It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
No, I’m not talking Christmas. Late March into Early May is the best time to be a sports fan. Baseball is just getting underway, the NFL is showcasing their rookie talent for the draft, March Madness is reaching its’ epic conclusion, the NHL playoff push is on and, most importantly, the NBA season moves towards the playoffs.
With a 58-22 record going into Monday night’s clash against the Pelicans in New Orleans, the Oklahoma City Thunder have all but clinched the two seed in the West. The San Antonio Spurs are locked in as the one seed, and the Los Angeles Clippers will be the three seed if the Thunder can manage one more win of their two remaining games, at New Orleans and a home season finale against the Detroit Pistons.
The bottom half of the West is far from won, however. There are four teams fighting for three spots, with the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks having clinched playoff spots and the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns fighting for the final spot. Three of these teams could potentially finish in the seven spot and face the Thunder in the first round, with the Suns only able to jump up to the eight seed.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at what needs to happen for each matchup to come to fruition, and which teams the Thunder would rather face in the first round.
Golden State Warriors
Current Seed: 6
Games Remaining: vs. Timberwolves, at Nuggets
How they get the Seven Seed: Lose both remaining games, Dallas wins at Memphis
Thunder Record: The Thunder are 2-1 against the Warriors this year
Matchup: This Warriors team is one that was predicted as a Western Conference favorite in the preseason. Steph Curry emerged as a legitimate star during last year’s playoffs and was elected to his first All-Star game this season, proving to be one of the game’s elite scorers and deep threats. The other half of the Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson, is no slouch himself, averaging 18.5 points per game. The backcourt is anchored by David Lee and Andrew Bogut, two players who are not defensively elite in the low post, but can rebound with the best of them. Combined with Jermaine O’Neal and Marreese Speights off of the bench, the Warriors have the big men to body the Thunder in the paint. This has been the Thunder’s biggest weakness this year, with Kendrick Perkins missing time to injury and Steven Adams not being bulky enough to box out bigger players. The Warriors also have one of the game’s elite perimeter defenders and all-around athletes in Andre Iguodala, who hit a buzzer beating game winner against them this season.
Conclusion: While this would no doubt be a great matchup, it is extremely unlikely. Just one more win locks the Warriors in as the six seed. As exciting a series this would be, the Thunder would be very upset to pull the Warriors in the first round.
Current Seed: 7
Games Remaining: at Memphis
How they get the Seven Seed: Win at Memphis AND Golden State Wins; Loss at Memphis AND Memphis Loss at Phoenix
Thunder Record: The Thunder are 1-2 against the Mavericks this year
Matchup: The Mavericks are back in the playoffs after missing out last year. Since they own the tiebreaker over Memphis and Phoenix, the Mavericks are really in control of their own fate. While they can jump as high as the six seed, they will most likely end up as the seven seed if they can beat the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Dirk Nowitzki has had another stellar year, averaging 21.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Once again, Dallas seems to be the place for washed up old players to revitalize their careers on one year contracts. Mark Cuban’s band of second choices after failing once again to sign a superstar have put together an impressive season. Monta Ellis averages 19 points and 5.8 assists per game and is a freakish athlete. Vince Carter has a legitimate case for Sixth Man of the Year, and Jose Calderon has found his scoring touch again. Still, this is a much older team that will probably not be able to keep up with the fast pace of the Thunder offense in a seven game series.
Conclusion: Of all the potential first round matchups they could get, the Thunder would like this one the most. They have dealt with Dirk before and, even though they lost two out of three to the Mavericks this season, they have to like their chances here better than Golden State or Memphis.
Current Seed: 8
Games Remaining: at Phoenix, vs. Dallas
How they get the Seven Seed: Win out
Thunder Record: The Thunder are 3-1 against the Grizzlies this year
Matchup: The Grizzlies truly control their own playoff fate. With two games left against fellow competitors, they could end up as the seven seed, eight seed or missing the playoffs altogether. If the Grizzlies win Monday night’s game against the Suns, they clinch a playoff berth. If they then beat Dallas at home on Wednesday, they leapfrog to the seven seed. The Grizzlies are a very scary team to face in round one, fresh off of a Western Conference Semifinals appearance last season, which included beating the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder in the second round of the playoffs. Mike Conley has emerged as a great point guard, leading the team in points and assists. Marc Gasol has struggled with injuries all year, but is still an elite defensive center and rebounder who can score. Zach Randolph has had his usual consistent season, averaging 17.1 points and 10 rebounds per game. Tony Allen is still an elite perimeter defender. The midseason trade of Jared Bayless to the Boston Celtics weakened a bench that was already not strong. Behind their big three of Conley, Gasol and Randolph, there is no real scorer.
Conclusion: The Thunder would love a chance to avenge their second round exit from last year’s playoffs, one that saw every game come down to the wire with Kevin Durant unable to pull off the victory. Even so, the Grizzlies are about as good as a seven seed could be, and will be a difficult out.
Final Take: While first round matchups against the Warriors or Grizzlies are appealing with some interesting side stories, the safest matchup for this Thunder team would be the Dallas Mavericks. No matter who they play, the Thunder will go in as the favorite to advance, as none of these teams have the rosters to beat Kevin Durant in a seven game series.
UPDATE: With a 130-120 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, the Warriors have clinched the West’s six seed. With their 97-91 win, the Memphis Grizzlies clinched a playoff berth and eliminated the Phoenix Suns from playoff contention. The Grizzlies will host the Mavericks on Wednesday night to decide who will be the seven and who will be the eight seed. With their 101-89 loss to the injury-riddled Pelicans, the Thunder still have not clinched the two seed. They can do so with a Los Angeles Clippers loss or a win in their season finale against the Detroit Pistons.
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