As most people expected, the Western Conference is as deep as ever this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently third in the conference standings with an 8-3 record. The Houston Rockets are seven and just a game behind OKC. Throw in Minnesota and potentially New Orleans and there will be 10 teams vying for playoff spots in the conference.
Coming into the season, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Thunder. They didn’t make any moves in the offseason while many other western powers looked like they had improved on paper. This early in the season, Golden State certainly seems to have done just that as well as the Rockets.
It’s not going to be easy for the Thunder to finish in the 1-2 spot in the West. An injury to one key player would be very costly. But when the Thunder do get to the playoffs, who is going to be able to stop them?
It takes great defense to win championships (although last year Miami and San Antonio showed that great offense can outweigh the D sometimes). A really good team defense has been the Achilles heel for the Thunder over the past few years. OKC isn’t on pace to be as efficient offensively this season as they were the last few, but they’re still right up there at the top of the league. Their offense is still pretty simply in a lot of areas though.
But how many great defenses are there really? Indiana and Chicago definitely are in the East, but the Thunder wouldn’t have to worry about them until the Finals. When you look at the top of the Western Conference, it’s a lot of teams with great offense that don’t exactly hang their hat on defense. The Rockets, Warriors and Clippers have all been pretty bad defensively this season. San Antonio can be great, but as we saw two years ago may not have the athletes to slow down the Thunder over a seven-game series. The toughest defenses remaining in the West would be Memphis and Portland, who has surprised a lot of people with their 10-2 start to the season. But neither the Grizzlies or the Trail Blazers would be given much of a shot if matched up with a healthy Thunder squad.
As for the Thunder, we know they can be good enough on offense to win a playoff series against just about anyone. Defensively is where they’ve been the least consistent over the years. Scott Brooks’ main emphasis always seems to be to get the Thunder to elite status defensively. No one doubts that the Thunder have the tools to get there. Their length at every position is unmatched and if not for some gambling on the parts of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, they probably could be the best defense in the league.
So what’s going to happen in the playoffs? Will the Thunder just be in shootouts if they play Golden State, Houston or the Clippers? I’ve never felt bad about the Thunder’s odds when they get in those types of games. And over a seven-game series it’d be hard to pick against the Thunder if Durant is going to be able to go for 40 every night and no one can stay in front of Westbrook (not to mention if Ibaka can be a liegitimate third scorer, which he should be able to in any of those matchups). These teams would be really tough for the Thunder to shut down in a series. They wouldn’t shut them down either, only hope to slow them down enough. In a shootout, you have to give the edge to the team with the highest defensive potential. Playoff games will slow down eventually and in the halfcourt, OKC can be a really good defense. And if they’re going against teams with guys who can’t defend (looking at you Harden, Curry, Lee, Redick), OKC shouldn’t have much of a trouble scoring in the halfcourt either.
Those three teams are really fun for this regular season, but I’m starting to think Portland (and of course the Spurs) would present the toughest challenge for the Thunder.
Bottom line, OKC may have the hardest time they’ve had in awhile separating themselves from the pack during the regular season. There are a ton of teams in this conference that will make the regular a real grind for the Thunder. But as long as they survived and are healthy, the road to the Finals may not be too tough.