The Rockets’ inexplicable loss to Phoenix on Monday night has brought Houston back into the possibility of a first-round playoff opponent for the Thunder. The Thunder will open against the Lakers, the Rockets or the Jazz.
The Jazz are most unlikely. The Jazz has to win in Memphis, against a team playing to keep homecourt advantage in a first-round series against the Clippers. That’s not likely. Then Utah would need Houston to beat the Lakers, which is likely. So the Jazz are a longshot.
If Memphis beats Utah, then the Houston-Laker game Wednesday night is clear. Winner gets San Antonio in a 2-7 seed matchup. Loser gets OKC in a 1-8 matchup.
I would say Houston and the Lakers would play all out, even if Utah loses to Memphis, because you’d much rather play the Spurs than the Thunder right now. I’d make Houston-LA a 50-50 game. Lakers are at home, but hard to produce two straight quality performances in the post-Kobe transition.
So the most likely playoff opponent for the Thunder is the Rockets, Lakers and Jazz, in that order. Houston and LA much bigger possibilities than Utah. How would the Thunder fare against each? Here’s the order in which those teams would present a challenge to the Thunder:
1. Houston: The Rockets would win a game in the series. I doubt it would be a four-game sweep. It’s not a great matchup for the Rockets, but James Harden and Jeremy Lin can get hot enough to win a game and make some others interesting.
2. Utah: I think the Thunder would sweep the Jazz. But the games in Utah would be competitive. Maybe even close.
3. Lakers: I think the Thunder would sweep the Lakers, and the games wouldn’t be close. Especially the longer the series went. The Lakers’ only perimeter defender of note was Kobe. Now he’s gone. The Lakers have no answer for Russell Westbrook, and Metta World Chaos’ effectiveness against Kevin Durant peaked three years ago. I think the Thunder would win four straight by double digits.