Monday, May 5, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference Semi-Finals

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers

The Spurs were given everything they could handle by the Dallas Mavericks in the First Round, before eventually prevailing in seven games. The Trail Blazers won their first playoff series in 14 years in dramatic fashion on Friday night. Damian Lillard hit a three pointer at the buzzer to give Portland the victory over the Houston Rockets.

The point guard battle will be dynamic in this series between the Spurs Tony Parker and the Blazers Lillard. Lillard showed no signs of being overwhelmed by the playoff stage in the First Round and he will give Parker a ton of trouble when it comes to attempting to guard him. The other huge one-on-one battle will be Tim Duncan going against LaMarcus Aldridge. Duncan still plays at an extremely high level but Aldridge looks like a young Duncan with how he played against the Rockets. The Blazers have the size to match up with not only Duncan but Robin Lopez may have the advantage over Tiago Splitter. Nicolas Batum can also be a dynamic scorer for the Blazers but he will draw Kawhi Leonard, one of the better defenders in the league. Wesley Matthews of the Blazers and Danny Green of the Spurs are the shooting guards and both can fall in love with the three pointer.

The Blazers mostly employed a 7 man rotation against the Rockets, with Thomas Robinson and veteran Mo Williams getting the most action off the bench. Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobli, and Patty Mills ensure that the Spurs don't feel a major letdown when they have to go to their bench. The Blazers have the point guard, big man combo that could have them as legitimate title contenders for the foreseeable future. I expect them to give the Spurs plenty of trouble in this series, especially if Duncan cannot slow down Aldridge. In the end, I believe the Spurs experience will be the difference, as will home court when this series goes seven games.

Prediction: Spurs over Blazers, 4-2

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #3 Los Angeles Clippers

Both the Thunder and Clippers were involved in exhausting seven game series in the First Round. The Thunder overcame a 3-2 series deficit, when Kevin Durant responded to being called out by his hometown newspaper as unreliable. The Thunder also benefited from the Memphis Grizzlies being without their best player Zach Randolph for game 7, as he had to serve a suspension. The Clippers/Golden State Warriors series took a backseat to the audio tapes that came out of their owner Donald Sterling espousing his racist views. The team was able to overcome the distraction and behind coach Doc Rivers have seemed to become even closer as a team.

Both of these teams average well over 100 points and aren't exactly known for their defense, so fans of offensive basketball will be in heaven. There is also plenty of star power in this series. Chris Paul of the Clippers and Russell Westbrook of the Thunder are two of the premiere point guards in the NBA. Paul is the more typical point guard, looking to feed the ball to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Westbrook runs into criticism because he looks to shoot, despite having the second best player in the game on his team in Kevin Durant. Westbrook is an exceptional offensive talent though so it is understandable why he looks for his own shot. The Thunder's Caron Butler is still playing heavy minutes despite being older as coach Scott Brooks relies on his experience. J.J. Redick is in there to make threes and that is about it. However, that one aspect of his game is something he does better than almost anyone else. Serge Ibaka will be tasked with attempting to slow down Blake Griffin. Ibaka likely doesn't have the offensive skillset to get Griffin into foul trouble but he could upset Griffin's offensive game through his sheer defensive skill alone. Kendrick Perkins still starts for the Thunder but his backup Steven Adams saw more time than Perkins in Games 6 and 7 of the Memphis series and that trend could continue with the Thunder needing some youth to keep up with the Clippers DeAndre Jordan. Durant played great at the end of the Thunder's first round series but prior to that he was having a hard time with the Grizzlies Tony Allen. In this series he will have to contend with Matt Barnes. Barnes is a strong defender like Allen and also an instigator and could throw Durant off his mental game.

Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson see plenty of time off the bench. Fisher's shot isn't as reliable as it used to be, but he still makes enough three pointers that you can't ignore him when he is on the court. Jackson has really grown as a player this season and it was his play and ability to hit big shots that saved the Thunder's season with a Game 4 win in Memphis. The Clippers bench is highlighted by 6th Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, as well as reliable backup point guard Darren Collison. Danny Granger and Glen Davis will also see time off the bench but their minutes have become pretty minimal.

This series will basically come down to which team plays just enough defense to slow down the other teams proficient offense. I think the biggest matchups in this series will be how tight Barnes plays Durant and also if Adams is able to not let Jordan completely overwhelm him and abuse him. I think the Clippers have just enough of an edge in athleticism and more offensive weapons than the Thunder and that will be what keys them to the slight upset.

Prediction: Clippers over Thunder, 4-3

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