The Western Conference playoffs are going to be like a crazier version of the news team fight scene from “Anchorman” – you’re going to need a mixture of skill, good fortune and “hard-to-killness” to make it out alive, because there’s proud and dangerous teams coming at you from every direction. And there’s always the chance of the equivalent of Brick throwing a trident through a dude’s heart, since there’ll inevitably be something wacky that happens to shake up the entire scope of things – think Russell Westbrook going down last year. With that in mind, let’s break down the West, starting with the conference quarterfinals.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8). This promises to be a fun four or five games but nothing more than that. As much as Dirk Nowitzki “loves going to war” with this iteration of the Mavs, they just don’t have the defensive capability to make the late game stops necessary to beat the Spurs four times. The Mavs are too proud and offensively gifted to not steal at least one at Dallas’ American Airlines Center, but the Spurs know how to prevent Dirk from going off in a big way, which needs to happen multiple times for Dallas to hang around. Prediction: San Antonio in five games.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7). Quite frankly, this is a series neither team wants to be involved in. After another dominant regular season, the Thunder can’t be happy about drawing the Grizzlies, who own the league’s best record since Marc Gasol’s return from injury in mid-January, while Memphis has to be disappointed that their injury woes depressed their win total such to force them into a matchup with a juggernaut OKC squad. These full-strength Grizzlies, essentially a rich man’s version of the Bulls out East, can bludgeon teams with low-post scoring and defensive prowess, but never fully addressed their outside shooting deficiencies. The Grizzlies should keep every game close and can even steal a few, but have the opposite problem of Dallas – they’ll be extremely challenged to score late in games. Also, this has been Kevin Durant’s year, and that’s not stopping in the first round. Prediction: Oklahoma City in six games.
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6). It’s been quite well-documented that these two teams just plain don’t like each other. While that’s one of the oldest and lamest sports clich?es in the book, it applies heavily here. Despite Andrew Bogut’s absence which marginally scales down the tension, I’m still placing the over-under on scuffles per game at 2.5. The loss of Bogut also forces the Warriors to go small, which could actually allow for a more free-flowing offense and better ball movement, despite somewhat exposing what has been an elite defense with Bogut on the floor. Golden State was a hot wild-card title pick at the start of the season, but had so many ups and downs this year that some people have called them a disappointment to the point of questioning coach Mark Jackson’s job status. Some of that is fair, but Golden State was fortunate to get it together down the stretch to not only hang on to a playoff spot but to avoid playing Oklahoma City or San Antonio. Also, their starting unit was one of the best rated in the league. Their bench units unfortunately were some of the worst, but a playoff minutes tilt towards the starters could leverage that gap. For the Clips, the veteran reinforcements haven’t really contributed and they are still a little undermanned at the backup wing and backup big spots. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are going to need big series, which is likely, but they’re also going to need Redick and Crawford to go off a couple of times, who have the capability to put up points in bunches they’ll need to keep up with the Splash Brothers. Blake Griffin staying out of foul trouble will be key, where he has the potential to overwhelm David Lee on the block. This will be an extremely close series, more than people are projecting, but I give the slight nod to Golden State in what is essentially a coin flip. Prediction: Golden State in seven games.
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5). Like defense? This series isn’t for you. But it’s for just about everyone else, where the combined point totals should be hovering around 220 every game, in what should be an offensive slugfest. Both teams are elite offensively, but only middle-of-the-pack on the other side of the ball and will likely be shooting three pointers at eye-popping rates. On some level, things might shake down to James Harden/Dwight Howard v. Lamarcus Aldridge/Damian Lillard, but I think the latter two pose more matchup problems, where the Rockets don’t have much of an answer for Aldridge at the four spot. Really though, the matchup is quite even – I don’t quite understand why Houston is such a trendy title pick and Portland is getting no love whatsoever. Certainly their two hot streaks were diametrically opposed, but this is a dangerous Portland team, with a knack for late game heroics and an insane home crowd – they’re a one-sport, major league town. This will be every bit the dogfight of Clippers/Warriors, if not more so. Prediction: Portland in seven games.
The Rest of the Way: Who wins the West may come down to which team is the healthiest, freshest and luckiest in regards to matchups. To some degree, you make your own luck with matchups, which is certainly true in the case of San Antonio, who has a favorable draw in Dallas and then potentially Houston or Portland. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been carefully watching his stars’ minutes all year to ensure their health and stamina come this time of year. Still, the Spurs squeezed out 62 wins thanks to seemingly limitless depth that saw players like Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli shining when given extended minutes. The Spurs have depth at every position such that they can match up with anyone, but are especially poised to pick apart weaker defenses with elite pick and roll play and sharpshooters everywhere.
Kevin Durant is having such an insane year that he should be given the benefit of the doubt to carry the Thunder to the conference finals, regardless of who they match up with in the next round, especially with Westbrook by his side this time around. The problem is that San Antonio could realistically play two comfortable five-game series, while Oklahoma City is going to likely have to go through two rock fights/bloodbaths/trench wars to make it to the conference finals. While they should be game, such a path will undoubtedly leave them at a serious disadvantage against the Spurs, who should be better able to deal with OKC than at times during the regular season with Kawhi Leonard presumably healthy and able to guard Durant, and no back-to-back games that wear down the Spurs’ senior citizens. Both teams have a deserved chip on their shoulder, but something tells me the Spurs have one final, redemptory chapter to write in their storied history.
Contact Pete Koehler at [email protected]