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Clark Matthews’s OKC Thunder Play-In Primer…

In my season preview, I had this to say about the Thunder’s chances of getting the first overall pick in the 2023 draft:

It could be difficult for Oklahoma City to lose enough--even intentionally--to be at the bottom. The first thirty games will probably determine whether the Thunder are hoping the odds are ever in their favor or whether they could sneak into the playoffs this year.

Hear me out. Sam Presti has said that he will allow the team to “declare itself” at the beginning of the season. Suppose the pre-season results are not just a mirage and the team continues playing well into the start of the regular season. If they should be hovering around .500 through the first third of the season, that could push them out of the tank race. By then, a half dozen teams will likely have written the season off already and implemented their Wembanyama Protocols©. In the back third of the season, it will be a fight to lose games because that has been the case the past two years without a generational talent standing at the top of every team’s draft board.

What I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if this young core accidentally makes the playoffs.

With the regular season ending on Sunday, the Thunder finished with a 40-42 record that was good enough for 10th in the Western Conference. As a result, they are accidentally in the postseason for the first time since the COVID Bubble.

That said, my prediction isn’t technically true unless Oklahoma City can win two more games. Confused? Let’s answer some frequently asked questions about the NBA Play In.

WTF is a play-in tournament?

For those of you who tuned out on the NBA for the 24 months when the Thunder went into rebuild mode, you may not have any idea what any of this means. Introduced during the COVID-shortened season and first tested during the Orlando bubble, the “tournament” is intended to discourage teams from tanking by enhancing the interest of fan bases of middling teams.

The NBA playoff system, as most of us have always known it our entire lives, has involved the teams with the eight best records in each conference. Smart teams, such as the Thunder, figured out that there was no benefit to being one of those teams that barely missed the playoffs, so they would "tank" to have better odds to get a higher draft pick.

By creating this play-in tournament, the NBA did a few things to increase competition in the doldrums of the season by giving more teams the opportunity to make the playoffs and encourage teams in playoff positions to jockey for better seeds and the benefits that come with them.

How does the play-in tournament work?

For the teams that finish 7 through 10, a mini-tournament determines who gets the last two playoff spots in each conference.

First, the seventh-best team by winning percentage plays the eighth-best, while the ninth-best plays the tenth. The victor of the 7/8 game gets the spoils of being the seven-seed in the playoffs, avoiding the top-seed, and only has to play a single play-in game.

The loser of the 7/8 game then plays the winner of the 9/10 game for the final playoff spot.

Why did the Thunder fight to be in the play-in?

Sam Presti allowed this team to “declare itself.” After two years of “roster exploration” that guided the leadership to pull levers that favored improved draft positioning, this team made a leap toward relevance on the floor. By hovering around .500 most of the season with a roster of players whose average age is younger than some NCAA tournament teams, it indicated to the decision-makers that the core of the team is ready for more.

With that in mind, the next thing the team needs is post-season experience. Currently, only a handful of guys on the team have ever played a playoff game. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are the only players remaining from OKC’s last time in the playoffs—which was in the Orlando Bubble, so not indicative of a normal experience. Isaiah Joe has 25 minutes of floor time in two trips to the playoffs with Philadelphia. Dario Saric, a late-season addition, has also made two trips to the playoffs in 2018 and 2021.

That’s it.

Instead of shelving the best players to improve lottery odds, the team has been playing games of consequence for weeks. And with the play-in, they’ll get a minimum of one win-or-go-home scenario. Getting that experience, even if it’s just an opportunity to work through the emotional jitters, will be an otherwise impossible scenario to duplicate.

Can OKC get to the playoffs?

Sure. Just last season, the New Orleans Pelicans—who had a worse record than what the Thunder finished with this season—won two play-in games to reach a first-round series with Phoenix. They even scared the Suns, a bit, finally bowing out after six more playoff games.

More specifically to the Thunder, the odds are stacked against them. On Wednesday night they will play the aforementioned New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans. That game will be a huge test for a roster mostly getting their first taste of the postseason.

Even during the regular season, OKC struggled against New Orleans, losing two of their three matchups with the win coming at the Paycom Center. The Pelicans have a handful of defense-first players on the roster who they rotate through to foul the absolute shit out of Shai every time he drives to the basket. Now that the games are winner-take-all, the referees are far more likely to swallow the whistle, so that strategy tends to be successful.

In the event the Thunder survives in Nawlins, they would still have to play the loser of the Lakers/Timberwolves match-up. Again, the game will be on the road. Again, it will be against a team that won the regular season series against them.

The Lakers, specifically, have improved significantly since the Thunder last beat them, and now that the games truly matter, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are guaranteed to be more locked in. They will be favored to beat the Wolves who seem to hate each other. Despite winning their season finale against the Pelicans, they kicked one of their starters (Rudy Gobert) out of the game for punching a teammate during a timeout and lost another player who broke his hand punching the wall out of frustration while headed to the locker room at halftime.

Even with the chemistry issues, the Wolves are a matchup nightmare. Even if the 7’2” Gobert is suspended by the team, the Thunder would still have to compete for rebounds with 7’0” Karl-Anthony Towns and 6’10” thick Naz Reid. OKC just does not have the personnel to battle with that size—for now. To beat the Wolves, the Thunder will have to control the tempo of the game (made more difficult by the Wolves having veteran Mike Conley to run the show) hoping to neutralize the size advantage and pray for a hot night from three.

Does it matter if the Thunder advance to the playoffs?

That would certainly be more fun. Surviving the play-in would make a declaration to the league that the Thunder are back. It would also come with at least two more games in the Paycom Center this season, versus the Denver Nuggets, where the fans can display that homecourt advantage these players have never witnessed firsthand.

From a literal perspective, though, the answer is no. It matters very little to the long-term plan for the team. Flaming out of the play-in tournament still gives the team postseason experience and comes with a slightly enhanced slot in the draft come June. Any outcome is positive at this point.

For us fans, that means we get to ride the wave and just be satisfied with whatever outcome happens.

Thunder up!

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