Besides stalking over the Lakers box score tonight to see how many points Kobe Bryant has, Thunder fans also have a great interest in two games going on — Denver at Minnesota and Dallas at Atlanta.
The Thunder will draw either the Nuggets or Mavericks for the first round of the playoffs depending on tonight’s outcome. Here’s the scenario: The Nuggets are a game up on the Mavs, but Dallas holds the tiebreaker. So if both teams win, OKC draws Dallas. Both teams lose, it’s Dallas. Denver wins, Dallas loses, it’s Dallas. Dallas wins, Denver loses, it’s Denver. To dumb that down, the only way the Thunder avoid the Mavericks is if Dallas wins and Denver loses.
The question is, where should rooting interest lie? Should the Thunder hope for a chance at revenge for last season’s Western Conference Finals, or want another shot at handling the Nuggets?
OKC’s record against: 3-1
KD against them: 25.5 ppg, 45.0 FG%, 101.7 OffRtg, 4.8 turnovers per game
Westbrook against them: 22.8 ppg, 39.0 FG%, 102.7 OffRtg, 4.0 turnovers per game
It’s important to note that this Mavs team is really nothing like the one that beat the Thunder in five games last season and won an NBA title. No Tyson Chandler. No J.J. Barea. Heck, no DeShawn Stevenson. But what seems to make Thunder fans squirm about a matchup with the champs is twofold: 1) They’re the champs and 2) Dirk. There’s no getting around it — Dirk is scary.
The Mavs battled complacency all season long following their championship and there’s a feeling that they might have been just saving themselves for the postseason. That they might just be holding back to make a strong push over the next month. Maybe so, maybe not. But when you play Dirk, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Rick Carlisle, you play with fire. The Thunder are better than the Mavs this season. They should handle Dallas in a series. But messing with Dallas seems to be a bit risky.
OKC’s record against: 2-1
KD against them: 35.7 ppg, 59.0 FG%, 116.1 OffRtg, 3.7 turnovers per game
Westbrook against them: 31.0 ppg, 50.0 FG%, 115.0 OffRtg, 3.7 turnovers per game
It seems to me that Scott Brooks might’ve showed his cards a bit. With little to play for other than a scoring title, Brooks left his starters in to try and finish the Nuggets Wednesday. Why? This is speculating, but potentially to try and force a first round matchup against them and not the Mavericks. The team said they don’t care, as well as Brooks, but come on, what do you expect them to say? Yeah, we really don’t want to play the Mavs.
The Nuggets are a good team and offensively are dangerous. While the Thunder have held a pretty good stretch of dominance over Denver dating back to last season’s opening round, the games have been close. Outside of a blowout in Game 2 and the whipping in Denver this season, there was the overtime game in OKC this year, and three very close wins (and a loss) in the playoffs last year. It won’t be a waltz past the Nuggets. Ty Lawson is a very underrated player, the Nuggets have a lot of dangerous scorers and some length inside. They hit the boards well, always seem to speed OKC up and force turnovers and outside of the last four minutes of the fourth often outplay the Thunder.
So don’t think that this answer is that obvious.
Again, this is closer than it appears. The numbers say the Nuggets, the past history says the Nuggets and the matchups say the Nuggets. But I actually think the Thunder might be better off drawing the Mavs. The Nuggets have the ever dangerous revenge factor and riding high off an albeit meaningless win they have more confidence than they’ve ever had against the Thunder. Against Dallas, OKC would have to be focused and attentive to its opponent immediately out of the gate. There would be absolutely no taking the Mavs lightly and if anything, it could ratchet the Thunder back up to that other level Westbrook and Durant have talked about.
It’s the playoffs and like Brooks said, you’ve got to beat good teams no matter what. Whether Denver or Dallas, it doesn’t really matter. Both teams are very good. But look at it this way: Who has a better chance of offing the Lakers in the opening round — Dallas or Denver? The Mavs swept the Lakers last season, but Denver has played the Lakers better this year (Dallas is 0-4, Denver 1-3).
In the end, I suppose if I could point a finger and pick, I’d choose Denver. But something tells me Dallas might secretly be the better choice, just for intangible factors. We’ll find out soon enough.