Almost 70 percent of the games have been played, with the remaining 30 percent to come after the All-Star festivities. At this point, it’s easier to do predictions since majority of the games have been played already. As such, I think the Western Conference playoffs will be a good discussion.
To start of, I’d like to thank Mr. John Hollinger for his work at ESPN. I’ll be using his predictions and Power Rankings as a way to judge how the entire Western Conference playoffs will play out. Plus we’ll predict who will play who and with how much momentum they are carrying with them as they enter the playoffs. After that, we give a short preview on each of the series (four first round series, two conference semifinal series and then the conference finals) which will include some relevant numbers and statistics.
Let’s begin. According to Hollinger’s playoff probability, the West’s top eight teams are pretty set–with the Los Angeles Lakers being the sole threat to kick either the Utah Jazz or Golden State Warriors out of the playoffs. The Jazz provide an interesting dilemma for the numbers–will a possible (or probable) trade of one of their cornerstones, Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson, significantly alter their ability to get to the playoffs?
Of course. Without even looking at the numbers, Millsap and Jefferson both play an important role in Utah’s offense. The heavy post and down-screen offense of the Jazz lends itself to their skills. Both are really good mid-range shooters that can play in the post and give solid body screens for teammates who run through them. Of course, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors aren’t necessarily slouches in terms of their pick-giving ability but their shot creation leaves a lot to be desired.
By the numbers, however, it’s even worse–trading Millsap and/or Jefferson would mean trading one of their top players in terms of win shares, they rank as first and second on the current roster, respectively.
Now, what happens after that depends on what Utah gets for those players. If the Millsap-for-Eric Bledsoe rumors are true involving the Los Angeles Clippers, then it’s very possible that Utah will get marginally worse. But the key word is marginally–which means it won’t have a devastating effect. So, with that out of the way, I’ll now predict the top 8 team (in order) and predict how their matchups will take place.
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz
So far, they’ve split the season series. However, you have to remember that Utah barely won against a San Antonio team that did not feature Kawhi Leonard–one of the Spurs’ most important players. When Leonard did play, Utah got beaten handily, 110-100.
Just like last year, San Antonio will have an easy time dispatching a team that will probably still be adjusting to their new team (with a Millsap/Jefferson trade being part of the prediction).
PREDICTION: San Antonio in 4.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Golden State Warriors
One of the more interesting matchups of the Western playoffs, Golden State has all the tools necessary to give Oklahoma City a scare. OKC allows the ninth-most 3-point shots in the league, allowing them at a slightly below-league average rate (35.4 percent).
There are two factors that could stop Golden State from upsetting the Thunder:
1. The Warriors’ offensive attack is dependent on a high-risk, high-reward strategy–taking 3-point shots.
2. Golden State has no one to match up with Kevin Durant.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma City in 6.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets
Just like the Oklahoma City-Golden State matchup, this series is going to be exciting. Similar to Oklahoma City, the Clippers allow a lot of 3-point shots (seventh-most in the league) but also allow them at an above-average rate (seventh-worst at 37.2 percent).
On the other side, Houston not only takes the most 3s in the league but they also make them at an above-average clip (36.2 percent). What’s even scarier than this? Houston has a very top heavy lineup (with Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Omer Asik, Carlos Delfino and Marcus Morris as their top seven players).
What does this mean? It means Houston can give itself more chance by playing their top seven more minutes. One thing we are forgetting though is that the best player of this series is on the Clippers’ side – the All-Star MVP himself, Chris Paul. Paul will definitely carry this team to a series win. But if this matchup actually happens, expect a very close and exciting series.
PREDICTION: Los Angeles in 7.
No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
Call this the matchup of opposites–while one team thrives on fast breaks, turnovers and a fast pace, the other thrives on slow, grinding and very ugly games.
It’s the Fast and Furious vs. Grit and Grind. One team is clearly the deeper team (Denver Nuggets), but in the playoffs, depth can only carry you for so long. And despite Andre Iguodala‘s arrival completely changing Denver’s defense, his perimeter onslaught won’t mean much if Memphis’ primary strength is their two bigs–Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Kosta Koufos can hold his own against one of those guys but Kenneth Faried–who’s not really a great defensive player–will be tasked to guard the other. Mike Conley can hold his own against Ty Lawson and Tony Allen can lock down Iguodala. The question now is–can Tayshaun Prince break even against Danilo Gallinari?
If he does, then Memphis has the lead (with Randolph and Gasol clearly better than Denver’s bigs). If not, we’ll see a close series. My expectation? Prince welcomes the playoffs and promptly plays well. An upset in the making.
PREDICTION: Memphis in 7.
San Antonio vs Memphis
The matchup that pushed Memphis into the limelight two years ago, “fear the bear” was an actual thing.
Memphis was coming into its own (without Rudy Gay) and went for the upset of all upsets–beating the top-seeded team in the West. It was only the third time that a No. 8 seed triumphed over the top seed in the seven-game format and just the fourth time overall. It was a magical season indeed. But the magic is gone and a lot has changed for San Antonio since then–two big changes are the evolution of their swingmen, Danny Green and Leonard.
Both were not present for that 2010-11 series (Green was already on the team, but he didn’t play a lot). Add those two improved two-way players with a locker room that will rank as one of the most tightly knit groups in the league and arguably the best coach in the NBA right now and what you’ll get is a win.
How dominating a win is the question. Memphis will still give San Antonio fits due to their size and their ability to pound you from the inside. But San Antonio’s defense is the best it’s been since the last title run they had six years ago.
San Antonio currently ranks as the fifth-best defensive rebounding team in the league (by defensive rebounding percentage) while Memphis ranks as the top offensive rebounding team in the league. Compare this to two season ago when San Antonio’s rebounding and defense were huge question marks and what we get is a not-so-close but not-so-dominating series win for San Antonio.
PREDICTION: San Antonio in 6 (with 2 blowout wins).
Oklahoma City vs Los Angeles Clippers
The battle of youthful exuberance vs. veteran moxie.
The Clippers will feast on OKC’s tendency to turn the ball over (the Thunder are the second-worst turnover team in the league while the Clippers are the top team in forcing turnovers). This will result in a lot of fastbreak points and easy baskets for the Clips. On the other side, OKC will foul this team out–the Clippers rank as one of the most foul-prone (and consequently, one of the worst teams in terms of their free-throw-to-field-goal-attempt ratio) teams in the league.
Unfortunately for the Clips, OKC ranks as the top foul-drawing team in the league (by a wide margin). Between Durant (8.6 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes (FTA/36)) and Russell Westbrook (6.9 FTA/36), there will be a lot of charity points for Oklahoma City.
It doesn’t help that the Thunder is a top-five free throw shooting team. The question now is: Which team’s strength will be accentuated or minimized? Will it be the Clippers’ ability to force turnovers or will it be OKC’s foul drawing abilities.
Both teams are evenly matched in terms of talent — OKC has an effective and very fluid top four in Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin with a slew of role players they can plug in with those four. Need additional perimeter defense? Sub in Thabo Sefolosha. Interior presence? Sub in Kendrick Perkins. Pick-and-Roll defense? How about Nick Collison.
The Clippers, on the other hand, have a very formidable duo in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin with a bunch of super role players that fill certain roles like a creative scorer (Jamal Crawford), veteran leadership (Chauncey Billups), shooting (Caron Butler), perimeter defense (Bledsoe and Matt Barnes), interior presence (DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom–sorry, just had to laugh a little bit). The problem is that their team–although deeper–isn’t as flexible as Oklahoma City.
Ultimately, the Clippers’ inability to contain Durant will doom them. Paul will carry this team to a Game 7, but with Durant coming into his own (and finishing the season as the top scorer with a 50/40/90 shooting line to brag about), OKC will come out on top at the end.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma City in 7 closely battled games.
San Antonio vs. Oklahoma City
The teams that matched up last year in the West Finals will meet once again. While San Antonio will have home-court advantage, that’s not as important as how both teams match up (since both teams are good road teams).
Just like last year, the battle between San Antonio and Oklahoma City will be about which idea prevails–system or personnel. One team has the superior system–a system that draws its power from the pick-and-roll and the misdirection coming from a second play that runs as the first play develops all with the sole purpose of getting either a corner three point shot or an open layup (the two most efficient shots in basketball). The San Antonio players’ ability to follow a system is a credit to Gregg Popovich’s ability to drill habits into his players.
OKC on the other hand, will rely once again on the ability of Durant and Westbrook to attack off the bounce. The difference is that while the Thunder still rank as one of the top isolation teams in the league, they’ve diversified their offense to include some off-the-screen movement for Durant and Martin, some pick-and-pop between Westbrook and Ibaka and a couple of other kinks that have made OKC harder to defend.
This is a tough call to make. Both teams are evenly matched. But it’s an accepted idea that when two teams are evenly matched, the team with the top-heavier lineup wins. If I were to rank the players in this series in terms of impact it would go–Durant, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Westbrook, Ibaka, Martin and Manu Ginobili.
Since OKC has four of the top seven (in my opinion) impact players, they win this by the slightest of margins.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma City in 7 closely battled games.
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