A week into the seeding games down in Disney, the quality of play has been very high. Almost all of the 22 teams are competitive on a nightly basis and have brought the drama to most contests. Such high-caliber hoops only shows up when the stakes are high and there's something worth playing for. The NBA gets credit for properly incentivizing all teams in the bubble, but the bloodbath of the standings before the shutdown has led to a frenetic pace in Orlando.
No place has been more of a bloodbath than the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the top seed, but teams 2 through 7 are all jockeying for position with each other. Meanwhile, the race for 8 is wide open and could provide drama until the very last seeding games have been played.
Over the next week, we'll dive one by one into the main contenders to see which teams might give them the most difficult matchups in the postseason. Whether due to matchups, style of play, star power or teams trending upward, we'll dive into a list of who each team would like to avoid most.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are playing great basketball, but so are other teams in the bubble. For them, the issue isn't as much about matchups as it is with a team whose combining strong play lately with an overall style that negates the strengths of this OKC team of underdogs.
Who They're Rooting Against: Denver Nuggets
The ability to avoid a matchup with Denver is 100 percent within the control of the Thunder. If they fall to the 6-seed, it's likely the Nuggets are who they face. Earn their way into the 4-5 matchup and the path to the second round becomes a bit more uplifting.
Denver, led by superstar Nikola Jokic, has one of the most unorthodox offenses to thwart. Jokic does a little bit of everything and won't be deterred by the sheer strength of someone like Steven Adams. The emergence of Michael Porter Jr. could provide a problem for OKC's wing depth and prevent them from going small to match the Nuggets.
This first-round battle really would be a clash of styles. Oklahoma City likes to play more methodically, not taking a ton of threes but attacking the rim and playing sound defense. The Nuggets are a high-octane, unique offense built around their inside-out center with guards who are more adept on offense and can hemorrhage points on the other end in stretches
Who wins? It will depend on which team takes scouting more seriously, in my opinion. Both groups are great in the regular season due to their depth; as they shorten their rotations, margins for error shrink and positive impact from those guys 7 through 9 become all the more vital. It could be decided in those minutes early in the second and fourth quarters.
For Oklahoma City, the key is in Chris Paul's hands. This series presents him the ability to control the pace of the game and manipulate everything for the Thunder offense. If he's at his peak, Denver won't have an answer. But the Nuggets are custom built to outscore a team exactly like Oklahoma City, hell-bent on getting to the rim and that cannot reliably stretch Jokic away from the basket for long stretches.
They better get in that 4-5 matchup...
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).