OKC Thunder's Biggest Problem with Each Western Conference Playoff Contender
The playoffs are coming up rather quickly for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it's still not quite clear who they will be facing in the first round.
The Thunder have had multiple cracks at the teams bound to make the postseason in the West. Even in their victories, however, there are changes to be made for the Thunder to adapt and prepare for facing these teams again in a playoff setting.
Each team has given Oklahoma City some problems and it's prime time for the Thunder to solve these now in order to fulfill their expectations to win the Western Conference crown once more.
Houston Rockets: Playing Defense
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The Thunder are not exactly known for their strong team efforts on defense (ranked 13th in the league with 97.5 PPG allowed), but it seems to be extra bad when playing an offensively talented team like the Houston Rockets.
Though OKC blew the Rockets out of the water in their first two meetings of the season (120-98 and 124-94), it was still relatively early in the season, and Houston seems to have found a better grasp on their team chemistry since then. This was evident in the Rockets' most recent game against the Thunder, where they pulled out a 122-119 victory.
This offensive showcase included a career-high 46-point night from former OKC sixth man James Harden, who has blossomed into a true star in Houston.
While it was just one game on the road for the Thunder, it serves as a sample of what the Rockets are capable of. There are other offensive weapons on the team (Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons) who have shown the ability to catch fire at certain times.
It would be hard to outshoot the Thunder, but it would be a tough series if OKC doesn't step up on defense against the Rockets who could potentially surprise some people in their first-round matchup.
Golden State: A Healthy Frontcourt
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This season, the Thunder have handled business pretty well against a young, energized Golden State Warriors team, winning two of the three contests, so far.
Of those three games, though, Warriors center Andrew Bogut has yet to play in a single one of them. Bogut has been battling through injuries all season, something that has plagued him in what was supposed to be a dominant career.
When healthy, however, the former first overall draft pick can really make a difference on the court, even against the defensive prowess of Kendrick Perkins.
The frontcourt duo of David Lee and Bogut is a scary thought for the Thunder, especially considering the perimeter-shooting talent also in the lineup for Golden State (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson).
It'll be interesting to see how much more effective the Dubs are with their starting five at full strength, and we may get to see a sample of that on April 11 when they face the Thunder for one last time.
For OKC, the problem lies in having to worry about the paint on defense while also having deadeye shooters roaming the perimeter. This could spread the Thunder defense a little thin, leading to some high offensive outputs that we all know the Warriors are capable of.
Denver Nuggets: Winning on the Road
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In the playoffs, the home crowds for teams tend to be louder and crazier than ever, making for an unsettling environment for even the most experienced of teams.
Denver should be no different when the postseason rolls around, but the Nuggets have shown that even in the regular season, winning in the Pepsi Center is a tall task.
Boasting a ridiculous 26-3 home record, the Nuggets have downed almost everyone who's come through their doors. The Thunder have not been spared, losing both games played on the road against the Nuggets this season.
Everyone always talks about how the Nuggets lack a true star and how that prevents them from ever advancing too far in the playoffs. Their quality wins against OKC, though, prove that team chemistry and the energy of a home arena can rack up some victories, with or without a superstar.
This shows mostly through their great passing ability and 24.4 assists-per-game average, which is good for second in the league.
The Thunder may end up seeing the Nuggets in the second round this postseason, meaning they could be faced with going to Denver once more. OKC has a respectable 17-12 road record, but that goes out the window when facing an environment like the one the Nuggets call home.
Memphis Grizzlies: Wearing Down the Defense
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To be honest, there's not a whole lot to be scared of in the Thunder's eyes when playing the Grizzlies as of right now.
Earlier in the season, Memphis had Rudy Gay to carry the scoring load and his 28 points helped the Grizz top the Thunder. However, in the game following the trade that sent Gay to Toronto, OKC took care of Memphis easily, and it shouldn't be a problem should these two meet in the postseason.
If there is anything for the Thunder to be concerned about, though, it will be the strong team defense that the Grizzlies play. With Memphis only allowing opponents 89.5 points per contest, it's important for the Thunder to get the offense going early and to build a sizeable lead in the first or second quarter.
Since the Grizzlies are rather limited offensively outside of the post duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the Thunder shouldn't have too much trouble on defense and can focus their attention and energy with the ball in their possession.
Memphis is really not much of a threat to the Thunder as it looks right now, but things could change come playoff time, so Oklahoma City will also have to really focus and not underestimate any opponent that they come across.
San Antonio Spurs: Closing out Games
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The Spurs and the Thunder played a pretty exciting Western Conference finals series last postseason, and if things shake out the way they're expected to, we could be seeing a grudge match this year.
Every year, everyone expects the Spurs to finally slow down due to age, but every year, they defy expectations and quietly dominate in the same fundamental way that they've trademarked in the Tim Duncan era.
Oklahoma City had some close calls in that series last season, with only one out of the six games being decided by double-digits. It took a 2-0 series comeback for the Thunder to down the Spurs, but that was thanks to some late-game heroics by OKC.
Should these teams meet once more in the playoffs this year, it shouldn't be any different. This means that the Thunder need to focus on finishing strong in close contests, especially since the Spurs are a well-coached veteran team that plays well down the stretch.
We saw a bit of this earlier this season, in Oklahoma City's season opener where they lost on a buzzer-beating jumper at the hands of Tony Parker. The Thunder could have avoided that situation completely if not for some bad shots and costly turnovers in crunch time.
If the Thunder let even one close game slip past them in the postseason, it could end up costing them the momentum in the series, something the Spurs may not give back.
San Antonio has some tough defenders on the team that could frustrate OKC's players in crunch time, leading to some forced shots (I'm looking at you Russell Westbrook). So it is up to the Thunder to stay calm and collected in order to score when they need to and get stops with the game on the line.
Los Angeles Clippers: Composure
I'm sure we've all heard or seen what transpired a few days ago when the Clippers and Thunder met up in what seems to be a budding rivalry between two talented, exciting squads. In case you missed it, you can refer to the video to the side.
Though the Thunder pulled off a win, that incident resulted in a seven-point swing for the Clippers, mistakes that can't happen in close games in the playoffs. Regardless of whether Serge Ibaka meant to hit Blake Griffin down there, he did it, and it cost his team points and almost the game.
It's up to his teammates to keep each other in check and to stay composed during the heightened anxiety of the postseason. If OKC loses their cool when other players get under their skin, it can lead to very preventable technical and flagrant fouls and may very well affect the outcome of games.
The core of this Thunder team has been through enough postseasons to know how valuable each possession is, and the pressure is becoming familiar to them. Therefore, they must apply what they've learned through the tough eliminations in the past few years. This means swallowing pride and channeling emotions correctly.
If Oklahoma City can manage to keep their cool, they have the talent and ability to beat the Clippers in what would be probably one of the best playoff series in recent memory.