Monday night the Thunder clinched the number one seed in the western conference for the NBA playoffs. In my opinion, by doing this they also pretty much clinched a spot in the NBA finals.
First of all, they are assured home-court advantage throughout the playoffs (until they run into the Heat). This is huge for them. OKC is one of the toughest places to win for opposing teams, and having the luxury of being able to play game seven in your own arena is a huge advantage for the Thunder. Additionally, the rest of the Western Conference is quite weak. The next best team at this point is the San Antonio Spurs. They are 10-9 in their last 19 contests, and quite frankly, I think they may not get out of the first round. Health is the main issue with the Spurs. Ginobli is probably gone until at least the second round with a hamstring injury. Parker is clearly not at 100% with that ankle, and Boris Diaw had season ending back surgery. Tim Duncan is the only “star” that is playing well right now. The Thunder are pretty much totally healthy, and, with their youth and athleticism, I think they would run the Spurs out in five games if they were to meet. This year, the Thunder are just too young, talented and healthy for the Spurs.
Now by looking at the match-ups that the Thunder will most likely have, they will meet either the Lakers or the Jazz in the first round. Then, in the second round, they will meet either the Grizzlies or the Clippers, and then in the conference finals it is wide open. It could be the Spurs, Rockets, Nuggets, or even the Warriors. All of these teams seem light years away from the Thunder in terms of talent.
In the first round, the Lakers will pretty much be a first round bye without Kobe. The Lakers can score the basketball inside with Howard and Gasol, but the Thunder have Ibaka and Perkins to slow them down, and the Lakers can’t play defense to save their lives. It is a similar thing with the Jazz. They have a great inside game but they would not be able to stop the Thunder.
In the second round, the Thunder should have no problem with the Clippers. They are very overrated in my opinion as they seem to get more attention for their dunks than quality basketball. The Grizzlies however, are actually one team that would give OKC some trouble. They are modeled similar to the Lakers and Jazz with one exception. They actually play defense. In fact they are one of the top defensive squads in the league. The Thunder always have trouble with the tandem of Gasol and Randolph inside, and I think the Grizzlies could push a series between these two teams to maybe six games. However, in the end the Thunder are just too individually talented for Memphis. Durant and Westbrook are both unstoppable and Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka are great role players to go along with KD and Russ.
For the third round, I have already talked about the Spurs and that leaves us with the Nuggets, Warriors, and Rockets. If Denver was 100% healthy, then I would give them a legitimate shot at taking down OKC. But, they are far from 100%. Danilo Gallinari is out for the playoffs, and Kenneth Faried suffered an ankle injury that has his availability in doubt. The Nuggets lack a star player on their team, but they usually make up for it with the tremendous depth they have. However, with Gallinari and (maybe) Faried being gone, their ability to run you up and down the floor and fatigue you is questionable. Without that, the Nuggets are very vulnerable inside, and like most teams they have no answer for KD and Westbrook. The Warriors and Rockets are both very similar in that they are quick, up tempo teams that score a lot of points. Obviously the ‘James Harden vs. OKC’ thing would be very interesting, but a series between either of these squads would end pretty quickly. Houston and Golden State both are incapable of stopping the Thunder, and they are both very inexperienced in the playoffs, which will come back to bite them eventually.
As you can see, the Thunder have a pretty easy road to the finals just because of who they will have to play. The west does not present a very formidable challenge to the Thunder and I believe OKC is playing at a very high level right now. Westbrook is being Westbrook and KD is rounding into form at the right time. They are all playing well together, and that is the dangerous thing. When this group plays together they are unstoppable. They are all very talented individually and when you put that talent together, you really have something special. This is why the Heat are so good. Obviously they are very talented, but they also work very well together. I think the Thunder are just beginning to realize how to do this and the results will be very good.