There are only 19 games left for the Thunder in the regular season counting tonight’s matchup against the Pistons. Did that come quickly or what? The playoffs have really crept up this year, seems like.
That means its not at all too early to look at possible playoff opponents for Oklahoma City in the first round. The Thunder isn’t necessarily locked in to the No. 4 seed, where it has sat for seemingly forever, but that’s where it will most likely end up. With a relatively easy upcoming schedule, it appears OKC is more likely to move up to No. 3 than down to No. 5, if any movement happens at all. But with the Lakers sitting in that No. 3 spot and already owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over OKC, the Thunder is probably sitting where it will wind up. And no matter where the Thunder finishes, its first-round opponent will come from a group of four teams: Denver, Portland, New Orleans, Memphis. Phoenix and Utah could still qualify for the playoffs, but there’s no way either of them will climb to No. 6 or higher.
A couple of those teams — namely the Grizzlies and Blazers — give me the heebie-jeebies. How disappointing would it be for the Thunder, judged by many pundits to finally be a “team of the present” after the Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed trades, to get home-court in the first round and then lose to another young team? I shudder at the thought. So who exactly should OKC want to play? Let’s list them in order, starting with the most favorable matchup.
(Quick acknowledgment: Darnell Mayberry tweeted about this very topic Thursday. I swear to you that I had been planning to write this post for today since earlier in the week. But it would be awkward to post this and not acknowledge Mayberry, whose coverage is essential for any Thunder fan, because I don’t want it to look like I’m ripping him off on purpose and hoping no one will notice.)
1. New Orleans Hornets
As of Friday morning: 38-29, No. 7 seed
Upcoming schedule: 15 games left (10 at home), 12 against teams over .500, 7 against current playoff teams
Season series with OKC: Thunder 3-1
Thunder fan fear factor: 2 (on scale of 1-10, with 10 being highest)
Wild guess at chance of playing OKC in first round: 10 percent
I think most Thunder fans would be licking their chops at the chance to play the Hornets in the first round — and it has nothing to do with the “OKC’s old team” thing, which is no longer interesting to folks around here, but I’m sure would be a constant fluff-piece topic for TNT. Unfortunately, though NO hung around the No. 5 spot for quite awhile, there doesn’t appear to be much chance of this matchup coming to fruition.
Oklahoma City came within a contested David West jumper in the final seconds of a game in New Orleans of sweeping the season series, and it seems likely that the Thunder matches up with the Hornets even better now with its new front line. I think OKC has better or evenly-matched defenders at every position except for small forward — and when Kevin Durant is locked-in, I don’t see him being much worse than Trevor Ariza. And the Thunder has an edge or a wash at all but the power forward position offensively if you’ll allow for Chris Paul’s and Russell Westbrook’s vastly different strengths to be considered a tossup. I think OKC could take a series with the Hornets in five games, maybe even a sweep.
But yikes, look at New Orleans’ finishing schedule. Sure, 10 are home games, but that’s still a pretty tough slate. And it doesn’t help that Paul is coming off of a scary-looking injury, and the well-publicized problems with his knee that surely don’t get better as the NBA grind wears on. Groin injuries, like the one Ariza just came back from, have a tendency to flare up again as well. So I don’t see the Hornets being able to jump two more spots, or maybe even one more spot and play OKC if the Thunder can somehow overtake the Lakers.
2. Denver Nuggets
As of Friday morning: 38-27, No. 5 seed
Upcoming schedule: 17 games left (8 at home), 10 against teams over .500, 9 against current playoff teams
Season series with OKC: 1-1, home-and-home April 5 and 8 still to play
Thunder fan fear factor: 4
Wild guess at chance of playing OKC in first round: 35 percent
I wouldn’t have thought for a second that Denver could achieve a fear factor for OKC fans of 4 on a scale of 1-10 on the day of the Carmelo Anthony trade. I had no idea that the Nuggets would play as well as they are post-trade either. But how long can it really last? As the Nuggets figure out what they’re doing, won’t other teams be able to see that on film as well and better prepare for them? And they’re still not exactly dynamite defenders — surely the Thunder’s defensive ceiling is higher than Denver’s right now, especially in a head-to-head matchup with Kendrick Perkins now on OKC’s side to check Nene.
Aside from the defensive issues — which OKC also admittedly has — the other biggest problem I see for the Nuggets is a lack of a go-to scorer. J.R. Smith can and does get hot. Aaron Afflalo has been playing especially well of late. You could throw in Danilo Gallinari if you want, I guess. Perhaps even the speedy Ty Lawson/Ray Felton combo. But do you think any of those guys make even Denver fans feel warm and cozy at night as a go-to guy on offense in a playoff game? I doubt it. Besides, even the bevy of choices itself could be a problem. You need an established pecking order in April and beyond. I’ll take Durant, Westbrook and the February-and-onward James Harden over those guys.
Sign me up for the Nuggets, in other words. The next two teams … not so much.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
As of Friday morning: 36-30, No. 8 seed
Upcoming schedule: 16 games left (9 at home), 9 against teams over .500, 8 against current playoff teams
Season series with OKC: Grizzlies 3-1
Thunder fan fear factor: 6
Wild guess at chance of playing OKC in first round: 15 percent
I know OKC just got handed another Rudy Gay-less loss by the Grizzlies, and I know Tony Allen plays like a borderline All-Star against the Thunder. But I still don’t fear them the way I fear the Blazers right now. For one, I don’t think Memphis really got OKC’s best shot in any of the losses for all four quarters, and I wouldn’t expect that to be the case in the playoffs. And the Thunder has a pretty big edge over the Grizzlies in one key area: playoff experience.
KD, Westbrook, Harden and the other Thunderers who were with the team on Day One of this season played a hard-fought series last year, as I’m sure you’re aware. And Perkins and Mohammed, who each have a ring, surely don’t tremble at the thought of Memphis in a first-round series. But the Grizz? Does Mike Conley or O.J. Mayo really scare you when the lights are brightest? Or even Gay, who didn’t exactly turn heads in Turkey over the summer? Yes, Zach Randolph is a beast, and Marc Gasol sure played well the other night in particular against the Thunder. But the still-untested OKC front line of Perkins-Mohammed-Serge Ibaka-Nick Collison gives me confidence the Thunder could weather that storm for at least four out of seven games.
And in any case, despite a relatively nonthreatening closing schedule and only a three-game gap in the loss column from the current No. 5 seed, I just don’t see Memphis being able to climb high enough to play Oklahoma City. A little too much ground to make up. And, perhaps unfortunately for the Thunder, a little too much Blazers in their path.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
As of Friday morning: 37-27, No. 6 seed
Upcoming schedule: 16 games left (10 at home), 13 against teams over .500, 12 against current playoff teams
Season series with OKC: Thunder 2-0, home-and-home March 27 and April 1 still to play
Thunder fan fear factor: 8
Wild guess at chance of playing OKC in first round: 40 percent
Uh oh. The team that appears to be best equipped to beat Oklahoma City is only a half-game back from the No. 5 seed. And has a home-heavy finishing schedule. And plays in an arena that’s tough for visiting teams to play in. And has an 0-2 record against the Thunder that hides the razor-thin margin of both games. And just got Brandon Roy, the heart and soul of its team, back to lift them emotionally and otherwise. And generally plays OKC pretty tough.
About the only thing that could ease fears of playing Portland in the first round is the brutal, compared to the other teams currently seeded No. 5-8, closing schedule in terms of the quality of opponents. The Trail Blazers play all but three of their final 16 games against winning teams, and eight of those 13 games against +.500 squads are against the West’s top four seeds. So maybe the 40 percent chance I’ve given them to play OKC in the first round is a bit high … but then again, when Portland is on, they’re tough for anyone to beat. And that was before they got Roy back and Gerald Wallace in a trade.
It’s downright mean to even write this, but one “good” thing the Thunder would have going for it in a potential Oklahoma City-Portland matchup is that Roy’s knees could go at any time. And even though LaMarcus Aldridge is tearing it up right now, the Blazers’ front line doesn’t scare me quite as much as Memphis’ when the Thunder is on defense because Marcus Camby doesn’t present the offensive threat, and versatility, that Gasol does. Perkins and Ibaka can rotate on Aldridge, letting Scott Brooks go with the hotter defensive hand. In fact, I like the idea of Perkins being able to take on Aldridge and letting Ibaka play to his defensive strength by cheating off of Camby to unleash his devastating help defense on Aldridge and Portland’s driving scorers.
But while the Blazers may not be quite as deep as the Thunder 1-12, they might be even deeper 1-7 or so with Roy healthy. And Perkins remains a wild card. Anybody who says OKC knows exactly what its going to get this season from its new big man is full of it. He may not be able to be more than 85 percent or so, and that may not be enough to compete with a team like Portland in a taut series. Still, Portland represents the kind of matchup the Thunder was probably hoping to avoid by securing a top-four seed, even though everyone knows the West still features plenty of tough outs, even in the first round.
And we haven’t even broached the topic of who OKC might face in the second round. Everyone would probably prefer Dallas to San Antonio, right? That’s possible only if OKC can leapfrog the Lakers — and, of course, only if the Thunder can get past its first-round opponent. Part of me can’t wait until the playoffs start, but part of me is already scared.