The blitz through the April portion of the regular season will bring a playoff picture that could change just about every night in some spots. But some things are set. Both conferences have their top two seeds identified, with only the order still up in the air. And there’s a handful of teams playing musical chairs for the last two or three spots.
The Thunder only have to scan league scoreboards for three teams when it comes to their own seeding: San Antonio, Miami and Chicago. It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to possible first-round opponents, though. Five teams will split the final three playoff spots in the West, and one of them is going to wind up coming to Game 1 in Oklahoma City as a No. 7 or 8 seed: Phoenix, Utah, Houston, Denver and Dallas.
All five of those teams have between 24 and 27 losses. (Memphis is also close, with 23 losses, but less likely to fall all the way to No. 7 or 8.) All of them have at least some reason to talk themselves into a series against the Thunder — and, of course, the Mavericks with a guy like Jason Terry who will come out with verbal guns blazing and confidence/cockiness. The West playoffs will be as tough as they always are.
Let’s take a look at the potential first-round matchups. All figures current going into the Thursday games.
Utah Jazz (28-26, No. 10)
Remaining games: 11 (6 at home, 7 against .500+ teams)
Stating their case: Well, Utah’s recent win over the Thunder was a low point in Oklahoma City’s season. The Jazz have been a pleasant surprise all year — I thought they’d have no chance of making the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, but they’re still on the cusp with only 11 games left. Utah has size to spare. Here’s where you could say, “Utah’s size could give the Thunder problems,” but you could also replace the Thunder with any team in that sentence. It would be a battle for any of the strongest front lines in the league against the Jazz in a long series.
Scare factor: Low. Who is going to be a consistent scorer late in close games for Utah? The Thunder won’t have that problem. It’s hard to see Utah being able to come through in the clutch four times in seven games without home court advantage. And OKC is well-equipped to weather the storm from the Jazz frontcourt.
Likely finish: Out, but just barely. A relatively easy closing stretch could let the Jazz sneak in, and a matchup against Phoenix in the next-to-last game of the year could be critical if teams ahead of them falter.
Phoenix Suns (28-26, No. 9)
Remaining games: 12 (6 at home, 10 against .500+ teams)
Stating their case: No matter how far away the Suns may be from true contender status, it probably still won’t be fun to give Steve Nash several games in a series to experiment against a defense. He’s going to create shots for himself and his teammates, and on some nights they’re going to knock enough of them down to be a problem. Grant Hill’s recovery from knee surgery in time to play important playoff minutes would present another potential problem for OKC. And Marcin Gortat had his way with OKC for a half not long ago. Phoenix has enough going for it to be competitive.
Scare factor: Low. I bet the Thunder could think of a lot of opposing point guards they would rather see coming out of a timeout late in a playoff game than Nash. But Oklahoma City would probably flatten the Suns in four or five games, especially if Hill isn’t 100 percent.
Likely finish: Out. Tough finishing schedule for the Suns, and they’re already on the outside looking in.
Denver Nuggets (29-25, No. 8)
Remaining games: 12 (6 at home, 8 against .500+ teams)
Stating their case: They can score in waves. But this is a weaker team than the one the Thunder dispatched with home court last season in eight games. I don’t think that anyone is as nervous about the Nuggets as they were last year. But it was a “close” five-game series last year, with most of the games coming down to the final minutes. The Nuggets could come at you with one of those games when Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson all spring for 20+ points. But this series would probably mirror last season’s with a bunch of entertaining games. The Thunder’s star power and superior defense would win out.
Scare factor: Medium-low. Denver has too much scoring to be ignored, but this would still not be an unpalatable first-round scenario for Oklahoma City.
Likely finish: No. 8. Their closing schedule isn’t too bad, and they’ll have plenty to say about where they wind up. The Nuggets play Phoenix twice and Houston twice over the last part of the season.
Houston Rockets (29-25, No. 7)
Remaining games: 12 (5 at home, 7 against .500+ teams)
Stating their case: This is the first option that will make many Thunder fans at least a little bit uneasy. The Rockets have already beaten OKC twice this year, and a comeback from 11 points down late in a March home game was one of the Thunder’s most painful losses of the season. Luis Scola has always been tough for the Thunder to handle. He’s big enough and skilled enough that Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison are all less-than-ideal matchups against him defensively. And new acquisition Marcus Camby can team up with Samuel Dalembert to provide 12 hard fouls every night, helping to keep the Thunder out of the paint and out of their comfort zone.
Scare factor: Real. The Thunder would obviously be a favorite in the series, and regular season success doesn’t always mean a team can continue it in the playoffs. Chicago did well against Miami last year in the regular season and then got smoked in the playoffs, for example. Chandler Parsons just killed the Thunder in the aforementioned come-from-behind win over OKC, and it’s hard to see the Rockets getting that kind of help from their role players four times in seven games. But Houston beating the Thunder, on paper, wouldn’t be as surprising as the Golden State giant killing of Dallas in 2007, among other playoff upsets.
Likely finish: No. 7. And with the Thunder looking as likely to end up at No. 2 as No. 1 at this point, despite a kinder finishing schedule than San Antonio, that’s a scary thought.
Dallas Mavericks (31-24, No. 6)
Remaining games: 11 (4 at home, 6 against .500+ teams)
Stating their case: The Mavericks won’t lack for confidence against anyone, rightly or wrongly, including the Thunder. Despite OKC’s confidence-building 3-1 regular season record against Dallas, the defending champs won’t be cowed in the first round. They’d be ready. And, even with home court advantage, this has to be the scariest possible first round opponent for the Thunder. Dirk Nowitzki proved his playoff chops beyond a doubt last year. The Thunder is just like everyone else in the league in that they have no one capable of holding him down throughout an entire seven-game season, although I’d like to see Scott Brooks challenge Kevin Durant to defend Dirk in important stretches. The Mavs are playing outstanding defense for the second year in a row. Jason Terry can get buckets when it counts. The Mavs aren’t going to win another title this year. But they’re not going down easily.
Scare factor: The nightmare scenario. Especially for the fans. But the Thunder would not lack for motivation, and you’d hope that, combined with another year of maturity, might be enough to overcome the Mavs this year.
Likely finish: No. 6. Despite the road-heavy closing schedule, it’s a relatively easy one, and you’d think the Mavs would be locked in. Because it’s hard to believe the Mavs don’t want to avoid OKC and San Antonio in the first round if they can manage it. As scary as Dallas is to Thunder fans, the Mavs know OKC is not an ideal first-round matchup for them either.