On Friday, we took a look at our Eastern Conference predictions. Even though one game is in the books, better late than never. Let’s get right to the other side of the bracket, the Western Conference:
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 8) Houston Rockets
Why OKC takes it in 5 games
KOBEsh: It’s a 1-seed versus an 8-seed. That’s reason enough right there.
But going further? You’ve got the league’s best and most efficient offense playing a squad with a middling 16th ranked defense, though they’ve certainly improved over the second half of the season. You’ve got two of the NBA’s deadliest scorers in Westbrook and Durant, and no one on the opposition that is at all suited to slow them down. You’ve got an experienced OKC front line that knows how to work advantages against a bunch of first-time playoff virgins, including Serge Ibaka whose mobility and shooting touch should tear up whatever platoon coach Kevin McHale chooses.
This shouldn’t be a contest. No further explanation necessary.
But how can Harden and the Rockets make this a 6 game series:
KOBEsh: We’ve written time and time again on MAMBINO how streaky the Rockets can be, but it seems that facet of their play may be gone for now. Since their 7-game losing streak ended in late January, the Rockets have gone on a 24-16 tear, good for 8th highest winning percentage in the NBA from then on. In that stretch, the Rockets have made nearly 11 threes per contest on a 37.7 percent clip–a gigantic reason why they’ve been able to stabilize their young team even with so many players moving in and out of rotations.
Houston can take two games in this series if they can keep hitting from the outside, control the offensive boards and if James Harden continues to be a top-15 player in the league. The only proven way to beat Oklahoma is to slow the game down, control the boards and pray that either Westbrook or Durant has a 6 for 19 night. If that’s the case, then James Harden is their best one-on-one weapon to drive and either draw contact, or to pitch out for a long range shot. A bet on a 6-game series is actually just a bet on James Harden–and I’m taking it.
2) San Antonio Spurs vs. 7) Los Angeles Lakers
Why we’re all high and the Spurs make it a gentlemen’s sweep in 5 games
BockerKnocker: As a basketball fan, it’s nice to see that Pau Gasol is finally being utilized correctly. As much as I hate the Mustachioed Defense-Averse coach that patrols the Laker sideline, I do think that he finally understood that the game can be bigger than his stubbornness. Of course, he ran Kobe Bryant into the ground with a monster truck and may have put the first nail in the coffin to close a truly historic career. But don’t let a five-game winning streak keep you from putting down the Kool-Aid for a sec. Scroll through the Lakers schedule and find their last road win over a quality Western opponent. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Find it? December 22nd at Golden State was the date of a 3-point overtime win. The heroics of Gasol, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, and even Dwight Coward are a treat for Laker Nation, but these are still the same Lakers. To think that a Game 7 is possible depends far too much on the adjustment abilities of the Pringle-faced shot-caller. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will send Hollywood home in 5.
But how can the Lakers take this to 7 games?
The CDP: I’d much rather be writing about why I’m taking the Lakers in 7 right now, but even a beaten up San Antonio team with its weakest support cast in years has to be favored over the Kobe-less Lakers (for the record, I’d take the upset if Kobe had both Achilles).
For years, the Spurs have been regular season wonders, riding a proven formula of committed role players, smart system basketball, and its aging Big Three to get a top seed before getting upset in the playoffs. Why should this year be any different? Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker aren’t even close to 100%, while Stephen Jackson was dismissed and Boris Diaw went and got himself hurt. Tim Duncan has been stellar, sure, but it’s not enough. Without Kawhi Leonard taking one hell of a leap, this team isn’t scary with a chance to game plan for them– it still relies on Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, and Gary Neal for heavy minutes. They just signed T-Mac for Pete’s sake.
On the other hand, playing the Spurs is about as good as it gets for the Lakers, who would have been unable to handle the speed and athleticism of a team like OKC or Denver (remember last year?). Instead, the Lakers are salivating at the chance to pound the ball inside with Dwight and Pau, who should be able to abuse Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair/Matt Bonner. Rested or not, Duncan can only play so many minutes, but Pau is playing his best ball of the year while Dwight looks like his old self. If the Lakers new defensive identity and intensity holds, they will rotate just enough to challenge their perimeter shooters and funnel their guard penetration into Dwight, who’s currently playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level. Ultimately, I think that the Spurs will expose the lack of volume offense that Kobe brings and prevail in 7, but the Lakers are going to make them sweat first.
3) Denver Nuggets vs. 6) Golden State Warriors
Why do the Nuggets take this in 6 games?
KOBEsh: The Nuggets are taking this series because they’re the better team, plain and simple. They have better rebounders, better ball movement and get to the line nearly 5 more times per game. Denver has the 4th most efficient offense in the league, with Golden State settling in at 10th. They’re both towards the bottom third in defensive efficiency, a great sign for everyone watching this series, but bad for coaches Mark Jackson and George Karl’s respective healths.
Whether this series ends earlier rather than later really hinges on the health of Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson. The Nuggets are expected to really get to Golden State on offensive rebounds, which won’t happen without Kenneth Faried. Without Faried’s insane rebounding and post defense, as well as Lawson’s playmaking and penetration, it’s difficult to see this series lasting anywhere short of 7 games.
4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5) Memphis Grizzlies
How does Memphis win this on the road in a game 7?
KOBEsh: Because Memphis is a better team than last year.
The Grizzlies just got done setting the franchise record with 56 wins and laid the rest of the league to waste with the stingiest defense in the West at 96.6 points per 100 possessions. Marc Gasol has turned into what should be a First Team All-NBA performer, and Mike Conley has evolved into a bit more than an above-average point guard. Memphis relies on a bruising inside attack from Randolph and Gasol, throwing the ball outside to a group of somewhat unreliable shooters that have made just enough buckets to keep defenses from completely crashing on the bigs. As Zach Lowe said the other day on a Simmons podcast, the Grizz know who they are, and are very comfortable doing what they do, no matter where they play. After all, they are fearless on the road tied for third best road record in the league at 24-17. The team they’re tied with? The Los Angeles Clippers.
The main problem for Memphis is of course, scoring. They’re one of the least potent teams in the league, and are second to last in pace. The Grizz muck up games, keep them low scoring affairs and hope that Conley, Z-Bo and Gasol can take over down the stretch, on both ends. They’ll have to–the Clippers, mostly thanks to CP3, are the league’s second best crunch time offense, while the Grizz are 18th.
In the end though, I believe in Memphis’ defense to triumph over the Clippers offense, specifically Chris Paul in the fourth quarter. The Clips are true road warriors, but I think it’ll be the Grizzlies’ complete non-chalance when the odds are stacked against them
Why the Clippers take the series in 6 games?
AO: In what could be the most blood boiling series of the first round, there is one man who will be the crux of the outcome: CP3. There are certainly arguments to be made for Memphis: frontcourt advantage, the ability to sick Tony Allen on Paul at the end of games, overall stingy defense. But none of these arguments matter when you have a force like the little guy. In trying my best to avoid a cliche, I’m sorry but I just can’t get away from the thought “he won’t let his team lose.” We saw it last year when he sliced and diced down the stretch to get whatever floater or step back 10 footer he wanted. I don’t see any reason things will change this year. Memphis is a good team, but there are a lot of good teams in the West, and some of them have to lose in the first round.