The top 10 teams in the West are virtually set, and the top four — Nuggets, Thunder, Timberwolves, and Clippers — have separated themselves from No. 5 through 10. With near certainty, the Thunder will host a first-round playoff series against one of these six teams (in order of record): Pelicans, Kings, Suns, Mavericks, Lakers, and Warriors. It’s far too early for teams to position themselves for favorable matchups, but of those six possible opponents, here’s who I think the Thunder match up with from best to worst. 

1. Dallas Mavericks

Yes, I know Dallas thumped the Thunder by 35 points last month. And yes, I remember Dallas’ 30-0 run in a December game OKC won. Still, I like the Thunder’s chances in this series. Last season, Luka Doncic called Lu Dort one of the “top-three” defenders in the NBA. Dort thrives against bigger guards like Doncic. It’s the smaller, shifty ones who give Dort the most trouble. 

It might be counterintuitive to say Dallas is OKC’s best matchup, given that Doncic is the best player among all the possible opponents OKC could face. Doncic would undoubtedly get him, but Dort would make it challenging. And if you wear down Doncic, the Mavericks don’t stand a chance throughout a seven-game series. 

The Thunder are equipped to thrash the Mavericks on the other side of the court. Dallas’ defense has been atrocious as of late, and while the additions of Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington bolstered the Mavs’ front line, neither are going to consistently deter Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams from finishing at the rim. I’ll confidently take Mark Daigneault over Jason Kidd in the coaching matchup. 

2. New Orleans Pelicans

Strange squad, these Pelicans. They have a nice collection of players, but only some around the league believe in how they fit. The Thunder would have to figure out how to put the brakes on the freight train that is Zion Williamson, but Williamson isn’t the unstoppable force he was three seasons ago. 

Jonas Valanciunas might bully Chet Holmgren in the post on a few possessions, but the Thunder have repeatedly played Valanciunas off the court in this matchup. Herb Jones would be the X-factor in this series. If I picked the best players to defend SGA, Jones would be in my top five. 

3. Sacramento Kings

Sacramento has the second-worst point differential (+0.5) among these six teams. And despite making the playoffs last year, the Kings don’t have a natural “we’ve been here before” edge over the young Thunder. So maybe I’m overrating the difficulty of this matchup. Still, Domantas Sabonis has been a load against the Thunder, the type of physical post player and rebounder that has given OKC problems. 

Sacramento is 2-1 against OKC this season. Sabonis has averaged 18.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 11.3 assists per game in those games. Sabonis takes, but he also gives away on the defensive end.

4. Golden State Warriors

OKC went 3-1 against Golden State in the regular season, with two of the Thunder’s three wins in overtime. We could talk about individual matchups all day. How the Warriors are old and inconsistent, and how the Thunder are the opposite. What should scare the Thunder most about the Warriors is their past. 

You can’t ignore Golden State’s championship pedigree. Poke fun at the Warriors at your peril. The Warriors remain a Western Conference Finals threat if Stephen Curry is healthy. 

5. Phoenix Suns

With Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal at full strength, Phoenix pushes the bounds of upgradability. But when have the Suns been at full strength?

Jusuf Nurkic might average 30 rebounds per game in this series, but the Thunder will trade that rebounding disadvantage for spacing to pick Phoenix apart. I’m likely holding the Suns in too high regard, but Durant and Booker are just that good.

6. Los Angeles Lakers

Yes, that brings us to the Lakers—they have a negative point differential (-0.5). Anyone who’s watched this season’s series, won by the Lakers 3-1, knows how much of a nightmare it’s been for the Thunder. Anthony Davis morphs into Shaq against the Thunder, bullying the Thunder on both ends of the floor. More than any other player, Davis has made the Thunder look like it doesn’t belong on the big stage. He’s one of few big men who deters the Thunder from driving to the rim. We all know the Thunder drives more than any team in the league. They also have LeBron James. The Thunder’s best first-round strategy is this: Let someone else beat the Lakers. 

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