Lights are on. It’s showtime.
Teams with fewer than 50 wins don’t often flip the switch in playoffs, but OKC believes it can
Paul George, who led the Pacers on a surprise run to the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, provides the Thunder with a playoff blueprint.
We talk about the playoff switch like it’s a thing.
We wonder annually which NBA team might flip it, if a disappointing Dr. Jekyll can morph into a high-gear Mr. Hyde.
It’s the sort of notion that gives hope to a team like the Thunder, which in the regular season — as it tried to find a fit between stars Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — stumbled out of the gate and maybe found its way late.
It’s a reason to believe that maybe Oklahoma City’s first-round Game 1 Sunday against the Utah Jazz is the start of an unexpected run for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
The switch is magical. And maybe mythical. “I’m not a big believer,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, a former coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.
There’s reason to doubt.
For as much as we talk about the switch, the thing rarely gets flipped.
In the past 20 playoffs, only three teams in non-lockout years reached the conference finals with fewer than 50 regular-season wins. None of them did it in the Western Conference.
Only five times in that span, not including the two lockout years, has a team seeded outside the top three reached a conference finals.
Still, we believe in the idea of flipping the switch. Or something like it.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s a switch,” said George, who reached the Eastern Conference finals on a 49-win Indiana team in 2013. “I just think good teams know how to find a way to win games and know how to find a way to play at the right times.”
If you’re looking for precedent, you can find it.
The Cavaliers last season, like the Lakers in 2001, coasted for much of the regular season before finding a new gear in the playoffs. Cleveland reached the NBA Finals; Los Angeles won it.
And then there’s the 1995 Rockets, who remain the poster team for switch-flipping, muddling their way to a 47-35 regular season and a No. 6 seed before marching through the playoffs, sweeping the Orlando Magic for the NBA championship.
Those Cavs, Lakers and Rockets all have something in common.
They’d won the NBA title the previous season on the heels of strong regular seasons.
And it’s possible, Van Gundy said, that “maybe a team that’s won is a little bit disinterested in the regular season but figures out how to get more interested in the playoffs.”
The Thunder doesn’t fit that mold.
This group of players doesn’t have a playoff history together. But it has postseason success apart. Starters Westbrook, George, Anthony, Corey Brewer and Steven Adams all have played in at least the conference finals.
Anthony believes there’s “absolutely” a playoff switch, and that OKC’s background as individuals is key to finding it.
“I think that comes from your experiences that you’ve had throughout your career, and just knowing what it takes, the mindset, the focus,” Anthony said. “I think more so than anything, that’s what it is: understanding the importance of the postseason, the attention to detail that it takes to win in the postseason…”
The individual talents of Westbrook, George and Anthony might lead to a “competitional compensation,” TNT analyst Brent Barry said, a sense that “it’s time for each of those guys to have their moments and step up” that could bring out the best in the Thunder collectively.
“I’m more a believer in habits than a flip of a switch,” Van Gundy said. “But what I do believe, what I do think can change is that an individual player — like Paul George — can go from having an OK year to being great in a playoff series. Carmelo Anthony, over the course of a twoweek series, could average three 3s a game.”
It’s unlikely that there’s a switch to flip that fundamentally changes the Thunder.
But there’s always hope that a light that’s flickered all season might stay on when the games matter most.
“Sometimes it’s hard for these guys for 82 games to sustain that high level of intensity and play, but in the playoffs I think you’re more able to do it,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “But I don’t necessarily think you can just flip on a switch and become something you’re not.”