could be that they weren’t ready for the intensity of a late season ‘push’?
More significantly, perhaps, are the Lakers’ lineup adjustments with the postseason out of the question. LeBron had been playing reduced minutes and has since been shut down entirely. Big minutes have gone to Jevale McGee, Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The entire bench has seen a fair amount of action. In the team’s first game post LeBron shutdown the entire bench saw at least 11 minutes of action with the exception of rookie Jemerrio Jones who made his NBA debut and will be with the team for the rest of the season.
Other than injured Kyle Kuzma everyone on the Lakers’ roster is getting minutes. Jones has a ‘team option’ for 2019-2020 and in actuality most of the Lakers’ lineup is in a position where they’re competing for a job. With the exception of LeBron, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram (Ball, Kuzma, Hart and Ingram have already had their team options exercised for next year) no one is guaranteed of a job beyond this year and there are ten players on the current roster who will become unrestricted free agents. Several more players are playing with ‘team options’ for 2019-2020 that have set to be exercised. It’s doubtful that Luke Walton is ‘coaching for his job’–most likely the decision has already been made on his fate one way or another–but it can’t hurt for the team to play well down the stretch.
The Lakers’ recent run has admittedly been against a favorable schedule. All four SU wins were against non-playoff teams (New Orleans, Charlotte, Sacramento, Washington) and they were lucky to get a cover in Salt Lake City against the red hot Jazz this past Saturday losing by 15 as +16 dogs. There are clearly some issues on the OKC team that go beyond ‘bad form’ and they’ll definitely be a ‘go against’ for the rest of the regular season. The Thunder may have decided–consciously or unconsciously–to just ‘phone it in’ until the playoffs without much chance to improve their seeding. Getting a ton of points and with significant motivation to compete individually and collectively we’ll back the Lakers’ scrubs.