Kevin Cunningham Blog: Western Conference NBA Playoffs First-Round Predictions

 

April 23, 2014

By Kevin Cunningham

People talk about how much better the Western Conference is compared to the East and rightfully so. When looking at overall records, the No. 9-seeded Phoenix Suns at 48-34 compiled the same record as the No. 3-seeded Toronto Raptors.

The argument used to be made that, sure, the West is deeper, but the East is better at the top. When looking at how much Indiana and Miami have struggled recently, even that case appears to be long gone.

The West has better matchups, and at least four teams can have a strong argument made for them representing the conference in the NBA Finals. The Western Conference is king in the NBA, and there’s no getting around it for the time being.

(1)  San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks

Before diving into the matchup, San Antonio defeated Dallas all four times during the regular season when these two teams faced off. In the Spurs’ case, when throwing regular season records out there for debate, people can’t take too much away from them. Early in the season, the team beat up on weaker teams, while against the supposed “elites,” they struggled.

One reason for this is the number of injuries that took place through the season for head coach Gregg Popovich’s club. That being said, the team still acquired the No. 1 seed in the West and is about as healthy as it’s been all year.

By sitting starters throughout the regular season in prep for the postseason, will that end up becoming a negative for the Spurs? I doubt it. San Antonio is too efficient offensively, and while the Mavericks can score at will when things are going their way, their defense won’t be able to stop the Spurs’ well-oiled machine of an offense.

Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis are great but not that great.

Spurs in 5

 

(2)  Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

This series will be much closer than people realize. Even if Oklahoma City wins in six, (there is no way it ends earlier than that) they will be extremely hard-fought games. In last year’s Western Semifinals, the Grizzlies took down the Thunder in five games.

Because of the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol being sidelined for a good portion of the season, the No. 7 seed Memphis possesses truly means nothing when evaluating how good they are. When looking up and down their roster, they have players that can get to the basket, shoot the three-ball, score on the block and play exceptional defense.

Just like the Heat-Bobcats matchup on the eastern side of things, if Tony Allen can consistently limit Kevin Durant, like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has to contain LeBron James, the Grizzlies have a good chance. If Durant goes for 30 every night and the Thunder can reach triple-digits as a team, the Grizzlies are in trouble.

People point to the Grizzlies’ frontcourt as a reason why this matchup could go sour for the Thunder, and that is a legitimate place to look because of how good Zach Randolph and Gasol are. What some underestimate is how good Kendrick Perkins and especially Serge Ibaka are defensively.

Now by no means do I think Oklahoma City could have an advantage in the paint, but I do think their big men are undervalued and that includes Nick Collison. The Thunder’s post players don’t have to win the battle, they just have to keep it close. If they do that, their guard play is superior to Memphis’ and they should come out on top whether it is in six or seven games as long as things go half-way decent inside.

Thunder in 6

 

(3)  Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

Talk about what should be an entertaining series. If someone likes exceptional offense over great team defense (most of the country), this is the series they will want to tune into. The Clippers, known as “lob city” for a reason, are an up-and-down team that is extremely fun to watch.

Throw in the Warriors’ “splash brothers” in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and we have ourselves on offensive shootout for however many games this coral lasts. In the regular season, these two teams split the season series at 2-2 with each team defending its home court.

The x-factor in this series isn’t one particular player, but it will be interesting to see how the Warriors deal with not having center Andrew Bogut around. Does this mean it will be easy pickings for Los Angeles’ guards to drive into the paint and send lobs all game long for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin?

Or will it mean that Golden State goes smaller and creates a mismatch for the Clippers, forcing Jordan, in particular, to become an afterthought in this series?

Depending on which way the pendulum swings, that is who will win this series. The Clippers finally have the roster and coach in Doc Rivers to make a legitimate title push.

Add in a significantly improved Blake Griffin to the mix comparing him from last season and Los Angeles appears to be one of the favorites to hang another banner in the Staples Center – this time on the Clippers’ side of the arena, as long as their defense can play the way they are capable of playing.

I see Rivers’ group playing just enough defense in a long-fought series to advance. Having game seven at home will be the ultimate difference here.

Clippers in 7

 

(4)  Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trailblazers

As exciting as the Clippers-Warriors matchup appears to be on paper, take a look at some of the names featured in this fun-fest. For Houston, we have James Harden, Dwight Howard and an extremely undervalued player in Chandler Parsons.

Let’s be honest, outside of James, Durant and Paul George at the small forward spot, is there anybody else in the NBA you would rather have than Parsons? I wouldn’t.

Looking at Portland, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and another undervalued small forward in Nicolas Batum are found. Both of these teams have more players that don’t get the love they deserve, but let’s get into breaking this matchup down.

When looking at the point guard battle, there is no question that Lillard has the advantage over Jeremy Lin. What hurts the most for Houston here, is that Patrick Beverly is nicked up with a knee injury. It’s assumed that he will play, but how close to 100 percent will he be? The Rockets need him on defense, as their play on that side of the ball has been lackluster all season long, to say the least.

On the wings, both teams have good, under-appreciated players, like I mentioned above. Harden, on the other hand, isn’t exactly under-appreciated. He’s a great scorer that gets to the free-throw line at will.

I’m not a Harden-lover by any means, but he can score the basketball. That can’t be questioned. When breaking down the matchups inside, each team has its respective advantage.

Houston possesses Howard and Omer Asik dominating the center position, while Portland has Aldridge to look toward at the four spot. Breaking down the rosters, as you can see, shows that these teams are pretty even. Just look at their regular season records – they both went 54-28 during the regular season.

The difference between the two teams can be momentum. Since starting the season 31-9, the Trailblazers went 23-19 the rest of the season but have won nine of their final 10 games.

For Houston, things have been clicking for a longer stretch. The Rockets haven’t had an unprecedented run, but because of their offense averaging over 107 points per game, the lack of defense doesn’t rear its ugly head nearly as often as it does for Portland.

The Trailblazers’ defense in general is poor, and that’s the main reason why they haven’t been consistent since the start of the season. Add the fact that game seven is in Houston’s backyard and the Rockets should be favored in this series, despite Portland’s big names.

Rockets in 6

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