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Despite ninth seeding, Oklahoma City can pose threat in NBA playoffs

As All-Star players recover from injuries, Thunder is likely to climb up the rankings and go into postseason

There is a growing sentiment around the league that the Oklahoma City Thunder would be the most feared lower-seeded team of any possible first-round playoff matchup.

"They are the most dangerous team," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said during Thursday night's telecast. "They are a team that should have championship aspirations. They are moving to try to get the eighth or seventh spot. They are the most dangerous team in the NBA, in the Western Conference."

The Thunder, however, wouldn't be in the playoffs if the postseason started today.

At the All-Star break, the Thunder is the ninth-seeded team in the West, just a half-game behind the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns, for the final playoff spot.

"But if you're the No. 1 seed, you don't want to face Oklahoma City, because if Oklahoma City was healthy throughout the whole year, they'd probably be a one, or two or three seed," said former Clippers and Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, who now works as an analyst for NBA TV.

It's intriguing to think about the Thunder finishing as the eighth seed with a possible playoff matchup against the Golden State Warriors, who have the best record in the NBA and seem unlikely to relinquish the top spot in the West.

In the talent-heavy West, there's a cluster of teams with similar records. The fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks (36-19), sixth-seeded Clippers (35-19) and seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs (34-19) all are six games ahead of the Thunder in the loss column.

Even with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook finally healthy, it'll be a big challenge for the Thunder to climb up much higher in the West standings than the eighth spot, making an Oklahoma City-Golden State scenario a strong possibility. And it would be a fun series to watch, between two high-scoring teams.

"So think about it. The Warriors are going to most likely have the best record," Del Negro said. "Would the Warriors rather face Phoenix, New Orleans or Oklahoma City? Well, of course they'd rather face Phoenix or the Pelicans."

Before the season began, online gambling site Bovada.com pegged the Thunder as a 6-1 pick to win the NBA championship, with only Cleveland (4-1) and San Antonio (5-1) as bigger title favorites.

But injuries to All-Stars Durant and Westbrook at the start of the season derailed the Thunder.

Durant had surgery on his right foot that forced him to miss the first 17 games of the season. He has played in just 26 of the team's first 53 games, also suffering from a sprained right ankle and sprained big toe on his left foot.

Westbrook suffered a broken right hand in the second game of the season and sat out the next 14 games.

Predictably, the Thunder fell deep into a hole without Durant, the 2014 league MVP, and Westbrook, one of the best guards in the league.

The Thunder was 3-12 before Westbrook first came back on Nov. 26. Durant returned two games later.

Other injuries slowed the Thunder too.

Center Steven Adams is out with a fractured right hand, which has forced Coach Scott Brooks to put lumbering veteran Kendrick Perkins back into the lineup. So Oklahoma City never found its groove before the All-Star break.

The Thunder didn't reach the .500 mark in the season until Jan. 2.

In its final game before the break, the Thunder looked impressive at home, easily beating Memphis, 105-89, as Durant and Westbrook combined for 50 points. By winning its last three games, the Thunder improved to 28-25, the first time all season it has been three games above the .500 plateau.

"I thought by this time, this close to the All-Star break, that they would have caught up higher in the standings," said former NBA star Grant Hill, an analyst for TNT. "I know Kevin has kind of been in and out.

"But you'd think by now, they'd kind of find their form and be rolling. Maybe some of it is that people just don't fear OKC as much as they did. It's kind of like the old Mike Tyson. All of a sudden he gets knocked down and people don't have this intimidation factor that he used to bring to the table. People don't fear that anymore. People now, I think, are rolling in and saying, 'We can beat OKC.' It could be as simple as that."

The Thunder has 29 regular-season games left to make a move.

Oklahoma City's first game after the All-Star break is Thursday night against Dallas at home. The Thunder also plays the Suns twice more.

The key, Del Negro stated, is having their two All-Stars healthy for the stretch run.

Despite his injury-riddled season, Durant is averaging 25.9 points a game while shooting 51.7% from the field, and he scored a season-high 40 points against Denver on Monday. Westbrook, when fit, has also been dominant on the court, averaging 25.8 points and 7.6 assists.

"You don't want to face Durant in the playoffs," Del Negro said. "The guy has been to the NBA Finals [in 2012]. He's been the MVP. Westbrook is tough. They've got experience. Serge Ibaka can cause problems.

"I don't know if OKC's perimeter defense is good enough to handle [Golden State's] Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. But I don't know if anybody can slow down Westbrook and Durant, either."


Twitter: @BA_Turner

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