Finally! The 2014 NBA Playoffs are here, and after an especially competitive and heartbreaking (sorry, Suns) regular season, the Western Conference playoffs should be incredible. After Memphis beat Dallas in OT on Wednesday to take the seventh seed, the matchups were set. So let’s preview these first round matchups, along with seeds in parentheses.
(1) San Antonio vs. (8) Dallas: This will be the teams’ sixth meeting in the postseason in the Duncan-Nowitzki era, with the Spurs holding a 3-2 advantage. However, the Spurs and Mavs have not faced each other in the playoffs since the 2010 first-round, when San Antonio won in six games with a very different team than it currently has. Obviously these teams know each other very well, so it will come down to execution. I give a major edge in this category to Coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, who have the best offense in the league, with so many guys who can hurt Dallas in a variety of ways; six Spurs averaged 10 or more points this year. The only ways the Mavs can win this series is if San Antonio’s shooting inexplicably goes cold or if Dirk goes crazy and averages about 35 a game, but both of these scenarios are unlikely. Prediction: Spurs in five.
(2) Oklahoma City vs. (7) Memphis: A very interesting matchup of completely opposite playing styles. OKC is ninth in possessions per game, while Memphis is dead last. With soon-to-be MVP Kevin Durant and great athletes in Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Reggie Jackson, it makes sense that the Thunder want to push the pace. Meanwhile, Memphis is content to slow the ball down and work through their high-low post tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, with Mike Conley handling the perimeter. Both philosophies have been effective, with the teams playing to their respective strengths. With this being said, I don’t see a case where Durant and Westbrook both play consistently bad over a seven-game series; the Thunder have too much offensive firepower, and Durant is playing at a historically great level. Prediction: Thunder in six.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State: My favorite first-round matchup. Two of the most entertaining teams and players (Blake Griffin and Steph Curry) to watch, and also the best point guard in the league (Chris Paul). There is also some hostility, going back to a Christmas game in which Andrew Bogut basically got Blake Griffin ejected for doing nothing, which increases the intensity that much more. Plus, Matt Barnes is involved, so there will definitely be a fracas of some sort in the series. The key for Golden State will be David Lee’s health. If he doesn’t play, or is limited, then the Clippers advance pretty easily. If Lee plays well, this could be a seven-game epic. Either way, I think the Clips are a better team, because they have two of the top five players in the league, great shooters in Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick, and do not rely so heavily on one player on offense like the Warriors do with Curry. Maybe Curry will become The Human Torch like he was in last year’s playoffs and carry them to the next round, but I don’t think that will happen. Either way, it will be an awesome series. Prediction: Clippers in six.
(4) Houston vs. (5) Portland: Two teams that have gone slightly under the radar, even though they both had outstanding seasons. The Rockets were expected to contend after signing Dwight Howard, but no one expected the Trail Blazers to be so good already. Their breakthrough season is thanks in large part to their version of the “Fab Four” in LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Along with center Robin Lopez, these five players started all but 13 games this year, when Aldridge was injured. That is remarkably healthy for NBA starters, and the consistency and familiarity with each other is a big reason Portland was one of the league’s best offenses, as was Houston. Both teams struggle defensively, and Lillard and James Harden are very similar in that they are great on offense, and brutal on defense. Houston is possibly the worst defensive team in the league without Howard protecting the rim and Patrick Beverly making life miserable for opposing guards. Even though both teams are very talented offensively with a similar guard-big combo (Lillard and Aldridge vs. Harden and Howard) and supporting wing players (Matthews and Batum vs. Chandler Parsons), I believe defense will determine who wins the series, and Houston is slightly better in this area. It should be a great series. Prediction: Rockets in seven.