Few moments are more awkward than those in which you realize virtual certainties are under siege by loopholes and additional possibilities.
Boy, is this moment awkward.
Following a convincing win over the Los Angeles Clippers that prompted yours truly to dismiss the idea of the Oklahoma City Thunder abdicating their second-place throne, Kevin Durant and friends have made things more interesting than they should be.
Consecutive losses to the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans have put the Thunder in danger of falling to third. The Clippers now trail them by 1.5 games in the standings, and are still able to move up if the last few days of the regular season go their way.
If the Thunder want second place, though, it's theirs. They just have to do what they haven't done, and take it.
For the Thunder to actually lose their grip on second place, plenty of things have to happen.
First, the Thunder must lose their final regular-season game against the woeful Detroit Pistons, who they took down 119-110 when they met in November. Then the Clippers must win their final two games against the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, giving both them and the Thunder a final record of 58-24.
By virtue of a tiebreaker, the Clippers nab second place in that scenario. They split the season series with Oklahoma City, so if they win out and the Thunder lose against Detroit, the Clippers have the better conference record.
Beating the Nuggets can be seen as a mere formality for the Clippers. They've lost two of the first three meetings, but are playing at Staples Center, where they are a dominant 33-7 and the Nuggets are a mess of injuries and enigmatic talent.
Dispatching Portland should be a more difficult task...in theory.
The Blazers clinched the No. 5 seed with a win over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, and after a victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, the Houston Rockets have fourth place all sewn up. So there's no incentive for the Blazers to win.
Taking down the Clippers won't allow the Blazers to move up, nor does the outcome impact their first-round opponent. Their matchup against the Rockets is carved in marble. Chances are head coach Terry Stotts will rest his starters or employ some sort of minutes cap so as not to put them in harm's way right before the playoffs.
Let's assume the Clippers win that game, too, which is hardly bold. If they defeat the Nuggets, Doc Rivers has every reason to coach the team as usual, without regard for minutes limits and rest days.
That is, unless the Thunder beat the Pistons.
Oklahoma City can end all speculation with a win over Detroit. The Pistons and Thunder tip off two-and-a-half hours before the Clippers and Blazers, so they maintain control over their own playoff destiny.
Does It Matter?
Whether the Thunder hold on to second place, they'll still be considered the Western Conference's second-best team. Their postseason seeding won't impact their standing in that sense.
But it does change the course of their playoff run.
There is no such thing as an easy postseason matchup in the Western Conference. Powerhouses are the standard. Good teams, like the Phoenix Suns, miss the playoffs. Sure beats exist only in the baseborn Eastern Conference.
There is such a thing as an easier opponent. The Thunder may be better off facing one team in the first round than another. And this is where it gets complicated.
Seventh and eight place are not yet settled. The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies will square off in a regular-season finale that will determine their playoff positioning. The winner will secure the No. 7 seed and face No. 2.
If you're the Thunder, you don't want to face the Grizzlies. Never mind that Oklahoma City is 3-1 against them this season, the Grizzlies' playoff accolades are well documented. They unseated the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder last year in the semifinals, and have been known to pull off semiannual upsets.
Since Jan. 14, when Marc Gasol returned to the lineup, the Grizzlies also have the league's second-best defensive rating, allowing a very Grizzlies-esque 99.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com (subscription required). Theirs is a defense you don't want to face ever, let alone in the playoffs.
Dallas seems like the more favorable opponent at this point, even though it's 2-1 against the Thunder this season and runs one of the league's more high-powered offenses. Over the course of a best-of-seven series, they're the "easier" opponent, mainly because their defense ranks 22nd in the league, per NBA.com.
Or the Thunder could face the Warriors, who are slated to play the No. 3 seed.
Under normal circumstances, the Thunder wouldn't want to face Golden State by choice. They are 2-1 against the Warriors, but both wins came by a combined total of seven points.
Though inconsistent, the Warriors are one of the more balanced NBA teams when healthy, boasting an elite defense and an offense that can go from zero to Stephen Curry in a matter of seconds.
Related: They aren't healthy.
On Monday, the Warriors announced that injury-prone center Andrew Bogut would be sidelined indefinitely with a rib fracture. Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears elaborated on the situation, and it didn't sound good:
Bogut said he's been advised the rib is too close to his right lung for him to play through the pain because he would risking puncturing the lung. He originally suffered the injury against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday and it became worse in Sunday's overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. He took a pain killer before Sunday's game, but the injury worsened in the fourth quarter.
"I'm going to dedicate the summer to learning how to play while avoiding contact at all costs, I guess – moving out of the way, not taking charges and not trying to block shots," Bogut said. "All of my injuries have been high-impact injuries. I put my body on the line to try to take a charge or a block a shot, and unfortunately, I've been on the tail end of them. There are some players in the league who are very good strategically at avoiding contact, so I guess I need to watch them and bring that into my game."
Past brushes with rib fractures suggest Bogut could miss between two and three weeks:
Or, you know, longer:
The best-case scenario (two weeks) has Bogut basically missing the first round, theoretically weakening their defense and limiting their playoff ceiling.
Does that create an inverse relationship between the Thunder's postseason seeding and their potential success? Are they better off ceding second place and going up against a Bogut-less Warriors team?
Not at all, mostly because the Warriors are the Warriors. They made an impressive postseason run last year when running smaller lineups without David Lee. Bogut's absence paves way for a similar dynamic.
Harrison Barnes' season-long regression and Lee's reputation as a subpar defender question whether the Warriors can be as dangerous without Bogut as they were without Lee. But if you can avoid playing a team that can be nigh unbeatable on both ends of the floor when on, you avoid them.
Dropping to second place also means there's a chance Oklahoma City plays San Antonio in the second round. The Thunder are 4-0 against coach Gregg Popovich's crew this season, but just as the Warriors are the Warriors, the Spurs are the Spurs.
You avoid them if you can, for as long as you can.
Still In Control
We know second place matters.
We also know it's something the Thunder can control.
But does it matter enough for them to control it?
To steal a (partial) line from Allen Iverson: We're talking bout the Pistons.
Even if the Thunder lay an egg in their regular-season finale, there's a strong possibility the Pistons lay an even bigger, Piston-y one.
Detroit has more of an incentive to lose. Per RealGM, its first-round pick will go to the Charlotte Bobcats if it lands outside the top eight. As of now, the Pistons are guaranteed the eighth-worst record in the NBA, which is good news for those who want them to retain their first-rounder. Sick and twisted good news, but good news all the same.
Losing, though, gives them an opportunity to finish with the seventh-worst record. If the Sacramento Kings—who will be without DeMarcus Cousins—beat the Phoenix Suns, the Kings and Pistons will have the same record (29-53).
Tiebreakers aren't relevant to the lottery. Teams with the same record get the same number of pingpong balls. By losing to the Thunder, the Pistons could get more pingpong balls. More pingpong balls is another good thing. A really good thing. It increases the Pistons' chances of landing a top-eight selection and keeping their pick.
There's also the matter of the Thunder still being the Thunder. Losses to the Pelicans and Pacers haven't changed them. They're still a really good team who will play the Pistons at home, where they are 33-7.
This is also a game Westbrook is bound to play. He sat out against the Pelicans. That won't happen against the Pistons. Not with second place on the line.
And what are the odds of Durant shooting 39.1 percent from the floor again, like he did against New Orleans? Not good. He's converted under 40 percent of his shots just 14 times this season. Against the downtrodden Pistons, he's more likely to hover around his season average of 50.4 percent. When that happens, when he hits at least half his shots, the Thunder typically win—85.7 percent of the time, in fact (36-6).
It would take a massive meltdown by the Thunder to wind up in third place. They are still in control. They have power over their own destiny that they can only relinquish by beating themselves.
"I'm not making any excuses," Durant said after Oklahoma City's loss to New Orleans, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "They just beat us."
The Pistons won't. Not in Oklahoma City.
The Clippers won't, either. Not to second place.
Because the Thunder aren't going to beat themselves.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.