Right now, the Thunder are closing out on the most disappointing month of the season. They looked near unstoppable in December, but followed it up with a clunker of a January. It wasn’t disastrous by any stretch of the imagination, but there were definitely a couple of embarrassing losses early on. Furthermore, the long six game road trip cost the team their Western Conference lead. But, above all, the trip told us that our beloved team is definitely beatable, and that the road to the championship can be long and arduous.
So, who, exactly, stands in our way? And what chance do we have of beating them? Here’s the top 5. Keep in mind that this is a brief overview and that I’m ranking the teams in order of the likelihood that they win the title, not their particular skill against the Thunder.
Honorable Mentions: The Bulls and Warriors are possibilities, but their fate depends on the return of Derrick Rose and Andrew Bogut, respectively. Until then, it’s impossible to know how good they’ll be. The Grizzlies are in the conversation, but we’ve seen this same team falter in the past two years. Beyond that, the faults are obvious. The Pacers have no bench, the Hawks can’t get to the line or rebound, and the Nuggets have no star to lead them.
5. New York Knicks
Performance vs. Thunder: 0-1 in 2011-12 season.
Positives: The Knicks are a perfect combination of star power and experience. Even the most pedestrian NBA fan will recognize most of the guys that play on their roster, and all of them are contributing productive roles on the team. They also have an excellent combination of extremes. You’ve got offensive juggernauts like J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony, but you’ve also got defensive stalwarts like Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton.
Negatives: Because the Knicks have so many stars, personality conflicts are bound to arise. (Fire extinguisher, anyone? Melo-KG, anyone?) Furthermore, the team’s been in a pretty big slump lately. It was thought that Mike Woodson would be able to get this team fired up on the other end of the floor, but there are definitely nights where they resort to outscoring opponents. They just keep pressuring the ball and leaving players wide open or switching on screens, causing dire mismatches that result in easy points. Finally, this team plays a lot of close games and generally lose. This is a combination of Woodson’s inability to make on the fly adjustments and bad shot selection from the Knicks’ stars.
Final Verdict: Dark Horse. Anything with this team is a gamble, really. I could see them winning the title just as easily as I could see them getting knocked out of the first round. But if they were to get into a NBA Finals series with the Thunder, I’d have to give the Thunder an edge. They don’t really have a defensive answer for Durant or Westbrook, even if their fast paced game will hurt the production of Ibaka. The only way I could see them winning is if they were able to somehow break things open down low and keep a healthy roster.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Performance vs. Thunder: 1-1 in 12-13 Season, 0-1 in 11-12 Season
Positives: Since being taken over by the illlustrious P.J. Carlesimo, this team has shined. Avery Johnson, while being an exciting coach to watch as a fan, is definitely someone who can grate on players and management after a while. Carlesimo is no calm man himself, but sometimes a new voice can be everything a team needs. The Nets are definitely in the mix talent-wise, and statistically, they rely on three categories: Threes, Free Throws, and Rebounds. Generally, if they can beat their opponent in two of these three categories, they’ll win any given game. The Nets also have one of the league’s best bench units, with about 5 players that can make an impact on any given game.
Negatives: They haven’t really had a tough schedule since P.J. took over, despite a couple of impressive wins. They’re kind of gimmicky in that they rely on a few select categories to be successful. Other than Brook Lopez, they have no inside presence, and certain players can definitely turn into shot chuckers when things don’t go their way. Finally, they can put themselves in huge holes when their slower-paced offense starts to grind to a halt, and that’s led to a couple of dreadful losses.
Final Verdict: Dark Horse. The Nets are looking good right now, but they’ve got no track record proving that they’re truly elite. This is the one team I could envision causing some problems for the Thunder, because Carlesimo knows their game well, they dominate the boards, and they take advantage of pressure. The chance of them meeting in the finals isn’t remote, but it isn’t good, either.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Performance vs. Thunder: 1-1 in 12-13 Season, 2-4 in 12 Playoffs, 1-2 in 11-12 Season
Positives: They’re the most well-coached and well-disciplined team in the NBA. They easily have the NBA’s deepest and most well-rounded roster, with the perfect combination of young talent and veteran experience. Their coach is the league’s best at on-the-fly decisions, and they’re the league’s best passing team.
Negatives: Honestly, I think this team gets ignored far too often, and they get a bit of a bad rap because they haven’t won a title since ’07. But still, the flaws are there. The team doesn’t have a singular talent that they can rely on as a scoring rock. They don’t grab offensive rebounds and they don’t foul, so they go all or nothing in terms of offensive and defensive ability. Finally, the team doesn’t really have a lot of players that they can isolate and rely on to score. So if their passing game is disrupted, they’ll have some major trouble.
Final Verdict: Contender. Like it or not, there’s a serious possibility that this team could beat the Thunder in the Western Conference playoffs, a lot earlier than expected. The key to their victory is their ability to close down the paint (and thus, Russell Westbrook) and their ability to keep the offense moving when the Thunder are doing wacky things like playing a zone defense. All in all, any series between these two teams is a toss up.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Performance vs. Thunder: 0-2 in 12-13, 3-1 in 11-12
Positives: A team that had a huge problem with bench performance last year definitely got a huge boost over the off-season. Their backcourt is an embarrassment of riches, with every single player on the team deserving time when they’re healthy. They pack a lot of scoring power, especially considering their pace. They also rely on getting to the line, which is really a steady rock for them night to night. Oh yeah, and having the league’s best point to post duo and a plethora of long range weapons doesn’t hurt, either.
Negatives: Vinny Del Negro is a terrible coach, especially in terms of lineup management. Injuries are a huge concern, with several key players having missed significant time in recent years. The bench bigs can’t hold their own offensively, so if Griffin or Jordan goes down, it will be a huge blow to the balance of the team.
Final Verdict: Contender. Oddly enough, this is the one good team the Thunder managed to soundly trounce in January. Unfortunately, that win came against a team without Chris Paul. With Paul back in November, the Clips managed to force the Thunder into overtime. I really thought the Clippers were the only West team that could take the Thunder down in last year’s playoffs, because they had been so dominant in the regular season. But this year, while I think they could beat most anybody else in the West, I don’t fear them in a direct matchup with the Thunder. Kevin Martin is a lot more effective against their pressure than James Harden was, which really swings the pendulum in our favor. Oh yeah, and Ibaka can exploit Griffin’s tendency to say in the paint all day.
1. Miami Heat
Performance vs. Thunder: 1-0 in 12-13, 4-1 in 12 Playoffs, 1-1 in 11-12 Season
Positives: They have a huge amount of star power up front. They play a unique offensive style that compliments James and Wades athleticism, lets them play without a traditional big, and helps them to exploit mismatches against bigger teams. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have been shooting insane percentages.
Negatives: They rarely lose the ball and generally pass well, but distribution can sometimes be a problem when James is your defacto point guard. Their team relies on a few select players to basically carry the team offensively and defensively, so if they’re slightly off, the whole team suffers. They’re the NBA’s best shooting team, but they don’t get any offensive rebounds. Lastly, the team isn’t built for the regular season, so they could drop a couple of spots and see a tougher road to the finals.
Final Verdict: Contender. Want to know something scary? The Heat have won 5 straight games against the Thunder. Chalmers can hold his defensive own against Westbrook now. Perk and Thabeet are almost useless against this team. Don’t get me wrong, the Thunder can beat the Heat when it comes down to it. They have the talent, they have the personnel, and there are certain players the Heat can’t stop on defense. But the Thunder are going to have to rely on someone outside of their main four to step up offensively if a finals win against the Heat is in sight.