(1) Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. (8) Houston Rockets (45-37)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Thunder
If we forced James Harden to be completely candid, he’d probably admit that although his Rockets match-up horribly with the Thunder, he’s actually quite happy to get the chance to stick it to his old team. And really, after Harden’s 46-point explosion in the 3rd game of their regular season series, this is a match-up that everyone should be happy to see.
There aren’t too many 60-win teams in NBA history that have been the subject of more debate, and been criticized more frequently than the Thunder—Charles Barkley doesn’t even want to see this team make the Finals. Usually, if you win 60 games, you’re lauded as a great team, end of story. But the Thunder are divisive. The Westbrook-Durant dynamic is still questioned—Westbrook takes shots away from Durant and needs to defer more etc. etc.—and many doubt whether a team that predominantly creates off the dribble, and takes as many jump-shots as OKC does, can beat Miami. And here’s the thing: they probably can’t beat Miami, but they’re still the best in the West, and a very good team at that.
While the Rockets may not be a very good team, they fall into the category of a good team with tons of promise. Harden’s arrival turned a potential lottery side into the playoff team they are now, but there’s more to the Rockets that just The Beard. Second-year man Chandler Parsons has chipped in with great secondary scoring—both as a catch and shoot man off Harden’s penetration, and off the dribble himself—while Jeremy Lin is proving that although the heady days of Linsanity are over, he’s a very competent NBA player. Importantly, coach Kevin McHale has the Rockets playing to their strengths: they’re young and athletic, so they play a high octane, run-and-gun style with a ‘you score 115 we’ll score 120’ philosophy.
To win the series the Rockets will have to hope that OKC has a few sub-par games, but even if they do, Houston will still have to execute to perfection. Their success this year has been predicated on moving the ball and raining down shots from beyond the arc. If they can stretch OKC’s defense, moving Ibaka and Perkins away from the paint, they can steal games in this series.
Houston strengths—youth, athleticism, speed, and an elite scorer—are mitigated by those of OKC. The Thunder possess all of that, plus, have two elite scorers themselves in Westbrook and Durant. The Thunder are young enough to run with the Rockets and also have great shooters—Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Martin, and of course, Durant. What’s more, aside from Omer Asik, Houston struggles at the defensive end. Thunder in 5.
(2) San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Spurs
It’s hard to believe that the Los Angeles Lakers, after all the turmoil—the coaching changes, the in-fighting, the injuries, the overall ineptitude—now find themselves with the 7th seed, and in a series that many believe they can win. Just a couple months ago they looked destined to miss the playoffs entirely. And it’s equally hard to believe that the Spurs, a team that looked infallible for much of the season, is now looking very mortal, with injuries and a lack of form dogging them as they head into the post-season.
But perhaps the Spurs have us right where the want us. The injuries are very real, of course—Parker is less than 100%, Ginobli might be less than 50%, and Boris Diaw just had back surgery—but Popovich might be able to take advantage of a ‘backs to the wall’, ‘nobody believes in us’ mentality for the post-season. And really, writing off this Spurs team, particularly in the first-round, seems a little crazy. A Tony Parker at 75% is still a pretty decent player, while Tim Duncan has been having a First-Team All-NBA-type season—incredible at his age. What’s more, San Antonio has other guys who can step up and play big, particularly Danny Green and the uber-talented Kawhi Leonard. Let’s not write this team off just yet.
It seems like we’ve written off the Lakers all season—and at times, rightly so—but here they are. Despite their multitude of deficiencies, particularly at the defensive end, the Lakers have remained a somewhat potent offensive team. Admittedly, much of that was down to Kobe’s heroics, but in recent weeks Pau Gasol is back to playing like a multiple All-Star and a guy who demanded a double team in that gold medal game against the Americans. And Dwight Howard, after coasting through much of the season, both on offense and defense, finally seems to have grasped the gravity of the situation and is back to playing, if not at his Orlando best, then edging towards it.
Without Kobe, and with Nash hobbling, the Lakers have no one who can create off the dribble, so contrary to D’Antoni’s natural instincts they’ll have to become an inside-out team. If Gasol and Howard can dominate the Spurs on the glass, and the likes of Jodie Meeks, MWP, and Steve Blake, can hit shots from the outside, they can cause San Antonio problems.
The Lakers will give San Antonio some headaches in the paint, but offense hasn’t been the Lakers problem this year. It’s the other end that’s this problem. They simply can’t defend—they can’t defend the pick-n-roll, they can’t defend in transition, they can’t stop speedy guards driving in the paint. Banged-up or not, with their high I.Q. offense, and ability to stretch the floor, the Spurs will murder the Lakers on offense and win the series. Spurs in 6
(3) Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs. (6) Golden State Warriors (47-35)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Nuggets
Fun. That’s what this series is going to be—high octane, alley-oop dunking, 3-point jacking, breaking out in transition-type fun. In other words, it’s basically going to be the opposite of the Pacers-Hawks series. Just two young teams, with copious amounts of talent on their respective rosters, playing aesthetically pleasing, offense-heavy basketball.
The Nuggets, led by Coach of the Year candidate, George Karl, might be the surprise team of the season. Everyone knew they had talent, but not everyone was sure that that talent could be harnessed in the right way. If the Nuggets had struggled—and they did early on—it would be easy to put it down to not having a real superstar, just a team full of athletic rotation players who would have a hard time playing as a cohesive unit. But the Nuggets have been sensational. The highest scoring team in the league, practically unbeatable at home, they’ve maximized their strengths—speed, athleticism, and a unmatched ability to finish around the rim (no team scores more points in the paint)—with, thanks mainly to Andre Iguodala, some much improved defense. Make no mistake about it, the Nuggets are very dangerous.
For Mark Jackson and the Warriors, making the post-season is an achievement in itself. After witnessing mediocrity year after year—with the exception of 2006/07—Warriors fans will be thrilled to see such a young and exciting team in the Bay Area. The Warriors got off to a hot start this year, and after a mid-season funk, have finished the season strong. David Lee has provided scoring in the paint—he’s been a double-double machine—but the backcourt of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry has stolen the show. Curry in particular, has been spectacular—there isn’t a better shooter in the NBA right now, or a more exciting player to watch.
Although the Nuggets have a lot of very good players—Ty Lawson, Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, among others—they don’t have a genuine superstar. In Steph Curry, the Warriors absolutely do, and he has the potential to drop 50 and win a game on his own. He’s undoubtedly the best player in this series and could be a game-changer.
Home-court advantage is huge for the Nuggets—they just don’t lose at the Pepsi Center—but more than that, they’re just a better all-round team than the Warriors. Even with Danilo Gallinari out, they’re deeper and have more scoring options. And while the Nuggets aren’t exactly Memphis on defense, they’re a lot better than Golden State at that end of the floor. Nuggets in 6
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Clippers
Now this is a series for basketball purists—which translates as: this is going to be an incredibly evenly matched contest, ugly at times, and decided by the smallest of margins. The Clippers and the Grizzlies finished with identical records (the Clippers have home court by virtue of winning the regular season series) and quite frankly they don’t like each other. Chris Paul and Tony Allen don’t like each other, Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph hate each other, and Matt Barnes hates, well, everyone. If last season’s seven games series is any indicator, it’ll once again be a war of attrition between these two teams.
This season was a ground breaking one for the Clippers. They posted the longest winning streak in franchise history; winning 17 straight games (later eclipsed by the Heat’s 27 game winning streak), posted a franchise best 56 wins, and most importantly, won their first ever Pacific Division title. This was the season where the Clippers finally came out of the shadow of their big-brother Lakers, even if the turmoil in Laker-land still averted many people’s gazes. The team was led, once again, by the league’s greatest floor general, Chris Paul. Blake Griffin (although he still has his critics), and Jamal Crawford provided amply secondary scoring, and other members of the rotation—Bledsoe and Barnes, in particular—gave Los Angeles a real spark when they got bogged down in games.
Like the Clippers, the Grizzlies posted a franchise-best 56 wins—the fact that a team can win 56 games and only be a 5th seed speaks volumes about the strength of the Western Conference. Although there was much criticism directed at the front office, even some not-so-subtle criticism from coach Lionel Hollins himself, for the Rudy Gay trade, the Grizzlies are a better team for it. When Gay left for Toronto, Memphis rattled off an impressive winning streak and are now a team with a clear identity—everything runs through Randolph and the fantastic Marc Gasol. They’re big, nasty, and might be the team with the best chance in a 7-game series with the Heat—if they can get out of the West, that is. Offensively the Grizzlies have struggled at times, but if Miami are an offensive machine, Memphis are the defensive version. Gasol is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, while Tony Allen and the much-improved Mike Conley have been a handful on the perimeter for their opposing guards.
If Memphis is going to win this series it will be with their frontcourt weapons, Gasol and Randolph, who will try and make the game ugly and cause havoc for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. If they can dominate the glass, and get timely scoring from Conley, and Jerryd Bayless off the bench, they can grind out a series win.
Memphis are the better team defensively, but the Clippers, like they were last season, are still the more talented group. A lot of pressure will be on Conley to create late in the shot clock, while the Clippers have players who can create off the dribble and score when everything breaks down. Home-court advantage and Chris Paul’s brilliance give them the edge. Clippers in 7.