Round 1- The West

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The balance of power between the two conferences has been fully slanted toward the West since Jordan’s retirement,

and while this type of thing is cyclical in nature, it’s been extreme enough and consistent enough to cause conversation about whether conferences should be eliminated completely, and playoff seeding assigned strictly based on record. While this idea is a bit intriguing, we’re a long way away from it becoming a reality, so it was a relief this year to see that while the top teams in the league were in the West, the East was the stronger conference from top to bottom. One area where the conferences are equal is in the amount of intrigue that the playoffs provide. These teams are going to beat the holy hell out of each other, and it’s going to start from day 1.

Dunk you very much, Blake. 

 

Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets: With their struggles throughout the regular season, it’s easy to forget just how good the Houston Rockets were last year. Steph Curry is the undisputed MVP this year, but it wasn’t as cut and dry last season between him and James Harden. Coming into this season, there were several people who thought the Rockets’ addition of Ty Lawson would add depth and firepower and give them enough to fight Spurs and Warriors for the top seed. Obviously, things didn’t go according to plan. Lawson was an abject disaster, Harden showed up out of shape and they got off to a sluggish start, costing Kevin McHale his coaching job, and pushing Lawson right out of Houston. Harden was justifiably skewered for his lack of early commitment, and his defense will never be anything better than mediocre, but the talent is still there to make this interesting. These two teams really don’t like each other, and have multiple incidents, both on the court and in social media, over the last few years, and sometimes that can be enough to at least keep it competitive. On the flip side, the Warriors have shown that when they’re extra motivated, they have a tendency to destroy people.

Key factor- Impact of Clint Capela and Dwight Howard: Obviously the most important thing in this series is whether Houston can match the intensity and skill level of Golden State on a consistent basis. While I’m skeptical of that happening, the one area Houston may have an advantage is in the post with Clint Capella and Dwight Howard. Howard isn’t the freak of nature he used to be; playing 1000 games between Olympics, regular season and the playoffs will do that to you, but he still has dominant stretches on a game by game basis. When he goes to the bench, Capela has proven that he is more than capable of picking up the slack (7 points and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes per game). Neither one of them can hit a free throw, so there’s a major concern there, and it’ll be difficult for them to remain effective when Golden State goes to their small-ball Lineup of Death, but Memphis showed last year that if your big guys can find a way to be on the floor and not be a liability, the rebounding and post impact can help neutralize a bit of what the Dubs like to do.

Best match-up- Steph Curry vs. Patrick Beverly: One of the biggest disappointments of last years’ Warriors/Rockets encounter was the absence of Patrick Beverly. One of the true underdogs in the NBA, Beverly is in the league because he likes to play defense and doesn’t back down from star players (evidenced by his beef with Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard).  Curry is at a different level than either of those guys in his ability to light you up at any time, and even if he struggles, he’s smart enough to rely on his running mate, Klay Thompson. Beverly plays a gritty, physical style of defense and loves to mix it up with anyone he goes up against. This style doesn’t consistently work against Curry, he’s too clever and tough for that, but it’s been the closest thing to a strategy that anyone has had against him. The only real chance the Rockets have is if Beverly can get in Curry’s head a little bit and maybe, just maybe, hold him down a bit.

Fun thing to watch-Buckets, buckets and more buckets: With both these teams in the top 10 in pace and offensive efficiency, along with the Rockets allergy to defensive effort, we could see some historic levels of scoring. Nobody has ever hit 10 three pointers in a playoff game, and Michael Jordan’s playoff record of 63 points may as well fall too while we’re at it. I don’t know if Curry has the gunner mentality to do it, but Beverly might tick him off enough to make it possible.

My Pick: Even if the Warriors are looking ahead to the 2nd round, they’re too good for the Rockets. Warriors in 4.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies:  If you offered me this match-up at the start of the season, and told me it was in the first round, I would have bemoaned the loss of a quality team in the first round. Sadly, this is not the same Grizzlies team that started the season. Injuries ended the seasons of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and while I love guys like Matt Barnes and Vince Carter, they have no business playing crunch time minutes at this point in their careers. It’s a testament to the coaching and effort level that this team even made the playoffs at all, but what we saw in the last game against the Warriors is a true representation of what they have left.

Key factor- Spurs depth and defense: What makes the Spurs truly remarkable is their ability to not only rebuild their roster on the fly, but to also reshape their identity as they go. As Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have aged, they’ve moved away from their reliance on the drive and kick game toward a spot up and high post based game that plays to the strengths of Kawhi Leonard and Lamarcus Aldridge. When they throw in Danny Green and guys like Kyle Anderson, that’s a whole lot of length and quality athletes to contend with. This led to them leading the league in defensive efficiency by a wide margin, as well as leading the league in bench scoring, bench efficiency and defensive efficiency by bench players. It’s awfully hard to poke holes in this roster, since they have depth at every position, and it really is a tribute to the long-term planning they’ve used over the last twenty years.

Best match-up- Tim Duncan vs. Zach Randolph: This battle has the feel of two old lions who know that their time in the sun is coming to an end. Duncan is a physical marvel; his ability to function as a top defender and passer without being able to bend his knees is truly amazing, but this year showed that he’s dangerously close to the end of the line. He’s not able to play big minutes on a back to back basis, and when he does play, he’s not quite the same guy anymore. On the other side, the injuries suffered by Memphis put the impetus on Z-Bo to provide more scoring than they expected to need from him this season, and he was more than capable of answering that call. 14 years and 17,000 points into his career, Z-Bo still can’t jump over a phone book, but his toughness and guile makes him a worthy foil for Timmy in this series. Like I said, it’s a shame we don’t get to see this Grizzlies roster at full strength; a Gasol/Randolph vs. Duncan/Diaw/Aldridge matchup would be an absolute delight. The only consolation is that we still get to watch these two wily vets go at it.

Fun thing to watch- Grizzlies mentally unstable lineup:  There’s a standard rule in roster building that you only have one crazy guy per team. Luckily for us, the Grizzlies broke that rule by employing Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. There are times during the game that all four of those men could be playing at the same time, albeit in a very strange lineup, and that level of crazy is borderline must see TV. You never know when Barnes will try to fight somebody, Stephenson will try to dunk from the foul line or Tony Allen will make someone cry, and I for one, do not want to miss it.

My Pick: The Grizz deserve all the credit in the world for even getting here, but this is a historically great Spurs team that won’t get caught looking ahead to round 2. Too much defense, and too much Kawhi Leonard. Spurs in 5.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Dallas Mavericks:  This offseason was one of the most entertaining in recent memory. There was a ton of player movement, loads of gigantic contracts and the most famous “signing, non-signing” in recent memory. The Mavericks thought they had locked Deandre Jordan into a 4 year maximum salary contract before Jordan had a change of heart and went back to the Clippers. With the team in full scramble mode, they were forced to salvage what they could by finalizing their signing of Wes Mattews and trading for Zaza Pachulia. While Matthews is a valuable piece, even coming off an injury, Pachulia was essentially a bench player for most of his career. Apparently something in the Dallas air agreed with Zaza and he gave them a career year, posting the 17th best Defensive Real Plus-Minus in the league and averaging 9 boards a game. There’s little to say about OKC that hasn’t been said. Russell Westbrook is an alien, and Kevin Durant is the best pure scorer I’ve ever watched.

Key factor-Mavs fatigue and OKC’s speed: As Zaza and Dirk sputtered toward the finish line, Dallas shifted their strategy to a drastically slowed down pace and squeezed every possession for all it was worth. After consistently finishing in the top-10 in offensive pace over the years, the Mavs slowed down to 23rd in the league while maintaining a top 10 efficiency rate. Across the court, the Thunder used their overwhelming athleticism to post a top-10 pace, along with the 2nd best efficiency in the league. There are serious depth issues on this team, but when you have 2 of the 6 best players in the world, it covers a lot of flaws. Dallas’ head coach, Rick Carlisle is one of the best at neutralizing a team’s strengths, so the pressure is on him and his staff to counteract the Thunder attack.

Best matchup-Russell Westbrook vs. The World:  The triple double is an impressive thing, albeit a bit overrated in some circumstances, but what Westbrook did this season was ridiculous. His 18 triple-doubles were the most in the last 30 years, and while his defense isn’t as good as his reputation (he gambles for too many steals), he’s still a very capable defender for his position. Despite all the praise for him, Westbrook will probably find some way to get bothered by a perceived slight before this series starts. With walking corpses Raymond Felton and Deron Williams covering him, we might see Westbrook average a triple double for the series. I love watching Dirk and the Mavs, but I also love greatness, so I’ll be rooting for someone to tick Russell off.

Fun thing to watch-Dirk Nowtizki’s old man game:  I appreciate all that Kobe Bryant did in the NBA, but it’s appalling to me just how little we cover Dirk Nowitzki as he winds down his career. While Kobe was sabotaging his team’s cap space and putting up historically bad numbers, Dirk averaged 18 points and 6 boards on a contract that is well below market value. His defense has slipped a bit from it’s already mediocre levels, but it’s not for lack of effort. When you’re 7 feet tall and 37 years old, you have to pick your spots. I’m not the first to say this, but I hope that Dirk finds a rec league somewhere and just destroys people with his fade away jumper until he’s 70 years old.

My Pick:  I love Dirk, and Rick Carlisle is brilliant, but this Mavs team is out of gas coming into the playoffs. I think OKC knows that they’ve only got a couple runs left and are probably tired of (in their minds) getting overlooked. Motivated, more skilled and more energetic is a bad combo to run into. Thunder in 5

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Portland Trailblazers: When LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland for the lucrative pastures in San Antonio, just about everyone pegged the ‘Blazers for the lottery and a long rebuild. GM Kevin Pritchard and superstar Damian Lillard had other ideas. Portland reloaded with mid tier players like Ed Davis and Al Farouq Aminu along with trade acquisitions of Mason Plumlee and Gerald Henderson. None of those guys is a game breaker by any means, but all of them have contributed to an excellent team effort that combined with Lillard’s excellence and CJ McCollum’s leap en route to a surprising 44 wins. Much like the Thunder core may be running out of time together, there are rumblings within the Clippers organization that if this team doesn’t make a run this year, big changes could be coming. This isn’t a new group anymore, and Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger. The combo of Griffin, Paul and Jordan is outstanding to watch, but they’re an expensive and flawed trio that don’t always complement each other on the floor. Doc Rivers didn’t leave Boston to rebuild, so any move would be a win now decision. In any case, the pressure is on in Los Angeles. 

Key factor-Blake Griffin’s Conditioning:  This has been the year from hell for Blake Griffin. Right when he was coming back from a lower body injury, he punched his friend and shattered his shooting hand, limiting him to 35 games played this season. He just returned from his injury and suspension this last week, and is clearly still working his way back into shape. The team learned to play without him this year while relying on increased production from JJ Redick and Jeff Green,  and they obviously did well without him, but doing well isn’t enough. If they’re going to make their long-desired playoff run, they need him to be in shape and to dominate when he’s out there. Anything less than a superstar performance from Griffin leads to another early exit.

Best Matchup- Chris Paul vs. Dame Lillard:  It’s a commonly known rule that you never screw with the tiny tough guy in a fight, and both Paul and Lillard live that out every time they walk on the floor. Paul was passed over by multiple teams in the NBA draft and has carried that chip on his shoulder ever since. He’s a domineering, physically intimidating bully of a player who drives his teammates mercilessly, but so were Magic, Bird and Jordan. Despite a lack of significant playoff success, it’s impossible to overrate Paul’s achievements. His level of play this season, without Blake, was a thing of beauty and should land him a top-5 MVP finish. Unlike Paul, Lillard didn’t get major college offers.  He ended up at tiny Weber State where he abused inferior competition before being drafted 6th overall in 2012. Even then, people wondered whether he could step up to the competition, and despite his stellar offensive numbers, his exclusion from the All-Star Game has become an annual tradition. There are legitimate flaws in his game (notably a lack of defense), but he’s one of the most explosive scorers alive, and a legitimate B.A. who will do anything to win. There’s almost nothing more fun than watching two highly skilled and highly competitive guys fight it out, and I’m thrilled to death to see it happen.

 

Fun thing to watch-Portland’s home crowd:  The sports fans in Portland are as good and devoted as any in sports. Bill Simmons affectionately refers to them as “Soccer Moms” due to their devotion and anger at any perceived disrespect toward their teams. Thanks in part to the lack of other major sports franchises, the Blazers are all the city has, and after some dark days in the mid 2000’s, the love for the team is back. The fans are thrilled to death to witness a winner again, and are sure to pack the arena and bring the house down with every big play.

 

My pick: I love watching the Blazers Frankenstein’s Monster of a team jack up shots and bust their butts all game, and I also love the explosiveness of the Clippers’ offense, so I really hope this goes 7 games. L.A. is definitely the better team, and I think they’ll find a way to at least slow down Lillard. He’s too much of a stud to get completely shut down ,though, and he and McCollum will help to make things tough. Clippers in 7 

 

I’ve said it before, but the playoffs are the reward for paying attention to long seasons. The pressure ratchets up, the skill level rises and the drama increases ten-fold. Thanks to the media coverage we have now, you don’t have to miss a moment if you don’t want to. I know I’ll be watching and hoping for the next amazing moment. I Love This Game. 

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