Now that the seeding is complete, it’s hard not to look at the Western Conference Playoffs bracket and not be excited. All four series have great storylines, different styles of play, and marquee matchups, which makes for a memorable post-season.
The first round starts with the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder facing off against the Houston Rockets, who were bumped down to the eighth seed on the final day of the season. This one starts off with a huge storyline: James Harden facing off against his former teammates. Harden has proved that he is in fact a superstar, and will be looking to show up the Thunder after they traded him away without batting an eye.
The regular season games were one-sided in the Thunder’s favor (2-1, with the wins being blowouts), but everyone knows that the playoffs change teams. Expect this series to have tighter games, but with the Thunder winning with ease. Kevin Durant’s length is too difficult to guard and the same goes for Russell Westbrick’s, whoops, I meant Westbrook’s, speed. Throw in the league’s ninth best defense and you easily predict how a well-rounded team will beat a one-dimensional one. I’m going to take the Thunder in five games.
The next series bears recognition in the longevity of greatness that these two teams have shared. The San Antonio Spurs go head to head with the Lakers in this battle that would’ve been a classic clash 10 years ago. However, things have changed, most notably with the absence of Kobe Bean Bryant. Two weeks ago, I was confident that the Lakers would take the Spurs down in a seven-game series. Now I think the Spurs can win it in five. The Lakers have no perimeter threat outside of Steve Nash, and he might miss the first game. Pau Gasol and Dwight had strong outings to close the season and help the Lakers get back in, but those two could only go so far. Tim Duncan seems rejuvenated this season and has put up his best numbers since 2009, and he will make life difficult for Dwight and the “other” Gasol. The Lakers were already awful defensively and that was with Kobe. Perimeter defense will be a tough problem to solve for the Lakers, as they have to deal with the speed of Tony Parker and the quick perimeter passing of the Spurs. Like I said, missing Kobe’s absence will be huge. Spurs ease into the second round going 4-1.
The most exciting series for basketball fans will be the Warriors and Nuggets one. The Nuggets were dealt a huge blow when Danilo Gallinari went down with an ACL tear. But the Nuggets unveiled their depth by giving more minutes to Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer and rookie Evan Fournier. All three have been playing well, and it’s scary. What the Warriors do have in their favor is that the Nuggets were the 26th ranked 3-point shooting team and with Gallinari, their biggest three-point threat, down, it should be easier to defend them (theoretically). Gallinari was often a factor in the regular season against the Warriors, averaging about 20 points a game against them and creating mismatches with his height.
The Warriors had a slump in the middle of the season but they closed fairly well. Their defense will need to step up in a big way for them to go past the first round. They were weak everywhere on the floor, except for when Andrew Bogut came back from his injury. Bogut improved the unit almost by himself, yet the Warriors shouldn’t lean on him too heavily to clean up their mess especially if they want to make it to the next round. The Warriors offense is good enough to keep them in games, but as the saying goes, “defense wins championships” and the Dubs really need to take that to heart. Warriors win it seven, thanks to David Lee and Stephen Curry keeping their men in front of them.
The final matchup in the Western Conference Playoffs will be an absolute slugfest between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies, two teams that are pretty similar in philosophy. The Clippers boast the 4th best defense in the league but the Grizzlies are owners of the top ranking defensively. Both teams feature incredibly big frontcourts but the Clippers own the more athletic pair. Also, both teams feature two absolute floor generals that run their respective offenses in Mike Conley and Chris Paul.
After trading away Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince mid-season, the Grizzlies somehow became an even better team. Memphis’s stifling defense shuts down opponents completely, while their offense is built on long possessions by grinding their opponents down physically.
The Clippers slowed down after the All-Star break, but before that, they were absolute juggernauts. They have the league’s deepest bench that allows them to play 11 players in their rotations, and all this is possible by players like such as Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Grant Hill. That kind of depth can only help a team in the playoffs, especially if Caron Butler or Chauncey Billups have a bad shooting night. If it wasn’t for the Warriors and Nuggets, I would say this would be the first round’s best matchup. Common sense is telling me to take the Clippers in 6 games, but my gut is telling me that the Grizzlies will suffocate them to submission in Game 7.