How does a first-round rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals grab you?
Might want to get used to the sound of it, because it now appears to be the matchup we'll likely see as the 2-7 series.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, a meeting with the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the opening round of the playoffs loomed as the most problematic matchup possible. Yet after suffering a 106-101 defeat to Denver in its regular season finale on Wednesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder tiptoed closer to that reality.
A Nuggets win Thursday at Minnesota, or a Mavs loss at Atlanta, will clinch the No. 6 seed for Denver and lock Dallas into the seventh spot.
Denver's win Tuesday also trapped Utah — which still had a chance to climb to seventh and face the Thunder — in the eighth hole and assured the Jazz of a first-round meeting with top-seeded San Antonio.
After eliminating the Nuggets in five games in the opening round last year, Oklahoma City went 2-1 against Denver this season. The Thunder also went 2-1 against the Jazz. Both Denver and Utah were widely believed to be more favorable matchups for the Thunder in a seven-game series.
While the Thunder did go 3-1 against Dallas this season, the Mavs sent the Thunder home in five games last year and Dallas has a bona fide star in Dirk Nowitzki that both Denver and Utah lacks, as well as an experience advantage in crunchtime that still could be costly for the Thunder.
“It'd be fun,” Kevin Durant confidently said of a potential early matchup with the Mavs just before listing exactly what makes Dallas dangerous.
“Dallas is tough to play. They do so much on both ends of the floor that disrupts teams; zone, they got Dirk and Jason Terry and all those guys that complement them.”
Durant then turned confident again.
“But we're a different team from last year and they're a different team from last year,” he said. “So I doubt that that series will be the same. Hopefully it's not the same. We just want to come out there and be focused and lock in, and I think that's what we'll do.”
Until Monday, when the Spurs clinched the No. 1 seed with a win over Portland, the Thunder had a chance to land the top seed. It would have brought home-court advantage through the Western Conference Finals and, quite likely, a more favorable first-round matchup.
But the Thunder stumbled across the finish line in this shortened 66-game season, going 8-7 in April with one uninspiring performance after another. All the while, Thunder players and coaches maintained they cared little about home-court advantage or potential matchups.
Meanwhile, the Spurs were busy serving up blowouts, winning 19 of their past 21 games entering Wednesday.
Actions appeared to speak louder than words Wednesday, however, as Thunder coach Scott Brooks played four of his starters at least eight minutes in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets. One night earlier, Brooks allowed his second- and third-string players to play the entire final period in an eight-point victory over Minnesota.
“I'm not one to manipulate who we play and who we don't play,” Brooks said. “You play who you play. If you're going to win a championship, you've got to go through four very, very good teams. And you're going to have to play them all. The strategy was I wanted Kevin and Russell (Westbrook) to get in the mid-30s (minutes). I probably played Kevin maybe two or three minutes longer than I wanted. But the game was close and he wanted to stay in.”
The Thunder finished 47-19, a .712 winning percentage that would translate to a 58-win campaign in a normal 82-game season. Along the way, OKC blossomed so much that it finished the season with an MVP candidate in Durant, a likely All-NBA selection in Westbrook, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Serge Ibaka and the projected Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden.
“I'm proud of what they've done this year,” Brooks said. “They've made some improvements in areas that we wanted to get better at … so there's a lot of good things that we've done this year.”
The mediocre finish, though, raises the question of which Thunder team we'll see in the postseason. There's the Oklahoma City squad that at one point in time was 32-9 and in command of the conference. And there's the Thunder team that finished 15-10 and could neither grab a rebound or stop turning it over.
“I think we're playing OK,” Westbrook said. “I think we could be playing better. But I think we got another level in us and hopefully that comes out.”
What would make anyone confident it will?
“I've seen it before,” Westbrook said. “I've seen us turn it up a notch. Everybody's seen us turn it up. We started the year off on that level, and we definitely can hit that level again.”