Oklahoma City Thunder's Game Plan Against Every Potential Playoff Opponent
The NBA playoffs may still be a few months away, but the playoff picture is slowly starting to take shape, giving us a better idea of which teams the Oklahoma City Thunder might be facing on their way to another NBA Finals appearance.
Obviously, many things can, and will change before the playoffs start.
Players will be traded, guys could get injured and someone that hasn't made much of an impact yet could catch fire.
However, even without knowing those things, we can still look at the various tactics that Thunder head coach Scott Brooks should employ if his team happens to meet one of these teams in a playoff situation.
So, what will Oklahoma City's game plan look like against the top teams in the West? Read on, to find out.
Los Angeles Lakers
Keys to the Series: Russell Westbrook must be aggressive, Thabo Sefolosha needs to force Kobe Bryant into poor shots.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's game plan against the Los Angeles Lakers comes down to two main points.
First, Russell Westbrook has to exert his will.
Yes, Steve Nash is a future Hall-of-Famer and one of the best point guards to ever play, but he simply can't match up with Westbrook's speed and athleticism at his advanced age.
Westbrook needs to take advantage of this mismatch, blowing by Nash on offense, while hounding him on defense.
Nash is still going to be a good shooter and will chip in with quite a few assists, but if Westbrook can tire him out with efficient, inspired play, it will go a long way to getting the Thunder a series win.
The other thing OKC needs to do is to make Kobe Bryant shoot the ball, a lot.
Now, this seems a bit counter-productive, as Kobe is one of the best scorers the NBA's ever seen, but the Thunder employ one of the best "Kobe-stoppers" in the NBA.
Thabo Sefolosha has routinely made Kobe's life difficult in these two teams' past meetings.
True, Bryant is still going to score points, but Sefolosha will force him to take more shots than usual to get those points.
If Kobe is forced to put up bad shots, we could see many more games like last year's series-deciding game five, which saw him score 42 points, but take 33 shots to get there.
Games like that will lead to an OKC series win.
Key to the Series: Use Portland's Youth Against Them.
The Portland Trailblazers are one of the younger and more inexperienced teams that the Oklahoma City Thunder could find themselves facing in the playoffs.
That youth could be a positive for the Blazers against some teams, but it's a factor that the Thunder should be able to take advantage of.
This is because Portland starts a rookie at point guard in Damian Lillard, as well as 24-year-old Nicolas Batum at the small forward slot.
Now, both of these young guys are quickly becoming good players, but they can't hold a candle to OKC's Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Obviously, most Thunder game plans involve Durant and Westbrook taking the majority of shots and being aggressive, but this potential series will call for them to completely take over.
If they can force Portland's young players to make mistakes and poor shots while dominating on the offensive end, then the Thunder can neutralize any advantage that power forward LaMarcus Aldridge gives the Blazers.
Keys to the Series: Make James Harden Take Bad Shots, Russell Westbrook's domination of Jeremy Lin.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's game plan for the Houston Rockets is somewhat similar to their game plan for the Los Angeles Lakers.
James Harden has proven himself a capable number one option, who can pretty much score at will.
The key will be for someone on the Thunder—likely Thabo Sefolosha—to force him to take lots of bad shots en route to his 25-plus points per game.
Russell Westbrook is also an important factor here, because he should absolutely destroy Jeremy Lin at the point guard position.
Lin has never been the best defender, and that hasn't changed this season.
Westbrook has to take advantage and be extremely aggressive.
In theory, this could have two positive effects for the Thunder.
The first is the obvious one: Westbrook torches the Rockets in every game, and OKC runs away with this series.
Another possibility is that Westbrook's dominance of Lin could force Harden to move over and guard his former running mate.
This would likely mean a decrease in offensive production and, again, lead to a quick series win for Oklahoma City.
Key to the Series: Get Utah's bigs into foul trouble.
The Utah Jazz present an interesting obstacle for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Jazz boast one of the NBA's deepest frontcourts, with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
That much size could cause problems for the Thunder, especially if Jefferson or Millsap get hot and use their offensive prowess to make life difficult for Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
Oklahoma City's best course of action could be to use their excellent perimeter players to get to the bucket and force Utah's big men into foul trouble.
If that makes Jefferson and Millsap more timid in the post, then it's mission accomplished for OKC.
Look for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to try and get to the line at least 10 times each per game.
Earlier this year, the Thunder found themselves on the right side of a 12-point beatdown that saw them get to the line 33 times to Utah's 12.
If such a strategy worked once, then maybe it can work over a seven-game series.
Keys to the Series: Play Smarter and Harder.
Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Denver Nuggets are an athletic team that would love to get out and run, speeding the game up in the process.
This plays into the Thunder's strengths, because they have the bigger star power in this matchup, and that should lead to a series win.
However, there are a few key things OKC can do to insure that they move on to the next round.
The first is to limit turnovers.
These two teams have faced each other twice on the season, each winning one.
Russell Westbrook made the biggest impact here, with zero turns in the win and seven in the loss.
Westbrook has to protect the ball and help limit the Nuggets' fast break opportunities, because they are a team that thrives on those chances.
Oklahoma City must also limit the Nuggets' offensive rebounds.
Denver tallied just 11 offensive boards in the game they lost to OKC, while grabbing 20 in the win. That helped lead them to 50 total rebounds to the Thunder's 39.
If the Thunder can protect the basketball and not get out-hustled, they should win this matchup.
Golden State Warriors
Keys to the Series: Kevin Durant must play well, Russell Westbrook needs to improve his shot selection.
The Golden State Warriors should expect to see a healthy dose of the Oklahoma City Thunder's very own MVP candidate, Kevin Durant.
Golden State just doesn't have anyone that can keep up with Durant on the offensive end, as they start rookie Harrison Barnes at the small forward slot.
Barnes is going to be a good player in this league, but he has no chance against the offensive juggernaut that is Kevin Durant.
If this was a few years ago, you could argue that Richard Jefferson would be able to bother Durant a little bit, but Jefferson is 32 and can't be expected to stick with Durant for very long stretches.
However, the x-factor in this series is either going to be Russell Westbrook or Andrew Bogut.
Westbrook was sensational in a win over the Warriors earlier this year, leading the team with 30 points on 12-22 shooting. In the January follow-up, he was pretty much the opposite, shooting a poor 3-16 from the field.
The athletic point guard has to be more efficient with his shot if the Thunder is going to win this series.
Bogut could play an even bigger factor than Westbrook, as his return from injury has given Golden State the inside presence they lacked in his absence.
If he continues to improve with added minutes, the Thunder is going to have to figure out a way to stop him.
Hopefully, the combo of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet is enough, but this could be another case of a series that calls for Westbrook to be more aggressive in going to the hole and getting the opponents into foul trouble.
No matter what, this is a winnable series for the Thunder, they just have to play their game and stay aggressive.
Key to the Series: Speed it up.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in a playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, they're going to want to speed up the games for multiple reasons.
The Thunder's offense averages 12 points more per game than the Grizzlies, largely due to their highly efficient perimeter players.
Memphis lacks the wing horsepower to keep up with guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, especially now that they've traded away Rudy Gay.
Gay wasn't having his best season for Memphis, but he was their one go-to perimeter threat that gave them a chance to keep up with Durant.
The Grizzlies would want to slow the Thunder down and let their bigs, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol use their size and offensive skill to beat the Thunder up.
This leads into another reason the Thunder need to speed up play and get out of this series quickly.
Memphis is a team that would rather turn a basketball game into a war and would really try to put the hurt on opponents, especially a rival like Oklahoma City.
OKC saw this a few years ago, when the Griz played them tough for seven games, and then the Thunder couldn't get back up for the Dallas Mavericks.
They lost that Western Conference Final in five games.
If they don't want a repeat of 2011 and want to get back to the NBA Finals, then they need to put the Grizzlies down as fast as possible.
Los Angeles Clippers
Key to the Series: Kevin Durant needs to make this a "signature series".
The Los Angeles Clippers are one of, if not the most dangerous teams to the Oklahoma City Thunder's bid to return to the NBA Finals.
Russell Westbrook is a good point guard in his own right, but Paul is the NBA's best at the position.
While this should lead to one of the better position matchups in the playoffs, you have to think the Clippers hold the advantage here.
With Westbrook's play basically offset by Paul's, the bulk of the burden has to fall to Kevin Durant.
Durant's obviously the Thunder's best player, and this is the series he has to show that off.
The Clippers have three guys in Caron Butler, Matt Barnes and Grant Hill to throw at Durant, but realistically, none of those players can keep up with the Durantula for very long.
KD needs to put his stamp on this series and rip the Clippers up for 30-plus points a game.
If he can do this, the Thunder should be able to overcome L.A.'s bench depth and move on to the next round.
San Antonio Spurs
Key to the Series: Use Oklahoma City's youth and energy to their advantage.
However, those three are still the Spurs' best and most important players; that said, it's not like any of them are spring chickens anymore.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's stars are still young, full of energy and emotion.
Sometimes, like in Russell Westbrook's recent blow up at Thabo Sefolosha, this can backfire on them.
That said, if they can harness their energy and use it to jump out to big leads against San Antonio, OKC should be able to pull away in this series.
We saw this happen in the playoffs last year.
OKC needs to have that same energy in this series to put away the Spurs and move onto the NBA Finals.