2014 NBA Playoffs Preview: Western Conference First Round

The Spurs dominated the regular season series with the Mavs
The Spurs dominated the regular season series with the Mavs

The Spurs and Thunder face familiar foes, the Clippers and Warriors battle in California, and expect offensive fireworks between the Rockets and Blazers

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Dallas Mavericks

After years of cratering in the 2000’s and a league-wide initiative to open up the court, this season in the NBA has been an explosion in terms of scoring. The league scoring average went from 96.3 in the lockout-shortened 2012 season to 98.1 in 2013 to an astounding 101.0 points per game, the highest since the 1994-95 season right before scoring fell off a cliff in the late 90’s. There are many reasons for why this juiced up scoring era has arrived, but you can pinpoint the Western Conference for a the focus on O based on the stats. Among the top ten teams in scoring average in the regular season, all of them came from the West. Seven of them are in the playoffs, and these are two of the better offensive squads facing off.

It would almost seem insulting to NBA fans if I had to remind them about what happened to the Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, a memory so devastating with a title at their fingertips that recovery almost seemed impossible. However, San Antonio, like Jason Voorhees, just never seems to go away and made another great regular season run thanks to a 19-game winning streak late in the season. Not too many new faces in the picture from last year for Gregg Popovich (a likely Coach of the Year winner this season) outside of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres, and the results are just about the same. They have swept their last two first round opponents since the lockout, and this year they face a division rival that they have bumped into times a plenty in the postseason, the Dallas Mavericks.

Much was made about how the only two players on the 2011 Mavericks team that won the NBA Championship that also played in the Finals in 2006 were Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. Three years later and one year after missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the Mavs are back in the postseason with a pretty new look. This time, the only people from the unforgettable 2011 squad on this team are head coach Rick Carlisle, future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, and Shawn Marion. These Mavs are a wonderful mixture of veterans with a little bit left in the tank (Marion, Vince Carter, Devin Harris), guys barely past their primes (Jose Calderon, Brandan Wright, Monta Ellis) and fresh faces in a good situation (Shane Larkin, Jae Crowder, DeJuan Blair).

Unlike the rock solid experienced team that won it all three years ago, this is a team that broke in a lot of newcomers by playing at a quick pace while keeping Nowitzki at the top of the food chain. Now Mark Cuban’s Mavericks will play the Spurs, a team that they have played a whopping six times in the playoffs since 2001. The Spurs are 4-2 in those playoff match ups, and San Antonio has swept Dallas in the regular season since the 2012-13 season. I don’t see any reason why a Spurs rollover on Dallas should not occur once again, albeit not a sweep. While the Mavericks put up a lot of shots thanks to Nowitzki and Ellis’ volume shooting, the Spurs play at a faster tempo and have a much better defense. The Mavs make and take more three-pointers, but the Spurs shot an amazing 40% from 3, the best in the league by far. Kawhi Leonard is playing his best ball right now and will be a big problem for the older versions of Vinsanity and the Matrix.

Dallas is excellent at using their speed to steal the ball, but the Spurs are just as good at blocking shots and are way better at team rebounding. Jose Calderon is a very efficient player, but those stats mean squat when you face off with a point guard as good as Tony Parker is. The Mavs would have to turn back the clock on their veterans while getting great play from their younger hands in order to beat the Spurs. If there is any coach in the league that has license to inspire, it is Rick Carlisle, who has done it before. The Spurs know that time is running low on their opportunity to win a title, and the first round should be a stepping stone for them going forward. Unfortunately, for Carlisle and Nowitzki, even though getting the last playoff spot was impressive, it feels like time has already run out.

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies

We just got done talking about two teams from the same division that have battled countless times in the postseason. Although the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies have only faced off twice in the postseason, it feels like a rivalry just as robust as the Spurs and Mavericks. In 2011, after both franchises winning their first playoff series, the Thunder and Grizzlies went the distance in a fun series in which Oklahoma City came out on top in Game 7 at home. Two seasons later, after losing Russell Westbrook in the previous round to a knee injury, the Grizzlies jumped on the depleted Thunder. Durant, for the first time in his career, looked overwhelmed by the responsibility of being OKC’s top guy and was flustered all series long as the Grizzlies pounded down the Thunder in five games.

Although the Spurs swept the Grizzlies last season in the Conference Finals, many Thunder fans still feel cheated because their team did not get a true chance to defend their 2012 Western Conference Championship, which they won by defeating those same Spurs. For the third year in a row, the Spurs and Thunder share the top two seeds in the West, and the Thunder get another crack at the Grizzlies in the playoffs, this time in the first round and at full strength. Durant has had an MVP-caliber season, but this time there is consensus that he is likely to actually win it instead of his peer in greatness LeBron James. Although he needed more operations to clean up his knee, Westbrook has come back to stellar play without any trouble and in his absence at times in the regular season, the Thunder reserves dramatically improved.

In the advanced stats category, this should be the Thunder in a walk. From scoring average to three’s made to free throws made, Oklahoma City is worlds better than Memphis. The Thunder are even better in the rebounding margin this year than the Grizz are, which would surprise many who saw Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol eat OKC alive in the playoffs last year. Westbrook has made a living at torturing the really talented Mike Conley one-on-one, and that was the key in last season’s series in which Conley took advantage of Reggie Jackson. Even the Thunder’s bench is just as good as the Grizzlies’, and OKC is far better in the athleticism department.

The three places where the Grizzlies have an advantage are on the defensive end where they only surrender 94.5 PPG and in the turnover margin where Memphis play a lot cleaner possessions than the Thunder do. The one thing Durant and Westbrook and Serge Ibaka do not want to do is keep the game close late because the Grizzlies had a league-best 33 wins in which the game was within 5 points in the last 5 minutes. They do not Grit ‘N Grind as well as they did under Lionel Hollins, but the Grizzlies still have some fight left in him. It just won’t be enough to stop the Thunder train barring another Westbrook injury. I smell a five-game series win for Oklahoma City.

#3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #6 Golden State Warriors

It truly is the ushering-in of a new era in the NBA this year in the state of California. For the first time since the 2004-05 season, the Los Angeles Lakers are not playing in the postseason (As a side note, this is the first time in NBA history that we will have a postseason without the Lakers, Celtics, or Knicks). It was abundantly clear from the outset this season that the two best teams in the Governator’s favorite state were the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. If you told me that in the early 2000’s or even in 2011, I would have laughed at you, but here we are and the battle for the state will be settled in the first round. Both teams went to the playoffs last season, with the Clippers getting a surprising farewell from the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.

That disappointment led to Vinny Del Negro’s firing, which opened the door for the entrance of new head coach (and Boston Celtics mastermind) Doc Rivers. Speculation was high from the beginning on how Doc could turn around the misfortunes of the Clippers in Staples Center, where the banners are all colored in purple and gold. The offense chugged even better than last year, to the surprise of many who thought Rivers would rein them in and focus on the defensive end. The young front court of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan both had career years with Jordan leading the league in rebounding at 13.7 RPG. Chris Paul was his superstar point guard self along with a loaded bench that includes Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and even Danny Granger. It was no surprise that with Doc watching over them, the Clippers had a franchise-best 57 wins.

The Golden State Warriors also made the playoffs last season and seemed to find their calling thanks to an inspired playoff series win over the Denver Nuggets. Although they lost in six games to the Spurs in the second round, it was the farthest the Warriors had gotten to the playoffs since 2007 and this is their first streak of back-to-back postseason appearances since the Run TMC days of the early 90’s. The two big guns for The City are the Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry and Thompson were 1st and 2nd respectively in three-pointers made per game and both shot at well over 40% from the arc. Throw in athletic forwards like Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes along with big bodies like David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and Jermain O’Neal, and you have a Warriors team that is even stronger than last year’s second round team.

While the weight of heavier expectations took its toll on head coach Mark Jackson (whose job could be in jeopardy) and the Warriors in the regular season, that weight shifts quickly over to the Clippers in the postseason, where results are now demanded of Doc Rivers and the boys of Lob City. Although the Clippers and Warriors were fierce rivals in the regular season and it is a 3 seed versus a 6 seed on paper, the team stats show a much more even match up. Both teams play at a fast clip and take a lot of three’s, but the Warriors (thanks to O’Neal, Lee, Maureese Speights and Draymond Green) are a better rebounding team. Golden State also give up 98.8 PPG, 2 points less than the Clippers do.

Andrew Bogut’s fractured rib injury is a daunting blow to the Warriors’ size, but that is offset by the fact that when David Lee got injured last postseason, the Warriors went to small ball and smoked the fast-paced Nuggets. I expect the Warriors to do the same against the Clippers in many sequences and try to out-splash them in transition. Steph Curry is an amazing shooter, but he was also top five in assists, so his match up with Paul will be intriguing as both players love to penetrate with their nifty ball-handling and kick it out to open shooters. This might also be a series where the offenses are so finely tuned that being on the road or at home means little because both teams will be fully enabled offensively at all times. I expect the Clippers to take a game or two in Golden State and win the series, but it won’t be easy for Doc Rivers to prove the pundits right.

#4 Houston Rockets vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers

This is by far the toughest match up for me to predict from the get-go. Like the Bulls and Wizards facing off in the 4-5 match up out East, this is the only series in which neither team won their division. Like the Wiz and Bulls being usurped by the Heat and Pacers in the Eastern Conference, the dominant Spurs and Thunder were able to overshadow the excellent 54-win seasons by both Houston and Portland. When I mentioned the scoring outburst throughout the league this season and pinpointed the Western Conference, pull that focus a little harder at you will see these two teams at the tip-top of the NBA in almost all offensive categories.

This the second season in a row in which the Rockets have made the playoffs, and although G.M. Daryl Morey (a loyal number cruncher) did not make too many overall changes to their roster in the offseason, they made one big change. That was the signing of Dwight Howard, arguably the best center in the entire league. Howard’s gobbling up of rebounds and blocks along with some improved scoring late in the regular season have turned Morey’s Rockets into an advanced stats dream team. They were a top five team in scoring, field goal percentage, three-pointers made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, rebounds, blocks, and tempo. Dwight’s arrival gave head coach Kevin McHale the big guy they always needed in the post, but Houston has not diverted from the three-point barrage that made them successful last season behind All-Star guard James Harden. From Chandler Parsons to Jeremy Lin to Terrence Jones to even Patrick Beverley, if you name a niche role in the NBA, the Rockets have it down pat.

You would think that even in this era where the three-ball is more valuable than ever, the Rockets would have few peers in terms of 9.5 made three-pointers per game. Sure enough, the team they are playing in the first round is the Portland Trail Blazers, who were tied for second at 9.4 made three’s per game. Ironically, the Rockets have only won one playoff series since 1997 and that was against the Blazers in 2009. Rip City has not been to the playoffs since 2011 and has not won a playoff series since beating the Jazz in the second round in 2000 right before their Game 7 meltdown against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. This team is far different from the infamous “Jail Blazers” or Nate McMillan’s 2009 squad that lost to the Rockets.

After 2012 lottery pick Damian Lillard won Rookie of the Year last season, the Blazers took an incredible leap forward from a losing team to a force to be reckoned with in the first two months of the season, owning the league’s best record in the beginning. Lillard was an All-Star for the first time, but he was not alone. There is power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the most dangerous mid-range shooters and post players in basketball. There are Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews, who are top flight three-point shooters alongside Lillard. Then there is Robin Lopez, one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, and a small but quick bench that includes Dorrell Wright, Mo Williams, rookie C.J. McCollum, and Will Barton. Terry Stotts was an offensive coordinator of sorts in Dallas when the Mavericks won it all in 2011 thanks to a fantastic three-point display and well-run sets, and this is that game plan on steroids. No wonder Blazer fans are starting to believe in this team; they have been letting it Rip all season long.

The Rockets might be champions in the Moneyball side of thing thanks to Morey’s stat-driven management, but the Blazers are neck and neck with them in every single category. The Rockets’ one true weakness (outside of poor free-throw percentage) is their 23rd-ranked scoring defense. Luckily for them, the Blazers were 22nd. Of the ten youngest teams in the NBA this season, Portland and Houston were the only two that made the playoffs (Portland have an age average of 25.7 years old while Houston’s is 24.8). Points per game? Rockets were 2nd and Blazers were 3rd. Free throws made? Rockets were the best, but Portland was 7th and had the best free throw percentage in the league while Houston’s was the third worst. Dwight may have boosted the Rockets into the top four in the league in total rebounds, but Portland was the best in the league in that department. This is a perfect example of even stevens in the NBA playoffs, and if you blink you might miss a dunk and two three-point attempts with the breakneck pace this series will be played at.

In a match up this close, you have to look for the little things because it is those that wind up either getting you over the hump or costing you in the long run. Houston’s 71.1%  at the charity stripe is quite alarming compared to Portland’s 81.5%, and the Blazers as a whole could outdo Howard in the rebounding game. But the duel I will watch heavily will be Patrick Beverley, a pesky guard with elite defensive skills, facing off with Lillard and Matthews in the back court. If Beverley can get into their heads and if Parsons and Jones stretch out Portland’s bigs away from doubling Dwight, the Blazers might be fighting an uphill battle in the last few minutes of games. Believe me when I say that no lead will be safe in this series, as a 10-point deficit can disappear faster than James Harden’s shooting release. I will go with the more experienced All-Star tandem of Harden and Howard just barely overtaking the other tandem of Lillard and Aldridge, but THIS is the playoff series I cannot wait to see. You think it is a coincidence that it will be the last one up this weekend? I think not.