With the eight re-seeding games dwindling down, the playoff picture is becoming clearer by the day. As of now, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem destined to meet one of two teams — Denver Nuggets or the Houston Rockets.
The two have contrasting styles and would make for two very different match-ups for OKC. Let’s look at how the Thunder have fared against them this season, and what problems or advantages await in what is sure to be a daunting — but entertaining –opening series.
The Thunder went 1-2 against the Nuggets this season. The first loss was at Denver way back in December, the win took place in OKC in February, and the third and most recent meeting between the two happened last week in the bubble. The Nuggets were able to outlast the Thunder for an overtime win in that one.
Jokic v Adams / Noel – Nikola Jokic is an All-NBA guy and arguably the most talented center in the league. Steven Adams has had his issues guarding the Nuggets big man while Nerlens has fared better off in the past holding his own against Jokic. It will take a total group effort from the OKC bigs to slow down Jokic, who has the capabilities and talent to score inside and out unlike most others at that position. The Thunder must try to neutralize Jokic on the offensive end by going right at him in the post, looking for contact resulting in foul trouble or in the high screen and roll. Do not try to out-finesse the big Serbian, OKC needs to be physical and punish Jokic around the basket.
No Home Court Advantage
Denver is one of the most difficult places to play in the NBA but now with all post-season games taking place in Orlando, the Nuggets’ home-court advantage has been completely eliminated. Denver had the third-best home record in the Western Conference during the regular season — an important stat that is now irrelevant. The league can try to dress up “home” and “away” as much as they want but the bubble site has offset any advantage teams had when playing in front of their home crowd.
Playing the Nuggets on a neutral court gives the Thunder a slight advantage in a seven game series if they can remain healthy. The bubble emergence of Michael Porter Jr. is concerning but OKC has had an emergence of their own in the form of Darius Bazley, who matches up well with the size of the Nuggets. Both teams have had to manage injury issues since the re-start but the Thunder look to be the healthier of the two going into the playoffs.
It won’t be easy, and I expect a long, hard series, but give me OKC in 7 to advance to the 2nd round for the first time since 2016 if they run into the Nuggets in round one.
My, oh my… this matchup has so many juicy subplots it feels destined to happen, doesn’t it?
OKC won the season series against Houston 2-1. The first meeting was almost 10 months ago in October with the Rockets winning at home. The next two times these teams played were in January — the first of which saw the return of Russell Westbrook to Oklahoma City where the Thunder throttled the Rockets, followed by a huge comeback win on the road where OKC overcame a 16-point 4th quarter deficit to stun Houston.
Defending Small Ball
The last time OKC saw Houston up close the Rockets had yet to commit to their now center-less small-ball lineup, in which PJ Tucker, who is a natural stretch forward, starts at the 5-spot. The lane has been completely emptied out for James Harden and Russ to drive or kick it out for a team that averages the most 3-point shot attempts per game in the league. This style of play is difficult to defend personnel-wise, but OKC does have the pieces to make it strenuous for the Rockets to be successful. The Thunder’s defense will be instrumental to the fate of this series with the battle on the boards also factoring into how the outcome will be decided.
Russ versus the franchise he was the face of, won an MVP with and played a decade for. Chris Paul seeking revenge against his former team (and teammate) that dumped him and basically thought he was washed. This series is straight DRAMA and would no doubt be the must-see match-up of the opening round.
Ideally, I would rather see these two teams face off in the 2nd round but sometimes life has a funny way of working itself out. It would be so Thunder for them to have to go against the most beloved and popular player the organization has ever produced just one short year after trading him. Let’s not forget Harden, who is one of the more polarizing players in the league and also former Thunder member, out there against his former squad. If this winds up being a first-round series, the NBA couldn’t have written a better script for the playoffs.
To see OKC overcome Westbrook and Harden and advance to the 2nd round would be the biggest triumph this organization has experienced since the Russ 2017 regular season. It would be such an emotionally exhausting series that I suggest right now we all start some breathing exercises to prepare ourselves for the possibility of it it.
I can’t help but think about CP3 and the way his relationship with the Rockets ended — and how that would be at the forefront of his thoughts, as well. One of the greatest point guards of the last quarter-century, Paul is not done writing his story in the history books of basketball. Call me a homer but give me C-MV-P in 7 games over the Rockets.
Regardless of who OKC draws in the first round, nothing is going to come easy and in order for this team to make a run in the post-season. A lot of loose balls and maybe even a little luck will have to fall in their favor.
Prepare yourselves Thunder fans — the Playoffs are coming.