Thunder fighting to finish season with No. 2 seed

Nevermind all that talk about the Thunder resting up and getting healthy for the playoffs.

With six games to go in the regular season, not only have the Thunder lost their chance at the top seed in the Western Conference, they now have to concern themselves with keeping the No. 2 seed.

Here’s a look at the likelihoods for Oklahoma City as the regular season winds down:

The Thunder schedule:

Tonight, at Kings

Wednesday, at Clippers

Friday, vs. Pelicans

Sunday, at Pacers

Monday, at New Orleans

April 16, vs. Pistons

Where the Thunder will finish

No. 1 seed: 0 percent.

No. 2 seed: 65 percent.

No. 3 seed: 35 percent.

No chance at the top seed. The Thunder are 4.5 games back of the Spurs with six to play. Well, there’s a mathematical chance, but no sense in going through all of that. The Spurs aren’t going to lose four of their final five games.

So, let’s move on. As for the No.2 and 3 seed, the Clippers are a game back of the Thunder, but the Clippers only have four games to go. Even if Los Angeles beats the Thunder Wednesday night and pulls even in the standings, the Thunder will have the benefit of the schedule over the Clippers.

Los Angeles has a road game left against Portland and three home games to go – against Sacramento, Denver and the Thunder. Chances are good the Clippers win three of those four, but the Thunder will give the Clippers a maximum effort Wednesday. Most likely, Russell Westbrook will sit Tuesday night against the Kings and play Wednesday night against the Clippers.

The Thunder have dropped their past two on the road. And aside from Wednesday’s game against the Clippers, the Thunder’s schedule looks favorable. A pair of games against New Orleans, Detroit and Sacramento. That’s four games against teams not going to the playoffs. Even this Sunday’s game at Indiana is against a Pacer team that’s fallen apart.

If Russell Westbrook sits against the Clippers on Wednesday night, the chances of the Thunder getting the No. 2 see would have to dip to about 55 percent. If the Thunder win against the Clippers the chances of the No. 2 seed improves to about 85 percent.

Remaining schedules

Dallas has games at Utah, vs. San Antonio, vs. Phoenix and at Memphis.

Memphis has the Heat, the 76ers, at the Lakers and Phoenix and then home against Dallas.

Phoenix has the problem of road games against tough teams. The Suns are at the Pelicans, Spurs, Mavericks and Kings and a home game against Memphis.

Golden State is home against Denver and the Timberwolves and then has road games at the Lakers, Portland and denver.

Portland is home against the Kings and Golden State and the Clippers and on the road against the Jazz.

Who the Thunder will play in the first round of the playoffs

Portland: 5 percent

Memphis: 5 percent

Dallas: 55 percent

Golden State: 25 percent

Phoenix: 10 percent

Lots of moving pieces and lots of possibilities heading into the final few games of the season. It’s not out of the question Portland and OKC could match up in the first round. Portland is only 1.5 games up on sixth-place Golden State and Portland still has to play the Warriors in addition to the Clippers.

Dallas seems to be the best bet because the Mavericks likely won’t gain ground but shouldn’t lose any either. The Warriors are a real possibility because the Thunder could dip into that sixth spot in the West.

Who the Thunder should want to play: Dallas. OK, sure the Thunder have lost two in a row to the Mavs, but they haven’t been full strength for either of the losses, one coming without Westbrook and both coming without Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha.

While Dirk Nowitzki is still a nightmare, Dallas doesn’t have the legs or the shooters to keep up with the Thunder in a long series. Meanwhile, the Mavs don’t have anyone who can stay in front of Russell Westbrook. Dallas is also a more-desirable matchup than Phoenix, simply for the age factor. This group of the Suns is young and dangerous and on the way up. Dallas is not either young or on the way up.

Who the Thunder should want to avoid: Well, Dallas and Phoenix won the season series from the Thunder but neither of those teams put too much worry into Thunder fans.

Memphis is the team most would want to avoid – including the Thunder. The Grizzlies have under-achieved this season with much of the same lineup it has used to beat the Thunder in years past, including last season in the playoffs.

Dallas and Phoenix would have confidence in a series against OKC, but Memphis would have the knowledge it has beaten the Thunder in a series, winning a Western Conference semifinal last season, 4-1. Guard Mike Conley and the front line of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (17.1 ppg; 10.1 rpg) is a lot to worry about.

The good news for the Thunder is Memphis still needs some help to just get into the playoffs, much less move into the No. 7 spot. Currently Memphis is a game out of eighth place and 1.5 games out of seventh.

The best-case scenario is: The Thunder win at the Kings on Tuesday night and then again at the Clippers Wednesday, putting themselves 2.5 games ahead of Los Angeles with just four games to play. Not only would that pretty much tie up the No. 2 seed, it would allow OKC to get Sefolosha and Perkins the minutes they need to get set for the playoffs.

 

When that two-seed is no longer an issue, the Thunder will have options and that may even include resting Kevin Durant who mentioned he was tired of chasing the 25-point-plus streak. Sit him against Detroit in the regular-season finale. Sit him as many minutes as possible. You’ll need him later, that’s for sure.

The No. 2 seed would also mean home-court advantage through two rounds of the playoffs and home-court advantage to everyone in the Western Conference except for the Spurs.

The worst-case scenario is: The Thunder go 1-1 or worse on the final two games on this trip and find themselves in a race to the finish with the Clippers. The result of trying to keep the No. 2 seed takes energy and the Thunder not only have to extend Durant, but may feel the pressure of playing Sefolosha or Perkins too many minutes or too soon.

Meanwhile, it will also mean a significant dip in momentum. The Thunder haven’t been out of the first or second spot in the Western Conference in months. Who knows what that might do for their mental makeup heading into the playoffs.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK