Friday, April 19, 2013

2013 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference, First Round

The Western Conference as a whole is far better than the Eastern Conference. That being said, I don't expect any first round upsets in the West, as the top four are just too good. The Thunder are looking to get back to the NBA Finals, and just like last season, right there with them is the San Antonio Spurs. The Denver Nuggets are unstoppable at home, so if they can win some games on the road in the playoffs, they can make some noise. The Clippers are hoping to take a step further and get past the Second Round this season. Memphis is a dangerous team, while Golden State is probably a year or two away from being a serious playoff contender. The Lakers are without Kobe Bryant but still have a lot of talent at their disposal and are playing very good basketball right now. The Rockets will likely just be pushovers, as they don't have enough pieces yet to truly contend.

#1 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. #8 Houston Rockets (45-37)

The Thunder traded away James Harden and seemingly got better. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to be two of the best players in the game, while new acquisition Kevin Martin seemed to transition to the team seamlessly. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins remain beasts inside, giving the Thunder one of the most fearsome inside, outside combinations in the NBA. Thabo Sefolosha isn't a flashy player like his fellow teammates, but a good glue guy to have.

The Rockets were the second highest scoring team in the NBA, with James Harden savoring the role of being the alpha male. Jeremy Lin may never recapture Linsanity but he is a solid point guard, albeit one that is still too careless with the ball. That is the Rockets biggest detriment, is sloppiness when it comes to possessions on offense. Chandler Parsons showed tremendous strides in his second season and is the Rockets number two option on offense. Even Omer Asik, a free agent whom I thought they paid way too much for, showed that with some real minutes he could be a solid big man.

This will be an entertaining series and you know Harden will be jazzed up to try to oust his former team. The Rockets have a nice collection of decent players, but they don't have anywhere near the talent that the Thunder have. Their lack of defense and penchant for turnovers will be their undoing and the reason I think the Thunder can dispose of them in five games.

Prediction: Thunder over Rockets, 4-1

#4 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. #5 Memphis (56-26)

Lob City rolled their way to their first ever division title and most wins in franchise history. The Clippers backcourt is electrifying with the scoring and passing of Chris Paul, and the never afraid to shoot Jamal Crawford. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan give the Clips an imposing inside presence and Griffin remains a beast on the glass and on the offensive end. Caron Butler isn't what he once was but he still good for about 10 points a night. Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe, and Lamar Odom give the Clippers some bench options.

The Grizzlies traded away their leading scorer in the middle of the year, and seemingly got better. They officially became Zach Randolph's team, with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley also providing major contributions. The Grizzlies are the best defensive team on basketball with Randolph, Gasol, and Tony Allen making things a nightmare for opposing offenses. Case in point would be the final game of the season, where the Utah Jazz could only muster 70 points in a must win against Memphis.

This series is a rematch from last year's first round, which memorably went 7 games. The Grizzlies can't score with the Clippers so their defense will be what keeps them in this series. The battles between Randolph and Gasol versus Griffin and Jordan will be physical and bruising. I think the Clippers advantage at the guard positions, especially offensively will be the difference. You can only stop someone like Chris Paul so much.

Prediction: Clippers over Grizzlies, 4-2

#2 San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)

It seems like for years people have been saying that the Spurs were too old to compete and each year they just go out and win 50+ games. They overcame injuries at different points in the year to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, while Tim Duncan played with a renewed energy. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal have been the youthful contributors for the team, giving San Antonio a perfect mix of veterans and youth.

The Lakers season was a soap opera. The lineup they thought they would have of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard hardly ever materialized. They all went down with injuries and missed games at some point, and now Bryant is out for the playoffs. Nash is still hurting but is hoping to return for the playoffs, although who knows how much he will add. The Lakers are going to go as far as Gasol and Howard take them. It will also help if guys like Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks step up like they did in the Lakers final two regular season games without Bryant. Antawn Jamison is another guy that can provide some scoring off the bench.

For the Lakers to pull off the upset Howard will have to be the beast he was in Orlando, and the Lakers will have to continue to play the type of defense that carried them into the playoffs. The Spurs are exactly they type of matchup they wanted, as teams like the Thunder and Nuggets would just run their old veterans off the court. The Spurs have some youth but are old in key positions. However, I just can't pick the Lakers. They are 28-12 in their last 40 games, but I don't trust their defense, and I don't trust them to sweep the Spurs at home and steal a game on the road. I do think they can take the Spurs seven games, and make Gregg Popovich and company sweat.

Prediction: Spurs over Lakers, 4-3

#3 Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State Warriors (47-35)

If you are all about basketball that is offense and very little defense, then this is the series for you. Both teams averaged over 100 points per game and both gave up over 100 points per game. The injury bug has hit Denver at the wrong time. First, they lost Danilo Gallinari for the season, and then Kenneth Faried was injured. On the bright side, Faried should play in this series, although it is not yet known if he will be available for Game 1. The Nuggets are Ty Lawson's team, as he led them in scoring and assists. Wilson Chandler has stepped up in a major way since Gallinari went down. Andre Iguodala is also playing his best basketball of the season and seems to be finding his scoring touch. Andre Miller, JaVale McGee and Corey Brewer are some of the reliable substitutions that George Karl has at his disposal.

Steph Curry truly arrived this season and carried the Warriors to the playoffs. Curry set a record for most made three pointers in a season and shot an absurd 45% from three point range. David Lee finally remained healthy and combined with rookie Harrison Barnes to give the Warriors stability at the forward position. The middle has been a different story, with Andrew Bogut battling injuries, thrusting rookie Festus Ezeli into a prominent role. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry see the most time for the Warriors out of their bench players.

I would be shocked if any game between these teams finishes with at least one team scoring under 100. This will be some fun basketball to watch and almost a throwback to the 80s. I think the biggest difference in this series will be experience. This will be new to a lot of the Warriors players and that could lead to some nerves and feelings of being overwhelmed. Many of the Nuggets have been through this and will know what to expect. The Warriors just strike me as a team of the future and not a team ready to make a run just yet.

Prediction: Nuggets over Warriors, 4-1


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