By clinching the top seed in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder can officially begin preparing for the NBA playoffs.
As soon as they figure out who they'll meet in the first round, that is.
Three teams are still vying for the final two playoff spots out West. The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz are all still in play for the seventh and eighth seeds.
Of these three, one will be watching the postseason unfold from the confines of their couch, another will earn the right to square off against the second-place San Antonio Spurs and the other will go toe-to-toe with the reigning conference champions.
Which of those convocations is most likely destined for the latter? Or, better yet, which of the triumvirate would the Thunder prefer their quest for a championship go through?
Finishing atop the standings with home-court advantage in hand is a luxury, but the ambiguity behind what that very first-place finish means for the postseason is not.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference.
The Rockets will finish eighth if...
They fall to the Lakes in their season finale.
Should Houston fall to Los Angeles, the Lakers would even the season series at two games apiece. The tie break then comes down to who has the better conference record, which favors Tinseltown.
In this scenario, the Lakers would assume the seventh seed, while James Harden would be forced to lead his troops into battle against Kevin Durant and the Thunder.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers will finish eighth if...
They lose to the Rockets in the final game of the regular season and the Jazz come up empty against the Memphis Grizzlies.
A victory over Houston puts Hollywood in an essential tie with the Rockets for seventh. Sole possession of seventh would go the team with a better conference record (since the season series between the two would be at 2-2), which would be the Lakers.
Losing to Houston puts Los Angeles' postseason hopes in jeopardy. A loss to the Rockets coupled with a Jazz victory would tie the Lakers with Utah for eighth. The Jazz own the season series tie break (2-1), which would put Los Angeles in ninth place and out of the playoff picture.
Should the Lakers fall to the Rockets and the Jazz lose to the Grizzlies, though, Dwight Howard and crew would retain ownership of eighth, setting up a first-round date with Oklahoma City.
The Jazz will finish eighth if...
They can manage to rattle off a victory against the Grizzlies and the Lakers are upended by the Rockets.
This particular scenario has both Los Angeles and Utah finishing 44-38. The Jazz won two of three against the Lakers this year, giving them the edge in a tie break and pitting them against the Thunder in Round 1.
A loss to Memphis and/or a Los Angeles victory eliminates the Jazz from contention.
A reunion here probably wouldn't feel so good...for James Harden.
Neither the Rockets nor the Thunder are teams with exceptional depth (both benches rank in the bottom half of points per game). Any postseason battle between the Rockets and the Thunder, then, is going to come down to firepower. Just like it did during the regular season.
Oklahoma City went 2-1 against Houston this year, and in each of those three contests, the winning convocation scored at least 120 points. The Thunder specifically averaged a combined 121 points in those games, compared to the Rockets' 104.7.
In a series that will come down to who has more offensive weapons, there's no reason to believe the Harden-led Rockets will trip up the Thunder.
Not only does Kevin Durant have the sidekick Harden doesn't (Russell Westbrook), but Oklahoma City has a spark off the pine Houston can only dream about (Kevin Martin). The thought of watching Jeremy Lin attempt to defend the explosive Russell Westbrook on a semi-daily basis should also be enough to make the Rockets faithful cringe.
Admittedly, Houston does have an advantage over the Lakers and Jazz in Harden. The Thunder's notoriously supportive crowd won't be as likely to jeer Harden the way they would Dwight Howard or Al Jefferson (can you even boo anyone on the Jazz, though?).
Still, given how porous the Rockets' defense is (102.5 points allowed per game) and taking into consideration that they're the youngest team in the NBA, this becomes a matchup they just can't win.
Their top-ranked offense (106.1 points per game) will prove potent enough to steal a game or two, but the Thunder will have no qualms about sending Harden and friends home early.
Prediction: Thunder in five
Sans Kobe Bryant, the Lakers still pose a legitimate threat. Just not as viable a one to the Thunder as they would like.
Oklahoma City is 3-1 against Los Angeles on the season, and its average margin of victory in those three contests was 12.7 points.
The Thunder now have a clear advantage in the backcourt, where a primary rotation of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin easily outdoes that of Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and anyone else (Andrew Goudelock?) the Lakers choose to field.
I like the Lakers for their ability to neutralize the Thunder in the post. Serge Ibaka is a shot-blocking machine and his mid-range game has come a long way, but Kendrick Perkins only plays well in spurts (if at all). Nick Collison can provide some solid two-way minutes as an X-factor, but a healthy tandem of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, clad with the new inside-out rapport they have going, should mitigate Ibaka and crew's impact.
Another interesting matchup to consider is that of Metta World Peace and Kevin Durant. I wouldn't call World Peace a Durantula stopper, but he's the wing defender neither the Jazz nor Rockets have.
In 19 regular-season games against Metta, Durant is averaging 27.5 points, but converting on just 29.4 percent of his deep balls and committing more than three turnovers. That's something to watch.
While I hate to board the "Lakers Don't Have Kobe" bandwagon, I have to. Los Angeles couldn't beat the Thunder consistently with him (or barely at all), and now thinner than before, I can't envision a scenario where it upsets Oklahoma City.
The Lakers' star-power, however, will make for a compelling series. Howard has carried a team on an epic postseason run before (most notably in 2009 with the Orlando Magic), so this is a bout that the Thunder would do well to avoid.
Prediction: Thunder in six
There are those who would suggest that the Jazz stand to do some serious damage over the course of a seven-game series, when they really don't. Not against the Thunder.
Utah is ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency, but 21st in defensive efficiency. Going up against an Oklahoma City outfit that is ranked in the top four of both doesn't bode well.
The Thunder are 3-1 against the Jazz on the season, and are 1-1 in Salt Lake City, where Utah is 30-11. Even if we were to assume the Jazz hold serve in three games at home (unlikely), they have the worst road record (13-27) of any potential playoff team in the NBA. Oklahoma City currently owns the fourth-best home record in the league (34-6), which only complicates Utah's already arduous dilemma.
Initially, we would have been able to cite the Jazz's size as an advantage, but since Enes Kanter went down for the season, their interior rotation isn't nearly as intimidating as it once was. The Thunder are also in the top 11 of points allowed in the paint per game, largely thanks to Serge Ibaka's 3.1 swats a night.
From there, I worry about Utah on the perimeter. There isn't a dangerous point guard on the roster, and while the Jazz move the ball well on offense (22.8 dimes a game), Russell Westbrook will have no problem getting into the paint. Assuming Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors are all executing their rotations properly, that leaves Westbrook free to defer to an open Ibaka or anyone left alone in the paint for what should be an easy two.
The thought of watching Gordon Hayward—who is a strong perimeter defender—go up against the lankier and more explosive Kevin Durant doesn't instill much confidence either.
Although the Jazz do have depth that the Thunder don't (sixth in bench points per game), rotations are shortened in the postseason. Not to mention that depth isn't much leverage to hold when three of the Thunder's top-four scorers are under 25.
Prediction: Thunder in four
No matter who the Thunder pull in the first round of the playoffs, we've seen enough of them this season to know they'll have the clear edge.
Oklahoma City tops the league in offensive efficiency and has defended well for stretches of games at a time. To think it will fall against one of three postseason bottom feeders is (slightly) farfetched.
That said, not all matchups are created equal.
The Rockets are a streaky team capable of putting just as many (if not more) points on the board as the Thunder. Kevin Durant and his band of potent scorers should have no problem silencing whatever run James Harden and his minions make, but the potential for some close games is very real.
Dwight Howard and the Lakers don't have the balanced attack that would suggest they're prepared to complete an upset, but even without Kobe Bryant, they have the star power necessary to pose as menacing an obstacle as an eighth seed possibly could.
Which leaves the Jazz, in all their mediocre glory.
Nothing about Utah screams elite. The Jazz can score and are relatively unselfish, but their defensive sets are underwhelming for a team with a surplus of competent bigs.
Any potential path back to the Western Conference and NBA Finals won't be easy, but the Thunder's pursuit of further prominence becomes much less convoluted if they begin their postseason trek against the Jazz.
Preferred First-Round Opponent: Jazz