HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Kevin Durant has all but handed Carmelo Anthony the scoring title this season to chase a bigger, more team-oriented goal.
Durant wants that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase and he wants the road to The Finals to run directly through Oklahoma City this year. He could have those goals wrapped up this evening if the Thunder can handle the Sacramento Kings (8 ET, League Pass).
I understand the need for a team, particularly one led by young superstars, to achieve certain things. That top overall seed is a status symbol, an indicator that the Thunder organization is interested in being dominant in every facet of their operation.
But that top spot also comes with a few thorns this season, namely a potential first-round date with the one team that could prove to be the biggest wildcard in the playoff field.
Should L.A. hang on to their ever-so-slim lead on Utah for the No. 8 spot, they’ll get a date with OKC (provided the Thunder can topple the Kings and Bucks) in the opening round. The Thunder have no reason to fear the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz … none at all.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have to be wary of what an unpredictable Lakers team without Kobe Bryant looks like in a playoff setting. There are things the Lakers do without Bryant (move the ball more freely, work deeper into the shot clock and play through Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol inside and then out) that no one in the league has had much time to prepare for.
A dangerous Lakers team battled a hobbled San Antonio Spurs team, the same Spurs we’ll see this weekend, and won an emotionally charged game to move one step closer to locking up that No. 8 seed.
If the Lakers can keep up the same sort of intensity for another week and a half, that first-round matchup in the playoffs will be considerably more difficult than it might have with Bryant in the mix and the rest of his teammates taking their usual backseat.
The Thunder have every reason to be confident, if they do indeed match up with the Lakers in this weekend. They still have decided advantage on the perimeter with Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge. And Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are more than capable of dealing with Howard and Gasol inside.
Every step of the process that any team is supposed to take to become a championship team the Thunder have gone through it, one painstaking step at a time. Remember, it was a Bryant and Gasol-led Lakers crew that dispatched a youthful OKC crew in the 2010 playoffs that was the postseason debut of Durant, Westbrook and Co.
OKC has yet to enter the playoffs with the pressure that comes along with that No. 1 seed. In order to achieve their ultimate goal, they’d have to carry that extra weight from wire to wire in the postseason.
That hasn’t been done by a team in either conference since the Boston Celtics did it five years ago. That Celtics team, with the way it was put together, was hardened by a season-long grind that carried them through both the regular season and playoffs.
There were veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and of course, coach Doc Rivers, around to help guide youngsters like Rajon Rondo and Perkins through that journey. Those Celtics faced their own wild card in the first round of the 2008 playoffs in the Atlanta Hawks. And they needed seven games and everything that home court advantage brings to get through that series, the first of two seven-game series (and the only ones of that postseason, mind you) that Boston had to endure.
On paper, the Celtics had nothing to worry about with the Hawks. They were the superior team in every way. The Hawks backed into the playoffs that year with a sub-.500 record, something the Lakers won’t have to do this season. Boston got past a solid LeBron James-led Cavs team in the East semifinals in the next round, too, with the help of home court. But it was another opponent waiting to test the mettle of the conference’s No. 1 seed.
And that’s why the Thunder need to study the recent history of No. 1 seeds and be mindful of the responsibility that comes along with No. 1.