As we approach the final stretch of the regular season, the playoff picture is becoming clearer and the Oklahoma City Thunder are preparing themselves for the wide array of talent that they may encounter in the postseason.
The Western Conference is full of quality teams and no squad will go down easily. The Thunder have defeated and been defeated by every other current playoff team making even possibly the best team in the conference susceptible to being upset.
With a mixture of youth and veteran talent across the board, each roster is a little different and brings its own challenges to a possible seven-game series. There are sage old teams like the San Antonio Spurs and also young, spry teams vying for its first taste of playoff success like the Los Angeles Clippers.
Though there are lots of areas that OKC struggles with against these possible opponents, a team like the Thunder doesn't get to where they are in the standings without having a plethora of advantages over them as well.
As of this writing (4/4/13), the Los Angeles Lakers are currently sitting in the eighth seed for the Western Conference.
Reading that sentence at the beginning of the season would've shocked a lot of people (myself included) as this year's Laker team was expected to be a remarkable force. However, as it stands right now, the Lake show is battling to even make the postseason just to have a chance to make the run that many predicted they would do rather easily.
One of the biggest sources to the Lakers trouble this season certainly isn't a lack of talent, as they have a roster full of All-Stars in Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. Instead, I believe where the downfall really came from was a lack of cohesion and chemistry.
This is also part of the reason why the Thunder have so much consistency in their high-level of play. OKC was a team built from the ground up with guys who've gotten familiar with each others games and have grown with each other on and off the court.
LA, on the other hand, was forced to try and mesh a lot of talent together in a short time and it's been a lot harder than the fans and team thought it would be.
In the playoffs, chemistry is important because of the high intensity level of each game. Having a comfort level with your teammates is crucial and I think it would be the deciding factor if the Lakers encountered the Thunder in the first round or later part of the postseason.
James Harden has been terrific this year for the Houston Rockets and has proven his worth as a franchise cornerstone.
The Thunder knew they had a terrific player on their team, but made the tough decision to trade him when the sides couldn't reach a mutually agreeable deal. In parting with Harden, though, the Thunder also knew that they may eventually have to battle against him in the playoffs.
Harden's a potent scorer with a versatile game, but the guys on the Thunder know all about that. I'm not saying that just because they know what moves Harden uses, that they will be able to shut him down completely.
Exhibit A for that would be the 46 points that he dropped on his former team in the last meeting in February. However, I do believe that in a seven-game series, having so many guys being so familiar with Harden's game will pay dividends for the Thunder.
The Rockets don't have a great deal of offensive firepower aside from Harden, so if the Thunder were able to focus in on stopping him, the rest of the team defense could get a lot easier.
Without Harden being able to score at will, Houston would be frozen in its tracks against a multi-faceted team like Oklahoma City and would surely be downed rather quickly in a playoff series.
Both the Thunder and Warriors have more than their fair share of offensive potency, but the eventual difference-maker will be which team plays the better defense.
This is where OKC separates themselves from Golden State, as the Thunder have guys on the roster who can play some quality defense (Thabo Sefolosha, DeAndre Liggins, Ronnie Brewer) while the Warriors are a bit more lacking in that department.
Aside from individual players, team defense is even more important in a playoff series, especially with a dangerous perimeter team such as the Warriors. This is an area that OKC has thrived in as they are holding opponents to 42.6 percent shooting this season, good for second in the NBA.
Team defense is all about rotating, communicating, contesting shots, and helping out on drives and, with an opponent field goal percentage that low, it would appear that the Thunder are doing a fine job of all of that.
Defending the Warriors offense is no easy task, but I believe that the Thunder would be able to rise to the occasion, should these teams meet in the playoffs.
As much as I talked up the Thunder's defense in the last slide, it's their offense that will be much more overpowering, even against the toughest of defense like the Memphis Grizzlies'.
Without Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies don't have too many options to look to with the ball in their possession, but their team defense has risen to be the best in the league in points allowed per game (89.8). In addition to that, teams are only attempting 76.9 shots per game (best in the league) and converting on just 44 percent of those (sixth in the league).
Even with these staggering numbers, the Thunder do have a couple guys by the names of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who like to dismantle stats like those. Both Durant and Westbrook have proven that they can score from all over the court and, to the rest of the league's terror, are only getting better.
Oklahoma City just has way too many scoring options for Memphis to contain them all and without an answer for the Grizzlies on offense, they are destined to fall to the Thunder in a playoff series.
While free throw shooting percentages may seem a bit trivial during the regular season, converting on your opportunities at the charity stripe in the playoffs is critical to success.
The postseason will have a lot of physicality and tight officiating, which will most likely lead to an influx in free throw attempts. The Thunder, who are shooting 82.7 percent as a team (best in the league) this season, are greatly looking forward to this while opponents like the Clippers (71.1 percent as a team) may be dreading it.
These teams have shown that they can get especially physical with each other, but OKC as a team definitely has the advantage in actually taking that physicality and turning it into points and maybe even victories.
The Clippers, however, are weighed down by some poor free throw shooters (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to be exact) who will play big minutes but will also draw a lot of foul shots.
If Los Angeles is unable to get the work done at the stripe, the Thunder will be more likely to make big runs and close out games with a little more ease. Therefore, this seemingly small advantage could prove to be huge in a series between Lob City and Oklahoma City.
There's a few things you can't avoid in life: death, taxes, and losing to the Denver Nuggets on their home court.
Oklahoma City has lost both games on the road against Denver this season, and other teams haven't fared too much better as the Nuggets boast a gaudy 34-3 record in the Pepsi Center.
Fortunately for OKC (barring a miraculous fall from grace and surge by the Nuggets), they will definitely have home court advantage over Denver in the playoffs, should they face each other. This is wonderful news since the Thunder wouldn't even have to technically win a road game to win the theoretical series.
Also in Oklahoma City's favor is the declining health of some of Denver's key players with starting guard Ty Lawson battling a plantar fascia tear in his right heel and sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari facing a possibly serious knee injury.
Though a series between these teams would definitely have a ton of entertainment value, the Thunder's nearly-guaranteed home court advantage over the Nuggets would ultimately be the deciding factor.
Though the San Antonio Spurs are far from a youthful team, their old-school kind of style approach has been more than effective this season.
While the Thunder have had games against the Spurs where they've been unable to figure them out, there have been games like their most recent one (April 4) where they were able to stave off defeat thanks to a heightened pace in fastbreak and transition.
This is where the key lies for the Thunder, if they want to be able to clear the likely hurdle that is the Spurs in the Western Conference playoffs.
In the half-court offense, San Antonio can have their way with you on both ends of the ball. However, once teams get the tempo a bit higher and start pushing the ball on offense, the Spurs are thrown a bit more off-guard and the defense is softer and exposed.
Luckily for the Thunder, their youth and explosiveness compared to the Spurs' lack of it is the perfect formula to take them down in a series. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both great players to start and finish fast breaks, with Durant's ability to drive and score at the rim and Westbrook's almost automatic pull-up jumper.
San Antonio just doesn't have the speed to keep up with Oklahoma City in the open court and that's ultimately what would cost them in a possible postseason rematch of the Western Conference Finals of 2012.