Monday, May 6, 2013

2013 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference Semi-Finals

It has seemed destined to be Oklahoma City and San Antonio in a Western Conference Finals rematch since the beginning of the season. However, the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors will have something to say about it. The Thunder's prospects changed significantly with the loss of Russell Westbrook for the playoffs. The Grizzlies dispatched Lob City and are playing with a ton of confidence after nearly knocking off the Thunder yesterday. The Warriors Stephen Curry has emerged as the newest superstar in the league. With him and his hot hand all things seem possible for Golden State, including maybe even winning at San Antonio where they have lost an astounding 29 games in a row.

#1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies were up 9 going into the 4th quarter of yesterday's Game 1 and seemed poised to take early control of the series. But then Kevin Durant took over, showing why he is the second best player in the NBA at the moment, and the Thunder squeaked out a win. It had to feel like a missed opportunity for the Grizzlies, but it also had to give them supreme confidence that they can play with the Thunder, especially with no Westbrook.

The most surprising aspect of yesterday's game was Kevin Martin going off for the Thunder and Tony Allen of the Grizzlies struggles to stop him. Allen is considered one of the best defenders in the game, but Martin was able to slice him up for 25 points. It was pretty much Martin and Durant that carried the Thunder offensively and allowed them to sneak away with a win. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have basically disappeared since Westbrook went out. Their have been many calls for Thunder coach Scott Brooks to significantly decrease Perkins playing time. However, when you have guys like Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton behind you, it is easy to see why Brooks would be hesitant to do that. A plus for the Thunder has been the steady play of point guard Reggie Jackson since he was thrust into the starting lineup after Westbrook's injury. I thought the trading of Eric Maynor would come back to really bite the Thunder at this point, but Jackson has played exactly as OKC has needed.

Tayshaun Prince will be mostly on Durant in this series and he will have to step up his game after Durant exploded for 35 points on 50% shooting yesterday. Of course slowing down Durant isn't easy but the Grizzlies should be capable as they were the best defensive team in the league this season. They have to continue to throw double teams at Durant and force other guys to beat them. That means Allen has to make Martin a non-factor for Memphis to be successful. The Grizzlies will also need to impose their will inside with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Each of those guys had strong games yesterday but didn't do enough offensively or defensively in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Free throw shooting was also an issue yesterday for Memphis, as Quincy Pondexter and Gasol missed some key freebies. Other key players for Memphis are Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless. Both are more talented than the Thunder's point guard combo of Jackson and Derek Fisher, and they need to exploit that matchup advantage.

This series is basically a pick em and had the Grizzlies held on yesterday I might be picking them. I expect this series to go seven, with KD carrying Oklahoma City past Memphis in the decisive game on to their third straight trip to the Western Conference Finals.

Prediction: Thunder over Grizzlies, 4-3

#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #6 Golden State Warriors

Like the Heat, the Spurs have been on an extended vacation since sweeping the Lakers. They will have to snap back into things quickly though as the Warriors will run them up and down the court if they are caught napping.

The Spurs bigs, mainly Tim Duncan, DaJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter will have their work cut out for them against a Warriors team that was third in the league in rebounding. One of the Warriors major strengths is their ability to grab offensive boards, and then kick it out to their excellent jump shooters, Curry and Klay Thompson. This series is pretty simple, if the Warriors dominate in rebounding and are hot shooting wise, they will pull off the upset. If they are deficient in either one of those areas, then the Spurs will move on as most expect.

Now there is no question that Curry will likely get his on offense, but his defense is a liability at times and Tony Parker could have a field day against him. The Warriors will probably try to shift having both Curry and Jarrett Jack on Parker. It will also be interesting to see who the Warriors put on Duncan. They might throw Andrew Bogut on him at times, and Carl Landry will have to cover Duncan at times too. While David Lee is not known for his defensive prowess, it would be much better for the Warriors if they had him as an option to body up Duncan as well. On paper it appears that Duncan could have a huge series, as he continues his steroid fueled (just kidding!) resurgence at age 37.

Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green are two rookies that looked ready for the playoff spotlight against the Nuggets. It probably helped that they played in high pressure games at North Carolina and Michigan State respectively. How effective they will be matching up with Kawhi Leonard remains to be seen. Leonard is an incredibly athletic and active player and much more of a matchup nightmare than Denver could throw at those guys.

It is imperative for Golden State that they win either Games 1 or 2 in San Antonio. That may seem like an obvious thing, but what makes it more imperative is the fact that they haven't won as a franchise in San Antonio for so long. That question will be front and center until they actually win there, so the quicker they can get that out of the way the better. I thought the Warriors relative inexperience would cost them against Denver. It turned out not to matter, but against such a well coached team like the Spurs, I believe Gregg Popovich will find ways to frustrate a young Warriors team. Golden State will make it a battle, but the Spurs advance.

Prediction: Spurs over Warriors, 4-2


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