The L.A. Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs are likely not going to lose in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, so let’s not even waste our time discussing possible upsets in the 1-8 and 3-6 matchups. The best matchups are in the 4-5 and 2-7.
Second-seeded Oklahoma City will take on defending NBA champs Dallas in the opening round, a rematch of last season’s conference finals won by the Mavericks. The other intriguing early showdown is the Grizzlies vs. Clippers. Both franchises have very little postseason history to hang their hats on, but it’s a new era and there’s plenty of buzz surrounding both teams.
Here’s how OneManFastBreak sees the Western Conference playoffs will shake down:
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
The Jazz roll into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the West. Unfortunately for them, they’re playing THE hottest team in the NBA in the Spurs. San Antonio has been the best team since the All-Star break, and Gregg Popovich picked up some key veteran pieces in Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw to bolster his roster. Utah has Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, but their backcourt is a little shaky. That’s bad news for a team that is about to face two possible Hall-of-Famers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. SPURS IN 4.
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) L.A. Clippers
This is a classic matchup between Beauty and the Beast. The Grizzlies are a physical bunch with a NFL-type frontline that boasts 270-pound Marc Gasol and 265-pound Zach Randolph. The Clippers are the darlings of the league, with style of play that is very ESPN friendly, led by Lob City residents Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Grizzlies will try to beat you with their inside game and stout defense, while the Clippers will try to put the ball in the hands of point guard Chris Paul and push the tempo. Lob City works well during the regular season, but this is the playoffs. Lobbing will not be permitted. GRIZZLIES IN 7
(3) L.A. Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
Not having Ron Artest in the opening round will hurt the Lakers defense, but they have plenty of reserves to pick up the slack. Matt Barnes is a solid defender and a better shooter than Artest, and Devin Ebanks has shown he’s a capable player on both ends. The Nuggets like to play fast and loose, while the Lakers love to slow the pace and methodically work the ball inside to their big men or isolate Kobe Bryant on the wing. It’s going to be speed vs. size. Size wins this contest. LAKERS IN 6
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Rudy Tomjanovich famously said “never underestimate the heart of a champion.” The Mavericks have a lot of proud champions on their side, led by Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd, and super sub Jason Terry. But let’s not carried away with this “heart of a champion” thing. This is not the same Mavs team that defeated the Heat in the Finals. No Tyson Chandler. No J.J. Barea. No Peja Stokajovic. The new-look Mavs may be able to push the Thunder to the limit, but in the end the OKC home-court advantage will be the difference. THUNDER IN 7
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (3) L.A. Lakers
This series will be one epic battle. On one corner you have the Lakers, a team loaded with championship experience with the best pair of big men in the league in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. On the other corner you have the Thunder, a team loaded with young and hungry stars with arguably the best scoring duo in the league in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It will be interesting to see how Lakers coach Mike Brown will play with the matchups. You known he’ll stick Ron Artest on Durant and Kobe Bryant on Westbrook. But who guards the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden? In the Lakers’ lone win against OKC during the regular season, Harden left the game after taking a vicious elbow from Artest. Harden, who attended Artest High School near Los Angeles, seems to shaken off the cobwebs of Artest’s MMA now, and you better believe he’s out for revenge against his hometown team. THUNDER IN 7
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (4) L.A. Clippers
History shows that the Spurs own the Clippers. Whether it’s the L.A. Clippers, San Diego Clippers or the Buffalo Braves, the Spurs own a 115-30 record against their second-round foe. But those were the old Clippers. They never had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Mo Williams, or even Nick Young in the lineup. These new-age Clippers have gained plenty of swag after an emotional seven-game series with Memphis. The Spurs haven’t played in a week and it may take a game or two to get back in the groove. The biggest concern for the Clippers are the injuries to Paul and Griffin, their two best players. They were able to overcome those ailments against the Grizzlies, but the Spurs are a totally different beast. Paul’s injured groin and hip will get severely tested by the speedy Tony Parker. Gregg Popovich vowed not to change the Spurs’ rotation in the playoffs, and so far he’s been true to his word. This is the deepest team Popovich has had and depth with be the deciding factor in this series. SPURS IN 6
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Spurs look flawless in the first two rounds, winning all eight playoff games and six of them were by double digits. That’s the good side. The bad side of things is the fact that the Spurs have yet to be tested, which leaves a small opening for OKC to take advantage of. The Thunder, on the other hand, are 7-1 in the playoffs but have been involved in five close ballgames. Even though OKC eliminated the L.A. Lakers in just five games, the Thunder were two clutch baskets by Kevin Durant from being down 3-1. The Spurs are one of the deepest teams in the league, while the Thunder rely on Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. San Antonio won the season series 2-1, and Manu Ginobili didn’t play in any of the matchups. It will take a near superhuman effort from Durant, Westbrook and Harden to take down the streaking Spurs, and that may be too much to ask. SPURS IN SEVEN