Kevin Durant with the crossover, fades back and hits the long three! It's something we've all heard and will hear again many times this season. We all know about the amazing skills that Kevin Durant possesses but what about the toughness and determination that the whole Oklahoma City team seem to possess in spades? They are undoubtedly a team that will be hard to beat this year. Many pundits have already pencilled in the Oklahoma City Thunder for the NBA Finals this season and with good reason. The team is leading the Western Conference with a 38-12 record, three games in front of the San Antonio Spurs and are an offensive force to be reckoned with, averaging an NBA best 103.7ppg. So who stands in their way? The Western Conference seems to be the weakest its been in several years. Lets see who is going to challenge OKC in the west.
Dallas MavericksLast years champions The Dallas Mavericks haven't exactly been impressive in their quest for back to back titles. They're currently 5th in the Western Conference with a record of 28-22 and a poor road record of 10-14. They have struggled offensively this season, ranked 19th in the NBA in points scored, 95ppg compared with lasts seasons 100.2ppg. Last years Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki is shooting .455 from the field, his lowest since his rookie season which seems to sum up the Mavericks troubles. The Thunder have played the Mavericks four times so far in 2012 and have won three of these games.
Los Angeles LakersThe Lakers are an ageing unit and one that is missing some vital pieces. Four of their five starting players are 31 or older and they are lacking at small forward and point guard. Even with Ramon Sessions signing they will struggle to handle Russell Westbrook's quickness. As far as the small forward position is concerned, Ron Artest (I can't bring myself to call him that stupid name) is a good defender but Kevin Durant is one of a kind and will be hard to stop with his speed and athleticism, not to mention Artest is seriously lacking offensively. Put simply, I don't believe the Lakers have the tools to beat the Thunder should they meet in the playoffs. The Thunder and Lakers have met once this season with Oklahoma taking the win.
San Antonio SpursGregg Popovich would be considered for Coach of the Year were the season to end tomorrow. With a 35 year old Tim Duncan, 34 year old Manu Ginobli and 29 year old Tony Parker all starting for the Spurs they, like the Lakers are also an ageing team. The Spurs are a team that seem to grind out wins in the regular season. Playoffs are a different story however. Last season San Antonio finished the regular season with the best record in the west but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies. In a season that's so condensed the question remains, will the Spurs have enough left in the tank to make a serious run at the Finals? The Spurs have had the better of OKC in their three games played this season- winning two of them.
Los Angeles ClippersThe Clippers started the season with a bang after picking up Chris Paul. They have a Pacific Division leading record of 28-21 but in recent weeks the losses have started to mount and there are plenty of question marks surrounding 'Lob City'. A lack of defense seems to be the biggest problem with the Clippers, according to the Defensive Rating on basketballreference.com the Clippers rank last in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. There was plenty of talk last week that the team had lost confidence in coach Vinny Del Negro. It's this kind of instability within the club that leads me to believe the Clippers will be an early casualty come playoff time. The Thunder and Clippers have one win each in the two games they have played thus far.
Memphis GrizzliesThe Memphis Grizzlies showed last season that come playoff time they aren't to be taken lightly. The top seed in the west, the San Antonio Spurs found out the hard way and tumbled out of the playoffs in the first round. It then took Oklahoma City seven games to dispose of the Grizzlies in the second round. They are currently 6th in the Western Conference with a record of 27-21. After an early season injury to power forward Zach Randolph many people were suggesting they may not make the playoffs but thanks to their solid defense, which ranks 8th on baskteballreference.com's defensive rating, they have kept in the hunt. A youthful squad who have shown they can mix it with the best, Memphis will again be hard to beat come playoff time and if they stay healthy some of the more highly touted teams best watch their backs. However they havent matched up well this season against the Thunder losing all three games played between the two teams and I can't see this changing should they meet again the post season.
Maybe it will be left for a team from the Eastern Conference to beat the Thunder in the Finals, at least that's what many have predicted, myself included. It would be a thing of beauty to watch them play the Heat or the Bulls (or whoever else comes up big from in the Eastern Conference) come Finals time. Whatever happens Oklahoma City are a tough ask for any team to beat and I know I'd love to see them make the NBA Finals in 2012.