The Lakers have looked stronger as the playoffs have grown closer. (USA Today Sports)
The Oklahoma City Thunder have clawed their way atop the Western Conference, putting them within reach of securing the conference's top playoff seed and rewarding them with a possible first-round matchup with the … Los Angeles Lakers?
If the Lakers – favored by many before the season to win the West – do qualify for the postseason, they won't be viewed as an ordinary eight seed.
"They would be the scariest eighth seed team in history," Thunder guard Kevin Martin said.
Said Thunder coach Scottie Brooks: "They have as much talent as any eighth seed could ever have."
The reality for the Lakers is they are in a fight with the Utah Jazz for the West's final postseason berth. While they have a one-game lead in the standings, they don't hold the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams. They also face the Golden State Warriors (Friday), San Antonio Spurs (Sunday) and Houston Rockets (Monday) – all at home – for their final three games.
For all their struggles, and there have been many, the Lakers still think they can cause problems in the postseason – if they can just make it there. Typically, the eighth seed is an easy first-round opponent. But these Lakers have the talent to be much stronger, and the Thunder are aware of that.
"They are a championship-level team," Kevin Durant said. "…I guess they are waiting until they get to the playoffs to really show what they are made of."
The Thunder would face the Lakers if the playoffs started Friday, and they shouldn't be worried based on recent results. The Thunder defeated the Lakers 3-1 in the regular-season series. Durant averaged 34.8 points in those four games while guard Russell Westbrook averaged 28.5 points, nine assists and 6.8 rebounds.
Still, as the playoffs have grown near, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard have both raised their games. Bryant is averaging a near triple-double in April with 29.8 points, 8.2 assists and 7.4 rebounds.
"He has that fountain of youth," Durant said. "You can only wish to be that good at 34 [years old] and 17 years in the NBA. He is an inspiration to everybody and playing so well. I'm sure he is going to try to keep it up and will those guys to the playoffs."
Said Brooks: "To see what Kobe is doing is incredible."
That said, the Thunder aren't backing away from the possible challenge that could come with the West's top seed.
"We have to be ready to go no matter who it is if we get that No. 1 spot," said Thunder guard Derek Fisher, who won five championships with the Lakers. "But the Lakers would be a tough out."
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