OKC Thunder's Ideal Path to the NBA Finals
While the road to the NBA Finals is never short, nor easy, there is still definitely a path that the Thunder would much rather prefer to take on their way there. The competition in the West is at a high level this season, but OKC has been able to sort of test the waters on each regular season opponent throughout this season.
There's some things that still have to happen between now and the end of the regular season for that path to open up, but those conditional variables happening is still very feasible.
The thought of facing the Miami Heat in a Finals rematch is a whole different subject, but in terms for successfully defending their Western Conference crown, there's a fairly painless road for the Thunder to take.
First Stop: Clinching the Top Seed
As of this writing, the Thunder sit just beneath the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference standings by just half a game.
Besides just the confidence booster of being the best team in your conference record-wise, the top seed carries a lot of importance for Oklahoma City. Being the number one gun in the West would guarantee home-court advantage for OKC throughout the Western Conference playoffs and possibly the Finals (if the Heat are upset by another team).
OKC's 33-6 home record is amongst one of the best in the league (only behind Denver, Miami and San Antonio). Also, emotional enigmas like Russell Westbrook being able to feed off the energy of a home crowd can take his game to new heights, which is a scary thought for any opponent.
The Thunder's home is nicknamed Loud City, but that qualifies as a grand understatement during the playoffs where the home-court advantage is as strong as ever with the eardrum-destroying noise that emanates from the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Second Stop: Utah Jazz Beat out the Los Angeles Lakers for the Eighth Seed
Should OKC successfully claim that top seed I mentioned, this second stop is also important to a less difficult path to the finals.
While it's no secret as to how disappointing the Lakers have been this season, there's also a level of danger that they bring to the playoffs, should they clinch a berth.
Kobe Bryant's competitiveness knows no bounds and he'd jump at the chance at carrying his team through a surprising playoff run as an eight seed, especially if their first challenger was the top-seeded Thunder.
OKC handled Los Angeles pretty handily during the regular season, going 3-1 in their meetings, but the playoffs mark the beginning of a whole new season for any team where anything can happen. Given the offensive firepower suiting up for LA, the normal ease of a first round series would not be present for Oklahoma City in this matchup.
However, the Utah Jazz are still very much in line to snatch up that last playoff spot and hold the ever-important tiebreaker of the Lakers in the event of a tie in regular season records.
If the Thunder were paired up with the Jazz, it'd be almost no contest. Sure, the Jazz have a tough homecourt, but they have too many holes in their experience and depth to really be considered a threat to a team as hungry and talented as the Thunder.
Overall, the Lakers wouldn't necessarily be a shoe-in to upset the Thunder and knock them out in the first round, but they would certainly pose a much larger threat than the Jazz.
Third Stop: Conference Semi-Finals
Assuming the Thunder make easy work of the Jazz in their first-round series, they should have ample time to rest up and prepare for the winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies series.
Los Angeles and Memphis met in the first round of last season's playoffs and it was a very physical, grind-it-out kind of affair. These two teams are not the best of friends and it will show on the court.
While the Grizzlies are a little offensively deficient without their primary scorer Rudy Gay (who was traded to Toronto earlier this season), they certainly make up for it defensively. Because of their toughness on D, it will make for a closely-contested and longer series against the offensively potent Clippers.
Hardcore and casual NBA fans everywhere would love to see the Clippers take on the Thunder with so much elite talent battling it out. Just think about Chris Paul vs Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant vs Caron Butler and Serge Ibaka vs Blake Griffin. That has all the makings for some entertaining basketball and highlight plays.
The Thunder, however, would much rather face a Memphis Grizzlies team that they could handle a lot easier.
Memphis is a tough, blue-collar team that's banded together well after Gay's departure, but Oklahoma City simply has too many offensive options (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Martin) for the Grizzlies to try and shut down. Without being able to focus on just one or even two guys all the time, the Grizz will be spread just a little too thin against a Thunder team that shoots well and moves well without the ball on offense.
At the end of the day, defense may win championships, but that simply won't be enough for Memphis in this case as OKC will be able to outgun them in every which way in a possible playoff scenario.
Last Stop: Conference Finals
Before the Thunder can punch their ticket to a second consecutive trip to the Finals, there will be at least one team standing in their way on this ideal path.
While it'd be easy to say that the best matchup here would be a lower seeded team like the sixth-seed Golden State Warriors or seven-seed Houston Rockets, I'm going to take a different (and much more realistic) route here and say that the Thunder would ideally be matched against the San Antonio Spurs in the battle for the Western Conference crown.
Sure, the Spurs have the best chance of any team of beating the Thunder before the Finals. However, OKC would really benefit from a really tough challenge just before the Finals as opposed to breezing through another opponent.
Last season, the Thunder really had to earn their trip to the Finals by coming back in a series against the Spurs. It didn't result in a championship, but Oklahoma City certainly gained a lot of experience from such a series. That's why I think a rematch of that Conference Finals series would have the Thunder taking care of the Spurs a lot more soundly this year than the previous one.
Oklahoma City's roster is bountiful in playoff and championship experience, especially after coming so close to a ring last year. So being faced against a team as familiar as San Antonio with the motivation of another shot at a championship would really elevate OKC to another level and would really prepare them for whoever they face in the finals.
An easier opponent may bring more cockiness and complacency to the Thunder, which could very well be their downfall in the Finals. This is why it's crucial for Oklahoma City to be tested a bit before heading back to the last series of the season, to give them a bit of a wake up call on its ideal postseason road.
While the road I laid out before you is considered to be an ideal one for the Oklahoma City Thunder, I truly believe that it's also a realistic path that the team could be faced with.
It's not too much of a stretch to see the Thunder cruising past the first couple rounds en route to the Conference Finals and being faced with a bit of a challenge in the Spurs.
Whatever may happen, though, the teams OKC will be faced against will have plenty of fight in them. The difference is just how much more fight and more talent the Thunder have to overcome this teams in a seemingly easy fashion.
The keyword there is "seemingly" as there's plenty of hard work and preparation that the Thunder have and will put into this year's postseason for each series. However, I guess that's one of the things that the Thunder do best: making the game look easy.
At the end of the day, there's bound to be complications and difficulties along the path for Oklahoma City in the playoffs, but in a perfect world, there's an ideal path for them. This path involves conditions like favorable matchups and home-court advantages: things that are very much within reach for the Thunder.
Whether OKC is faced with this path or the most difficult path possible, it's bound to be a fun ride throughout the playoffs.