With the Thunder inching closer to clinching a playoff berth, there are two looming questions:
1. Who will Oklahoma City play in the first round?
2. Does a young team with virtually no playoff experience have any chance of posting a first-round upset?
While it’s impossible to predict first-round matchups, one prevailing theory is that young teams often struggle in their first trip to the playoffs.
"I’ve never really believed in that,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "If you have a good team, you have a good team. I don’t think the three (young) Thunder players will choke and play poorly because it’s the playoffs. If you play a better team you get beat.
"I don’t think the play of the Thunder in the playoffs is going to have anything to do with whether guys show up or not or they’re a deer in the headlights. They’re going to compete their (tails) off and play well. They’ll either be better than the other team they play or not.”
But Portland last season was a prime example how the lack of playoff experience can be a factor. The Trail Blazers earned homecourt advantage, but were blown out in Game 1, which proved pivotal in Houston winning the series.
"People want to have reasons why things happen,” Popovich said. "It’s easy, trite to say, ‘Well they’re young.’ Maybe they weren’t as good as the team they played. Just being older doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the better team.”
But "the better team” usually has more playoff experience.
"It’s really hard,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "We’ve seen a lot of young teams who have played well through the season (but struggled in the playoffs). Pau (Gasol) was part of that in Memphis when they won 50-some games and were swept by Dallas.
"In the playoffs, it’s seven consecutive opportunities, if it goes that long, against the same opponent. Then it becomes who outmatches the other team as far as wit and skill.”
In the playoffs, film study intensifies. Opponents try to take away your strengths, forcing a team to find other options. That’s where experience is invaluable.