With San Antonio’s win over the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder were assured of the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. While it is disappointing that they stumbled in the last month of the season to fall to the 2nd spot, the fact still remains that this is progression in a positive direction. Three seasons ago they were challenging to become the worst team in league history. Two seasons ago they were a surprise 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to 6 games in their 1st round matchup. And last season they were the 4th seed and made it to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual champs, the Dallas Mavericks. Progression from here on out will be measured by what happens in the playoffs.
Now that the Thunder are set in their playoff seeding, it is time to look ahead and see how they match up with their potential opponents, both of whom are very familiar to the Thunder. The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are both battling for the 6th seed. The Nuggets hold a ½ game lead over the Mavericks and have 2 games remaining, the first of which is against the Thunder, and the last of which is against the “nothing to lose” Minnesota Timberwolves. The Mavericks have one game remaining, on the road, against the Atlanta Hawks, who may still be battling the Orlando Magic for seeding. The Mavericks hold the tie breaker if the teams finish with identical records.
The Denver Nuggets have become the Thunder’s regular whipping boys these last two seasons. Including the playoffs, the Thunder are 9-2 in the teams’ last 11 meetings. When these two teams meet, points will definitely be scored as it features 2 of the top 3 scoring teams in the league. The Thunder’s rate of success against this team is surprising because the Nuggets have a deep collection of talent at all positions. They feature 6 players that average double figures and 4 other players that average at least 8.6 points per game. That’s 10 players that average at least 8 points per game! The crux to all the scoring, though, is that no one on the team averages more than 16.3 points per game. In crunch time, this team lacks a clearly defined offensive star to score that necessary bucket.
Defensively, the Nuggets are the 3rd worst team in the league, allowing 101.2 points per game. They are a lot like the SSOL (Seven Seconds Or Less) Suns of the early 00’s, focusing a lot of their energy on transition opportunities and increased offensive usage. With the acquisition of Javale McGee and the increased playing time of rookie Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets have become even more of a transition team. But when the Nuggets play another offensively potent team that plays good defense, such as the Thunder, the Nuggets eventually run out of gas in the 4th quarter. That’s been their M.O. in most games that they play against the Thunder.
The defending champion Mavericks are a bit of an enigma this season. They lost their defensive anchor (Tyson Chandler), their offensive sparkplug off the bench (JJ Barea), and had a failed offseason acquisition (Lamar Odom). They have been consistently inconsistent this entire season, alternating winning streaks with losing streaks. The Mavs ended the Thunder’s season last year in the Western Conference Finals, defeating them in 5 games. This season has been a different story, though, with the Thunder winning the season series 3-1.
The Mavericks are still led by Dirk Nowitzki, but his scoring average has dipped this season from 23 points per game to 21.6 points per game. A lot of their core is a year older and a step slower. The young players (Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, and Brendan Wright) are just now getting their feet wet and are playoff neophytes. This team is middle of the road in nearly every statistical category, but still has enough championship moxie to be considered dangerous. The defense has suffered with the departure of Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson, but is still in the top half of the league, allowing only 94.7 points per game.
So who do the Thunder want to face? They already dominated the Nuggets in the playoffs last season, and have continued that trend into this season. They were beat by the Mavs in 5 games last postseason, but held the lead in the 4th quarter in 3 of the 5 games, and have dominated the season series this year. Will we see a different Mavs team emerge in the playoffs? Will they be similar to the 1995 Houston Rockets team that won their second championship in a row as a 6th seed? The answer to both those question, in my opinion, is no. The Mavs team is a shell of what it was last season. They are building for the future (ahem, Deron Williams, ahem) by sacrificing a year of their present. The Thunder finish off both of these teams in 6 games tops. The real question becomes, who do the Mavs or Nuggets want to face; the Thunder or the Lakers?