2012 NBA Predictions: Oklahoma City Thunder's 3 Western Conference Competitors

Angelique Christina Contributor IIIMarch 24, 2012

DALLAS, TX - MAY 25:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder runs back down court while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in the first quarter in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 25, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently sitting at number one in the Western Conference as the NBA Playoffs approach.

While some analysts believe the team has what it takes to claim the Western Conference title and advance to the Finals, others doubt their chances of making it that far at all.

While the debate continues, let's take a look at the three teams that could give the Thunder the hardest time on their road to the playoffs. 


San Antonio Spurs

There are many challenges that the Oklahoma City Thunder would face in a series against the San Antonio Spurs, the first being the battle of the coaches. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can and will out-coach Scott Brooks. Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the NBA, with four championship rings. 

The next issue at hand is Tony Parker. In the past Spurs/Thunder matchups, Parker has scored 42 points, 36 points, and 25 points in each meeting. A different defensive strategy must be utilized on Parker in order for the Thunder to be successful in a series against the Spurs. 

In past matchups, Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair have out-rebounded the Thunder. On February 4, Duncan had 15 rebounds alone. This is something that simply cannot occur if the two teams meet and the Thunder expect to win. 

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 13:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball under pressure from Robin Lopez #15 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on April 13, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
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The addition of Stephen Jackson has the potential of making life a bit more difficult for Kevin Durant. Jackson has the proven defensive capabilities to handle the powerful athleticism of Durant. 



Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies gave the Thunder a run for their money in seven games in the 2011 NBA Playoffs. While the Grizzlies lost to the Thunder this year, they still possess an arsenal of weapons to potentially defeat Oklahoma City in a playoff series. 

The Grizzlies have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolf, who are two big men that can effectively score. This is an area that Oklahoma City has consistently struggled with.  The Thunder work well as a team defensively, but are shaky when it comes to their 1-on-1 defensive game. Their big men must step up defensively to compete with Gasol and Randolf. 

Memphis has one of the best perimeter defenders in the league in guard Tony Allen. He is having quite possibly the best season of his career and will likely raise the bar come playoff time. 

The addition of Rudy Gay will also prove to be challenging in a playoff series. The forward has proven to be solid and dependable when it counts for the Grizzlies. Key defense will be essential for the Thunder in a series that includes Rudy Gay. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 and Metta World Peace #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate after a stop in play during a 93-83 Laker win at Staples Center on March 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
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Los Angeles Lakers

While the recent addition of Derek Fisher to the Thunder could prove to be an intriguing factor in a series against the Lakers, there are still certain obstacles that the young Oklahoma City team would face against L.A. 

The new trade acquisition of point guard Ramon Sessions would be a potential playoff hazard for any opponent, especially a defensively questionable team such as the Thunder. Sessions can defend and score, which will in turn force Russell Westbrook to defend 1-on-1 and not merely roam on defense. 

Much like Memphis, the Lakers have big men that can score. This of course has proven to be a stumbling block for the Thunder defense. Again, a solid defensive strategy against Gasol and Bynum would be absolutely essential in a Oklahoma City/L.A. series. 

The "Kobe" factor will be an issue for the Thunder. Kobe Bryant has proven to be more than problematic in the past. Who can cover him effectively throughout the series?