Thunder vs. Warriors preview: Jockeying for playoff positioning

USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City is battling for the No. 1 seed and Golden State is battling for No. 6. If neither succeeds, they will face each other in the first round.

With less than one week left in the regular season, both the Thunder and the Warriors still have a lot of work to do. Oklahoma City, currently tied with San Antonio at 57-21, wants to wrap up the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in a possible Western Conference Finals. Golden State, one game ahead of Houston at 45-33, wants to reach the No. 6 seed and avoid a first-round series with either the Thunder or the Spurs. As a result, there will be a lot on the line for both teams when they face off in Oakland on Thursday night. The game will be nationally broadcast by TNT at 10:30 p.m. ET.

For both teams, the race for playoff positioning could come down to the last game of the season. The Rockets have the tiebreak on the Warriors due to their 3-1 regular season record against them, so Golden State will need to stay one up on the win column against a Houston team with four winnable games left (vs. Memphis, vs. Sacramento, at Portland, at L.A. Lakers). Oklahoma City split their season series with San Antonio, but they have the tiebreak due to their superior record in the Western Conference.

The most intriguing matchup comes at PG, where Russell Westbrook will face off against Steph Curry, who should be one of his rivals at the position over the next decade. Interestingly enough, despite having a much bigger trophy case, Westbrook is actually younger than Curry. Westbrook has the tendency to let his desire to win an individual duel blind him to the outcome of the game, so if Curry can hit a few long-range bombs on him, it might disrupt the Thunder offense. However, on the other side of the ball, Curry has absolutely no chance of staying in front of the far bigger and more athletic Westbrook.

David Lee, the only Golden State player to make the All-Star team, will be tested in a matchup with Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has a unique combination of length and athleticism at 6'10, 235 pounds, which could pose a problem for Lee's more finesse offensive game. Will he be able to use the pump-fake to free up space for his perimeter jumper or will Ibaka's superior quickness allow him to defend Lee's jumper and his drive? For Lee, who hasn't been in the playoffs in eight seasons in the NBA, this next month will be an opportunity to prove that he really belongs among the upper echelon of PFs.

The Battle of the Sixth Men

No two impending free agents have more on the line than Jarrett Jack and Kevin Martin, the talented but enigmatic sixth men for their respective teams. After bouncing around the NBA at the start of their careers, both have found a home as the top bench weapon on an elite team, but will they be productive enough in the playoffs to merit one more long-term contract? Martin and Jack have been on the fringe of the Sixth Man of the Year conversations for most of the season, but it looks like they will fall short to either J.R. Smith or Jamal Crawford. How will they respond to this unprecedented national spotlight?

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