With yesterday's win over Portland, the Thunder clinched a playoff berth and extended their Division lead over the Denver Nuggets to 4.5 games. It also put them 3.5 games behind Dallas for the third seed in the West. With 10 games to go, this pretty solidly cements the Thunder in the fourth seed. It's not impossible for the Thunder to fall or advance, but I will say that it is unlikely.
What would it take for the Thunder to fall?
Well, the only team that can make the Thunder fall down a seed at this point is the Denver Nuggets. Portland can technically catch up, but the Thunder own the tiebreaker with them and they are 6.5 games back, so they would have to run the table (or close to it) for the rest of their games, and the Thunder would have to go sub .500. The Nuggets, on the other hand, are only 4.5 games back. Essentially, the Thunder would have to go .500, and the Nuggets would have to run the table. It is possible, as the Nuggets have only four games against teams over .500 (with two of them against the Thunder), But the Thunder would have to lose against the Suns, Lakers, and Trail Blazers in order for this to happen. It is possible, but in all respects, it probably has a 15% chance of happening at most.
What would it take for the Thunder to move up?
The Thunder are 3.5 games behind the Dallas Mavericks, and 4.5 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are in the midst of a month where they have had only one loss, but their last ten games are more difficult than most others. The possibility is there for the Thunder to catch up, but the Lakers would have to see something like a catastrophic injury for it to happen. The Mavericks, on the other hand, are much more catchable. In general, the Mavericks win the games they're supposed to, but haven't beaten a high profile opponent since December, when they beat the Thunder. So, it's highly possible, even likely that the Mavs will drop games to the Lakers, Portland, and Denver. But they have to lose at least one more game against an opponent like Phoenix, Houston, the David West-less Hornets or Golden State in order for the Thunder to pass them. Of course, any scenario requires the Thunder to run the table for the rest of the season. Though I'd like to think that this is going to happen, there's only a 20% or so chance of it happening at best.
Below: With the Thunder most likely being a four seed, who will their opponent be?
So, with the Thunder basically locked in as a four seed, who is their most likely opponent?
The front runners are Denver, Portland, and Memphis. New Orleans is a possibility, but they aren't the greatest team in the world without David West. The most likely of these, in my mind, is Memphis. They are 3.5 games back of the spot, but they have played significantly better basketball since the trade deadline, and their end of season schedule is significantly easier than Denver's or Portland's. Their most significant challenges will be the Trailblazers on the road, and a home and away with the falling Hornets. Other than that, all of the teams are under .500.
Denver and Portland also remain possibilities. Denver is the more likely of the two, simply because they're a game up on the Trailblazers. The Trailblazers also have a slightly harder schedule, having to face all top four seeds in the West, along with Memphis. Nevertheless, the possibility for both to make it remains, but it hinges on which team can overcome better opponents.
But I don't want to see the Grizzlies again! Is there any hope?
Yes. The best strategy for the Thunder to pursue would obviously be running the table and hoping for the three seed, but if that fails, then they could intentionally lose to the Nuggets in order to face them. It's cheap and it will never happen, but a matchup with the Grizzlies should be avoided at all costs.