OKLAHOMA CITY – The hype machine for the previously-underdog Oklahoma City Thunder only continues to grow.
Three years – and a Western Conference Finals appearance – after OKC was on pace for the worst record in NBA history, many are picking the Thunder with confidence to win the West this season.
All eyes both in Oklahoma City and elsewhere will be on the league's most exciting young team for much of the upcoming season (if there is one).
It's nearly impossible to watch all 82 games for a team during the year, but here are five must-see games for the upcoming 2011-12 Thunder season.
Nov. 1 @ Los Angeles Lakers
There is one main reason this is a must-watch game: If it actually takes place, it will be a miracle. A full 82-game season doesn't look likely this year in the midst of an unyielding lockout. If some sort of agreement happened in the next couple of months and a full season did occur, the ratings for this opening night game would be through the roof. People would be so excited about having real NBA basketball that it would be more of an opening-night celebration than just an interesting game between two superior West teams.
Dec. 31 vs. Phoenix Suns
The Oklahoma City Thunder have never lost a New Year's Eve game. OK, so OKC has only played three New Year's Eve games – all at home – but it has won them all. This year's game is at the Oklahoma City Arena once again, and the festivities in Bricktown to go along with the game should be better than ever. There's nothing that makes a big-league city like watching a professional sports team win and then flooding downtown afterward to celebrate.
March 5 vs. Dallas
It's only fitting to put a rematch game against the team who eliminated the Thunder last year on this list. The only thing that makes any given matchup against the Mavericks a little anti-climactic is that there are four of them this upcoming season. The first matchup between the two teams (Nov. 5) would be a good chance to see how both teams have progressed since last year, but it might not happen. The final matchup of the season could have plenty on the line, including who holds the tiebreaker in a tight Western Conference seedings race.
March 25 vs. Miami Heat
While many experts are picking the Thunder to come out of the West this upcoming season, it's hard to bet against the Miami Heat in the East. Using that deductive reasoning, it's safe to label Oklahoma City's late-March home game against the Heat a "potential Finals matchup." Last season, the Thunder took down the Heat in Miami in front of a national audience on a Sunday afternoon. This year's matchup between the teams will be only on NBATV, but it's hard to imagine a more exciting contest that would take precedence over it for ratings purposes.
April 9 @ Denver
The Thunder finish the season with what should be five wins – against the Clippers twice, Kings, T-Wolves and Suns. So this game against the Nuggets could play a huge part in Northwest Division supremacy. Pick up a win against Denver here and the Thunder will not only have an upper hand in the playoff tiebreakers, but also in the division standings. OKC is poised to dominate the Northwest Division for years to come and a tough road game against the Nuggets as the season winds down could be pivotal in a shot at back-to-back division titles.