1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 8 Houston Rockets
How will the reunion go? I’m weirdly excited for the opening handshakes of this series. Is it going to be awkward? Joyous and nostalgic? My bet is neither. I think it’s going to be cold. Like iceberg cold. Like “shut the front door, the heat’s on” cold. But most accurately, like “Just kill ‘em and pray for em after the game” cold. Kevin Durant will pretend like James Harden never existed and, in his mind right now, he probably never did. He is all in for a Championship. That’s why he hardly went for the scoring championship over the last two games despite it being (for him possibly) still in reach. In all seriousness though, this story line is incredible. The up and coming threesome with all of the potential in the world, inexplicitly broken up to save money, and now they have to face off in the first round of the first playoffs after that. This is like soap opera scorned lover stuff right here. I don’t know whether to watch the game and enjoy the basketball or grab a box of tissues and gallon of ice cream and cry my way through this series.
Matchup to watch: Of course it has to be Kevin Durant vs. James Harden. Even though they won’t cover each other they are still playing directly against each other. And this plays directly into KD’s hand. If James Harden looks at this series as Me vs. Those Guys and tries to go bucket for bucket with KD the Rockets might as well go home now. He can’t keep up with KD as a scorer. But damn it will be fun to watch if he does.
Prediction: If James Harden plays HIS game. The pick and roll, distributor, get-to-the-line game then the Rockets might have themselves an interesting series and steal a game or two. Regardless though, I see OKC in 5. James Harden is an incredible talent but even if he averages, say, 28-7-7, the Rockets still don’t play nearly good enough defense to keep OKC under wraps. The first team to 110 will win every game in the series.
2 San Antonio Spurs vs. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
Do the Kobe-less Lakers have enough to overcome the Spurs? I’ve actually loved how the Lakers have responded to Kobe’s Achilles injury. Pau Gasol is back. People seem to forget that Pau Gasol is one of the most talented big men in the game. He can score down low, stretch the defense with 17 footers, rebound, and willingly distribute. In their win-and-in season finale against Houston (a playoff team with a candidate for defensive player of the year stationed in the paint) he had a triple double. This high post, low post Gasol-to-Howard chemistry is exactly what Mitch Kupchak envisioned when he brought Howard to town. The Spurs, although first in the league for a large portion of the year, just don’t look healthy right now. I know they do this every year, where they sit their starters a ton as the season unwinds but something just feels different about it right now. Duncan and Parker have barely played together in over a month, Ginobili has played 11 minutes since March 29th. I can say for certain that the Spurs will be much better coached in this series but I don’t think they have enough left in the tank to win this series.
Matchup to Watch: With no Kobe, the Lakers are finally playing to their roster strengths so it’s going to be up to Laker bigs Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard to carry this team on both ends of the court. The only thing in their way is some guy named Tim Duncan who just refuses to stop being dominant. His minutes per game are down to career lows but his production hasn’t dipped much, averaging nearly 18, 10, and almost 3 blocks per game. The only thing that worries me is will he be able to keep it up for at least 35 minutes per game in the playoffs? I have no reason to say no other than conventional wisdom but when has he ever obeyed that when it comes to his age.
Prediction: This is my upset special. I’m taking the Lakers in 6.
3 Denver Nuggets vs 6 Golden State Warriors
Can the Nuggets survive their recent injuries? I feel like injuries are robbing us of a great team at the worst possible time of the year. Three weeks ago this team looked like the type of team that could catch fire and hang with anyone in the league. Fast forward to now and Danilo Gallinari is out with a torn ACL, Kenneth Faried has a banged up ankle and Ty Lawson has a plantar fascia injury1. Will the latter two be healthy enough to keep up with Denver’s helter skelter, high speed offense? Before the season started, I said Denver would be the team that nobody would want to face come playoff time, but now they just might be Golden State’s ticket into the second round.
Matchup to Watch: I don’t think Andrei Iguodala will be able to keep up with Stephen Curry around all those screens, he’s a little too big for Curry’s quickness. That’s why Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry will hold the key to this series. Stephen Curry might be the best shooter in the league2 and if Lawson can’t control him, Curry is the type of player that can win a game by himself (see his 54 point performance earlier this season at the Garden).
Prediction: I know I’ve sounded all doom and gloom on the Nuggets but it’s only because I thought they would be a sleeper championship team and are fun to root for with no clear cut leader ala the 2004 Pistons. Now they just look like second round cannon fodder after they win this series in 6 games. Denver in 6 after Faried (who claims to be fine for the playoffs) has at least one huge game against David Lee, a notoriously bad defender who can’t get up nearly as high as Faried.
4 Los Angeles Clippers vs 5 Memphis Grizzlies
What will prevail: The Grizzlies dominant defense or Lob City? These teams are polar opposites. Since the Rudy Gay trade the Grizzlies have had the best defense in the league by a long shot, somewhere around 87 points per game, while the Clippers are a razzle dazzle string of alley oops and crossovers. This series will be what its like when you mix sodium and water3. These teams are polar opposites. The Grizzlies have the best defense since the 2004 Pistons4. Just look at their starting lineup: Gasol might (and should) win Defensive Player of the Year, TayShaun Prince is still an above average, long, smart defender, Tony Allen is the best on-ball defender in the West, and Mike Conley Jr. is third in the league in steals. Terrifying. The Clippers, on the other hand, have a human highlight reel in Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan killed a guy once, Chris Paul who might have the ball surgically attached to his hand, and Jamal Crawford who plays the game like he’s still on the playground5.
Player to Watch: Although Blake Griffin and everyone else on the Clippers is worth the price of DVR, Zach Randolph is the key player in this series. Two years ago he scored 22 and 11 and was crucial to the Grizzlies Cinderella run and subsequent rise to relevancy but he struggled in last year’s playoffs and hasn’t played great of late. Luckily for him, both Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan leave their feet way too much and may fall trap to Randolph’s slew of head and ball fakes. If he can get off cleaner shots than what he’s put up lately then the Grizzlies will be tough to beat.
Predictions: Whenever a great defense meets an exciting offense I typically side with the great defense. That’s the style of play that most resembles playoff basketball. Grizz in 6
**If you liked this check out Part 1 of the NBA playoffs preview**
Here’s a few extra predictions for the record….
- Thunder over Grizzlies in a great (repeat, GREAT) Western Conference Championship.
- Stephen Curry will hit 6 threes in at least one game en route to a 35 points.
- Pau Gasol will play great but won’t get a triple double. Tim Duncan will though.
- The Thunder will hit 120 in at least one game, but so will the Rockets.
1. There it is again!!
2. If it wasn’t for Durant and his 40-50-90 spread, he would be THE best shooter in the league. He’s the best 3-point shooter in the league I’ll give him that, but Durant’s 57% from the field takes the cake.
3. Right about the 27 second mark is what I imagine Game 3 will look like. See Science IS cool.
4. That’s two 2004 Pistons references in one article. I think I’m just in a good mood because Lawrence Frank got fired.
5. Jamal Crawford once asked the ref if NBA games were “win by two”.