As the second half begins, Dime looks at a burning question facing each team. Here’s the Northwest Division.
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Oklahoma City Thunder
When do the Thunder get tired? When OKC gets tired as the playoffs get closer, Scott Brooks will look to rest his team, even if it is one of the league’s youngest rosters. That, in turn, means a search for regaining momentum before the playoffs start — the proverbial “flipped switch.” The Thunder made a Western Conference Finals run last year and are tied for an NBA-best 27-7 with Miami, but their sample size is still too small to have full confidence in their playoff maturity.
That’s why how they handle preparing for the playoffs in the season’s final two weeks will be possibly the team’s most important stretch. How they restart the energy from the incredible run they’ve had so far could predict their readiness for the playoffs. Admittedly, it’s a nit-pick problem, but that’s the luxury a team this good, that’s rolling like this, has.
Portland Trail Blazers
As good as All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge has been (22.3 points, 8.3 boards) this season, he’s been the only thing about the team that’s consistent. Jamal Crawford is the popular option to replace Raymond Felton as point guard, but Crawford’s first half wasn’t the picture of consistency, either. Finding a point guard is crucial and is the domino that sets up Portland’s fate.
Some teams don’t have the pieces to make a run, but that’s not Portland’s issue. An eternal question at center doesn’t mean a combination of Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, Crawford and Aldridge can’t piece it together as they had in early January. So protect home (a rare four-game losing streak ended before the All-Star break), get Felton’s confidence back and poof, a top-four team in the West, right? It’s certainly a start.
Who’s playing every night? Danilo Gallinari (ankle) and Nene (calf) have come and gone, along with Ty Lawson, because of injuries. That’s led to a start-and-stop development and an 18-16 record. Nene is most pressing because of the threat he poses to every defense in the post, thus taking the pressure of rising stars Gallinari and Lawson. When he plays in just 23 of the teams’ 35 games, that threat disappears.
Another personnel question is Wilson Chandler, who this week will find out if any teams want to show him an offer sheet. Making sure he’s comfortable and able to focus just on basketball is key to a successful run in the second half. One, preferably, that will get the Nugs out of the eighth seed (and improving an atrocious 9-17 conference record), and thus missing Oklahoma City in the first round.
Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley each scored 27 in the first game back from the All-Star break, which is exactly what Rick Adelman needs. So how well do those two play from here out? Kevin Love, Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio are just as dependable as Wesley Johnson is not for the Timberwolves. The Minnesota bench scored 72 on Tuesday, the most in the NBA this season. Michael Beasley told Dime in February he was OK with being a bench player, but he pines for more playing time as a starter. Let him and Williams share Johnson’s minutes at the forwards, and see if they respond like they did Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Finding out the wild cards’ performance is going to see how a team that’s already surpassed last year’s win total will take the next step into a playoff team.
When do the road wins come? Only Detroit and Washington have three road wins like Utah does, and only the Bobcats are worse than that this season. While Salt Lake City has been an absolute hole for opponents to dig out of for years, this team doesn’t go anywhere without fixing its road woes.
How does a team begin to change things on the road? Establishing a true star, which in this case should be either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Jefferson’s scoring goes down three points on the road and his shooting dips 10 percentage points (Millsap’s scoring drops nearly four points from home to road, too). While Jefferson’s scoring increased from 18.7 per game to 20.5 from January to February, he’s got to keep that up and be the monster that keys Utah away from Energy Solutions Arena.
What are these teams’ biggest issues?
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