The expectation a few days ago for Friday night in Oklahoma City was high drama when the Thunder took on the Nuggets. Denver was closing in on the Thunder's division lead and pushing to nab that coveted four-seed from the Thunder.
But the Thunder eliminated a hefty amount of the anxiety Tuesday by taking down the Nuggets 101-94 in Denver, which opened the door for Oklahoma City to clinch the Northwest Division and four-seed the next night against the Clippers.
Maybe because of that loss and the fact Denver handled the Mavericks Wednesday night, George Karl was prompted to say he actually preferred seeing the Mavs in the opening round of the playoffs if he had his way.
And Karl's Nuggets could help that along Friday night actually. OKC is just one game behind Dallas (and holds the tiebreaker as a division winner). Any Thunder win from here on out gets them closer to the three-seed and a destination with either Portland or New Orleans in the opening round, instead of Denver.
Question is, is that really what the Thunder want?
Most have been saying they shouldn’t want the three-seed. Common sense says playing the Lakers in the Western Finals is better than playing them in the second round.
Here’s the thing about playing the Lakers: If you want to get to the NBA Finals, you’ve got to beat them at some point. What’s it really matter if it’s in the second or third round? All it means if you can get past them in the semis is that the road gets easier to the Finals. And besides that, since when are the Spurs pushovers? They’re pretty good, remember? Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com actually sees the Spurs as OKC’s kryptonite team . So let’s not get carried away thinking that San Antonio is the easiest team ever. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Gregg Popovich, four titles, best record in the West this year -- yeah, the Spurs are pretty good.
That's getting ahead of ourselves though. What about in the first round? Does OKC want the heated Nuggets or most likely, the Blazers?
After the way things looked against Denver Tuesday, the Nuggets actually appear to maybe be a more favorable matchup for OKC. Here are some reasons: 1) They don’t have anyone ideal to guard Kevin Durant. 2) Nene is a major part of their offense and Kendrick Perkins can handle him one-on-one. 3) The Thunder should be able to dominate the boards. 4) Ty Lawson will have a tough time checking Russell Westbrook an entire series.
Now of course a dominant effort by the Nuggets tonight could change that perspective a bit.
Portland on the other hand, seems to have the pieces to match the Thunder a bit better. Gerald Wallace is a pretty good defender to check Durant. OKC doesn’t have an answer for LaMarcus Aldridge. Brandon Roy is kind of a mystery — what if he revs it up for a seven-game series? Beating Portland at the Rose Garden is tough. To beat the Blazers, the Thunder would likely have to out-execute them late in games.
All of that together and it just feels like Portland is the tougher team for OKC.
That said though, I think I’m asking myself the wrong question here, because it’s not about who you play. It’s more about the idea of trying to position yourself in the playoffs. I understand one side of it. If the goal is to go deep into the postseason, you want to set yourself up in the best way possible to do that, right? Of course. But not at the cost of losing games.
Besides, what are you going to do? Have the team intentionally lose a game or two? How do you tell a group of guys to go out there and not try so hard tonight? How do you expect guys who have worked their butts off since August to win every time their shoes hit the hardwood to go ahead and drop one? Yeah, not realistic. You can sit players like Durant and Westbrook but you don't want to sacafice rhythm for a seed.
Between the Blazers and Nuggets in the first round really neither is an ideal matchup and neither is a nightmare for the Thunder. Neither is a team that’s going to just cause OKC a million headaches. Both will be tough to beat and I definitely see each going six, maybe seven games. But it’s not like the Thunder’s got a big problem with one. Plus, I like the idea of pushing hard at the end of the season and bettering your circumstance. Momentum is good. Confidence is wonderful. Look at what a little Big East tournament run did for Connecticut.
In the end, it shouldn't matter anyway. If team wants to go to bigger things as Durant said, you’ve just got to beat the teams in front of you. Whoever is put on the bracket next to your name, you play them and beat them. You can’t ask for a cakewalk to the Western Finals. You can’t expect someone to make this easier for you. If you have a chance to win, you win. If you have a chance to improve your seed, you do it. Who cares who you play and when you play them? You have to beat people to get to the goal anyway, so might as well get it over with.
Then again, if the Hornets want to go ahead and stay in sixth, I'm Scott Brooks and the Thunder would be more than thrilled to move up.