At the beginning of the season, the attitude of even the most unabashed homers of the Oklahoma City Thunder was that of hopefulness. Maybe the Thunder can get to the first round, but if not, we're still a young team. To predict anything over 40 wins would be a invitation to get heckled by one's friends, and to predict winning a round would be considered nothing more than a joke. But now, the Thunder are 65 games in, and they've already reached 41 wins. They just beat the team that was directly ahead of them in the standings, putting them in the mix for the 4th seed. And the division leaders, the Nuggets, are only 2 games out of reach.
Detractors might claim that we are only a few losses from falling behind into the 4th seed, and that's true. But the fact remains that the Thunder have a good possibility of gaining home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and that possibility should be explored by all means.
For starters, we should look at our remaining schedule, and see how it shakes out.
Below: Remaining Schedule Predictions, Possible Playoff Matchups
@ Charlotte- I'd say it's a win, given our past history. They'll be fighting for the playoffs, but we've dealt with them handily before. W
@ Toronto- They're too outside oriented to ever defeat us. W
@ Indiana- Please, baba. W
vs. San Antonio- I know the pressure's on, but without Tony Parker, I don't think the Spurs will beat us, even with all of their inside firepower. If we can shut down Ginobili, it's lights out for them. W
vs. Houston- I said in the early going that we'd never win against Houston this season. I'm sticking to my guns. L
vs. Los Angeles Lakers- As much as I'd LIKE for it to happen, it's not gonna happen. L
vs. Portland- It will be the most boring game of all time, and we'll lose, but Portland won't score over 85. L
@ Philadelphia- An easy win after a week of hell. W
@ Boston- They've had a rough go of it lately, but by now, they'll be back and ready to roll. L
@ Dallas- We've dominated this team in it's current iteration. No reason to think we can't do so again. W
vs. Minnesota- It's Damien Wilkins again! W
@ Utah- We own the Jazz, in every way possible. Unless AK47 is back. W
vs. Denver- 2nd end of a back to back. We couldn't win this game in our dreams. L
vs. Phoenix- I have a feeling about the first win against the Suns in the Ford Center. W
@ Golden State- Golden State will have nothing to lose, but they'll have nothing to gain, either. W
@ Portland- I know it's kind of silly to predict a win against the Trailblazers on the road and a loss at home, but hey, that's the NBA. W
vs. Memphis- They've given us trouble before, but their season will be over by this point. W
Last 17 Games: 12-5
Final Record: 53-29
Last year, this would have landed us in the 5 seed, smack dab in the middle. Another win, and we would have been tied for 2nd. The year before, we would have gotten 7th. 2 years ago, it would have been 4th.
My point? The Thunder can land anywhere. No matter how you mix and match, predict and ponder, or wonder and worry, you're not going to get a straight answer or reasonable prediction concerning the playoff situation.
Assuming we can get any seed from 1 to 8, I present our potential playoff matchups, in descending order from best possible to worst possible. I will also give the likelihood we'll face the opposing team, ranging from Very Likely, to Likely, to Somewhat Likely, to Not Likely, to Not Likely at All. Also, I'm assuming that the current 8 teams will make it in.
#1 Best Possible Matchup:
The Utah Jazz (43-24)
Likelihood we'll face them: Very Likely
Why We'll Win: We've beaten the Jazz in 3 straight matchups this season. The closest loss had horrible offensive performances by everybody but Kevin Durant. They have no defensive answer for Kevin Durant. Their current players are not known for going deep in the playoffs. They frequently have a player injured.
Why We'll Lose: All of the losses have been 10 points or closer. The losses have been because the Jazz have been missing a player and/or missing significant offensive performances by their big guys, Boozer and Okur. Wes Matthews has found a way around Sefolosha's defense. Nearly everyone on their roster has had a good performance against the Thunder during one game or another.
Final Verdict: The Jazz are an experienced team, but they can never quite put it together against the Thunder. They'll win a couple against the Thunder in a playoff series, but the Thunder will definitely manage to keep the upper hand. Win in 6 or 7 Games.
The Dallas Mavericks (45-22)
Likelihood we'll face them: Likely
Why We'll Win: Games against the Mavericks used to be intense matchups, but the addition of Caron Butler has only weakened the Mavericks against the Thunder. Caron Butler can't stand Sefolosha defensively, and nobody can take advantage of matching up against Kevin Durant. Jeff Green has succeeded in scoring against and pestering Dirk Nowitzki on defense.
Why We'll Lose: The big win we've had against them was because they were still adjusting to having Caron Butler. They've been steamrolling their way to a higher seed as of late. The team is highly experienced and unlikely to lose in a playoff situation against a bunch of young players.
Final Verdict: It remains to be seen whether the tall, stagnant Mavericks are truly weak against the Thunder, but for now, the verdict remains that they are. I'd say we could beat them in an epic 7 Game Series.
The Phoenix Suns (42-26)
Likelihood we'll face them: Somewhat Likely
Why We'll Win: We've won against them on their home floor, and the loss against them came after a horrible 4th quarter collapse. We've usually been able to slow down their guards. They don't have an answer for Kevin Durant. Krstic is always a factor in these games.
Why We'll Lose: They've never lost to us in the Ford Center, providing a bit of a curse stigma. We haven't been successful in stopping the Stoudamire/Frye Combo. Jeff Green isn't very efficient against the Suns. This team is very experienced and successful in the playoffs.
Final Verdict: I might be reading into this curse thing a bit too much, but the fact remains that the Suns have always been able to come back against us during crucial junctures, and we've never been able to close the door on them. During the playoffs, I have a feeling that they'll be a bit more careful to not let that get past them. Nevertheless, home court doesn't affect our play, so I think the Thunder can win in 7 Games.
The Portland Trail Blazers (41-28)
Likelihood we'll face them: Not Likely
Why We'll Win: We're less injury-prone then they are. We've shown that we can out-defense them. For every bit they negate out scorers, we negate their guards with good perimeter defense.
Why We'll Lose: This team was built under the same philosophy as the Thunder, but they're a couple years farther down the road. They've found a way to stop Kevin Durant, when they're healthy. They've got one of the deepest rosters in the league. Literally any one of their players could step up and be the offensive X-Factor for them on any given night.
Final Verdict: This team has too much on us. We'd be able to win a few games going into a playoff series, but I really doubt the Thunder could win a series. Trail Blazers in 6.
The San Antonio Spurs (40-25)
Likelihood we'll face them: Not Likely
Why We'll Win: They're old, and any player might go out at any given time. They are extremely reliant on 4 players. We can shut down all of their players but Duncan and Blair. Krstic can negate some of Duncan's scoring.
Why We'll Lose: We can't shut down Duncan and Blair. Their scrubs always find ways to score against us. These guys have been to the finals before, and are saving a lot of their mustard for the playoffs. If Tony Parker doesn't score, he's a great assist man. Their offense is largely based on getting inside, and that's the Thunder's main defensive weakness.
Final Verdict: The Spurs have ways to exploit our flaws by charging on the inside, and they know how to win playoff series. I sincerely doubt we'll ever win a series against their current iteration. Spurs in 5.
The Los Angeles Fakers (50-18)
Likelihood we'll face them: Not Likely at All
Why We'll Win: Kevin Durant can offset Kobe's scoring. Thabo Sefolosha has been successful in slowing Kobe down. James Harden can provide a nice splash of offense in these games.
Why We'll Lose: We have no answer for Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum. Kevin Durant cannot hit as many big shots as Kobe can. They're far more experienced. They have a lot more star power. Their only defensive weakness (Derek Fisher) cannot be exploited by our offense.
Final Verdict: The Fakers are superior to us in almost every way, and we'll be lucky to win more than a game. We'll play them close most games, but this team knows how to close the door. Fakers in 5.
The Denver Nuggets (46-22)
Likelihood we'll face them: Somewhat Likely
Why We'll Win: We've beaten them once.
Why We'll Lose: Pretty much everything else. We only won because Carmelo Anthony was out, and even then, they still challenged for the win. They have Nene and Martin who can kill us on the inside. They have J.R. Smith, who isn't affected by Sefolosha at all. Carmelo Anthony negates Kevin Durant. Chauncey Billups is an excellent orchestrator, and isn't phased by Westbrook. We settle for jumpshots against them too often.
Final Verdict: We should avoid this matchup at all costs. Nuggets in 4.
The 2nd round of the Playoffs is a reality. The teams that we're likely to go against (the Jazz, Mavericks, and Suns) are all beatable. The only death matchup we are likely to get is one against the Nuggets, which would be an absolute nightmare. Nonetheless, I feel that the odds of getting into the 2nd round are in the Thunder's favour. As far as getting to the conference finals, it gets kind of iffy from there on out. In all likelihood, the only beatable team that would survive that far would be the Mavericks, and it's unlikely that we'll face them at that point.
I guess my entire point here is that we should stop thinking in the mindset of, "This season has been great, as long as we get to see the playoffs, I'm happy." Instead, we need to think in the mindset of potential playoff matchups, and whether it's feasible to get to the 2nd round. Because it's just as easy to have a couple of injuries or a couple of bad trades and fall from being the NBA's hottest team to being old news. And being old news really stinks.