The Oklahoma City Thunder were robbed by Russell Westbrook’s injury last season, so you know they’re chomping at the bit with championship-tinted glasses focused on the upcoming 2014 NBA playoffs. The problem? Navigating the treacherous waters of the very deep and talented Western Conference will be no easy feat.
There is still plenty of time for movement in the standings, but here’s a ranking of the most favorable first-round matchups awaiting the Thunder. There are nine teams realistically in the hunt for a playoff spot, and the Thunder are going to secure a top-three seed in all likelihood.
|Playoff Picture in the West|
|1||San Antonio Spurs||58-16||-|
|2||Oklahoma City Thunder||54-19||3.5|
|3||Los Angeles Clippers||53-22||5.5|
|6||Golden State Warriors||45-28||12.5|
As a result, the most probable matchups are the last four teams on that table—and that’s whom we’re going to look at right now. The hypothetical series are ranked by the risk of an upset (from most favorable matchup to least favorable), although it’s important to keep in mind that—obviously—OKC is the favorite in all of these series.
4. Phoenix Suns (Most Favorable)
The Phoenix Suns have been one of the surprises of the year and one of the most exciting teams in the NBA when fully healthy—but this would be the easiest series for the Thunder by far.
For starters, the Suns don’t have a lot of depth or talent on the wings. Both P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green have been fantastic this year—with Green emerging as a legitimate candidate for the Most Improved Player award—but they don’t have the size to deal with Kevin Durant, who would eviscerate them in a series.
Additionally, this Phoenix team has no experience on a stage like the NBA playoffs, which is a big disadvantage against a grizzled and battle-tested group like the Thunder.
|Season Series: Phoenix Suns|
|Date||Oklahoma City Thunder||Phoenix Suns|
The duo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic is relentless, but Phoenix doesn’t have the depth or talent to take down OKC in the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies are only out of the playoff picture because Marc Gasol missed 23 games due to injury. Since Gasol has rejoined the lineup, the Grizzlies are 27-11 (.715), meaning that they are still a tough out even without head coach Lionel Hollins.
Size is still their forte, and they are the fourth-best team in points in the paint (47.4) in the league according to TeamRankings.com.
But size isn’t a huge problem for the Thunder. They give up the seventh-fewest points in the paint (39.5) per TeamRankings.com and have more able big bodies than they've had in the past with a four-man rotation of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams throwing their weight around in the paint.
|Season Series: Memphis Grizzlies|
|Date||Oklahoma City Thunder||Memphis Grizzlies|
Additionally, while Tony Allen is still an all-world defender, he can’t match the size of Kevin Durant, and Tayshaun Prince is about four years past his prime.
The result has been OKC winning the season series, 3-1, with Gasol playing in three of those matchups. It won’t be easy by any means, but the Grizzlies can’t harass Durant and they can’t shoot the three-pointer well (19th in NBA at 35.3 percent via ESPN).
The choice between Memphis and the Dallas Mavericks is very close, but ultimately the Mavs pose a greater threat because Shawn Marion is a better matchup for Durant than Tony Allen, and Dallas is lethal from behind the three-point line.
And that has played out during their regular-season matchups, with the Mavs taking two of three encounters, including a 23-point blowout in Chesapeake Energy Arena, where Dallas put up 109 points and hit 13 threes on 54-percent shooting from downtown.
|Season Series: Dallas Mavericks|
|Date||Dallas Mavericks||Oklahoma City Thunder|
|Mar. 25||119||128 (OT)|
OKC holds a distinctive advantage at point guard, where neither Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis nor Devin Harris are sticking Russell Westbrook, but the Mavs are efficient enough offensively—third best in NBA according to ESPN—to make it an interesting series.
The Golden State Warriors were considered a legitimate contender to win the West entering the season after an eye-opening playoff run last year and the offseason addition of Andre Iguodala. They’ve underperformed—including some unexpected offensive troubles—but nobody wants to play this team in the playoffs.
Struggle though they might, they are loaded with talent and have the potential to explode offensively on any given night.
|Season Series: Golden State Warriors|
|Date||Oklahoma City Thunder||Golden State Warriors|
|Nov. 29||113 (OT)||112|
OKC and Golden State have crossed paths three times this season, and every game has been hard-fought—especially the first two, which were decided by a total of two points.
The first order of business for anybody to beat the Thunder is the unenviable task of trying to contain Durant. It’s an impossible task for three games, let alone seven, but the Dubs have two perimeter stoppers—Harrison Barnes and the aforementioned Iguodala—with the length, athleticism and defensive tenacity to make things difficult on the soon-to-be MVP.
They showed that disruptive potential in the first two games, holding Durant to 22.5 points per game on 34 percent shooting:
|Durant vs. Dubs|
|Game||Field Goals Made||Field Goals Attempted||Points|
Of course, Durant then detonated for a career-high 54 points in their third meeting—a reminder of just how unstoppable he is when he’s in the zone.
But the combination of Iguodala and Barnes are the only team with two defenders that can legitimately match up with Durant in a playoff series, and that makes Golden State a threat.
Additionally, the Warriors have the versatility to keep up with OKC if they play big (Andrew Bogut and David Lee) or small (with only one of those big men on the court).
But the deadliest aspect of Golden State is the Splash Brothers and the explosiveness of the team as a whole from beyond the arc.
The Warriors are too talented offensively and boast the third-best defense in the league (in terms of defensive efficiency—points allowed per 100 possessions). A neutral fan would be dying to see these two square off in the postseason, but Thunder fans shouldn’t want it.