A team with nothing to lose can be extremely dangerous. The Oklahoma City Thunder are just 36-37 and currently outside the NBA Play-In picture. But they are ahead of schedule. Their ascension could be imminent.
This franchise was not supposed to be hovering around .500. NBA postseason travel arrangements should not be something on OKC;s docket, but it is a distinct possibility with only nine games left in the regular season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a full-fledged star. Versatile guard Josh Giddey could be on his way. Jaylen Williams, not to be confused with Jaylin Williams who is also on the Thunder, is doing all he can to ensure the Rookie of the Year race is not a runaway for Paolo Banchero. This team has again managed to quickly get back on its feet and make mild waves in the Western Conference.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti probably does not get as much credit as he deserves. He drafted one of the best teams to never win an NBA Championship- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. When that blew up, he eventually patched things together with Chris Paul. And now, OKC has emerged from the abyss again, making relatively good time, too.
That is big-picture talk, though. Since the Thunder have come this far, anything less than a play-in spot will be a stinging disappointment. They could benefit tremendously from the extra experience as well.
Their path is a long and treacherous one to navigate, but they might possess just the right amount of savvy, ability and bold adventurousness to hack their way through the brush and into the top eight. I've set the table as much as I can. Let's break down the Oklahoma City Thunder's dream seeding scenario matchup for the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
Best NBA Play-In matchups are Timberwolves and Lakers
We can cut corners and just assume that Oklahoma City will leap right past the NBA Play-In group and into the top six. They are just one-and-a-half games behind the Golden State Warriors and are playing well, but it just seems like a lot to ask from such a young team. I would have to bet against the defending champions and the Los Angeles Clippers. I am not ready to do that.
They are displaying a rhythm that should launch them into those final four spots, though. Let's swap the Thunder in the NBA Play-In Tournament for the New Orleans Pelicans who are still without Zion Williamson. The rest of the seeding would ideally go as follows:
7. Dallas Mavericks, 8. Los Angeles Lakers, 9. Thunder, 10. Minnesota Timberwolves
OKC head coach Mark Daigneault should be pleased with that draw. The Wolves have been wounded all season long. Karl-Anthony Towns made his long-awaited return Wednesday, but the team was without Anthony Edwards, who is still dealing an ankle injury. There is a strong likelihood they are both in the lineup for this No. 9 vs. No. 10 seed matchup, but is that enough time for all of these moving parts to coalesce?
That is the key question. The Thunder are gelling right now and should have the manpower to stay right with Minnesota. Gilgeous-Alexander has battled his own health issues, but if he is out there, then fans will be treated to another buckets bonanza. He has not just increased his shooting volume but also immensely improved his efficiency, per podcast host Bradeaux.
Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.4 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent form 3-point range (up five percent from last year). The West as a whole is muddled, but this team is coming into their own at the perfect time. They can tire out Towns and Rudy Gobert in the frontcourt and advance to the next game.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 44 points on 16 shots without making single three… (90 TS%)
— Bradeaux (@BradeauxNBA) February 11, 2023
Best Case scenario would be the Lakers. Dallas has plenty of issues, but no one should feel comfortable betting against Donic and Kyrie Irving, even with the team's defensive limitations. The Lakers have no shortage of starpower themselves, but it is too premature to pencil in LeBron James for this tournament. If he has a setback, OKC can still withstand the wrath of Anthony Davis and a fairly deep roster.
D'Angelo Russell and Dennis Schroder are not always the most consistent out of the backcourt. Gilgeous-Alexander's onslaught can continue even under the glitz and glamour of LA. The Thunder will have just a bit more offense on their side, which could allow them to squeeze into the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
They won't have much time to come down from the adrenaline high this hypothetical and unexpected postseason berth will give them and their fans. On second thought, it is probably best they stay well above cloud nine for their next matchup.
Dream opening 2023 NBA Playoffs Matchup is the Nuggets
This is probably as far as this magical ride could go before breaking down. Nikola Jokic may no longer be the MVP frontrunner, but he still leads one of the most well-rounded offenses in the league. The Thunder would be better suited against the Memphis Grizzlies due to their struggles with perimeter shooting, but I just cannot pull the trigger on Oklahoma being a No. 7 seed.
Obviously, my infatuation with Doncic could be clouding my judgment, and If so, then the Thunder probably draw a better matchup for their skillset. Still, though, a first-round triumph feels unfathomable regardless of the opponent. To pull off the upset, OKC will need to steal one of the first two games at the Ball Arena, a place Denver has only tasted defeat in six times all season.
If Gilgeous-Alexander can drop a 45-piece, then an upset could be stolen. That is when the pressure could set in on a team constantly scrutinized for their playoff shortcomings. Controlling the pace will also be key to give the Thunder a chance at exposing the Nuggets' defensive weaknesses. Giddey will be able to find the open man with superb passing.
The franchise will have to grow up a lot in these next few weeks to advance to the 2023 NBA playoffs, let alone push the No. 1 seed to the brink. No team should take the Thunder lightly, though. They are fighters.