The 2013 NBA Playoffs are approaching rapidly, as teams jockey for position in hopes of landing a favorable first-round matchup or, for many others, simply extending their season deep into April.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will certainly be in the playoffs and match up favorably against every potential first-round opponent in several facets of the game.
Each one of the teams that seems likely to be in the playoffs is in some way inferior to the Thunder, which is not surprising, given Oklahoma City's success led by superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
We’ll go through the potential edge OKC has over each of the six team listed. The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers have been left off because it is still too early to call who will occupy the No. 8 seed.
Familiarity with James Harden
Some would say the loss of James Harden is one that the Thunder cannot overcome and will haunt them through the playoffs. However, it will not hurt them at all if they must face the Houston Rockets in the playoffs.
Playing against Harden will have the opposite effect for the young Thunder. Not only are the Thunder the type of long, athletic team that Harden often struggles against, but they also will benefit from their familiarity with his game from playing with him for years.
Thabo Sefolosha is one of the best on-ball, perimeter defenders in the NBA and Harden will long for the days when he benefited from Sefolosha’s defense rather than suffered from it. He was able to go off for 46 points in his third matchup with his former team.
However, when the defense ratchets up in the playoffs, this matchup would be much closer to the first two regular season matchups in which Harden went just 9-for-33 from the field.
The Golden State Warriors of 2013 are very similar to the Oklahoma City Thunder of 2009. Their appearance in these playoffs will be the first such experience many of their core players have in the postseason. That 2009 Thunder team lost a tough first-round series to the more experienced Los Angeles Lakers. A matchup this postseason with the Thunder would end similarly for the Warriors.
The Warriors would by no means be a pushover, though. They are talented everywhere, one of those dangerous young teams that will cause whoever they face in the playoffs problems. Warriors’ coach Mark Jackson has brought a winning culture to the team and the fact that they are in position to make the playoffs largely without often-injured Andrew Bogut is all the more impressive.
However, the Thunder have been here before, and their young stars are clearly more developed than those wearing Golden State jerseys. This potential playoff series would likely go six games, but the Thunder’s experience would be the X-factor.
Home Court Advantage
Of all the Western Conference playoff teams the Oklahoma City Thunder could potentially face, home court advantage will be most important against the Denver Nuggets.
As of March 7, the Nuggets have a record of 40-22, with a home record of an incredible 26-3 and road record of a lackluster 14-19. Clearly, George Karl’s team is a very different team at the Pepsi Center than at venues of opposing teams.
The Nuggets are one of the few teams that the Thunder have a losing record against this season. Why is that? You guessed it. The Thunder lost the two games they had to play in Denver albeit by only a combined five points. At home, though, the Thunder blew out the Nuggets by 20 points.
While the playoff result won’t be that drastic, clearly playing at home against the Nuggets will make a huge difference.
Superior Go-To Scorers
One of the teams that has given the Oklahoma City Thunder the most trouble over the past few seasons is the Memphis Grizzlies. While a playoff series this year between the two would be equally tough, the Thunder would come out on top, primarily because they have superior scorers to go-to in clutch situations.
After trading Rudy Gay (who really hadn’t excelled in the shooting game anyway), the Grizzlies really do not have that athletic perimeter player that is often necessary to close out big games. Zach Randolph filled the role of key scorer two years ago when the Thunder and Grizzlies played a seven-game series in the second round. However, Memphis was unable to pull out the series.
Given that Randolph has only gotten older, it is unlikely he can do any better this year. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both playing the absolute best of their career this season. One of them going off would be enough to push them over the edge against the Grizzlies.
Two of them going off will put the series clearly into Thunder control.
If you watched the Oklahoma City Thunder’s most recent matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, the thing that probably stands out most is the physicality with which the Thunder player. It propelled them to a big lead and helped them hang on for a close victory.
That brand of physical play will dominate the playoffs and that type of game characterizes the Thunder more so than the Clipper. If you compare position-by-position, the Thunder win the physical matchup at each.
Russell Westbrook is bigger and stronger than Chris Paul, Serge Ibaka is an athletic monster willing to punch Blake Griffin in the crotch if that's what it takes and the Clippers have no player capable of shutting down Kevin Durant. The Clippers are not an easy out in the playoffs, but they will be an out for the Thunder.
The San Antonio Spurs currently lead the league standings, and for good reason. Their style of team-oriented basketball, along with their three-point shooters and trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan proved too much for many teams this regular season. That said, they are not built to win tough playoff series deep in the playoffs.
They are especially not built to do that against a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose offense is focused around two high-scoring superstars and are rounded out by defense-oriented players. San Antonio has methodically spread around the ball, frustrating most defenses, but that alone is not enough to win a title.
Every team runs into moments when you just need your best player to get a basket. With Parker injured, the Spurs will be without their player who normally does that for them for awhile. Even when he comes back, he is not good enough to beat the Thunder, who have both Durant and Westbrook to run isolation plays for the big, series-winning shot.