Reign on plains? The Thunder threats

5-on-5 Roundtable: Biggest challengers to OKC rolling through West playoffs

Originally Published: February 28, 2012
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network

Kevin Durant Richard Rowe/US PresswireAfter a strong first half, Kevin Durant and the Thunder have been revealed as West's leading team.
Entering the second half of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have stepped ahead in the West chase. Which teams figure to be the strongest challengers to the young team roaring down the plains?



1. Which Western Conference contender is OKC's biggest threat?



Alfredo Berrios, ESPN Deportes Los Angeles: Definitely the Clippers. They have surprised everyone, and they are improving daily as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin & Co. are getting it together slowly. I like their inside game more than the Thunder. OKC is still at times only a two-man team and that doesn't bode well at crunch time. Their Achilles' heel has been the West -- six of their seven defeats against conference teams. I still think they are one man short of being a real threat come playoff time.

James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Lakers. It doesn't feel like it at the moment, but they're still contenders and they're still capable of causing major matchup problems. The Thunder are at their best when they go small -- with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol sharing the floor, they'll have a hard time doing that.

Andrew Lynch, Hardwood Paroxysm: San Antonio Spurs. The possible contenders out West are a mixed bag; the Spurs and Clippers have good offenses and mediocre defenses, while the Mavericks are the inverse, and the Lakers are middling in both. I'll take the Spurs, assuming they're healthy, on the strength of the Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili tandem and the prowess of Gregg Popovich.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: The Mavericks have been playing stifling defense of late, and happen to have the perfect type of defender for Kevin Durant in Shawn Marion (held KD to 42.9 percent shooting in the 2011 Western Conference finals). In addition, Vince Carter provides them with some scoring punch (gulp), while Dirk Nowitzki is arguably still the toughest matchup in the NBA.

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Los Angeles Clippers. The Thunder's loss to the Clippers being a bad one is enough to raise an eyebrow, but if OKC were to catch Lob City in a seven-game series, I fear it could be a tough one for them. Almost across the board in the West, OKC possesses matchup edges -- except against the Clippers. Between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, plus a paint defender in DeAndre Jordan, the Clips can turn the Thunder into jump shooters and slow down their high-powered offense.


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Matt Wells: The Spurs. With Pop on the sideline it is always hard to bet against San Antonio. Add in the fact that he is saving his older players while getting the young guys good experience has them poised to make a playoff run.


2. Which Western Conference dark horse is the most dangerous?



Berrios: I like Memphis. Quietly they are the third-best defensive team in the West, only surpassed by Mavs and Lakers. Their losses against the Thunder have been close, which means they can hang tough. Their main problem is the offense, as they are in the lower two-thirds in the league. Plus they haven't been very successful against traditional powerhouses … but neither has much of the conference.

Herbert: Grizzlies. After what they did to the Spurs in last year's playoffs, it shouldn't be surprising if the Grizz challenge a higher seed again. Memphis has gone 18-12 without Zach Randolph -- when he returns, let's see if the offense catches up to the D.

Lynch: Portland Trail Blazers. Oklahoma City is susceptible to Denver's perimeter scoring, especially with a healthy Danilo Gallinari, but Portland has the defenders to bother Durant in Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum, as well as a potentially advantageous matchup in the post with LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers are my choice, even if that means counting on Jamal Crawford.

Poulard: The Grizzlies force the second-most turnovers in the league while the Thunder are last in protecting the ball, which does not bode well for OKC. Keep in mind that the Grizzlies took the Thunder to seven games last May despite the absence of Rudy Gay. A healthy Zach Randolph certainly transforms this team into a dangerous opponent for all.

Young: Memphis Grizzlies. It's almost too obvious to pick the Grizzlies, meaning maybe they aren't really the dark horse. I mean, can you be the under-the-radar team two years in a row? But Memphis is waiting for Zach Randolph to return and finally give the Grizzlies a full complement of talent to go with Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay. I don't think there's any team that would feel good about drawing them in the postseason.


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Dylan Conley: The Grizzlies are the most dangerous darkhorse. Despite losing Zach Randolph to injury for most of the year, the Grizzlies have still played very well. And if Z-Bo can return before the playoffs, Memphis could be a scary team.


3. How many Southwest Division teams could upset the Thunder?



Berrios: Three. With the exception of New Orleans, I think anything can happen. Spurs and Mavs, older but wiser, are still hanging there. As a matter of fact, two of the Thunder's seven losses are against San Antonio and Dallas. Houston is one of the top defenses in the league and has hung close with OKC in their losses.

Herbert: Three: Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies. The Rockets have an identical record to the Lakers and beat Oklahoma City in their last meeting, but I can't see them scaring the Thunder in the playoffs. Houston doesn't have anyone resembling a defensive stopper on the wing and its team defense isn't good enough to make up for it. Of course, a major deadline deal could change this.

Lynch: Two. The Spurs and Mavericks are the two likeliest teams to upset the Thunder, though both would be prohibitive underdogs. Each has a unique problem. The Mavericks would likely struggle to keep up with the Thunder; they're 19th in offensive rating. And the Spurs have the horses to compete on offense, but they're 16th in defense.

Poulard: The two best teams in Texas: San Antonio and Dallas. The Mavs have already been covered previously, while the Spurs have the benefit of collective experience as well as a head coach who is certain to exploit every OKC weakness such as their shaky ball security, poor late-game execution and suspect shot selection.

Young: Two: the Mavericks and the Spurs. Really no explanation needed for the Mavs -- Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki are basically Thunder serial killers. The Spurs, though, can exploit a great Thunder defensive weakness with their deadly drive-and-kick game.


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Amish Bhatia: Two. I agree with the sentiment that the West is wide open. Mavs and Spurs could definitely give the Thunder some fits.


4. How many Northwest Division teams could upset the Thunder?



Berrios: Tough cookie, as I believe that whoever upsets them is not from this division. The Timberwolves have not been themselves lately, in the good sense. Portland has beaten them once already. But this division is very weak. If the season ended today, the Trail Blazers would be the only other team in the playoffs, and that is not a good sign.

Herbert: One. Both Denver and Portland started the year looking like contenders, but I can only see one of them recapturing that early-season magic: the Nuggets. Much of their drop-off has been a direct result of injuries -- if they're healthy come playoff time, they could challenge the Thunder, even if no one would be comfortable picking them to win.

Lynch: Zero. The dark horses in the Western Conference are in the Northwest Division, but neither the Nuggets nor Blazers seem to stand much of a chance in a seven-game series against the Thunder. And as it stands, only one of the two might make the playoffs, anyway.

Poulard: One. The Portland Trail Blazers have Gerald Wallace to chase Durant and muscle him around; but Durant also has to guard Crash, which forces him to expend energy on defense. In addition, the Blazers have a great low-post scoring option in LaMarcus Aldridge to give the Thunder front-line fits. They also have some athletes to bother Westbrook.

Young: One. And it's probably not who you think. With the Thunder taking five of their past six meetings over the Nuggets, it's become obvious that Denver is going to have to prove it can beat OKC. But the team to keep an eye on is the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge has been a nightmare for the Thunder to handle, and with a solid defender in Gerald Wallace to check Durant, that's a scary matchup for OKC.


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D.R. Dawson II: Denver has a PG that can run with Westbrook, a big man that can hang on the inside and stretch the floor, and enough shooters to potentially cause problems if they get hot. Right now it looks like they will be battling Portland for that final spot but if they can get in, this could be a great first round series.


5. How many Pacific Division teams could upset the Thunder?



Berrios: Both Clippers and the Lakers are capable, but unless the elder L.A. team makes any significant moves it will be up to the Clips. Having a chance to watch them every night, I'm slowly becoming a Clippers believer. Before Chauncey Billups' injury, my call for them would have been that they would be at the same level in the W-L column as the Thunder.

Herbert: Two: the Lakers and Clippers. Understandably, all anyone talked about after their first meeting was Blake Griffin annihilating Kendrick Perkins, but the more important takeaway from that game was how easily Chris Paul picked apart OKC's D. They'll play one another three times in four weeks beginning March 21 -- this could be a preview of a very competitive playoff series.

Lynch: Two. Both Los Angeles teams have shown me just enough during the regular season to think they have a marginal shot at besting the Thunder. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could match Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and the Lakers hold the specter of a possible roster-changing trade and the determination of Kobe Bryant over everyone.

Poulard: The L.A. teams. The Lakers' defense and rebounding are good enough to keep games close for Bryant to strike late, while the Clippers offer low-post scoring and possibly the best closer in the NBA right now in Chris Paul. Couple that with OKC's shaky playmaking late in games and both teams have the capability of sending the Thunder packing.

Young: Two. The case for the Clippers has already been made, but I don't think you can just dismiss the Lakers. Since the Kendrick Perkins trade the Thunder are 2-0 against the Lakers, but still, with No. 24, I don't see any way you can cross them off.


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Matt Wells: Right now none. If the Lakers get a good deal for Pau then maybe but without Billups, the Clippers can't hang.