The Western Conference is like an episode of “The Avengers.” It was action packed all season, and you had to be there at the end to get the full story.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio are the top two seeds, but both enter the playoffs with some question marks. The Spurs hobble into the postseason with a gimpy Tony Parker and gimpy Manu Ginobili. Parker was enjoying a MVP-type season before ankle and leg injuries derailed his season. Ginobili has been in and out of the lineup all season and he just returned from his hamstring injury. Then, in a very un-Spurs-like move, the team released veteran forward Stephen Jackson a week the before the playoffs start.
The Thunder have stayed relatively healthy all season, but they’re facing a different challenge this postseason. Anything less than a trip to the NBA Finals will be considered a failure in Oklahoma City, and the pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of four people: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Scott Brooks, and Sam Presti.
For Oklahoma City to win the title, Durant and Westbrook need to be great. They can’t be just OK. Also, Brooks will have to figure out a way to clean up the Thunder’s issues on defense, and Presti is praying that the James Harden gamble won’t blow up in his face.
Here’s how the West playoffs will unfold:
(1) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. (8) HOUSTON ROCKETS
This is the worst possible first-round matchup for the Thunder. The Rockets can match the Thunder shot for shot and, oh by the way, Houston has James Harden. Remember him, Thunder fans. Harden will be extra motivated to be his old pals Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and what a boon would it be for Harden to knock off his former team out of the playoffs. This series could easily go seven games and it’s a good thing the Rockets don’t play defense because that’s about the only saving grace for OKC. Prediction: Thunder in 7
(2) SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. (7) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
For the first time in the recent history of this epic showdown between the West powers, the Spurs won’t have to deal with Kobe Bryant in the series. That’s good news in San Antonio because Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are both hurting. It evens up the playing field. The first two games of the series will tell a lot if this matchup will go the distance. If the Spurs jump out to a 2-0 lead, then the Lakers could go home early. But if the Lakers somehow earn a split in San Antonio, then the Spurs better prepare for a long series. Magic Johnson has already predicted a Lakers win over the Spurs. That’s bad news for the Lakers because Magic has never been good at making forecasts. Prediction: Spurs in 5
(3) DENVER NUGGETS VS. (6) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Talk about your track-meet series! The Warriors love to play fast, but the Nuggets play faster. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson love to rain threes, but the Nuggets love to score points in the paint. Injuries to key players will play a huge factor in this matchup. Golden State has no shot if center Andrew Bogut doesn’t play. But if Kenneth Faried’s bum ankle keeps him out, then this series is up for grabs. Both are excellent home teams with superb home crowds. Denver has been nearly unbeatable at the Pepsi Center, and that should be enough to advance. Prediction: Nuggets in 6
(4) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS VS. (5) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
In a rematch of last year’s epic seven-game series, the Grizzlies trot out a new lineup to try to exact revenge on the team that sent them home a year ago. The Grizzlies believe they have a better team entering the playoffs because volume shooter Rudy Gay is now in Toronto, and Zach Randolph is now the No. 1 option. The Clippers will try to push the tempo, while the Griz will try to slow it down and pound it inside to Randolph and Marc Gasol. The key matchup lies at the point where Mike Conley goes head-to-head with All-Star guard Chris Paul. Whichever point guard plays better will see their team advance. Prediction: Clippers in 7