After a string of relatively ho-hum Eastern Conference games, the Thunder are heading into the final five weeks of the season, and the waters are going to get testy. While the past two weeks have been filled with sub-.500 teams and
easy wins (Darn you, Toronto!), the upcoming three weeks promise to be some of the most brutal of the season as the Thunder look to secure the fourth playoff seed in the West. Honestly, the only games that don't excite me on the schedule are the final two against Milwaukee and Sacramento. So, without further ado, look below for some predictions and insight into the upcoming games within the context of our new-look team.
Week One: The Northwest Division Strikes Back
3/23: Vs. Utah: Win
3/25: Vs. Minnesota: Win
3/27: Vs. Portland: Win
The Thunder have held a three or four game lead over Denver in the race for the Northwest Division lead for what seems like forever, but this three game stretch gives the rest of the division ample opportunity to catch up. Okay, so Portland is the only team that has a real chance of catching us, but the Thunder need to maintain a good division record to stay at the top in case of a tie, and a couple losses here would put the Thunder on par with Portland and Denver. Also, Portland has lost to us twice this season, so the team will need to win both matchups against the Thunder in order to have any chance of a tie breaker, giving them more incentive to win.
I'm going ahead and predicting all of these games as wins. Utah is reeling and hasn't beaten anyone better than the 76ers since Sloan left, and the Timberwolves are basically in the same boat. The Trailblazers do present a real challenge, especially with Gerald Wallace arriving on the team and Roy and Fernandez coming back from injury. But the game is at home, the Thunder's interior defense should be able to stop the onslaught of LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Blazers don't have an answer for Kevin Durant.
Below: Week Two: The Pacific Division and Week Three: The Final Stretch. Also, a prediction as to who the Thunder's first round opponent might be.
Week Two: Pacific Division Fun
3/29: Vs. Golden State: Win
3/30: At Phoenix: Loss
4/1: At Portland: Loss
4/2: At Los Angeles Clippers: Win
By this point, the Thunder should be in the drivers seat when it comes to the Northwest Division. Some will have dreams of catching the Lakers and Mavericks, but this week will bring those dreams crashing to an end. Golden State is always an entertaining team to watch and will threaten to win, but they are wildly inconsistent and need miracle performances from all of their players in order to make up for all of the stupid mistakes they make. A relatively easy win.
We meet Phoenix on the second end of a back to back. The Suns rely on their guards to score from the perimeter, and Nash's brilliance knows no bounds. A close loss. This will be followed up by a tough loss at Portland, ad the team seeks revenge for being relegated to a lower seed in the conference. Finally, the week closes against the Los Angeles Clippers, who will be looking for moral victories but won't be a real threat to beat the Thunder.
Week Three: The Final Stretch
4/5: At Denver: Win
4/6: At Los Angeles Clippers: Win
4/8: Vs. Denver: Loss
4/10: At Los Angeles Lakers: Loss
4/11: At Sacramento Kings: Win
4/13: Vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Loss
Here is where the Thunder must defend the division title and seal themselves as a legitimate four seed. If the Thunder falter over this stretch, not only will the Thunder go into the playoffs cold and with question marks, but they face the strong possibility of having to face a Nugget team they recently lost to in the first round or even losing home court advantage.
Will the Thunder finish strong? More or less. Any game against the Nuggets is a coin flip, really. They rely more on scoring now and less on defense, which makes them a two-faced team. I suppose that one night, we'll face them at their best, but on another, we'll face them at their worst. The Northwest division lead is kept, if barely.
I don't know who scheduled two games against the Clippers at the end of the season, but seeing the team again on our home floor should be no problem. The Lakers will be a problem though, especially since they will be fighting with the Mavericks over the two seed. Experience wins out on their home floor. Then, we face the Kings, who will do everything possible to lose and not screw up their position in the draft lottery. Finally, the Thunder close out the season with a freak loss against the Bucks with the division crown sealed. No one will remember the loss, but it is a tough, grind-it-out type of game with lots of defense played.
Final Record: 53-29
Final Western Conference Seed: 4th
Projected First Round Opponent: The Memphis Grizzlies, benefiting from a weak end-of-season schedule.
Also check out Dogburt's post: OKC Thunder Remaining Record: Where will they finish?