NBA Western Conference playoff preview
MANILA, Philippines -- Rankings in the Western Conference weren't fully decided until the last day of the regular season, making the playoffs all the more exciting in that side of the United States.
Will Oklahoma City set a rematch with Miami? Will San Antonio's aging legs get them through? Or will the Kobe-less Lakers complete a fairy-tale ending to what has been a season that has looked like a page torn straight from a script for a Hollywood movie?
Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs Houston Rockets (45-37)
Thunder still the most dangerous team: The most dangerous team in the west has not skipped a beat since trading away James Harden. Kevin Durant picked up the slack and is averaging a career high assists with 4.6 a game. He is so efficient that he is averaging over 50% from the field 40% from 3 point land and 90% from the free throw line. Only 6 players have ever done that.
Russell Westbrook has dealt with a lot of criticism about the lack of playmaking but he is a dangerous driver who can get to the rim whenever he wants. Westbrook gets to the free throw line more than any point guard in the league and never gives up on plays shows that he has no fear.
Rocket-like pace to bode well for Houston: The Rockets want to push the ball in transition as quickly as possible. They led the league in pace per game with 96.2 possessions. James Harden and Jeremy Lin continuously blitz teams with repeated pick and rolls. As a result, defenses crash the paint to help out leaving open looks from three point territory for Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino.
While Houston has one of the most efficient offenses, their defense is what loses them games. Aside from Omer Asik, none of the starting players are good at keeping their man in front of them. James Harden, in particular, is vulnerable to back door cuts that allow easy layups. The Rockets ranked 28th in the league in points allowed per game, against quality in opponents in the playoffs they are going to struggle to win games.
San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)
Spurs have to overcome injuries: While Duncan has put up amazing numbers this year at age 36, his teammates have been struggling. Manu Ginobili has been dealing with tightness in his hamstring while Tony Parker has not looked the same since returning from a left ankle sprain.
Role players like Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are all expected to contribute more after their disappearances in last year’s conference finals against the Thunder. Splitter, in particular, gives the Spurs a good screen and role player who can finish inside unlike Boris Diaw. The team has evolved into a fast-paced, three-point shooting group but the resurgence of their defense this year (ranked 3rd in defensive rating) is an important development for postseason success.
Lakers' big men picking up slack: The big story in Hollywood is the Achilles heel injury to Kobe Bryant taking him out of the playoffs. Coach Mike D’Antoni will now most likely revolve the offense around Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Howard has picked up his play recently but is coming off back surgery and a torn labrum. Nevertheless, D12 is still one of the hardest centers to guard.
If the 3 point shooting of Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and Metta World Peace can provide spacing for Gasol and Howard on the interior this could be a dangerous team. Steve Nash has been out of the lineup for most of the season but is planning on taking epidural shots in order to play in the first round. His absence could take pressure off everyone on offense but he will struggle to defend quick point guards.
Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs Golden State Warriors (47-35)
Speedy Nuggets try to run faster: The Nuggets second leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL. Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler are expected to fill in for him. The knock on this Denver team is whether or not they can retain the frenetic pace that they play at in the playoffs. Conventional wisdom is that the game slows down as possessions become more valuable.
This Nuggets team thrives on mayhem defensively. They are top 5 in the league in both blocks and steals and the turnovers they create normally lead to easy baskets. They are also in a good position to have home court advantage; they’ve won 38 games there. That is the 5th best all time record in NBA history.
Inexperience to do Warriors in? The only Warrior in the starting lineup who has playoff experience is Andrew Bogut with a grand total of 5 games. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have been lighting up from three-point land this year. Steph Curry just recently broke the single season record for most three pointers made in a season closely followed by the 2nd year man Thompson.
This team has an exciting and dedicated fan base that will make it a daunting task for opposing teams to beat.
Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Go where CP3 takes you: The Clippers pretty much go wherever Chris Paul will take them. Their offense is very basic, relying mostly on pick and rolls with him or, whenever he sits, Jamal Crawford. Blake Griffin is the main beneficiary of Paul’s passing but can also operate as the hub of the offense in the post area.
The main concern for the Clippers is whether or not they can solve their free throw shooting woes. Deandre Jordan shoots a miserable 39% from there while Griffin shoots 66% while they are top 5 in attempts for the team. In the 4th quarter, Jordan is normally benched because of this but it removes the team’s best interior defender from the floor. If the team can avoid missing their free throws they are a difficult team to beat.
Prince could be X-factor: After trading away Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies actually increased their scoring per game redistributing the ball to Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley. With the addition of Tayshaun Prince, the team is now more deliberate in the half court and smarter defensively. Prince may no longer be a lockdown defender but his IQ and length make the team as a whole better than when Gay was around. - Rappler.com