In a recent article over at DailyThunder, Royce Young evaluates the pros and cons of being seeded third or fourth in the West. He comes to the conclusion that first round matchups should be the priority, and he doesn't really care whether the Thunder play the Nuggets or Trail Blazers. He would prefer a matchup with the Hornets, if anything.
Additionally, Nuggets coach George Karl came out and said that he would rather play the Mavericks than the Thunder, giving it a 55 to 45 percent ratio as to which team he wants to face.
Neither statement is really shocking. Most Thunder fans would agree that the Trail Blazers and Nuggets offer a roughly equal challenge. While it's pretty ballsy for George Karl to come out and say he'd prefer to play the Mavs (right before a matchup which will help determine that circumstance), it's the same sentiment that any other coach in the league would have, just not something they would say in public.
Thus, I'm not here to respond to anything either man have said directly. Rather, I'm here to offer my own opinion on the situation.
First of all, the Thunder should really hope that they get the three seed. Why? Home court advantage is monumentally important when it comes to the NBA playoffs. I know, the NBA playoffs has had its' share of upsets. But they are not nearly as prevalent as they are when it comes to other sports. It's a 7 game grind in a sport where the crowd is only a couple feet away from the actual sports being played. If you want a first-hand example as to how home-court advantage works, look at the highlights of Game Two of the Warriors-Jazz playoff series in 2007. The Warriors completely self-destructed late in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and both Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis were ejected in overtime while swearing at fans. Obviously, I'm citing one of the most emotional teams of all-time, but they emphasize the fact that team can be effected by playing on the road.
Below: More on Homecourt Advantage, Avoiding the Spurs, Why the Nuggets Won't Intentionally Lose, Facing the Trail Blazers, Hornets, or Grizzlies in the first round!
And even though home court advantage becomes less of a factor as the playoffs wear on, wouldn't it be dandy to have home court advantage in the Western Conference finals, should the Mavericks play their way in? Sure, having the Mavs lose another game and going deep into the playoffs isn't extremely likely, but should it happen, it would be a huge advantage going into that series.
I know that some people really want to avoid a matchup with the Lakers, and think that a matchup with the injury-prone Spurs is something they should hope for. But there's a reason the Spurs are #1, and there's a reason they can cruise control their way into the playoffs. This team was built for the playoffs. It has the ultimate combination of youth and veteran players, and can out-score any other team in the NBA. Need I remind you of our 0-3 record against them this season? How they crushed the Thunder in January? How they destroyed us in the second half in November? How, even when the Thunder were given opportunities several times on a silver platter, they still couldn't defeat the Spurs in February? Personally, I don't want to see them. Ever. On the other hand, the Lakers are a team with a really strong 6 man rotation, but nothing else. They have no big man depth, and nearly lost to us when we didn't have Perkins or Mohammed in the lineup. They have a legit win at home, but what can I say? They're a good team, just not nearly as good as the Spurs.
Secondly, the Nuggets should not and will not throw their game against the Thunder tonight. Throwing a game before the playoffs against a potential playoff matchup is a recipe for disaster. Continuing with the 2007 Warriors example, one can see that after the Mavericks tanked a late regular season game that could have tossed the Warriors out of the playoffs, they really regretted the move. Anybody remember the 1999 Knicks, the 8 seed that made it all the way to the finals? In the last game before the playoffs, the one seeded Heat tanked their final game against the Knicks by sitting out Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and Dan Majerle. As a result, the Heat got into the playoffs instead of the Hornets, and won the five game series (including Game 1). Thus, the Thunder should be ready for a tough contest.
I'm a realist when it comes to analyzing, but I'm an optimist when it comes to planning strategy. Plan for the best possible scenario (rolling deep in the playoffs) and let the rest of the chips fall where they may. But, if the Thunder are content on securing a first round win, then we should still aim for the three seed. We do not, and I repeat, do not want to face the Nuggets. The Nuggets are the hottest team in the NBA right now, with only one loss in the past three weeks. Their roster contains no stars, but they have few flaws and can prepare for almost any possible strategy. They are also extremely deep, and players will be replaced if they are underperforming. And yes, you can point to the fact that the Thunder were their one loss in the past three weeks, but the Nuggets killed themselves in that game by missing free throws and losing both Chris Andersen and Timofey Mozgov to injury. That is, in essence, the Nuggets main weakness. They can collapse upon themselves if nobody shows up to play on a particular night. It is a big one, but not one that I like to bank on.
The Trailblazers, on the other hand, are not as hot. They have definitely improved since the early season, but they're not streaking their way into the playoffs. They also hold more flaws. While being more talented and having more brand names on the roster than the Nuggets, they are also not nearly as deep. They use an eight man rotation and rely on a lot on the inside presence of LaMarcus Aldridge. This is good news for us, because we can limit and outsize them in the paint, forcing them to kick it out for a three or let Gerald Wallace go crazy.
I don't need to tell you how awesome it would be to face the Hornets. They have played well without David West (defeating the Trail Blazers and Rockets), but they're the Nuggets with far worse players. Their bench features a lot of rookies and untested players, which will kill them in the playoffs. Chris Paul can't play forever.
The one thing we want to avoid above all else is the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are an inside-focused team that can slowly wear our big men down while sneaking a three on the perimeter here or there. But it would require them running the table and a few losses from the Trail Blazers and Hornets, so that isn't likely to happen.
I know it's not possible for the Thunder to control their playoff destiny, and their first round matchup still hangs largely in the air. But the Thunder need to prepare for the best possible scenario down the road, go into the playoffs hot, and legitimize that Northwest Division title we just won. Onward! And the Mavericks should lose another game!