Image courtesy of William Bennett Berry.
Hello Thunder fans! It’s been another week of meh as the Thunder trudge towards the playoffs. Just as it seemed they were finally headed towards former glory, they dropped a winnable game against the Timberwolves in Minnesota. Fortunately for us, the quest to be best in the West is far from over. A home game against the Spurs tomorrow could decide it all, pending matches later in the week. But, regardless of the result of tomorrow’s game, the Thunder are definitely going into the playoffs.
Big Blue is currently one game back of the first place Spurs with 8 games left to go in the regular season. Barring an absolute collapse, they’re safely ahead of the Nuggets, who are in third. That means they’ll face whoever ends up in 7th or 8th place in the Western Conference. Currently, there’s 5 teams eligible for those positions. Let’s take a quick look at them.
6. The Golden State Warriors
Games Back of 6th: 0
Thunder Leading Season Series 2-1
Will We Face Them? Maybe. The Warriors had a pretty bad streak throughout February and March, but they’ve recently regained their stride. They’ve got a couple of tough tests in their last few games, but if they continue their current rate of winning, they should be able to hold onto the seed.
Do We Want to Face Them? Kinda. The Thunder have a nice matchup advantage against this team, because they like to isolate a lot and struggle to score. But the Warriors are, when healthy, a very talented team that can run with the Thunder defensively and control the boards. Their offense isn’t arguably as talented, but they’re good at exploiting mismatches and getting in position to score. They probably couldn’t win a 7 game series in most instances, but the Thunder should hope they can avoid a tough test from Golden State.
7. The Houston Rockets
Games Back of 6th: 1.0
Thunder Won Season Series 2-1
Will We Face Them? Most likely. The Rockets can definitely make up ground and eclipse Golden State, especially because they hold the tie breaker. But since Houston runs such an unusual offense, they usually run into an opponent that figures them out and will drop winnable games here and there. So I don’t think they can make a strong enough run to get the six seed.
Do We Want to Face Them? ABSOLUTELY! Aside from the last game in Houston, the Thunder have absolutely trounced the Rockets this season. The Thunder are easily the league’s best transition team, and it really shows against the Rockets, who like to run their opponents off of the floor. Moreover, the Thunder are familiar with James Harden’s bag of tricks, and have totally shut him down twice. The only way the Rockets can win is if they manage to have a nearly flawless offensive performance. In other words, the Rockets could very easily get swept against the Thunder.
That’s a 6’1″ man (Mo Williams) laying on Al Jefferson’s bed. That dude has to have some mad orgies.
8. The Utah Jazz
Games Back of 6th: 3.5
Thunder Lead Season Series 2-1
Will We Face Them?Possibly. The Jazz currently hold the 8th seed and the tiebreaker with the Lakers. But the Jazz are a strange team. They totally collapsed in March, enduring a 2-9 stretch. But they recently recovered with 5 straight wins, and could finish in the playoffs.
Do We Want to Face Them? Maybe. This is a very, very flawed team. They possess one of the strongest and deepest post cores in the league, but their guards are really weak, especially defensively. The Thunder have the advantage this season, and were able to crush them on two occasions. But on the third occasion, the Thunder were really badly outrebounded and turned over the ball constantly. So, on the one hand, I’m sure the Thunder could win a series against them. But, on the other hand, the Jazz could definitely win a couple when the Thunder have an off-night.
No, I don’t agree with the above video. But it is pretty funny.
9. The Los Angeles Lakers
Games Back of 6th: 3.5
Thunder Won Season Series 3-1
Will We Face Them? Possibly. It’s really hard to know whether they’ll be able to pull ahead of the Jazz. They’re playing somewhat inspired ball, but they’re working with a short rotation due to injuries to Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. They also have some tough matchups coming up in April (5 of their remaining 7 are against playoff teams).
Do We Want to Face Them? No. Well, yes, but no. I never want to see the Lakers again, but, as much as it hurts me to say it, the Thunder hold a significant advantage against them, and should want to see them in the first round. The Lakers have an extremely weak bench, which nullifies all of the weaknesses brought by the Thunder’s own weaker bench. They also have absolutely no answer for Russell Westbrook, who’s shot near 50% in every Thunder win against them. Granted, the Thunder haven’t really seen a full-strength Lakers team. On the other hand, I doubt they’ll be full-strength, ever.
10. The Dallas Mavericks
Games Back of 6th: 6.0
Thunder Won Season Series 4-0
Will We Face Them? Probably Not. The Mavericks made a fantastic run to get themselves back into the playoff race, but fell just short by losing to the Lakers last night. If they finish the season darn near perfect, they’d have a decent shot at the 8 seed, but I doubt that happens.
Do We Want to Face Them? Heck no! If you need something to be glad about, be glad that we’re not facing this team in the first round. Yeah, the Thunder are 11-1 against the Mavs over the past two years. But the Mavs are a pesky bunch of geezers, and they’ve gotten within a stones throw of beating the Thunder more times than I can count. If the ball bounced the wrong way this time, the Thunder could have a series on their hands.
Final Thoughts: One of the more interesting aspects of the Western playoff race this time around is the amount of veteran teams that are vying for position. The Lakers and Mavericks are both teams repping mostly players at the end of their careers, while the Jazz and Warriors both have significant veteran presences. The only truly young team is the Houston Rockets, and that, doubled with a natural matchup advantage, is why I think the Thunder should hope to face them in the first round, regardless of seeding. None of the five teams (except, perhaps, a totally healthy Lakers squad) present a significant upset threat, but a matchup against somebody like the Warriors could give the Thunder a bit of a first round scare. And with opponents like the Grizzlies and Nuggets, both of whom have won their season series with the Thunder, looming in the second round, the Thunder are going to need all the rest that they can get.