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Welcome to the Playoffs: Western Conference Edition

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By: Colin Chiles, you can follow me on Twitter @ColinC27

Estimated read time: 12 minutes

The NBA season is long. The Finals don’t end until early June and the season starts back up again in October. When you factor in the news cycle created by the draft in late June and then free agency in early July, there’s really only two months of the year (August and September) where the NBA isn’t in the news. And if you’re an NBA junkie (guilty) summer league is in late July and rosters start getting finalized in September, leaving only August as the sad month without NBA news. To be honest, the NFL WISHES it had this kind of year long coverage. Even the playoffs are long. Each series is a 7 game series and the whole ordeal is a full two month process. This length of coverage comes with a certain downside as well. For casual fans, that’s just way too damn long to follow the league closely. For fans that aren’t that interested, it’s probably annoying. To those fans, I have a message: I feel you. It’s a long ass season and it’s hard to care for this long if you care at all, but if there’s one part of the season you’re going to watch, please make it the playoffs, and please make it the first round.

The first round gives you a snapshot of what’s going on in the league right NOW. You get a glimpse at rising stars and teams as well as tons of league’s best players in their prime.  With all rounds of the playoffs, you get to watch history being made and legacies cemented in a way that you just don’t get with other sports. I would argue that no other major sport (sorry tennis) emphasizes the individual as much as the NBA. In baseball it’s about the team. Will the Yankees win their millionth championship? In college sports it’s about the coach and the tradition of the school. Will Bill Self win his second national championship and will Kansas win their 142nd straight big 12 title? The NFL is closest to the NBA but still not quite the same. Will Tom Brady and the Patriots win another? Will team X’s defense carry them to a title?

In the NBA, only 5 guys are on the court at a time for each team (I’m an expert, trust me on this). Most coaches are an afterthought, and teams do matter but not nearly as much as the individual player. Will LeBron bring Cleveland another championship? Even for complete teams with multiple stars like the Warriors, no one is asking if the Warriors will add to their legacy, it’s “what will this collection of stars be able to do together?” and “Can KD finally get himself a ship?”.

Maybe that’s one of the things pushing people away and maybe I had no intention of this intro being this long but the point I want to make is this. When it’s the final minute of one of these playoff games, and it’s one guy’s legacy on the line with the ball in his hands and another guy’s legacy on the line who is guarding that guy? There is no more thrilling sports scenario. When it’s the final minute of game 7 of the finals, all of the sudden it doesn’t matter that your team won 73 games and that you won the last two MVP’s. If you come up short in that instance, your legacy is changed permanently, for the entirety of time. That’s why the NBA playoffs are cool. And that’s why you should watch.

So with that being said, let’s take a look at the Western Conference playoffs, where I’ll briefly breakdown each matchup, give you the number one reason to watch and make a prediction so I can look foolish here in the next couple of weeks when the first round is over. Let’s dive in!

 

1 Golden State Warrors vs 8 Portland Trailblazers

Breakdown of the matchup:

The Trailblazers snuck into the playoffs just ahead of the Nuggets (whom Westbrook murdered Sunday night, RIP) after an incredibly beneficial trade that was actually made with the Nuggets. The Blazers traded away Mason Plumblee, noted release valve and sick homeless man’s version of Draymond Green, and they received Jusuf Nurkic, known as the Bosnian Beast or Bosnian Bear depending on who you ask. Nurkic made a huge impact defensively and gobbling up boards, most notably with his 33 point 15 rebound ‘fuck you’ performance against his former team, Denver. In the next game however he fractured his fibula and is slated to hopefully return sometime in the first round. I spend so much time on Nurk here for two reasons. If Portland expects to have any kind of a chance in even challenging the Warriors, they’ve gotta have Damien Lillard and CJ McCullom balling out for a combined 70 points a game (which is possible) and 7 foot tall, 280 pound Jusuf Nurkic has to OWN the paint.

The Warriors one weakness is that they don’t really have an answer for a guy like Nurk other than simply outscoring his team. When the Warriors go small, they’ll have to have either KD (giving up 40 pounds) or Draymond (giving up 5 inches and 50 pounds). So if Dame and CJ are rolling, and Nurk is hauling in rebounds and shutting down the lane, the Blazers can make some of these games competitive.  However even if all that goes right, Klay/Steph/KD could combine for 20 made threes and render everything else meaningless.

Reason to watch:

If Nurk really is healthy, then there’s a 15% he’s going to try and snap Draymond’s leg in half at some point in this matchup. The Bosnian Bear has a bit of a temper and a bit of an ego. So does Draymond and there will be times when they are matched up on one another. I’m so fucking pumped thinking about Nurk throwing down a disrespectful dunk on Draymond and watching the tension build.

The other reason to watch is this will be a high scoring affair. Dame and CJ can light it up and there could be some really fun runs of both teams nailing ridiculous threes. Plus both teams have a really fun/loud home court. If games are competitive, both crowds will be into it, and that always makes for a better game.

Prediction:

Warriors win in 5 games, they sweep if Nurkic isn’t healthy

 

2 San Antonio Spurs vs 7 Memphis Grizzlies

Breakdown of the matchup:

I’m just going to tell you right now, if there’s a series you’re going to skip, make it this one. I don’t even have a ton to say about it. The Grizzlies resigned Mike Conley this offseason to a mega contract mainly because they had to or slip into irrelevance. They also swung big on Chandler Parsons, and it’s unfortunately unclear whether he’ll ever be the same player again. Though the truth of that sentence is dependent on the definition of the word player, because the “instagram/sliding into your DM’s Chandler Parsons” has shown no signs of slowing down. Marc Gasol remains the best passing big man in the league even though Jokic from the Nuggets plans on sweeping that title from him next season. Gasol averaged career highs in points and assists this year at 19.5 points and 4.6 assists per game. The Grizzlies however, kinda stunk post All-Star break, going 9-15 good for 23rd in the league and only 3 wins higher than the worst in the league Suns who went 6-19

For the Spurs it all hinges on Kawhi Leonard being the best player on court, which will be true of each series they play in these playoffs. I expect he will be in this series.

Reason to watch:

Maybe just don’t. But if you’re set on watching, the Grizzlies don’t have many ball handlers on this team not named Mike Conley. Watching Kawhi realize a poor ball handler has the ball in the middle of the court is like watching a shark sense blood in the water. He’s going to get some steals in this series and likely give nightmares to guys like Andrew Harrison.

Prediction:

Spurs in 4

**UPDATE** Memphis’s best perimeter defender, Tony Allen, was just declared out indefinitely due to a calf strain. He would have been guarding Kawhi Leonard…so if I could choose Spurs in 3, I would.

3 Houston Rockets vs 6 Oklahoma City Thunder

Breakdown of the matchup:

Okay now were talking. This is a series to get excited about because even if every game is a blow out (which is possible, but not likely), you will see playoff Russ going 155% at all times. The Thunder were careful to monitor Westbrook’s minutes this year, and something I should have included in my MVP piece is that Russ was 19th in the league in minutes this year, which makes his output that much more impressive. However now we’re in the playoffs and you can expect him to average a minimum of 40 minutes a game going forward.

There’s only two ways this can go for Russ. Either he’s going to shift one gear higher and find a way to use even more possessions for the destruction of those who oppose him or he’s going to actually shift down, in the realization that the playoffs are a different animal. He’s in a 7 game series now and he is going to need other teammates playing well in order to advance.

Don’t be surprised if we actually see this toned down version of Russ, who spends a good part of the game trying to get Oladipo, Kanter and some three point shooters going until he ultimately takes over in the 4th. In my mind, that’s the blueprint to follow if OKC is really going to compete in this series, and yeah, Russ might win one game entirely by himself but I honestly am expecting him to put up some big assist numbers in this series.

As for the Rockets strategy, it’s pretty simple. Bomb threes. They’ll have known agitator Pat Beverly guarding Westbrook, and it’s worth bringing up that he was the one who injured Russ a few years back in the first round of the playoffs. Harden will do Harden things and control the ball, shift guys out of their shoes and get guys great open looks. Look for him to attack Kanter in the pick n roll early and often.

OKC realistically is going to have to put up 115 a game to compete in this series, which is a big reason why Russ is going to have to find a way to get other guys going. To get to 115, they’ll need to hit threes as a team and they just don’t have ideal personnel to get that done unless someone gets hot.

Reason to watch:

Do you really need a reason to watch the two leading MVP candidates dual it out in a 7 game series that helps add to both of their legacies? I didn’t think so.

Prediction:

Rockets in 6

 

4 Los Angeles Clippers vs 5 Utah Jazz

Breakdown of the matchup:

On paper this might be the best first round matchup in all of the playoffs, but it definitely is the best in the Western Conference first round. There’s a lot at stake here that could send shockwaves through the NBA, no matter the result of the series. For the Clippers, this could, and should be the last hurrah for this core of guys. If they can’t get to the Western Conference Finals, this group is going to disband this summer. They have to right? I know getting to the WCF is a pretty high bar but that’s the only thing that could happen where I could see them keeping the band together.

For the Jazz, they have a lot of roster decisions to make, and they finally started hitting their true potential this year. They don’t have the cap space to keep everybody, especially if Hayward makes an all-NBA team and can be offered the ultra-max. What they end up doing is largely going to depend on what the outcome of their playoff run is. Derrick Favors and George Hill could be seeing the door if Hayward wants to stay, and if he doesn’t that could change the team even more.

As for the actual matchup, it’s a very interesting one. Both of these teams can get into lock down defense mode, with two huge centers, two defensive point guards and a lot of solid bodies in-between. You can expect to see George Hill playing some tough defense on Chris Paul and Paul completely taking Hill out of the Jazz offense. The X factors here are Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin, and which guy ends up having a better series feels like it could carry the series.

Reason to watch:

Unless there’s a Clippers meltdown, I’m convinced this series is going 7 games and there could me multiple close games. You should be excited for this series simply because they’re going to be good games. And if there’s a Clippers meltdown you should maybe be even more excited.

Prediction:

Jazz in 7, Hayward averages 30 a game and we see at least one report of a verbal altercation in the Clippers locker room involving Chris Paul. Doc gets fired, Blake gets traded and the lob city era is over.

Categories

NBA, Uncategorized

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