Apr 16, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) battles with Los Angeles Clippers forwards Caron Butler (5) and Blake Griffin (32) at the Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Thunder 92-77. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Ranking potential playoff threats to the Thunder

The regular season ends for the Thunder one week from today. In about 10 days, they will begin their playoff run, where (despite their recent slide) they will be considered one the top contenders to win the NBA Title.

In the East, there are only two teams that pose any real threat. In stark contrast, the West boasts at least five teams that can win the conference title, and a handful of others that can make life miserable for those five teams. Navigating this maze of threats won’t be easy for OKC and much of their success will be predicated upon the who, when, and where of the bracket. With that in mind, I have taken the other nine teams currently realistically vying for the post season and ranked them in descending order of the threat they pose to the Thunder’s pursuits.

9. Suns (Threat Level: Green): Their post all-star break run has been very impressive, and I absolutely marvel at Steve Nash and how he has been able to get this hodge-podge of a roster to gel down the stretch. Having said that, they pose no threat whatsoever to Oklahoma City. As you will see farther down the list, teams that are athletic on the wing and/or bruising in the paint give the Thunder the most trouble; Phoenix does not fit that description at all. The Suns would not be able to keep pace or change pace enough for the series to go beyond five games… and I’d suspect the games played in OKC could get ugly.

8. Rockets (Threat Level: Green): Credit Houston for splitting the season series this year with OKC, but this is not a match up that should keep Thunder fans awake at night. Luis Scola poses some match up issues for Ibaka and Perkins, but OKC can counter with Nick Collison, who makes a living forcing guys like Scola out of their comfort zone. The Rockets aren’t a particularly good defensive team and over the span of a seven game series, the dynamic scoring threats from the Thunder would wear them down. Houston could make individual games interesting (more so than Phoenix) but in terms of the series as a whole, I do not see it going six.

7. Jazz (Threat Level: Green): Ranking them as slightly more dangerous than the Suns or Rockets might raise a few eyebrows, but Al Jefferson is the type of big that can wear the Thunder down, as he did several week ago in a game in Salt Lake City. The Jazz are also a tad deeper than the other two teams mentioned. But in the end, Utah poses the same threat as Phoenix and Houston do…none. The goal for OKC should be to get one of these three teams in the first round.

6. Nuggets (Threat Level: Blue): Everyone talks about the tough series OKC waged against Denver in the first round last year, but few seem to remember that it still only went five games and that the Thunder held a commanding 3-0 series lead at one point. The Nuggets are about as deep and athletic in the open floor as any team in the league, and George Karl fits so nicely with this particular group. However, they do not have a go-to scorer and it reared its’ head many times in the series last year as KD took over down the stretch (most notably in the clinching game five). The Nuggets are pesky, annoying, and they will make OKC work for however many games the series might go. But ultimately, the pose a very low level threat to actually win a series.

5. Clippers (Threat Level: Blue): I’m sticking to my guns on the Clippers despite the fact that they’ve made the Thunder look pretty bad twice in the past week now. I do not believe the Clips are a team built for success in the post-season and I will be surprised if they survive the first round. They thrive on an open floor game, and in the playoffs, the floor shrinks and it shrinks fast. Blake Griffin will have less space to maneuver and teams will force him to beat them from outside the paint. They are also short on experience and many of their role players are guys with a history of regular season success not necessarily carrying over into the post season (Mo Williams tops that list). I believe that if push comes to shove and these two teams meet in the playoffs, the Thunder will have a surprisingly easy time getting stops and I would be surprised if it went the full seven games and absolutely shocked if the Clippers won. I’ve been on record as saying that I believe both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are slightly overrated. My theory would be put to the test should they face OKC sometime in May.

4. Mavericks (Threat Level: Yellow): Perhaps I am giving them too much credit based on last season, but I just don’t see Dallas bowing out quietly this year despite the fact that their regular season has been an unmitigated disaster. They desperately miss Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea, but I still fear Dirk catching fire at opportune (or inopportune as it were) moments. I will never forget that sickening feeling walking out of the arena last year after the game four collapse in the WCF. I am still reeling from that night and it may very well be coloring my perception of a Dallas team that doesn’t really resemble their championship squad at all.

3. Grizzlies (Threat Level: Yellow): Match up nightmare for Durant. No one in the league plays KD better than Tony Allen- and it’s not even close. For whatever reason, he is able to frustrate KD to the point where he is routinely posting up beyond the three point line and taking forced jumpers. In addition to their athleticism on the wing, Memphis has some major beef inside. Marc Gasol isn’t intimidated by Perk and Zach Randolph completely flummoxes Serge…keeps him away from the paint where Ibaka is most effective. The Grizzlies Achilles heel is that they can’t shoot; however OKC brings out the best in their guards and wing players and shots seem to fall more readily. Another scary thought is that Memphis is still a bit of wild card because we’ve seen so little of them with a healthy Randolph and Rudy Gay together. The only reason I don’t raise the Grizz to the next threat level is because unlike Dallas, the Lakers, and Spurs, Memphis does not have a proven go-to scorer they can count on in crunch time. Still, this would have all the markings of another epic series.

2. Lakers (Threat Level: Orange): In many ways, the Lakers might be the one team the Thunder WANT to face in the second round or WCF. They are old, slow, un-athletic and have absolutely no answers for KD or more importantly, Westbrook. OKC has played them twice and ran them off the floor in the second half both times. But playoff basketball is different. The game will slow down and the court will get smaller. Kobe will know when to pounce. Bynum and Gasol are a formidable combo that can wreak havoc on the offensive glass. If the games stay close (which they inevitably would) the Lakers boast the best closer in the league and one of the best of all-time. The best bet for the Thunder would be to run and get Westbrook out in the open as much as possible. If the game breaks down, the advantage is decidedly titled towards to OKC. But if the game is played against the shot clock as it so often is in the playoffs, then the Thunder may find themselves in an uncomfortable spot against a team that has been there, done that.

1. Spurs (Threat Level: Red): The Spurs are just straight salty. Greatly improved on the wings from last year when Memphis completely caught them off-guard with their size and athleticism. You have a PG playing at an MVP level; a dynamic scorer on the outside who when healthy is as dangerous as anyone in the league; one of the best centers of all time who still knows when to pick his spots; an array of veterans and youngsters filling various roles quite nicely; arguably the greatest coach in the history of the game. That is a mouthful. And unless things shift dramatically over the next week, OKC would have to beat this team without the benefit of homecourt advantage due to the Thunder’s recent malaise. As the Thunder coast and swoon heading into late April, the Spurs appear to be honing and sharpening. The best bet for the Thunder is for someone else to take the Spurs out prior to the WCF ala the Grizzlies last year. But I just have a feeling that Pop and his crew will be ready this time around. Any way you slice it, the Spurs are beyond a major threat to keep the Thunder from the NBA Finals.

Tags: Dallas Mavericks Denver Nuggets Houston Rockets James Harden Kevin Durant Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Lakers Memphis Grizzlies NBA Playoffs Phoenix Suns Russell Westbrook San Antonio Spurs Serge Ibaka Utah Jazz

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