NBA fans, you have survived the long grueling season. You enjoyed the highs, dealt with the drama, and watched the regular season all unfold in preparation for the games that really count. While there were some surprise teams who made the leap (Portland & Charlotte), and some colossal disappointments (New Orleans, Chicago), at this point the cream of the crop has risen to the top and we are ready to see the best collide.
We go around the NBA to begin to preview these first round matchups, starting today with the Western Conference. I will preface the reviews below with a quick take: the drama of these playoffs will come in the second round. I can picture multiple sweeps in the first round. While this is not anything new to the NBA, the discrepancy between good and bad teams feels larger this year in the west. It feels as if there is a lower tier of NBA teams in purgatory that are poised to get exposed and throttled in the first round. Let's get to the matchups!
(1) Golden State vs (8) Houston
Season Series: Warriors won 3-0
I am going to leave this analysis to the rest of my Golden State of Mind writers. I will submit this for your consideration.
Prediction: Warriors sweep
(2) San Antonio vs (7) Memphis
Season Series: Spurs won 4-0
Did any team have a worse second half than the Memphis Grizzlies? They lost 15 of their last 20 games of the season, dropping from a sure-fire 4th or 5th seed down into the 7th seed, and the worse matchup possible for them is the Spurs. At least against the Clippers or Thunder, they could try to muscle through and steal a few games. But now? Not a chance. The reason for the drop was clearly injury luck. Tony Allen should be back for Game 1 of the series, but Marc Gasol and Mike Conley will be out for the duration of the season.
Let's say this: if Memphis was healthy, they would still be underdogs against this great Spurs team. San Antonio is clicking on all cylinders, and will use this first round to get their playoff rotation solidified. Tim Duncan will slot himself right back into the lineup, and if the Spurs get this to 3-0, expect Pop to consider resting a starter or two in Game 4 in prep for the next round.
Prediction: Spurs sweep
(3) Oklahoma City vs (6) Dallas
Season Series: Thunder won 4-0
Give it to Rick Carlisle, he absolutely got the most out of a team that has no right playing as well as they have this season. An aging roster, dealing with injuries (Chandler Parsons) and fitting in so many new parts, should not have been able to win 42 games. In a regular year, 42 wins might not have gotten the Mavs into the Western Conference playoffs, but this year it gets them the 6th seed and a matchup against the bundle of fireworks that is the Thunder. Dallas needs career performances out of players like David Lee, JJ Barea, and Dirk Nowitzki to keep this one close. Wait , all three of those players are questionable with injuries? Never mind..
The Thunder still have and will have two of the best players in the NBA right now in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The playoffs are built for a player to simply go off and take over a game, to which a single superstar can flip a series in a second. This is the reason I am petrified of the Thunder. The Spurs are the sum of their parts, and if some of their parts aren't working, they look vulnerable. The Thunder will always have Kevin Durant to go one-on-one and break your heart. And if he is not on? Oh yeah, Westbrook -- the triple-double machine -- will do it to you too. Remember Curry's corner three to beat the Pelicans in the playoffs? I predict one of those shots for either one of the Thunder stars in the playoffs.
Prediction: Thunder Sweep
(4) L.A. Clippers vs (5) Portland
Season Series: Clippers won 3-1
Finally! A competitive series! Here is your marquee Western Conference matchup for the first round, and I picture this series going on much longer than any of the others. On one side, you have the Clippers - finally healthy (though J.J. Redick has been hobbled) and trying to fit their starters back into the rotation. Blake Griffin looks iffy, but the games he played before the playoffs looked like they did some value to getting him back to 100%. Even with him on the court working back into shape, he is still such an upgrade over the alternatives that his value is unquestionable. Can Chris Paul lead this team past the glass ceiling he has faced his whole career? Too bad they will run into huge matchup issues if they make it past the first round, but they will give it another shot. Could it be this group's last playoff run together?
On the flip side are the Trailblazers, who are playing with house money. Nobody expected them to win, let alone make the playoffs. Once they started to win, they won just enough to push themselves into a winnable matchup, avoiding the top NBA teams. Now they face a uncertain Clippers team while they themselves seem to have found their rhythm. They worked through their rough March (losers of 7 of 10) to finish the season on a high note (winners of 8 of 11). They did lose a key rotation player to injury in Meyers Leonard, but still feature depth and athleticism up and down the roster. Oh, and they still have Dame. How can you bet against this guy? But the breakout star of this playoff series will be C.J. McCollum. If the national audience still doesn't know about this guy (hey, they might still not!), they will by the time the curtain closes.
Prediction: Finally, a fun one to predict. I see this one going seven, with the Clippers winning down in Los Angeles. The Trailblazers will continue to be a Jeckyl & Hyde team, and while they might beat the Clippers in spectacular fashion, I still picture a 30-point loss in this series from Portland. Game 7 will be Blake Griffin's time to shine, and I see him stepping up to the spotlight to dominate the front line of Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis.
The theme of the first round of the Western Conference will be "take care of business". The top teams should take care of business, and the questions will be more about how much rest will teams have before the second round rather than winners. This will set up some of the best matchups you could hope for in Round 2, with a potential Clippers/Warriors and Thunder/Spurs clash on the horizon. Did I say I love this time of year? I love this time of year...
Tune in tomorrow where we preview the Eastern Conference playoff race (hint: much better match ups). Until then, go order your Warriors playoff gear and make your plans for Saturday afternoon!