Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference, First Round

#1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)

It almost seems like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan, and Gregg Popovich could win 50 or 60 plus games for the next 20 years. The Spurs strung together 19 straight wins at one point this year and comfortably finished at the top of the Western Conference. In addition to Parker, Ginobli and Duncan, three other Spurs average double figure scoring. Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills. Danny Green and Boris Diaw are just a point shy of averaging double figures, and Thiago Splitter isn't too far behind them. The Spurs have tons of options offensively and have a host of contributors both starting and coming off the bench. The Spurs excel on offense, ranking 6th in the NBA and also on defense, as they were the 6th best scoring defense in the league this season.

After a one year absence Dallas is back in the playoffs, and will be looking to win their first playoff game since winning the NBA Championship in 2011. The offense still revolves around the excellent shooting of Dirk Nowitzki but the addition of shooting guard Monta Ellis has taken some of the scoring load off of Dirk. Jose Calderon and Devin Harris give the Mavs a solid 1-2 punch at point guard, same for the small forward position where Vince Carter spells Shawn Marion. Samuel Dalembert has been a strong presence in the middle, leading the Mavericks in rebounds and blocks. Off the bench, former Spur DaJuan Blair and Brandan Wright gives the Mavericks even more size and length. Jae Crowder is another player that Rick Carlisle can insert into games to get some of his aging vets a breather and reliably count on.

I think this has the potential to be a highly entertaining series. Both teams can score the ball but where the Spurs have the major advantage is their superiority to the Mavericks on defense. That will be the difference in the series, but I do expect the Mavs to steal a couple games and make San Antonio sweat.

Prediction: Spurs over Mavericks, 4-2

#4 Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)          

James Harden and Dwight Howard get all the headlines, and rightly so, but you could argue that Houston actually has a big three with the outstanding season former Florida Gator Chandler Parsons had this year. Parsons averaged the second most minutes per game on the team and was third in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game. Point guard has been a bit of a revolving door position as both Patrick Beverly and Jeremy Lin have battled nagging injuries. Terrence Jones has turned into a reliable scorer and starter, and is getting a lot more open looks with the presence of Howard to go with Harden. Off the bench the Rockets best players are Omer Asik, who I guess they made happy after he wanted to be traded when they brought in Dwight, and Francisco Garcia, who it feels like has been around forever.

The Trail Blazers had a major bounce back year this season, thanks mostly to the fact that their starters avoided injuries for most of the season. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez each started all 82 games this season. That means the Blazers have a team that is used to playing with one another. The other starter, LaMarcus Aldridge missed just 13 games, which for him and his injury history, is a huge accomplishment. Veteran Mo Williams sees a lot of time off the bench, as does Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson also comes off the bench and while it doesn't appear he will ever live up to his draft status, he does give the Blazers a solid 10-15 minutes a night.

Neither team is very good defensively so expect to see a lot of high scoring games in this series. I believe that Howard and Harden are better than player that the Blazers can throw at them. I know that Aldridge and Lillard are very good, but they will be outmatched in this series and the Rockets will move on to the Second Round.

Prediction: Rockets over Trail Blazers, 4-2

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

Kevin Durant was spectacular this season and should be earning his first even MVP award. He averaged 32 points per game this year, and helped keep the Thunder rolling while Russell Westbrook dealt with injuries and missed half the season. Westbrook is healthy now and hopeful to get through the playoffs healthy, which he was unable to do last season and it ultimately cost the Thunder. Revenge will be on Oklahoma City's mind as they were dominated in the playoffs last year by these same Grizzlies. Serge Ibaka was the Thunder's second most reliable player, leading the team in rebounding and averaging an impressive 2.7 blocks per game. If you try to drive on the Thunder you most likely will be getting swatted by Ibaka. Reggie Jackson has been solid at point guard, learning from veteran Derek Fisher who can still come off the bench and hit big shots. The shooting guard position has been in a state of flux since Thabo Sefalosha went down with an injury in early March. Sefalosha is back but Scott Brooks has tried to limit his minutes. Caron Butler has been a solid veteran addition, and has been lethal from three points range when he has played. Kendrick Perkins only plays about half the game now, but the Thunder still rely on his rebounding presence to give them an edge on the boards.

The Grizzlies are built similarly to the Chicago Bulls. They are a below average offensive team but play some of the best defense you will see in the NBA. After a slow start to the season the Grizzlies caught fire and still managed to reel off a 50 win season. Their big three is Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol. Courtney Lee has been solid for the Grizzlies at shooting guard, and Tayshaun Prince has been a steadying veteran influence for this team. Kosta Koufos, Mike Miller, and Nick Calathes see the most time off the bench for Memphis. I think the biggest surprise of the season for Mempis has been how reliable the aging Miller was. Miller played in all 82 games this season, hitting almost 46% from three point land.

Last season the Grizzlies caught the Thunder short handed but this year they should receive the Thunder's best shot. Because of that and also because the Thunder has Durant who has played at another level all season, I believe Oklahoma City will be able to score on the Grizzlies tough defense and the Grizzlies won't be able to put up the offense to keep up.

Prediction: Thunder over Grizzlies, 4-2

#3 Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State Warriors (51-31)

The consensus seems to be that this is the most anticipated First Round series of this year's playoffs. Both teams play a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball. Both teams are actually better on defense than they are given credit for. Adding to the intrigue is that these teams don't like one another. In past games, there have been multiple skirmishes and Klay Thompson already started the trash talking this week when he called Blake Griffin a flopper. The Clippers led the league in scoring this year behind Griffin, while Chris Paul continues to be a dual threat point guard that can score and then make you pay when you focus on him by finding the open man. Darren Collison has fit in nicely as Paul's backup and someone that can keep the offense flowing and allow Paul some breathers. Shooting guard has been a revolving door position for LA as J.J. Redick has battled injuries. However, Redick should be ready to go for the playoffs and if he is able to find open looks, he is always dangerous. Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan are the toughness that goes with the finesse of some of the other Clippers players. Jordan has really had a breakout season, averaging almost 14 rebounds per game and getting double-doubles on the regular. Danny Granger was picked up during the season and is expected to be ready for the playoffs, although his level of contribution remains a question mark. Other vets that see time off the bench include Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu.

The Warriors have had a season of trials and tribulations this year, with assistants coming and going and coach Mark Jackson's job status being called into question often. Despite that, they still won 51 games. The newest challenge for them going into the playoffs is the injury to Andrew Bogut. With Bogut out the Warriors will have to trot out Jermaine O'Neal's corpse more than they would like in this series. He has no prayer of being able to match the athleticism of Jordan or Griffin. The Warriors will still have a chance though because of Steph Curry. Curry is an incredible player, never afraid to shoot and able to score all around the court. He is also good at being unselfish and getting his teammates involved and is strong defensively, averaging almost 2 steals per game. Thompson is the Warriors other sharpshooter and as made evident in the playoffs last season, if both those guys are on fire, the Warriors are almost unbeatable. Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green don't add a ton on offense but they are part of the reason the Warriors have improved defensively this season. Off the bench, Harrison Barnes, Jordan Crawford, and Steve Blake give the Warriors a trio of guys that can be trusted with the ball and can spell starters at critical times.

With Bogut I might lean for the Warriors upset, but his absence is going to be glaring and will likely mean monster series for Griffin and Jordan. Watching Chris Paul and Steph Curry do battle will be tons of fun to watch, and also seeing if these teams get into it at all and hearken back to playoff basketball from the 80s and 90s. I expect the series to go seven games, and the Clippers to finish the Warriors off at the Staples Center.

Prediction: Clippers over Warriors, 4-3        

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