With a little less than a week left in the season, we now take a look at the NBA Western Conference Playoff Preview (if the season ended today). With the 8th seed still up in the air between Utah and the Lakers, a 1/2 game separating the 1st and 2nd seeds, and only a game separating the 3,4 and 5 seeds, plenty can still change. And while most of the first round matchups in the East are sleepers, the ones in the West look to be some of the most exciting and competitive we’ve seen. So, lets look ahead at what might be with the standings as they are today.
(1) Oklahoma City vs. (8) LA Lakers
The Lakers are about the scariest 8 seed imaginable. And they seem like the kind of team that can and will turn it on come playoff time. They are a team full of veterans, many with a lot of Playoff experience and several with rings. This match up really depends on which Lakers team and which Thunder team show up. The Lakers, as good as they are, cannot compete with the NBA elite without Kobe Bryant, who was just lost for the rest of the season to inury. And the Thunder still have one of the best 1-2 punches in the NBA with Durant and Westbrook, but I think are not as a good a team as they were last year without James Harden. Ultimately, the Lakers still have not figured out how to play as a team, and Mike D’Antoni has proven he can lead a team to the playoffs, but not win in the playoffs. So I give the edge, just barely to the Thunder. Oklahoma City in 5.
(4) LA Clippers vs (5) Memphis
The Clippers are again one of the most exciting tickets in sports. “Lob City” “Dunk City”, whatever you want to call it, they put on one hell of a show. But are they good enough to make a serious run in the playoffs. I think this is the year they do it. And the main reason? Chris Paul. Paul has become one of the great floor leaders in the NBA. And surrounded by so much talent and depth off the bench, the Clippers become a difficult out. But don’t forget, this is basically the same Memphis team who upset the top seeded Spurs as the 8 seed, and Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have only gotten better. But ultimately I think the Grizzlies will struggle to keep up. Clippers in 6.
(3) Denver vs (6) Golden State
Another exciting first round match up without a clear-cut favorite, in my opinion. Both teams can score, both teams run, and both teams are really well coached. Denver is deeper, but Steph Curry and David Lee are both really tough to stop. Ultimately I think this one is going to come down to defense, where I think Denver has a slight advantage. Nuggets in 7.
(2) San Antonio vs (7) Houston
The Spurs are a machine. Even when they are sitting their stars and throw out a starting 5 that the casual observer would struggle to identify, they play some of the most fundamentally sound basketball you’ll see. The Rockets have been a great story, and I do think Harden with lead them to a win, maybe two at home, but I just think the Spurs will prove too much. Spurs in 5.
Thunder vs. Clippers
This is where I think the Clippers lack of playoff experience is going to start to show its head. Defensively, the Clips really don’t have an answer for Kevin Durant, who I think is going to just dominate this series. Chris Paul and co. won’t make it easy on them, but, I still think the Thunder win out. Thunder in 6.
San Antonio vs Denver
This is an interesting match-up. I actually think the Nuggets can really challenge the Spurs if they can control the pace of the games. Denver likes to run, San Antonio likes to play in the half-court. This is going to come down to efficiency and defense. If the Spurs can take away the fast break, they will have the upper hand in this series. And I think they will. Spurs in 6.
Western Conference Finals
Unlike football or college basketball where its one and done, in the NBA you are most likely to see the two best teams compete for a chance to go to the NBA Finals. And in the case of the West, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the two best teams. I think both have enough to make it, and I think both have a shot to dethrone the Heat in the Finals. I honestly think this one is too close to call at this point, and will depend a lot on how the teams look in the previous rounds. If Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can stay healthy, and that is a big “if”, I give them the edge. Spurs in 7.