The NBA playoffs start on Saturday, and TheSportsNotebook will preview the four first-round matchups in the Western Conference. We’ll start with three key tidbits of information/analysis, follow it up with more extended commentary, than conclude with some historical context and a prediction. You can click here to read the Eastern Conference previews.
(1)Oklahoma City (60-22) vs (8) Houston (45-37)
*Houston isn’t shy about gunning from long range, being tied with New York for most three-point shot attempts. Oklahoma City counters with the biggest average margin in free throw scoring of any playoff team.
*Oklahoma City’s Kevin Martin and Thab Sefolosha don’t get the ink, but each shoots over 45 percent from behind the floor and 40 percent behind the arc. They go against a defense that ranks in the NBA’s bottom half.
*OkC simply does everything well—they’re a top five team in offensive and defensive efficiency, as well as rebounding.
That last tidbit is really where this all has to start. There’s no weakness in the Thunder’s general statistical profile. If you go deeper into the personnel, you couldconcerned about whether the combination of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins will be consistent, especially in cleaning the glass and on the defensive end. While the Rockets are mostly a perimeter team with Jeremy Lin and James Harden, they can go down low to center Omer Asik.
But if it’s possible for a team to win 60 games and have one of the game’s elite players in Kevin Durant, plus a top-ten player in Russell Westbrook, and be underappreciated, it’s the Thunder. I don’t know that anyone has gotten over the fact they lost both games to Miami, including a thumping on their home floor. We can deal with that at the appropriate time, but for now let’s just state the obvious and note that Miami is not in the Western Conference. Houston is a team worthy of a lot of respect—like all teams in the West, they’d be a threat to reach the conference finals in the East, but Harden alone isn’t going to carry Houston past OkC.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: Does it even need to be pointed out? James Harden going up against his old team is a story anytime, especially in the very season in which he was traded.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma City in five.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs (5) Memphis (56-26)
*A lot of people, myself included, poke fun at the Clippers and their whole “Lob City” routine, but let the record show that this team is 9th in the NBA in defensive efficiency and sixth in rebounding. They do their dirty work along with the dunking.
*Memphis is the ultimate grind-it-out team. They play a slow pace, don’t shoot many threes and they’re subpar in their offensive execution. But in both defense and rebounding they’re the best in the West and second-best in the league overall, trailing only Indiana in both categories.
*In spite of being slowed a bit by injuries, Chris Paul remains an elite point guard and the best player in this series, averaging 17 points/10 assists per game.
The imagery of both teams would suggest that Memphis wants to walk it up, while Los Angeles wants to run and be flashy. The first part would be true, but be skeptical on the second. The Clippers’ tempo is measured slower than 18 other teams in the league. Frankly that makes sense, when you have Blake Griffin to post up and DeAndre Jordan can chip in down low as well. The Clips shoot a few more threes than they realistically should—keep it restricted to Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe and tell Matt Barnes to direct his efforts elsewhere—but for the most part, this team is well-balanced.
Los Angeles further has veteran experience, in Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups coming off the bench. Memphis has a solid interior, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but Gasol’s exceptional passing skill is somewhat wasted on a lineup that doesn’t have enough good perimeter players. Mike Conley is a solid point guard, but has too much of a scoring burden placed on him. That was true last year when they had O.J. Mayo, and it’s even more true now with Mayo in Dallas.
Ultimately, the question is this—these teams faced each other a year ago and the Clippers won in seven games, in spite of Memphis holding homecourt. Now it’s Los Angeles with homecourt, while Memphis has traded Rudy Gay and seen Mayo depart via free agency. What basis is there for confidence in the Grizzlies to win this series?
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: I just made reference to it, and it’s that this very matchup was the 4-5 battle in the West last year. In the 2012 NBA playoffs, we saw the Clippers win Game 1 with an epic rally from 29 down, Memphis rally from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 and then Los Angeles win that decisive game on the road. This has the makings of a sequel that can’t live up to the original.
PREDICTION: Los Angeles in five.
(3)Denver (57-25) vs (6) Golden State (47-35)
*It’s the contrast of Denver’s balanced approach against Golden State’s stars, in Steph Curry and David Lee.
*Both teams push the pace, ranking among the top five in the NBA in tempo.
*Golden State has the best three-point shooting percentage in the league, led by Curry hitting 45 percent while averaging eight attempts per game. Denver ranks a little bit better in efficiency on both the offensive and defensive end. Which prevails?
Curry averages 23 ppg, but the Warrior star of note is going to be Lee. He gets 19 points/11 boards per night, and Denver is not a deep team inside. The Nuggets rely on a center combination of Kosta Koufus and Javale McGee, with Kenneth Faried at power forward. It’s certainly not a bad group, but Faried, easily the best inside player Denver has, is nursing an ankle injury. Furthermore, Denver has lost Danilo Gallinari for the year and the small forward was a key scorer and outside shooter, while being able to help out rebounding. Denver’s balance is such that they would likely have still won more games than Golden State without Gallinari for the entire year, but they wouldn’t be ten games ahead of the Warriors.
What the Nuggets do have is an exceptional backcourt combination with Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala. The latter came over from Philadelphia as part of the multi-team package that moved Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum around. It’s fair to say that Denver’s the only team that came out of the deal happy. Head coach George Karl has good depth here as well. Wilson Chandler can shoot the three-ball and even do a little rebounding, Andre Miller is a veteran backup to Lawson at the point and Corey Brewer is a reliable role player.
Curry and Lee are very good, but they won’t win a seven-game series by themselves, at least not against a team of this caliber. The good news for Warriors’ fans is that Klay Thompson and Jarret Jack can ease the pressure on Curry in the backcourt. Whether they can actually win this series will depend on whether Andrew Bogut can do the same for Lee inside, and if rookie Harrison Barnes can grow up quickly at the small forward spot.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: This is only the second time Golden State has been in the playoffs since 1994. It’s fair to say this series is the biggest clash of the San Francisco and Denver sports markets since the 49ers and Broncos met in the 1989 Super Bowl.
PREDICTION: Denver in seven.
(2) San Antonio (58-24) vs. (7)LA Lakers (45-37)
*Pretend you’ve never heard of Kobe Bryant. Would you ever look at a lineup that included Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard and act like they had no chance to win a playoff series?
*Tim Duncan is to the West playoffs what Paul Pierce is the East—the veteran who’s still putting up star-caliber numbers and whose intangibles are beyond dispute. Duncan averaged 18 points/10 rebounds per game and still logged as many minutes as anyone on the roster.
*San Antonio is a much better defensive team than they were a year ago, tied for 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The Lakers, on the other hand, are tied for 18th.
The first tidbit gives away the fact that Los Angeles has been discounted by too many media observers as a threat to win the series, due to the fact that Kobe Bryant is gone for the year. Everyone seems to forget about who’s still there, and it has to begin with Howard. Let’s remember, it’s not like his playoff history is one long vale of tears, to borrow a phrase from the Hail, Holy Queen prayer. Howard led Orlando to the 2009 Finals and to the Eastern Finals in 2010. Now, he’s joined by Gasol and Nash. Furthermore, after you get past Duncan—admittedly no small concession—San Antonio has got some problems underneath. Boris Diaw is out with a back problem, and Tiago Splitter is nothing special. In the backcourt, we don’t know how healthy Tony Parker is going to be on that ankle.
However the third tidbit gives away the reason why I think San Antonio ultimately prevails and as noted in last week’s NBA commentary, it’s the reason I wasn’t enthralled with Los Angeles from the outset of the season. The Lakers have the individual talent that makes them a threat in this—or any series between now and the conference finals—but other than Howard, no one is a good individual defender, and they haven’t been able to make the whole add up to more than the sum of the parts. Which puts it mildly. The Spurs meanwhile, are a true team, and with Parker and Duncan, have the requisite star power to win. In addition to their defensive skill, they get quality three-point shooting from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and as of now it looks like Manu Ginobli will be healthy.
This matchup was in doubt last night, until the Lakers beat the Rockets in overtime to settle the 7-8 spots in the draw. It worked out great for the fans. We get to see Harden face his old team, and the Lakers-Spurs battle of veteran stars makes for a more compelling matchup than seeing OkC blow past the defenseless Lakers.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: These teams have had their share of battles, with Duncan coming into the league and Shaq going to the Lakers right at the end of the 1990s. The Spurs won series with the Lakers en route to championships in 1999 and 2003. The Lakers returned the favor en route to titles in 2001-02 and to the Finals in 2004. Post-Shaq, the Lakers have gotten the best of the Spurs in the 2008 conference finals. Duncan and Parker have to see this as time for a little payback before everybody retires.
PREDICTION: San Antonio in seven