Let me paint a simple picture here to give you an idea of how much stronger the Western Conference is than their Eastern counterparts.
Phoenix finished the 2013-14 season one game behind the Dallas Mavericks and out of the playoffs. The Suns won 48 games, the same number of wins as the 3rd seeded Toronto Raptors in the East. Only one other time in history has a team won 48 games and not earned the right to play in the post-season: the 2007-8 Golden State Warriors.
But guess what? … Them’s the breaks! Better luck next year.
Let’s talk about the teams that did get in:
#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Dallas Mavericks: Can the Mavericks become just the fifth #8 seed ever to advance?
The Spurs are the best “team” in basketball by a long shot. Notice the quotation marks around team here. Duncan is a future Hall-of-Famer, Tony Parker is one of the premier point guards of his generation, Manu Ginobili is a stud off the bench, and Kawhi Leonard is a rising star, but what makes the Spurs so ridiculously good is not their Superstar power, but their ability to execute as a team on both ends of the floor.
And what’s even scarier is the fact that they’ve yet to play up to their full potential. San Antonio was hammered this year by injuries, and nearly every key player on the team spent some time warming the bench with one ailment or another.
In spite of their injury woes they coasted to the best record in the league. At one point they went on a run where they were nearly invincible, notching 19 straight victories before Kevin Durant and the Thunder tripped them up 106-94.
The Spurs play with synergy and they’ve got such a high level of Basketball IQ across the roster that they can quickly and easily adjust their game plan to suit changing conditions.
I’ve been searching for my own words here, but I simply can’t put it more eloquently than Marc Stein from ESPN.com. Let me borrow his wisdom for a second: “The ball never stops moving. The ball always seems to end up finding an open shooter. The open shooter always seems to make the shot. Just a hard team to guard, man.”
That’s the San Antonio Spurs in a nutshell, and the Mavericks have got their work cut out for them if they hope to pull off an upset.
Dallas’s hopes all hinge on Big Dirk Nowitzki. There’s never been a more versatile seven-footer on offense and after all these years he’s still got the capability to put the team on his shoulders and will the way to victory. And let’s not forget that Nowitzki led the Mavs when they were the only team to ever beat Tim Duncan in a Game 7 in San Antonio.
The problem is that Dirk can’t defend the entire court and the Mavericks are by far and away the weakest defense in the Western Conference playoff field. A couple strong offensive nights will prevent them from being swept, but unless the Dallas D can miraculously turn it up a level, I just don’t see them throwing too many obstacles in the way of San Antonio’s über-efficient half-court offense.
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies: Durant, Durant, and more Durant
A lot of my friends back in Seattle like to call OKC the “Zombie Sonics”. Fortunately it’s simply a nickname rooted in bitterness, because if Kevin Durant were after your brains you might as well just serve them up on a platter with a side of potato chips. The guy’s a beast, and in all likelihood the winner of this year’s MVP award.
For the Grizzlies to top the Thunder in a seven-game series they’ll need to find a way to stop Durant, something that none of the other teams in the NBA have been able to do.
Durant has once again taken the league scoring title, except that now he’s added an even more aggressive element to his game. He’s settling for less jumpers, taking the rock to the rim more often than not.
As of the writing of this article, the most effective defensive strategy to employ against #35 is to “hope he misses”. Sure, you can swarm him with double or triple teams, but this approach only proved useful while Russell Westbrook was out with injury.
But the best form of defense is often a strong offense. Enter Mike Miller.
With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol requiring attention on the inside, Miller’s always getting open looks from beyond the arc. He’s an incredible 45.9% on 3-pointers this season and has been on fire of late. Oklahoma City ranks 27th in the league in 3-point baskets allowed, which leaves a window open for the Grizzlies to match Durant’s 2-pointers with 3s.
Historically Memphis has matched up well against OKC, so out of the lower seeded teams they’ve got the best chance of pulling off the upset. Mike Conley is underrated and had a couple huge games last year in the playoffs against the Thunder.
#3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #6 Golden State Warriors: It’s time for the Clippers to prove that they’re for real.
It’s hard to win in the playoffs without Superstars, and the Clippers have two of the best players in the NBA right now. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are looking scarily good, and Doc Rivers is settling in as one of the best coaches in the league.
Similar to the Spurs, the Clippers are back to full health just in the nick of time. Now with their full onslaught of offensive weapons, there are just too many options for the Warriors to defend. Redick, Dudley, Barnes and Collison can drain jumpers from the outside, but play too tight and Jordan will burn you with a lob.
Honestly and truly, Golden State only has one shot in this series, and that is hoping that Stephen Curry can erupt. The thing is, he’s totally capable of doing so
When Curry’s on it’s like watching a freaking video game. He’s perhaps the greatest 3-point shooter off the dribble that’s ever played. How can you guard a player who can either drive past you at full speed to the rim or pop up from a sprint and drain a trey? You can’t.
Stephen Curry is capable of outscoring the LA Clippers by himself, or any team for that matter. The question is … can he stay hot for an entire series?
#4 Houston Rockets vs. #5 Portland Trailblazers: Oh Lord, this is gonna be one hell of a series.
The Blazers surprised a lot of people by starting off the season red hot. Over time they settled into .500 ball and had people saying, “See, I told you they weren’t that good”. Then, for good measure, they won 9 of their last 10 games and once again look like a proper contender for the Western Conference crown.
Damian Lillard is one of those guys that can hit any shot, even the bad ones, and it’s nearly impossible to prevent Portland from getting tons of looks from deep.
They’ll throw five potential 3-point threats onto the court at the same time and dare you to score 2-point buckets faster than they can counter from beyond the arc. On the season they’re shooting better than 37% on 3-pointers. Sure, Houston is #1 in the league at defending the 3-point shot, but the Blazers still nailed an impressive 32% of their treys against the Rockets on the season.
Shooting 3’s is what Portland does. End of story. And since three is worth more than two, they’ll have a good chance to win the series if they can do it well.
For Houston, it all comes down to James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Patrick Beverley. Harden averaged 30.3 points over the Rockets’ four games versus the Blazers while Howard tacked on another 25.5. Howard has quietly returned from injury into his old form. The Lakers’ debacle led to many fans forgetting how good he once was, but he appears to be back and is making his mark on both ends of the court. He’s averaging 12.2 boards and nearly two blocks per night, and shot 64% from the field after the All-Star break.
Beverley scores as well, but it was his ability to bother Lillard with pesky and relentless defense that has the Portland guard hoping his Houston counterpart misses playing time due to his knee injury.
This is a series that truly could go either way.
Spurs in 5. I’ve been big on Dallas as a dark horse for quite a while now, but I didn’t see them winding up with the #8 seed. San Antonio’s ball movement, patience, and efficiency will eat the Mavericks’ sub-par defense apart.
Thunder in 5. This may seem like a bold-ish prediction, considering the fact that Memphis knocked out OKC in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semis last season, but Durant and company will be out for revenge. The Slim Reaper is coming for the souls of the Grizzlies. (For the record, Durant hates his new “death” nickname, should you run into him at McDonald’s, just roll with Kevin.)
Clippers in 6. To form, Stephen Curry turns on the jets and wins a couple games at home for the Warriors. But two Superstars is better than one, and the “other” LA is poised to take that next step.
Houston in 7. This series will be a back-and-forth battle, with the Rockets enjoying home court advantage in the finale. Portland’s lack of post-season experience will finally catch up with them, meaning that the Spurs will face both of their Texas foes in Rounds 1 and 2.
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