I kind of feel ridiculous asking this question. It’s a little bit along the same lines of tanking for ping-pong balls.
But with the Thunder closing within a game of Dallas with four games left (OKC holds the tiebreaker though because it’s a division winner) it must be asked: Do the Thunder really want the three-seed?
Most have been saying they shouldn’t. Common sense says playing the Lakers in the Western Finals is better than playing them in the second round. But that’s going way too far. Because it should be more about the first round matchup, not what comes after.
Here’s the thing about playing the Lakers: If you want to get to the NBA Finals, you’ve got to beat them at some point. What’s it really matter if it’s in the second or third round? All it means if you can get past them in the semis is that the road gets easier to the Finals. And besides that, since when are the Spurs pushovers? They’re pretty good, remember? Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com actually sees the Spurs as OKC’s kryptonite team. So let’s not get carried away thinking that San Antonio is the easiest team ever.
If the Thunder were to jump the Mavs for third, right now it would be the Hornets who OKC would face in the opening round. Most likely, Portland will claim that spot, so let’s go under the assumption that the Thunder would be exchanging the Nuggets for the Blazers as their first round opponent. So, who’d you rather take?
(Before we get too carried away with this possibility though, keep in mind all Dallas has a pretty favorable schedule to close. The Mavs have three of the four at home (Clippers, Suns, Hornets) with a road game at Houston. If they went 3-1 in those, OKC would have to go 4-0, with wins against Denver and at Los Angeles.)
After the way things looked against Denver Tuesday, I really lean towards taking on the Nuggets. Here are some reasons: 1) They don’t have anyone ideal to guard Kevin Durant. 2) Nene is a major part of their offense and Kendrick Perkins can handle him one-on-one. 3) The Thunder should be able to dominate the boards. 4) Ty Lawson will have a tough time checking Russell Westbrook an entire series. (Now of course my feeling on this could change with a loss at home Friday night…)
Portland on the other hand, sort of makes me nervous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m nervous anyway. It wouldn’t matter if the Thunder were playing a sixth grade JV team in the opening round, I’d be terrified. But the Blazers scare me just a bit more. Gerald Wallace is a pretty good defender to check KD. OKC doesn’t have an answer for LaMarcus Aldridge. Brandon Roy is kind of a mystery — what if he revs it up for a seven-game series? Beating Portland at the Rose Garden is tough. To beat the Blazers, the Thunder would likely have to out-execute them late in games.
All that said, I think I’m asking myself the wrong question here, because it’s not about who you play. It’s more about the idea of trying to position yourself in the playoffs. I understand one side of it. If the goal is to go deep into the postseason, you want to set yourself up in the best way possible to do that, right? Of course. But not at the cost of losing games.
Besides, what are you going to do? Have the team intentionally lose a game or two? How do you tell a group of guys to go out there and not try so hard tonight? How do you expect guys who have worked their butts off since August to win every time their shoes hit the hardwood to go ahead and drop one? Yeah, not realistic.
Between the Blazers and Nuggets in the first round really neither is an ideal matchup and neither is a nightmare. Neither is a team that’s going to just cause OKC a million headaches. Both will be tough to beat and I definitely see each going six, maybe seven games. But it’s not like the Thunder’s got a big problem with one. Plus, I like the idea of pushing hard at the end of the season and bettering your circumstance. Momentum is good. Confidence is wonderful. Look at what a little Big East tournament run did for Connecticut.
In the end, it honestly doesn’t matter to me. If this team wants to go to bigger things, you’ve just got to beat the teams in front of you. Whoever is put on the bracket next to your name, you play them and beat them. You can’t ask for a cakewalk to the Western Finals. You can’t expect someone to make this easier for you. If you have a chance to win, you win. If you have a chance to improve your seed, you do it. Who cares who you play and when you play them? You have to beat people to get to the goal anyway, so might as well get it over with.
Then again, if the Hornets want to go ahead and stay in sixth, I’d be more than happy to move up.