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The Thunder Are On A Historic Playoff Run

The Oklahoma City Thunder just keep shocking the basketball world. It wasn’t enough to knock the 67-win San Antonio Spurs out of the playoffs in six games; they’ve also been trouncing the Golden State Warriors like it was nothing special. After crushing the Dubs again Tuesday night, 118-94, OKC is suddenly a win away from eliminating the record-busting defending champions and punching a ticket to the NBA Finals.

One way to measure just how impressive this run has been is to look at the Elo ratings, FiveThirtyEight’s favorite way of measuring a team’s strength that takes into account both opponent strength (very strong!) and margin of victory (very high!). Through their first 15 playoff games, only five teams in NBA history increased their Elo rating more than OKC has this postseason.


With an 85-point increase since the playoffs opened, the Thunder have elevated their Elo to 1767, setting yet another high-water mark for the franchise and — here’s the real shocker — pulling (slightly) ahead of the Warriors as the No. 1-ranked team in the NBA. (Our adjusted CARM-Elo ratings also rank the Thunder first, meaning they would give the Thunder the head-to-head edge over Golden State on a neutral court.)

Obviously, Elo ratings aren’t the final word on these two clubs. But in this case, they help underscore just how quickly a team’s level of play can change. A little over a month ago, the 73-win Warriors and 55-win Thunder finished their regular seasons. Now the two squads are basically evenly matched, with a slight edge to the team that won 18 fewer games.

And the Thunder’s improvement is in a class of its own, at least in the context of where they started the playoffs. Unlike some squads, such as the 2001 Lakers team that came off of a championship and snoozed through the season before snapping to life in the playoffs, this year’s Thunder squad began the postseason far more highly rated (with an Elo of 1683) than any playoff team that made similarly stark gains. OKC has work to do to catch up with that Lakers squad in overall rating, but the team is already close despite having been blown out a few times in the playoffs.

2010 Boston Celtics 14 1538 1678 140
2001 Los Angeles Lakers 15 1647 1770 123
1972 New York Knicks 12 1470 1592 123
2013 San Antonio Spurs 15 1601 1721 121
1995 Houston Rockets 14 1531 1625 94
2016 Oklahoma City Thunder 15 1683 1767 85
2009 Denver Nuggets 14 1607 1691 84
1986 Houston Rockets 14 1559 1640 82
2015 Cleveland Cavaliers 14 1631 1712 82
2003 New Jersey Nets 14 1543 1624 81
2001 Charlotte Hornets 8 1542 1622 81
Teams that gained at least 80 Elo points in 15 playoff games or less


In other words, the Thunder started the playoffs as a very good team. Since then, they’ve become a great one — and, soon, they might have a conference championship to show for it.

Check out our latest NBA playoff predictions.

Andrew Flowers wrote about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.