Just a couple weeks ago, the Western Conference looked like a daunting minefield, filled with healthy powerhouses in nearly every postseason slot.
But as we enter postseason play on Saturday, the health is gone and with it went some of the glamour.
Don’t get me wrong, this side of the bracket will be far more competitive than the Eastern Conference cakewalk, with overmatched teams ushering Miami into the Finals on a red carpet.
But San Antonio is limping (Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker are hobbled) and Denver is hobbled (Danilo Galinari is done and Kenneth Faried’s status is up in the air).
So just like the East (although to a far lesser extent), the defending conference champs look like prohibitive favorites out West.
OKC is healthy, rested and playing cohesively at the right time. But who is the Thunder’s biggest challenger?
Personally, I’d go with Denver, the only team that beat OKC three times this season. The Nuggets went 38-3 at home this season and can match OKC athlete for athlete.
But my opinion doesn’t hold much clout. So I asked the same question to a pair of ESPN experts, Bruce Bowen and Flip Saunders, on a recent conference call. Here’s what they had to say:
Who is OKC’s biggest challenger in the West?
“Oklahoma City, if they look in the mirror, I think they look and they see Denver, and this is their biggest threat. Because if you look at them offensively, they’re almost identical in a lot of the things that they do as far as points, shooting percentage. The biggest difference is that Oklahoma City is No. 1 in the league in free‑throw percentage and Denver is one of the worst teams in the league at 27. But when you look at whether it’s blocking shots, whether it’s offensive rebounds, whether it’s scoring in transition, getting up and down the floor, they both are the same. So I always say that there’s always a challenge when you have a team that has the same strengths as you because they can exert how they want to play in those strengths, and they’re going to have success.”
“I think the toughest matchup for OKC would be either the Clippers or San Antonio. I think the experience with San Antonio and being that they don’t have Harden this year, it makes a huge difference for this ballclub as compared to last season. You look at the adjustments that can be made during the course of the Playoffs, James Harden brought a lot to that ballclub as far as facilitating for others. He created shots for others, he created shots for Durant, as far as him coming off the screen they could utilize Harden, bringing the ball up and getting them into their sets late in games. They miss that and they haven’t quite found that missing piece. I know that Kevin Martin is good without the ball, but you really miss Harden, his efficiency as far as being an all‑around talent, being able to defend as well as score and create his own shot.”