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February 7, 2012
Close Call
Thunder Tops Blazers

by Kevin Pelton

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PORTLAND - Scott Brooks got his wish. Before Monday night's game at the Rose Garden, the Oklahoma City Thunder head coach expressed his desire for a "fourth-quarter game" that would be decided in the closing minutes. In part, Brooks was referring to the Portland Trail Blazers' string of home blowouts. The Blazers had not played a home game decided by single digits since Jan. 11, when they lost to the Orlando Magic, winning five games by an average of 25.4 points in that span.

However, Brooks was also confident in his team's chances of winning a close game. Oklahoma City entered Monday 5-1 in games decided by five points or fewer, while Portland had lost seven of eight such games this season. As it turned out, both of those trends continued in the Thunder's 111-107 overtime victory.

As they usually do, the actual details don't fit together nearly as neatly as the storyline. Until the 2:17 mark of the fourth quarter, the takeaway was how the Blazers were out-executing Oklahoma City to take control of the game. From the point Gerald Wallace entered the game with 7:24 remaining until then, the Thunder managed just one field goal. Portland used a 13-2 run to take a six-point lead. However, Oklahoma City got six unanswered points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to tie the game 101-all.

Then, the Blazers won the game, or so they thought. A Jamal Crawford pull-up with 55.9 seconds left gave Portland the lead, one that withstood two timeouts and three missed shots before what looked like the Thunder's last opportunity. Durant drove to the basket with Aldridge on his heels. His scoop shot toward the rim was swatted away off the glass by Aldridge. In the midst of the fray, enter Scott Foster. From beyond the three-point line, the lead referee emphatically signaled goaltending--a call that was not supported by replay, but cannot be reviewed under the league's current rules.

The Blazers were not guaranteed a win absent the call. The loose ball had been tipped near midcourt, where James Harden would have been first on the scene to retrieve it, perhaps with enough time to get off a tying or winning shot attempt before the buzzer. And, of course, the game was still decided in overtime, where both teams had the opportunity to win. Nonetheless, that single call illustrates the razor-thin margin between winning and losing an individual game. It's indicative of why statistical analysts believe that point differential is a more meaningful indicator of team strength than wins and losses, which are subject to more of the whims of chance.

As it turns out, Portland and Oklahoma City are perfect contrasts when it comes to this argument. With the win, the 19-5 Thunder improved its advantage in the Western Conference to three games. The Blazers, meanwhile, sit 5.5 games back at 14-11. ESPN's current standings show Portland out of the playoff picture as the last team among four with identical records tied for sixth place. Yet the Blazers' point differential (+6.1 points per game) is not only better than Oklahoma City's (+4.8), but tops in the entire conference.

When adjusted for schedule, the Thunder improves into first place in the West, but not by nearly so substantial a margin as the standings show:

Team            Diff    ADif    SOS
------------------------------------
Oklahoma City   +4.8    +5.5    +0.7
Portland        +6.1    +5.3    -0.7
San Antonio     +4.2    +5.1    +0.9
Denver          +4.7    +5.1    +0.3
Dallas          +3.1    +3.1    -0.1
L.A. Clippers   +2.2    +3.0    +0.8
L.A. Lakers     +2.2    +3.0    +0.8
Memphis         +0.6    +2.4    +1.7
Houston         +1.8    +1.7    -0.1
Minnesota       +1.6    +1.5    -0.1
Utah             0.0    -0.4    -0.5

(Diff is the team's actual point differential, ADif is adjusted for location and opponent, and strength of schedule is the difference, with positive indicating a more difficult schedule.)

Leading up to this game, I did some research into the various schedules of the West playoff contending to try to further explain how they came to these rankings. I divided each team's schedule into three types of games: those against other playoff contenders, against the West's lottery (Golden State, New Orleans, Phoenix and Sacramento) and against the East. First, here's games played by segment:

                   WP      WL     East
Team             H   A   H   A   H   A
--------------------------------------
Dallas           6   6   4   2   4   3
Denver           6   7   2   2   4   4
Houston          5   9   3   0   5   3
L.A. Clippers    8   6   0   1   5   2
L.A. Lakers      6   7   2   1   5   4
Memphis          6   7   3   3   2   3
Minnesota        8   4   1   1   5   5
Oklahoma City    5   9   2   2   3   3
Portland         6   5   3   4   4   3
San Antonio      9   8   4   1   1   3
Utah             8   5   2   2   5   1

San Antonio has played a particularly difficult slate, with 17 games against other West playoff contenders. Houston and Oklahoma City have played 14 apiece, with nine of those coming on the road.

Next up, record by type of opponent and location.

                 West Playoff   West Lottery        East
Team               H      A       H       A       H      A
-----------------------------------------------------------
Dallas           .500   .167   1.000   1.000    .500   .667
Denver           .333   .286    .500   1.000   1.000  1.000
Houston          .600   .222   1.000    .000    .800   .667
L.A. Clippers    .750   .333    .000   1.000    .800  1.000
L.A. Lakers     1.000   .429   1.000    .000    .600   .000
Memphis          .333   .143   1.000    .667   1.000   .667
Minnesota        .500   .750   1.000   1.000    .200   .400
Oklahoma City    .800   .667   1.000   1.000   1.000   .667
Portland         .833   .200   1.000    .250    .750   .333
San Antonio     1.000   .250    .750   1.000   1.000   .333
Utah             .625   .200   1.000    .500    .800   .000

Average          .671   .329    .923    .684    .721   .529

I've discussed a couple of times the added importance of home-court advantage this season, and it has been particularly meaningful in games amongst Western playoff contenders, two-thirds of which have been won by the home team. Any win on the road against another West power, like the Thunder's, takes on huge importance. (Though, of course, it was merely payback for the Blazers winning in Oklahoma City earlier this season.) Surprisingly, Minnesota has gone 3-1 on the road against other teams in this group, but it's the Thunder that has done terrific work away from home, booking six wins in nine tries. Against lesser competition, the Thunder has been virtually unbeatable.

Lastly, let's consider point differential by type of game.

                   West Playoff         West Lottery             East
Team              H      A     Avg    H      A      Avg    H       A    Avg
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
Dallas          -2.8   -7.2   -5.0   17.3   12.5   14.9    4.3    5.3   4.8
Denver          -0.2    0.6    0.2    7.0   18.5   12.8   10.3    5.8   8.0
Houston          2.0   -7.9   -2.9   11.3    0.0    5.7   12.4    3.7   8.0
L.A. Clippers    4.8  -10.2   -2.7    0.0   19.0    9.5    4.2   15.5   9.9
L.A. Lakers      8.8   -3.6    2.6   11.5   -9.0    1.3   10.4   -9.8   0.3
Memphis          0.0   -7.6   -3.8   19.7    1.7   10.7   13.5   -1.3   6.1
Minnesota        2.0    5.0    3.5   13.0    7.0   10.0   -5.2    1.8  -1.7
Oklahoma City    5.2   -0.9    2.2   10.0   10.5   10.3   13.3    5.3   9.3
Portland         9.5   -3.4    3.1   24.0   -7.3    8.4   16.3    1.3   8.8
San Antonio     13.3   -4.9    4.2    6.8    2.0    4.4   22.0   -7.7   7.2
Utah             6.6  -12.4   -2.9    3.5   -8.5   -2.5    6.2  -11.0  -2.4

Average          4.9   -4.9    0.0   13.0    3.2    8.1    8.2    1.0   4.6

There's a lot of numbers to process here, but a few things stand out. Against other West contenders, the Lakers, Minnesota, Portland and San Antonio have been most successful. Oklahoma City's good fortune in close games is evident in comparing the last two charts. The Thunder has been outscored in road games against West playoff contenders, but has gone 6-3 in them thanks to a series of close wins like Monday night's. Those victories have been doubly valuable because they also mean handing a loss to another West rival.

Dallas, Houston, the L.A. Clippers, Memphis and Utah have been outscored in games against other West playoff teams. The sample sizes are small here, and the Clippers in particular are hurt by schedule-related blowout losses, but that's not a good indicator. Dallas more than anyone else seems to be fattening up against weaker teams and struggling against top competition.

As for the Blazers, I'd say this breakdown is encouraging. Portland's road issues have really been in terms of taking care of lottery-bound teams (the Blazers are 1-3 against the West's weaker sisters away from home, despite thumping a similar group of teams at the Rose Garden). Portland has done better than the average West playoff contender in road games among this group, and even with Monday's loss has the second-best differential in the group in home games against West contenders.

Over time, the key calls and last-second shots will tend to even out. Not completely--the close games the Thunder has won and the Blazers have lost are in the books for good--but enough that their records should draw closer to their respective point differentials.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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