(1) San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Regular Season Series: 4-0 Spurs
Both of these teams are no strangers to each other as they have faced off many times in the postseason in recent years, and it appears that they will be doing the Texas two-step in the Lonestar State once again. San Antonio shows its guts and glory through age and wisdom, while the Mavs rode off into the sunset awaiting the post-season when it was seen for the most part as a foregone conclusion that they wouldn’t make it in the first place. Nonetheless, the storied rivalry between these squads will continue.
Over the past decade, we have been reminded several times never to count the Spurs out. How many times have fans criticized the Spurs for their lack of youth and flash, or for sticking to the same old predictable game plan? While this is more or less the reality of the situation, it is also a fact that those same criticisms are what have brought them their acclaim. Being one of nine teams with a championship win within the last 30 years, and three during the 2000s, the Spurs are arguably the most consistent team of the last decade. They have never missed the postseason once, even taking the Miami Heat (the defending champions at the time) to a grueling seven game series just last year. Many will argue that the Spurs could have won that series in game six had it not been for a crucial coaching error with 28 seconds left on the clock, but that’s another argument for another article. Nonetheless, the Spurs have yet again regained the NBA’s best record and look to capitalize all the way till June.
By all accounts, the Mavs weren’t even supposed to be in the playoff picture. Dirk’s scoring isn’t where it used to be ever since his championship season, the acquisition of Ellis was looked at with more skepticism than anything and the roster’s aging. Despite all that, they’ve found a way to power through the ever-difficult Western Conference with the productive backcourt of Ellis and Jose Calderon, plus off-the-bench scoring from Vince Carter, who is sure to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate by season’s end.
San Antonio has one of the league’s most productive benches in the league with sharp-shooting play from Marco Belinelli, floor-stretching ability from Matt Bonner, wing-defending from Austin Daye, as well as youth and experience from Cory Joseph and Manu Ginobili, respectively. It’ll be a tall task for Dallas’ bench to answer to. As for the Mavs, while Ellis and Calderon have been producing on offense, their defense is horrendous. Westbrook, Jackson and Jeremy Lamb all have the ability to create their own off the dribble from anywhere on court. History has shown that Calderon’s lateral agility is nowhere near the level of today’s NBA guards. If he gets lured towards the baseline, that’s almost a guaranteed bucket for the opposition.
Prediction: Spurs in 6
Dallas has proven in past years that they can hang with the Spurs, but this season they weren’t able to squeeze out a win against their Texas counterparts. The playoffs are a different beast however, and they will prove that with gutsy efforts from Dirk and Ellis, as well as off-the-bench scoring from Carter. However, these are the Spurs we’re talking about, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from them over the past decade, it’s to never count them out—ever!
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs (7) Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Thunder
Revenge. Sweet , bitter revenge. That is what the Thunder have been fixated on for the past year, and with the resurgence of Kevin Durant as the league’s premier scorer and the return of Russell Westbrook, the Thunder will be poised to do damage. Let’s not count out Memphis however. They were one series away from the NBA Finals, something that many people thought was stolen from the Thunder. These two have dueled in recent years during the post-season, and their contrasting styles of high-octane transition scoring vs. half-court pound-the-rock-in-the-paint scoring will make for an interesting clash and contrast.
OKC is a team on a mission to cement themselves as elites, and KD is prepared to go through hell and high water to do it. With Westbrook out at the beginning of the season, many were worried that OKC would get off to a rocky start, but it was in fact the total opposite as KD was able to shoulder the burden with a stellar supporting cast that included the post-defensive specialist, Serge Ibaka, wing defender Thabo Sefolosha and the emergence of Westbrook’s back up, Reggie Jackson. Staying true to their high-octane, run-and-gun style of offense with the defense to back it up, OKC is a legitimate threat to win the Western Conference.
Memphis is a team that has gone through their share of difficulties since last season. They went from competing for a spot in the NBA finals, to fighting for their lives to secure the eight-spot. Should they secure it, they’ll face a Spurs team that they are well familiar with. Playing with a similar half court style to that of their Western Conference counterparts, look for them to use their bigs to their advantage as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are much more physically-imposing than Tim Duncan at his current age. However, Duncan has a more advanced cerebral approach than the aforementioned players. The point guard matchup between Mike Conley and Tony Parker is sure to be entertaining as always as well. Memphis may be an eight seed, but they’re an eight seed in the Western Conference, so an upset is not completely out of the question (as they’ve proven three years prior).
Athleticism will play a huge role in this series. If OKC can force Memphis to play its style of run-and-gun basketball, Memphis will not stand a chance. OKC also possesses forwards who can both play in the paint and get out on the run as well, which bodes well for big bodies like Randolph and Gasol. Courtney Lee and Jared Bayless will be the only players on the second unit who will consistently match that level of play, but the options start looking thinner beyond them.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
While Memphis has the hunger to fight, OKC’s resolve is much stronger. KD is having his best season yet, and it appears that he hasn’t even come close to reaching his ceiling. James Harden’s trade came as a shock that the team never truly recovered from last season. Now that Westbrook is healthy and their bench is consistently putting up the numbers, OKC looks like a favorite to contend for the title.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs. (6) Golden State Warriors (51-31)
Regular Season Series: 2-2 Clippers tied with Warriors
Forget the hardwood, someone needs to call up Vince McMahon to get these guys in a ring. The matches that these two teams have had with one another all year have been nothing short of entertaining. Drama, excitement, tension, animosity—all the ingredients you need for a good old-fashioned rivalry, and arguably one of the best going on in today’s NBA. I mean, they came to blows on Christmas Day, for goodness sake. Who fights during a Christmas game? This will be the most exciting first-round series that is sure to draw in more than a few casual fans based on the vignettes the major networks will certainly have prepared to illustrate just how much animosity the teams have between them.
The Clippers have a huge Ms. Vickie’s chip on their shoulder. They’re tired of being called “Lob City,” they’re tired of being criticized for not playing defence and, most importantly, Blake Griffin is tired of being called “soft.” All of that has seemingly changed with the hiring of Coach Doc Rivers in the offseason. Their defensive numbers have risen, which has given the team a new culture exceeding a glorified And-1 pickup squad. Blake Griffin has shown that you can no longer poke the bear and get away with it. Even with the absence of Chris Paul during mid-season, Griffin picked up the slack and has entered his name in the MVP race. That’s not even counting the additions of Danny Granger and Glen Davis, who have contributed some much-needed depth to the Clippers’ bench.
Golden State hasn’t looked too golden this year. Due to the lofty expectations of the squad early in the season, many pundits feel they haven’t performed. Still, you cannot ignore that the sharpshooting duo of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are among the best, with three-point percentages well above forty. Andre Iguodala is still one of the league’s best wing defenders, and the combo of David Lee and Andrew Bogut has proven to be the toughest four-five pair this season.
A year ago, if you were to count out LA’s Chris Paul, a victory over Lob City would have been taken for granted. However, this year that won’t always be the case. The X-factor will come down to how well LA will defend against three-pointers, the Clippers’ main tool on offence. If the Clippers’ found themselves stripped of their goal-making abilities from outside the arc, they’d be easy pickings for LA.
Predictions: Clippers in 7
There will be blood. There will be technical fouls. There will be ejections. There will be fines. This is going to be an all-out war, and this series will be a shining example of what NBA playoff drama is all about. These teams hate each other, and for one to get a win over the other would be almost as gratifying as holding up the title. When the smoke has cleared and the ashes have settled, LA will walk out of the trenches as the victors.
(4) Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Rockets
On paper, these two teams look evenly-matched, but Houston has always had Portland’s number throughout the season. One thing they two teams do share in common is a lack of defense. In all four meetings this year, both squads have dropped more than a hundred respectively, including a forty-point burst from James Harden in a 118-113 victory in overtime. As for the Blazers, their only win against Houston came in a 111-104 victory after Lamarcus Aldridge exploded for 31 points and a career-high 25 rebounds. It’s clear that each team’s main pieces have to be firing on all cylinders in order to solidify a win.
Houston’s season started off with some controversy. After Dwight Howard’s nasty divorce with the Lakers, he landed in Houston, which prompted Omer Asik to request a trade. Not wanting to play second fiddle to D12 created unneeded tension between the teammates, but they have somehow been able to pull through. D12 is averaging a solid 18 and 12, while James Harden is arguably the best shooting guards in the NBA going forward.
Portland has had similar issues heading into the season, as Aldridge himself requested a trade before the season even started. Then, out of nowhere, Damian Lillard exploded onto the scene as yet another elite, new-age point guard to be reckoned with. That led to winning more games, which put a cease to trade rumors surrounding Aldridge.
There are two actually, one from each side to be exact. On Houston’s end, you have questionable free throw shooting. Houston is one of the lowest-ranked teams in that category at just 71 per cent, with Howard “contributing” to that figure at 54 per cent on his end. With Portland, the issue has to be their health. Aldridge went down with a back contusion that put him out of action for a number of weeks. Without that anchor in the post, it will be a grueling task to get past the Rockets.
Predictions: Rockets in 7
In order for one of these team to advance, they’ll have to heavily exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. Putting Howard at the line must be a priority for Houston. Likewise, pounding Aldridge in the paint will be a key to victory for the Trail Blazers. Lillard should have no problem blowing Lin’s suspect defense, but the same can be said of Harden, who has been lights out for the entire season series. This series will go down to the wire. Simply put, whoever has more ammo left in their rounds will move on to the next showdown.