The Situation: James Harden makes his way back to Oklahoma City to challenge his old running mates. The Thunder should come out on top, but this could be the start of a rivalry for years to come.
(1) OKC THUNDER
The Thunder are favored to once again represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals, but one question lingers: Will they be fearing the beard come Saturday? In terms of the regular season, the loss of Harden hasn’t affected the team much. Though the previous year’s records can’t be compared in terms of straight wins and losses (lockout), the percentages can. Oklahoma City finished with a .712 win percentage with Harden in 2012 and .741 without Harden in 2013. The Thunder also still gets to the line at will. (Kevin Durant is second in the league in free throw attempts and makes James Harden ranks first.) There is also less friction on this team. Durant and Westbrook are now an accepted pair in the NBA stratosphere, with only personalities differentiating their goals. But it’s going to come down to who can replace Harden’s scoring in crunch time. Will it be Kevin Martin that steps up to the plate? Will Derek Fisher hit a few clutch threes, as he’s known to do? Will Serge Ibaka sink that 17-footer he’s been hitting consistently during the season? And what the hell did they get Kendrick Perkins for? (I smell amnesty.)
(8) HOUSTON ROCKETS
The Rockets are one of the great stories of 2013. Even with the acquisition of James Harden at the beginning of the season, they weren’t expected to sniff the playoffs until the following year. But Kevin McHale has done wonders, even after the tragic passing of his daughter earlier in the year. Amazingly, this Rockets team is on average, the youngest team currently playing in the NBA, and yet, has taken great strides in terms of talent level and inner player development. Chandler Parsons now seems like a steal from his no. 38 draft spot, and the recent acquisition of Thomas Robinson (a no. 5 pick in this year’s draft) bodes well for their future. It’s almost a certainty the Thunder get by the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs; but the future of the Rockets looks bright. If they battle hard and have a tight series, they might lure Dwight Howard from the flashing lights of L.A. in the offseason.
Prediction: Thunder win 4-1 over the Rockets in five closely contested games
The Situation: An old rivalry is renewed as the Lakers slipped into the seventh seed by beating the Rockets on the last game of the year. This would have been a battle of veteran Hall of Famers if Kobe wasn’t out for the season.
(2) SA SPURS
It may be stupid to question how far Gregg Popovich can take this team. After all, we’re talking about someone that could have been nominated as coach of the year for the past decade. This is a coach that strategizes and finds the perfect opportunities to rest his older players, even during nationally televised games. Someone who can give his veterans so much leeway, and yet still command the respect of the new blood on the team. Injuries to Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw have limited Pop’s options and recent moves have raised a few eyebrows on the true strength of San Antonio For reasons unknown, the Spurs recently waived Stephen Jackson. And now, they have signed Tracy McGrady (I’m sure he’s glad he played in China) as an insurance policy for a deep playoff run.
How big of a role will Tracy McGrady play? History says: not that much. Popovich is going to roll with the guys that have been there all season. Danny Green and Kahwi Leonard should handle the boatload of the responsibility at the wings. Tony Parker has thankfully recovered well from his ankle injury, while the slow upbringing of Tiago Splitter paired with Tim Duncan is finally paying off. In another silver lining, Tim Duncan has battled Father Time with his best season in the last four years. At age 36, Duncan is averaging 17 points and almost 10 rebounds a game, statistics that are close to his career averages at 22 points and 12 rebounds. If they can get consistent perimeter scoring from the wings, Popovich may squeeze one more title out of Duncan.
(7) LA LAKERS
The Lakers seemed to be winning their battle against Father Time as well, that is, until Kobe Bryant suffered his season ending injury with two games remaining on the schedule. It may be laughable to call this team a contender, but this Lakers squad was definitely built for the playoffs, which is (amazingly) where they find themselves. The hiring of D’Antoni has been much maligned, but don’t forget, at the All-Star break D’Antoni predicted that the Lakers would have to go 20-8 the rest of the way to make the playoffs. The Lakers’ record since then has been… 20-8 (the Lakers actually finished 27-12 to close the season). Locking up the seventh seed may have been a blessing in disguise as this team would have been annihilated by the Oklahoma City Thunder. But if they can get past the Spurs and build up confidence along the way, who knows what a team with as much inside power as the Lakers can do when they’re clicking on all cylinders. After all, their true starting five-Nash, Kobe, Metta, Pau, and Dwight-have only played a total of 22 games together.
Prediction: Spurs win 4-2 over the Lakers after Lakers take early series lead
The Situation: Some felt the Grizzlies squandered their championship aspirations by trading Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince for salary cap reasons. The Clippers sputter when Chris Paul isn’t on the floor, and he isn’t going to play 48 minutes a night. (See: Del Negro)
(5) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Despite their moniker, the Grizzlies are the small market fish swimming in the big pond. Though it may have only been one move, John Hollinger, one of ESPN’s groundbreaking stat guys, deserves some credit as Vice President of Basketball Operations in influencing the Rudy Gay trade. He found a trade piece in Tayshaun Prince that pleases the new owner’s need to cut costs, while not sacrificing the play of the team. Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t. So don’t underestimate the number one ranked defense in the NBA.
Let’s take a look at the Grizzlies from top to bottom. Marc Gasol may just win Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and combined with Tony Allen (who can cover your best scorer), Tayshaun Prince (who comes from a great background of team defense with the Pistons), and Mike Conley (always near the leaders in steals), this is a team that can reel off strings of defensive possessions. There have been various teams that have won the championship with stingy defenses and average offenses (think the 2008 Celtics), so it’s not a stretch to believe they can make the Finals. Unfortunately, their toughest test may just be in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers, who have beaten them 3-1 in the season series, and just play with an overall feeling that they have the Grizzlies’ number.
(4) LA CLIPPERS
It may be unfair, but Vinny Del Negro is on the hot seat during these playoffs. Anything less than an appearance in the NBA Finals or a seven game series in the Western Conference Finals and the sole blame will land squarely on Del Negro’s shoulders. In opposition to the Grizzlies, Del Negro has been given the best money can buy. Just in the last two years, the Clippers have acquired Chris Paul, Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom. Yet even with all these weapons, there is still uneasiness about the team.
Though we don’t know what really goes on behind closed doors, this team seems to be run by Chris Paul and Chris Paul alone. The offense sputters when Paul is out of the lineup, and for a team so blessed with offensive talent they should be smoother and have more complicated sets than they already show. If Blake Griffin has been holding back anything in his offensive repertoire now is the time to break it out. There are only so many one-dribble spin moves you can pull off before the scouts pick up on it. The real danger may be not picking up the third seed, as the Thunder has been giving the Clippers fits the whole season, a team they are poised to face if they move to the second round.
Prediction: Clippers win 4-3 over Grizzlies due to the Chris Paul factor
The Situation: There’s always one matchup that seems like a coin flip on paper, and this one definitely fits the bill. The Denver Nuggets beat the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in the season series, but three of those games took place in November at the start of the season.
This is the tale of polar opposites. George Karl is an experienced and successful coach; this is Mark Jackson’s second year at the helm and first playoff appearance. The Warriors are a great offensive team with great shooters and an average defense. The Nuggets on the other hand lack shooters and get most of their points off of defensive turnovers. The reason this one is so hard to predict is due to the Nuggets incredulous home record (38-3 at home) and the fact that when Stephen Curry gets going, he doesn’t really care what your home record is. The Nuggets have also caught the injury bug heading into the playoffs. Danilo Gallinari is out for the season, Ty Lawson suffered a torn plantar fascia in his foot (though he has been playing recently), and Kenneth Faried severely sprained his ankle as recently as last week. The Warriors? They’ve actually been having an off-year health-wise: Everyone’s healthy! And don’t count out their own home court advantage. In Oakland, they’ll be a tough out for anyone.
Prediction: Nuggets win 4-3 over Warriors due to protecting home court advantage