Expectations were not high for the Oklahoma City Thunder entering the 2022-23 season.
The Thunder finished near the bottom of the NBA standings the last two seasons, as the team shifted its focus to rebuilding with young talent via the NBA Draft. FiveThiryEight gave this year’s team an 18 percent chance to make the playoffs, the seventh-lowest odds in the league, while The Athletic predicted the Thunder would finish with a 20-62 record and dead last in the Western Conference.
With more than half of the season gone, expectations are starting to change for the Thunder.
The team has already surpassed the 20-win threshold, sitting at 21-23 and 11th place in the Western Conference. The Thunder are now just 1.5 games back of the sixth seed and a half-game back of the 10th seed, which would qualify them for the NBA Play-In Tournament.
“We know we won 24 games all of last year and 22 the year before. We know we’re getting better.” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said on Sunday. “And I think guys are kind of getting addicted to the feeling and just trying to be better every day and continue to grow.”
It’s possible the Thunder could continue making their way up the standings. They have the second-easiest strength of schedule the rest of the way, per Tankathon, and their remaining opponents have posted a combined .476 win percentage.
But it’s not just the Thunder’s current record or their easy strength of schedule that has raised expectations. Playoff talk surrounding the Thunder has expedited due to its recent Eastern Conference road trip, where it won three of four games.
The Thunder began the road trip last Tuesday, losing by one to Miami due to a historic night from the free-throw line. The Heat broke an NBA record for most made attempts without a single miss at 40-for-40.
However, they quickly recovered with wins at Philadelphia and Chicago, which came on back-to-back nights. The victory against the Sixers was particularly impressive.
The fourth-seeded Sixers have been one of the hottest teams in the league in recent weeks. In their 16 games heading into their matchup with the Thunder, the Sixers were 13-3 and had the third-best net rating, outscoring opponents 8.8 points per 100 possessions.
Instead, the Thunder secured their most impressive road win of the season, defeating Philadelphia 133-114. The Thunder’s 133 points are the most given up by the Sixers, who own the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA, this season.
The Thunder ended the road trip with a win over Brooklyn, which currently sits at No. 2 in the Eastern Conference.
So what’s been working for the Thunder?
Since its historic 150-point outing in a win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 3, the Thunder is 6-2 and have been playing well offensively. They’re averaging 124 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting and 40.1 percent shooting from 3 during this stretch.
There’s been several key reasons for that offensive success. Gilgeous-Alexander continues to play well, scoring 26 or more in six of the last eight games.
But others are stepping up, too.
There hasn’t been a ‘sophomore slump’ for point guard Josh Giddey. Since Dec. 1, Giddey has posted per-game averages of 17.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and six assists while shooting 40.6 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts.
That’s a massive improvement from last season, when he shot 26.3 percent from 3. It appears the offseason addition of shooting coach Chip Engelland has paid dividends.
Rookie forward Jalen Williams has played himself into the starting lineup, starting in 18 consecutive games and 20 of the last 21. Williams has displayed an all-around game for the Thunder during this eight-game stretch, averaging 12.5 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting while adding 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
The Thunder is also doing it on the other end, posting a 111.1 defensive rating during that stretch, the seventh-best mark in the NBA.
While it’s possible the team’s defense could slip as the season continues, the way the Thunder is playing offense could hold steady. There’s been an increase in ball movement and synergy recently that’s matched the natural improvement and growth of young players, and the Thunder is playing offense as well as anybody in the NBA.
But the Thunder aren’t looking too far ahead.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t (check the standings),” Giddey said on Tuesday. “I do check them here and there. But as I said, there’s still such a long way to go in the season. The West is a really good conference. A lot of things can happen but we’ll continue to take it one game at a time and see where we end up after 82 games.”
Up next: The Thunder take on the Pacers at 7 p.m. tonight at Paycom Center.