Barring an historic collapse, Oklahoma City is going to taste some playoff basketball this year. (edit. Which reminds me, buy a t-shirt.) With all teams having approximately nine games remaining, the only way the first team out in the Western Conference picture, currently Memphis, overcomes the Thunder is if OKC loses all nine and the Grizz go perfect. As the Tree and Leaf shirt proclaims, “NEXT is now!”
Less clear at the moment, what the seeding will be for the Thunder. While it is still theoretically possible for the good guys to move into the upper half of the seeding and get a first round home court advantage, it is more likely that Oklahoma City winds up somewhere between five and eight (where the teams are virtually deadlocked right now).
So who should they want to play? Here are the likely possibilities:
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Dallas Mavericks
- Utah Jazz
- Phoenix Suns
- Denver Nuggets
Why the Lakers would be a good matchup:
The defending champs have looked invincible a good portion of the season, but lately they have been a pedestrian team. Kobe has been so frustrated by his team’s play that the sullen teenager expression that was perpetually on his mug post-Shaq/pre-Pau has returned. When Kobe is unhappy, he is as much a clubhouse cancer as he is an elite player. This means, team chemistry in Lakerland is awful as the playoffs approach. Factor in that the Thunder demolished L.A. in their most recent encounter, and Oklahoma City would be heading into the pairing with high confidence.
From a match-up standpoint, the Thunder have a huge advantage at the point guard position. Derek Fisher is a cagey veteran, but in his prime, he couldn’t stay in front of Russell Westbrook. And the Thunder struggle most when the opposing team has a point guard who can attack Westbrook. Fisher, who is basically nothing more than a jump shooter now, does not fit that category.
If playing the Lakers, Thabo Sefolosha is a huge asset as a guy who has frustrated Kobe in every meeting. As I mentioned before, a frustrated Kobe is a horrible liability for the Lake Show.
Why shouldn’t the Thunder want to play the Lakers:
Outside of the point, the match ups are less advantageous. Assuming Andrew Bynum returns for the playoffs, the Lakers’ stable of big men will test the Thunder’s lack of depth in the post. Between Pau Gasol and Bynum playing volleyball at the rim, the Thunder will be relying on Serge Ibaka to make the leap on the biggest stage. I’m not saying Serge, who hasn’t been intimidated yet this season, can’t rise to the challenge, but it is a lot to ask of a rookie.
Even the small forward pairing is not perfect for Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is the consensus runner up for MVP, but Los Angeles possesses a defensive stopper in Ron Artest, who will clutch and grab KD for thirty minutes a game. The big and physical Artest could certainly wear down the Thunder’s scoring machine when they play consecutively for over a week.
Then, of course, there’s the whole thing of Kobe Bryant being one of the best to ever play the game.
Why the Mavericks would be a good matchup:
Like the Lakers, the point guard pairing is in the Thunder’s favor. Jason Kidd is one of the best ever, but he lost his knees long ago, and he struggles against quick point guards. Westbrook is among the quickest at the position. That means the Thunder floor general should be able to score at will on the Mavs. Meanwhile, Kidd’s lost step means that Russell should be able to keep him contained.
Why shouldn’t the Thunder want to play the Mavericks:
Dallas is one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Since they exchanged Josh Howard for Caron Butler, a trade I underestimated, they have been practically unstoppable.
Shawn Marion’s defensive technique frustrates Kevin Durant.
Brendan Haywood really has the Thunder’s number.
Dirk Nowitzki. ‘Nuff said.
Why the Jazz would be a good match up:
Scoreboard. Oklahoma City has basically dominated Utah this season in winning all three games thus far with a fourth coming soon.
Carlos Boozer cannot hope to guard Jeff Green who is much quicker than the lead-footed power forward.
Jazz center Mehmet Okur is a very similar player to Nenad Krstic, so Krstic’s lack of a post game would not be a factor.
If the Jazz want to use Andrei Kirilenko to slow down Kevin Durant, that means Kililenko has to play on the offensive end, too.
Why shouldn’t they want to play the Jazz:
Deron Williams, on paper, is the better point guard.
Carlos Boozer is tough to guard.
Why the Suns would be a good match up:
If there is any opponent that would give the Thunder an advantage in the front court, this is the one.
Steve Nash can’t guard Russell Westbrook.
The Suns have no one who can hope to contain Kevin Durant.
Why shouldn’t they want to play the Suns:
They are currently on a nine game winning streak meaning they are peaking at the right time.
Amar’e Stoudemire can be a one man wrecking crew on the offensive end, so whoever guards him, probably Jeff Green, would likely be fighting foul trouble every game.
Goran Dragic torched Russell Westbrook with Steve Nash out, so imagine what their star point guard will do.
Why the Nuggets would be a good match up:
They have been struggling lately.
J.R. Smith can always be counted on to make bad decisions.
Why shouldn’t they want to play Denver:
The sheer volume of tattoos is distracting.
Nene and Chris Andersen protect the rim with a vengeance.
Night after night of Aron Afflalo will test Durant’s patience.
Maybe it’s the altitude, but the Nuggets have been unbeatable at home.
Chauncey Billups is a championship tested leader.
J.R. Smith’s bad decisions sometimes lead to him dropping thirty on you.
I would rank the possibilities this way (best to worst match up):
1. Utah Jazz
2. Phoenix Suns
3. Los Angeles Lakers
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. Denver Nuggets