Ranking Potential 1st-Round Opponents for the OKC Thunder

Bradlee Ross@rossbeCorrespondent IIMarch 15, 2013

Ranking Potential 1st-Round Opponents for the OKC Thunder

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    The 2013 NBA playoffs are weeks away, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have been successful in maintaining their position near the top of the Western Conference.

    However, that does not mean that their first-round opponent will be a pushover. The bottom half of the Western Conference playoff race is littered with talented teams that would be more than willing and able to play spoiler to the Thunder’s potential run back to the NBA Finals.

    Only the teams that are most likely to face the Thunder in the first round are listed, and they are restricted to the sixth through 10th seeds in the West as of March 14. Listed in order from most desirable to least, these are the teams the Thunder will be watching in preparation for the first round of the playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks

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    No. 10 seed

    2012-13 Season Record: 3-0, OKC

    The Dallas Mavericks are the most favorable matchup the Oklahoma City Thunder could get in the first round of the playoffs. These two teams are a study in just how far up or down a team can go in just a few years.

    Two years ago, the Mavericks defeated the Thunder handily in the conference finals, with the latter looking extremely inferior to the former. Since then, Dallas has been decimated by defections, while Oklahoma City has continued to get better.

    The biggest reason Dallas cannot hang with Oklahoma City is the interesting dichotomy of age and youth on its roster.

    Many Mavericks are too old to make Dallas a contender anymore. Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter are still decent players, but none are the playmakers they used to be. Go ahead and throw Elton Brand and Chris Kaman in that group as well.

    The other half of the roster is comprised of young players who lack superstar potential. O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison are very good players, but they are not good enough to push the team over the edge into contention. In fact, they may not even be good enough to push Dallas into a playoff spot.

    The Thunder have dynamic young talent that is better at nearly every position. This matchup would be a sweep.

Houston Rockets

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    No. 7 seed

    2012-13 Season Record: 2-1, OKC

    If the Oklahoma City Thunder did not have a history with James Harden, this team would not be one of the most desirable first-round opponents for them. However, that history makes this matchup attractive for the Thunder for a couple of reasons.

    One obvious reason is television. That past history will get more people to watch the series.

    The more important reason, though, is the Thunder’s familiarity with Harden’s game. Thabo Sefolosha is the man responsible for guarding him, and playing alongside him for three years is an advantage no other defender in the league has.

    When you look at the rest of the Houston roster, it is pretty favorable for the Thunder. Omer Asik could cause the most problems, because he is a big, athletic center who plays great defense and rebounds. The rest of the team, though, including Jeremy Lin, suffers an athletic disadvantage in their individual matchups.

Utah Jazz

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    No. 9 seed

    2012-13 Season Record: 2-1, OKC

    It might seem odd to put the Utah Jazz this far down on this list, especially given that Oklahoma City just beat them on March 13 by 23 points. However, the truth is that the Jazz are one of the tougher teams the Oklahoma City Thunder could face in the first round.

    The primary advantage the Jazz have is inside. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are tough enough to deal with. Bringing Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter off the bench really just isn’t fair.

    In their most recent matchup, the Jazz were unable to utilize this advantage. If they had been, the game would have been much closer.

    The downside for the Jazz is the Thunder’s massive advantage on the perimeter. Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks pale in comparison to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin and even Thabo Sefolosha.

    This potential series would hinge on who was able to tailor the series to their strengths. You would have to bet on the Thunder to do that, given their superior experience and talent. Home-court advantage would also play a huge factor since the Jazz are just 10-24 on the road.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    No. 8 seed

    2012-13 Season Record: 3-1, OKC

    The Los Angeles Lakers are pretty low on this list given that the Oklahoma City Thunder have dominated them over the last few years. In fact, the Lakers' record against the Thunder in the last two seasons is 3-9.

    However, that does not mean that the Lakers are an easy out, especially when compared to the other potential first-round opponents for the Thunder. Despite their poor showing this season, the Lakers still have the best two or three individual players of any team on this list.

    When a team has Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol on the roster, it has a shot against any team in a seven-game series. Howard can cause havoc on the inside, and Bryant can still take over games in big ways.

    As I stated, this is really all about how the Lakers compare with the rest of the teams on this list. They are a better team than most of them, regardless of what the records say. However, the Thunder are still the better team in this matchup, and it will be a Thunder win—though perhaps a tough one.

Golden State Warriors

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    No. 6 seed

    2012-13 Season Record: 2-1, OKC

    The toughest potential first-round opponent for the Oklahoma City Thunder is the Golden State Warriors.

    Why? Because their youth and athleticism are better than any other team on this list.

    The Thunder like to run, and the Warriors are one of the few teams that actually have the horses to keep up with them. They are a balanced team that has a scorer at just about every position on the floor at once. Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes round out a potent starting five, and Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack and Brandon Rush bring firepower off the bench.

    If Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and on the floor, the Warriors will also have a defensive backbone that will bother Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant when they attempt to get to the rim.

    The advantages the Thunder have in this matchup are their defense and playoff experience. Warriors head coach Mark Jackson has improved his team defensively, but Golden State still lacks the length and tenacity the Thunder have, especially in the perimeter.

    The Warriors also have basically no one on the team with any significant playoff experience, and that will come into play against OKC.