Saturday, April 16, 2016

Your NBA Playoff Primer: The West

There are plenty of quality teams out West, but all signs are pointing to a historic showdown between Kawhi Leonard's Spurs and Steph Curry's Warriors.
By Adam Lowenstein (@StatsAdam)

Ed. Note- Today Adam continues his look at the NBA Playoffs with the brutal Western Conference, led by the historic Golden State Warriors, but don't sleep on the always competitive San Antonio Spurs, who have had a regular season for the record books themselves.

If you'd like to see his Eastern Conference preview, click here. Now, onto the best of the West.

#1 Golden State Warriors vs. #8 Houston Rockets

Can the best team in NBA regular season history repeat as champions? If there is not a major Warriors injury, then it looks likely they will be raising the Larry O’Brien trophy again. The best offense in the league plays at the highest pace of any team in the playoffs, because Golden State knows that, the more possessions there are in a game, the better chance the northern Californians are happy.

The Rockets also play at a very high pace. In fact, they are at the second-highest among Western Conference playoff teams. That is unfortunate for general manager Daryl Morey and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who will reportedly be evaluated after this season. James Harden will have to continue to play like Superman (yeah, that nickname should not have ever been bestowed upon Dwight Howard. Plus, it was Shaq’s first) for Houston to do much in this series.

Harden performed very poorly in his first game against the Warriors this season, but in his December 31 and February 9 meetings he fared better. He scored at least 30 points in both of those contests, and he finished the regular season with four consecutive games just like that. His four straight game-high performances to end the season brought the Rockets a 3-1 record and a playoff berth.

Maybe I talked too much about Harden because it does not seem that Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the Warriors are going to let the Rockets get in their way. Golden State swept Houston during the regular season, and I see the same in the playoffs.

Prediction: Golden State in 4

#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ training staff has kept the team free of injuries heading into the playoffs, and they will need to continue to do so if the Spurs are going to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Only six teams, including the 2015-16 Warriors, have had better regular season records than the Spurs’ 67-15 record this season. Coincidentally, the Warriors’ 2014-15 regular season record was also 67-15.

The Grizzlies are facing a very uphill battle against a hungry San Antonio team that swept them during the regular season. In addition, the Spurs had their best single-season record in franchise history, and they matched the best regular season home record in NBA history, and this is the Spurs’ 19th straight playoff appearance, matching the fourth-longest NBA streak all-time.

Meanwhile, this injury-riddled Memphis squad is making its sixth consecutive playoff appearance, but Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will not be playing this postseason. Brandan Wright also continues to be out indefinitely due to a knee injury. Tony Allen is dealing with some terrible hamstring pain, but the 34-year-old shooting guard is a gamer and will play in Game 1.

Wild card Lance Stephenson could step up in this role on the overwhelming underdog team. Although his last single-digit scoring performance came against the juggernaut Spurs, he has put together seven consecutive games with at least 10 points. His previous eight games had him averaging 19.4 points in 30 minutes and shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

Stephenson could have a game for ages, but Kawhi Leonard is not letting Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan play more games than they have to, especially in this first round.

Prediction: San Antonio in 4, or whenever the Grizzlies don't have enough players to suit up – whichever happens first

#3 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #6 Dallas Mavericks

Unlike Memphis, Oklahoma City was not bitten by the injury bug this year. However, the Thunder seem to be plagued by the four-year, $70 million contract the organization gave to Enes Kanter, who started just one game this season. As you might be able to tell, I am in the Bill Simmons camp on being bitter about the potential of the Thunder, if they still had that man named Harden. But never mind, that is for another time.

Back to how the Thunder will win this series relatively easily: Oklahoma City swept the season series from Dallas. Additionally, with starting the lineup of Westbrook/Roberson/Durant/Ibaka/Adams, rookie NBA coach Billy Donovan posted a 43-16 record. He received 80 games from Russell, 78 from Serge and 72 from Kevin. In this make-or-miss league, it is also important that the Thunder is in the top five in effective field goal percentage on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

Near the end of the season, Oklahoma City did show that it could be beaten though. Can Dirk Nowitzki explode, and can his fellow teammates bomb enough 3-pointers (minus Chandler Parsons, who was their most accurate long-range shooter) to steal one of the games in Oklahoma City? Well, the Mavericks will have to keep handling the ball well and save up as many possessions as they can.

However, do not forget about the Dallas injuries, like David Lee most likely sitting Game 1 due to a heel injury. While Devin Harris (thumb) and J.J. Barea (groin) are expected to play, and they can be a large part of the backcourt, they will not be able to help much in terms of trying to stop the league’s best rebounding and offensive rebounding team.

Prediction: Oklahoma City in 5

#4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers

Not too many people know that the Clippers are the only 2016 playoff team that has won a series in each of the last two postseasons. They have made it to each of the last five postseasons, but have not made it past the conference semifinals in franchise history.

Standing in the way of the Clippers’ first conference finals appearance could be J.J. Redick’s bruised left heel. He could either miss Game 1, or could be hindered in that contest. He is an instrumental piece in the Clippers’ postseason run, or lack thereof. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and hopefully Redick can be Los Angeles’ mainstays, but Doc Rivers will be forced to shorten his rotation to allow for some of his ancillary pieces to make a difference.

If Redick is limited, it will be a next man up situation. Paul Pierce’s old-man game could produce some big-time 3-pointers when needed. Jeff Green, Jamal Crawford and possibly Austin Rivers are the wild cards for this oddly deep squad. Crawford is the pick to go off in at least one game.

Under Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers have surprised some people. They did so not only this regular season, but they also have surprised in the playoffs previously. In 2014, Portland went into Houston and took the first two contests of the best-of-seven first-round series from the moneyball Rockets. The Trail Blazers, who were best corner 3-point shooting team that season, won the 3-point battle and the series in six games.

Although that was a matchup between the four and five seeds, it was an impressive feat to win as the underdog twice in a row in the opponents’ arena. This time, it will be more difficult though. Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the rest of the Trail Blazers will have to keep this 2015-16 magic going because there is a nine-game discrepancy between the Clippers and them, as opposed to when they had the same record as the Rockets in 2014.

Prediction: LA Clippers in 7

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