It took all 82 games for the playoff seeds in the West to finally be settled and there was no shortage of drama despite Utah failing to make last night’s games as impactful as they could have been.
From top to bottom, the final few games could have shaken up the 1-8 seeds of the Western Conference playoff picture and the final game to wrap up the 82 game campaign turned out to be a thriller between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets battling it out in overtime for the difference between a No. 7 and No. 8 seed.
The fact that the Lakers came out on the better end of that stick may prove trivial, but the games are played for a reason and nothing is decided before it’s decided. What is about to ensue promises to be the best basketball we’ve seen all season and in the Western Conference, that is saying something.
OKLAHOMA CITY vs HOUSTON
The fateful return of James Harden to Oklahoma City almost seemed like it had to happen as Wednesday night’s games tipped off. The team’s refusal to give him the pay day he deserved and eventually trading him to Houston has seen him go from bench player to All-Star and potential MVP candidate in just one season.
But this is where Harden and the young Rockets meet their reality, a less than thunderous end to a surprising season in which they have gone further than most would have imagined. The Rockets simply don’t have the pieces, at least not yet, to match up to the incredible power of his former team. The Thunder has become just as formidable a force now as they were with Harden and appear set for a crash course with their second straight NBA Finals.
Oklahoma City won two out of the three meetings this season, winning their games by a combined 52 points. The Rockets victory came on their home floor and saw them sneak by the Thunder on a last second three pointer from Harden to win the game. While it was a nice moment for the “Bearded One” and everybody in Spacetown, but the truth is it’s still pretty clear how far they are from competing with OKC.
In that game, Houston was able to turn it into a shootout, scoring at the steady clip we all know they can with the league’s second best offense. But the two other games are more indicative of what we can expect to see here. OKC plays better defense and will be able to limit the Rockets to around 100 points per game. Houston’s defense could best be described as shambolic and the Thunder will score at will, ending this series before it can get interesting.
Prediction: OKC wins series 4-1
SAN ANTONIO vs LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers completed an incredible run to the postseason winning eight of their last ten and wrapping up the seven seed after starting off the season in nightmare fashion and suffering more injuries than most teams could overcome. Now they’ll look to see if they can take the next step in that journey by upsetting the Spurs, a team they lost the season series to 2-1.
Los Angeles will be anything but intimidated, however, as all three games were decided by five points or less and their only victory came without Kobe Bryant. The fact is, the Lakers present the Spurs with key matchup problems and could bring an abrupt end to the Spurs run at a title if they can play good enough defense in the backcourt.
The major determining factor for the Spurs will be the play of Tony Parker, a player they rely heavily on to create their offense which centers around ball movement. Parker is healthy and should be ready to go, but even with Parker firing on all cylinders, San Antonio is in a tough position in the front court.
Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan make for a great matchup at the power forward position, but Dwight Howard vs Tiago Splitter is not exactly a fair match at center. This is particularly true when you consider how amped Howard is right now, having led his team to back-to-back crucial victories over San Antonio and Houston as the Lakers new leader. He’s getting a solid dose of help from Gasol and the Laker bench, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Lakers make this one interesting. That said, they still fall short of San Antonio’s quality.
Prediction: San Antonio wins series 4-2
DENVER vs GOLDEN STATE
The Warriors are not going anywhere anytime soon. Their starting five is locked up through next season and their core of double-double machine David Lee and Stephen Curry both have several years remaining on their deals. But for this season, their trip to the Rocky Mountains is going to spell the end of their campaign.
Denver is among the best in the following categories: scoring, fast break points, points in the paint, rebounding, shot blocking, steals, assists, shooting percentage and offensive efficiency. Add to that their 38-3 home record during the regular season and what you have is a team capable of dominance.
Golden State is respectable with the seventh best offense in the NBA and a talented bunch of guys playing under a coach who has shown his potential to eventually join the NBA’s elite in Mark Jackson. But the experience of George Karl, the strength of his squad and their incredible home record all point to this being just a pit stop on their way to the Western Conference Finals.
Prediction: Denver wins series 4-1
LOS ANGELES vs MEMPHIS
This is the best series in the Western Conference first round by far. These two have gone toe-to-toe time and time again and while the Clippers may have won the season series 3-1, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a repeat of last year’s seven game first round thriller.
The Clippers emerged victorious that time and since day one of this season when the Clippers narrowly slipped by Memphis again, these two have been on a crash course toward another postseason faceoff. A top ten offense up against the best defense in the league, two superstar power forwards going at it and one of the best defensive point guards taking on one of the best offensive point guards, this series has everything.
The two are separated by one small sticking point most likely; their benches. The simple fact is the Clippers have a deeper bench that will give them the longevity they need to go the entire distance in this series. The fact that Memphis has the best defense in the league won’t intimidate them much as the Clips boast the fourth best defense in the league, all they have to do is outgun them on the offensive end and their bench, fourth in bench scoring in the league, can help them do that.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins series 4-3