The Oklahoma City Thunder have gradually emerged as one of the NBA’s best teams in this decade.
In 2010, the up and coming team challenged the defending champion-Los Angeles Lakers in a hard fought six games series. A year later, this squad established itself as a title contender by advancing to the Western Conference Finals against the eventual NBA-champion Dallas Mavericks. Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook finally brought the Thunder to the NBA Finals last season, winning four straight games against the San Antonio Spurs, after trailing 2-0 in the conference finals. However, their season ended without a championship banner after losing four straight to the Miami Heat, despite a victory in game one of the finals.
A rematch in June against Lebron James and the Heat is a strong possibility, but the Thunder could have some difficult matchups on the horizon. The road to the NBA Finals in the west runs through Oklahoma City, but Scott Brooks squad may have to face the Los Angeles Clippers and/or San Antonio Spurs, before making those travel plans to South Beach.
Here’s a preview of what to watch for in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
#1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #8 Houston Rockets
Along with Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook, James Harden helped the Thunder become one of the NBA’s best teams. He will now get a chance to make a name for himself in the playoffs against his former team. Harden was traded to Houston only days before the season began, after failing to reach a contract extension that would have kept him in the Sooner State. He has taken his level of play to near-superstar status with the Rockets, helping them become the second highest scoring team in the league this season. His addition, along that of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, has turned Houston in to one of the association’s up and coming squads. This young Rockets team has made a lot of progress, but it will be a monumental task for them to win four games over the next two weeks, against the defending conference champions.
Prediction: Oklahoma City in Five
#4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers
This a rematch of a second round series from a year ago that the Clippers took in seven games. Both teams have made some significant changes since then that could help result in a championship banner in a few months. Memphis traded longtime starter Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors, as part of a deal that brought them Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis. What the Grizzlies gave up on offense in the trade, has been more than made up for on the defensive end. Memphis surrendered a league-low 89.4 points per game during the regular season. Their style of play may not be the most exciting in the NBA, but if defense wins championship then the Grizzlies are one of the top contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Los Angeles Clippers are known as “Lob City” for their high-flying dunks, but their defense isn’t getting nearly as much attention as its offense. The Clippers gave up the fourth fewest points (94.6 per game) and were the league leaders in steals. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have made the “other” team in Los Angeles a title contender. The next step can be taken towards a championship, by winning another series against Memphis, as well as a potential showdown in May with Kevin Durant and the Thunder.
Prediction: Los Angeles in Six
#3 Denver Nuggets vs. #6 Golden State Warriors
This may be the most exciting matchup of the first round. Both teams are capable of putting up triple digits on the scoreboard in every game in this series. Golden State is in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and are led by their point guard Stephen Curry, who set an NBA record by making 272 three-pointers this season. Curry is the key to the Warriors offense, but the Nuggets porous defense will also have to worry about second year-shooting guard Klay Thompson (16.6 points per game, /.401% three point shooting). The big man trio of David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry should be able to take the scoring load off of Curry and Thompson. Denver doesn’t have a superstar like the other title contenders in the playoffs, but they make up for it with what may be the deepest roster in the league. Their depth will be tested against the Warriors, after Danilo Gallinari’s season ending ACL-injury two weeks ago. Ty Lawson helped the Nuggets lead the NBA in team scoring for a third consecutive year and is far from their only offensive option. Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, and Evan Fournier are capable of having big scoring nights in this series.
Prediction: Denver in Seven
#2 San Antonino Spurs vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers
Hard to imagine the NBA Playoffs in recent years, without a matchup between these two historic franchises. The Spurs and Lakers will be facing off in the postseason for the seventh time since 1999 (Los Angeles has a 4-2 series advantage). San Antonio once again defined the odds this season to maintain their status a title contender. The Spurs overcame injuries from their aging core and continue to play a style of basketball that is the antithesis of their defensive mindset, from a decade ago. Its the 16th consecutive playoff appearance for San Antonio in the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, but their last title was in 2007. Los Angeles struggled throughout the season, after such high expectations with the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. It seemed like at least one of their big name players was always out of action, which hindered their chemistry on the court. The injury bug continued towards the conclusion of the regular season and now the Lakers title huntwill have to go on without Kobe Bryant. All eyes will be on Howard to step up in place of the Black Mamba and cement his status as the next great Lakers center. An early exit against the Spurs could cause even more turmoil and speculation about the future of the Lakers this offseason.
Prediction: San Antonio in Five