Thunder face rough January schedule
Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have responded pretty well to the departure of Kevin Durant. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double through 34 games and the Thunder are in the mix for a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
But now is when we find out what the Thunder are really made of, because they have the league’s toughest January schedule by a wide margin. And the next 15 games could make or break Billy Donovan’s squad.
The Thunder actually play the league’s toughest January schedule in more ways than one. First, their January opponents have a cumulative winning percentage of .565, the highest mark of any team’s opponents this month. Second, they have the most road-heavy January schedule, with only three of their 15 games at Chesapeake Energy Arena. And one of the Thunder’s three January home games is the second game of a back-to-back.
Their opponent (Dallas) will also be playing the second game of a back-to-back that night, but the Thunder don’t have any January games with a rest advantage, where their opponent played the night before and they didn’t. They do have two games (against the Rockets and Clippers) with a rest disadvantage.
The Thunder will get some relief in February, when they play nine of their 11 games at home, with a break for All-Star weekend. But right now, they’re going to be put to the test.
Here’s a breakdown of the January schedules for all 15 teams in the Western Conference …
Some more Western Conference notes from the January schedule…
There are three neutral-site games in January. The Suns play two games in Mexico City: Jan. 12 vs. the Mavs and Jan. 14 vs. the Spurs. The Nuggets and Pacers will also play in London on Jan. 12.
As 2016 came to a close, there were four teams — The Kings, Nuggets, Blazers and Pelicans — tied with 14 wins in the 8-11 spots in the West. But there’s only one game — Sacramento at Denver on Jan. 3 — between those four teams in the month of January.
If the Mavs are going make a run at the 8 seed, the time is now. Seven of their first eight games of the month are against teams that are currently at or below .500.
The Warriors are in Northern California for their first eight games the month, seven home games and a visit to Sacramento on Jan. 8.
The Rockets are the only West team with 17 games this month. They have a four-games-in-five-nights stretch from Jan. 17-21.
After finishing December on the road and with a six-game losing streak, the Clippers will play seven of their first eight January games at home and don’t play outside the state of California until Jan. 21. They have only one back-to-back and only four of their 12 January games are against teams currently over .500, but they’ll finish the month by playing at Golden State on Jan. 28.
The Grizzlies’ No. 1 defense will be tested in January. Eight of their 14 games are against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and only one is against a team (Phoenix) that ranks in the bottom 10.
The Pelicans have a six-game homestand from Jan. 18-29 which includes visits from the Cavs, Thunder and Spurs. They’re the only team that doesn’t have a back-to-back in January and they play 12 of their 14 January games against the Eastern Conference.
The Kings have a seven-game homestand from Jan. 4-18, but follow that up with an eight-game, 12-day trip that includes three back-to-backs and their rescheduled, Jan. 30 game in Philadelphia from when there was condensation on the Wells Fargo Center floor in late November.
The Jazz play a league-high seven games against teams on the second night of a back-to-back (three teams don’t play any such games in January), but also play five back-to-backs themselves. Their month includes two stretches of five games in seven nights.
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The Boston Celtics were thought to be the second or third best team in the Eastern Conference. But they’ve yet to really distinguish themselves from the group of teams behind the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, holding a one-game lead over Charlotte for third place as 2016 came to a close.
The Celtics also haven’t been that good at home, where they’re just 8-6 after finishing last season by winning 19 of their final 22 games at TD Garden. They’ve actually been better on the road (plus-2.8 NetRtg) than at home (plus-1.4).
Well, now’s their chance to turn that around. The Celtics are tied for the fewest home games played through December, but will have the league’s most home-heavy January schedule. In fact, between Dec. 30 and Feb. 5, they’re playing 14 of 18 games at the TD Garden, with only four one-game road trips within the Eastern Conference.
Boston has won seven of its last nine games, with the league’s ninth best offense in that stretch. But seven of those nine wins were within five points in the last five minutes and their defense hasn’t been nearly at the same level as it was last season.
Maybe some more nights in their own beds will do the trick.
More Eastern Conference notes for January…
The Hawks will have some opportunities to practice with a nine-day stretch (Jan. 6-14) with only three games. They do follow that up with a five-games-in-seven-nights stretch (Jan. 15-21), though that includes a home-home back-to-back against Chicago and Philadelphia.
The Nets can’t catch a break. They’re without Jeremy Lin again and they have the conference’s toughest schedule … again. They had the East’s toughest December schedule and now have the East’s second toughest January schedule. Relief will come in March, but probably not before the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade haunts them even more. They enter January with the league’s worst record and the Celtics (who get to swap picks with them) will be the team that benefits from their struggles.
The Bulls play six of their first eight January games against teams that are currently over .500, but close the month with seven games against teams that are currently at or below .500.
A Jan. 8 visit to Phoenix, the second game of a six-game trip, will be the Cavs’ first game in the Mountain or Pacific time zones this season. Even with the various injuries his team has had, Tyronn Lue has gotten away with playing a nine-man rotation and now may be the time for him to start to stretch his bench, though the Cavs’ 15-game month includes only two back-to-backs. Cleveland has had only one five-games-in-seven-days stretch so far this season and won’t have another until late March.
The Pacers sit in ninth place as the year begins, but have a good chance to move up with the East’s easiest January schedule by a wide margin. Eleven of their 13 games are against teams currently under .500 and eight of the 13 are against bottom-10 defenses, while only two are against top-10 defenses.
The Bucks have a strange five-games-in-seven-nights stretch from Jan. 15-21 that takes them from Atlanta to Milwaukee to Texas and then back around to Florida.
The Knicks’ 17-game month includes two stretches of five games in seven nights, but their first seven January games are against teams currently at or below .500, they don’t play in the Mountain or Pacific time zones again until March 20, and only two of the 17 games are against top-10 offenses.
The Magic have the East’s toughest January schedule, with 11 of their 16 games on the road and eight of the 16 against the league’s top-10 offenses.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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