The Western Conference is most definitely the dominant conference in the NBA at the moment. This year’s final standings make the disparity more evident than in recent years, with the Western Conference teams winning a total of 652 games, averaging 43.5 wins per team, and the East managing only 577 wins, for an average 38.5 wins. Examining the top tier teams in the NBA in terms of record, five of the top seven come out of the West. As a result, NBA fans are about five times as excited for the first round of the Western Conference playoffs as they are about the four Eastern Conference series. One could argue that injuries to Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger were critical in that disparity, as the Bulls, Celtics and Pacers would all likely have won 5-10 more games had these three players been healthy.
Still, the Western Conference has been forced to beat up on each other for the past three years, and there is a reasonable case to be made to revamp the playoff format, and instead of seeding teams 1 through 8 in each conference, moving to a 1 through 16 format. Of course, removing the East/West format would remove much of the drama that comes with geographic rivalries (Boston-New York, Oklahoma City-Houston) as well as the greatly increased travel hours. Imagine a Boston-Golden State first round series, followed by a Boston-Los Angeles Clippers second round, and then a Boston-Denver third round. There is a reason the NBA schedule, for all of its absurdities (7 games in 10 days, 4 games in 5 days), has extended road trips. The efficiency of travel decreases a team’s chance to recover from the wear and tear of a too-long season.
Without further ado, here is the Western Conference Playoff Preview:
Round One: #1 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. #8 Houston Rockets (45-37)
Kevin Durant to James Harden, “Welcome back, James. I love you, but for the next five games, I will destroy you.” James Harden to Kevin Durant, “Hey, Kev. Nice shoes. Better lace ’em up, ’cause I’ll be leaving you in the dust.” Result: Durant averages 38 points per game, Harden averages 36 points per games, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat Houston in five games. Russell Westbrook will torch Jeremy Lin, and Serge Ibaka will limit Harden’s penetration. The only way Houston extends this series beyond game five is if Chandler Parsons plays out of his mind, and hits a string of 25-footers, like the one he did to extend the Rockets-Lakers game to overtime. This might happen once. Possibly twice. Definitely not four times against OKC’s defense.
Players to Watch: Durant and Harden scoring duel. Serge Ibaka’s jumper: it will be one of the keys to OKC’s chances down the road. Chandler Parsons’ versatility and range.
Darko Index Predicts: Thunder in 5. (97% confidence rating).
Round One: #2 San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)
San Antonio waived Stephen Jackson and signed Tracy McGrady within the last week. McGrady entered the league in 1997, as an eighteen year-old. He played in China this year, averaging 25 points per game. He’s still only 33 years-old. Though the Spurs record doesn’t indicate it, they may need McGrady more than they’d like to. Manu Ginobili’s legs and Tony Parker’s ankle will determine how badly the Spurs need Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and now McGrady to support Duncan. The Spurs still have more depth than the Lakers, who are without Kobe indefinitely, and will be cautiously optimistic that Steve Nash can provide some kind of stability with the ball. By the way, Steve Nash has played exactly five minutes on the court all season with both Dwight and Pau and without Kobe. This trio will have zero familiarity with each other, and it’s uncertain if Nash can really give the Lakers a boost. It may be smarter for D’Antoni to play Nash off the bench, hopefully bolstering the second unit. Which means D’Antoni will probably play Nash 100% of the time with the starting unit.
The two games the Lakers have won post-Kobe have highlighted the fact that Pau Gasol has a lot left, and is determined to show it if given the opportunity. Against the undersized Rockets, Pau put together a scintillating triple-double, starting the offense from the high-elbow area. Dwight Howard appears healthy and dominant again. If Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks continue to shoot well, Nash provides some creativity and decision-making (if he can stay on the court), then all the Lakers will need is Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark to not look foolish defensively.
The uncertainty of Parker’s ankle and Ginobili should be weighed against the uncertainty of every Laker other than Pau. Remember, Popovich will play Hack-a-Dwight relentlessly. Though this match-up will feature some tight games, the Spurs will survive.
Injured players to watch: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Steve Nash. Healthy players to watch: Pau’s resurgence, Kawhi Leonard’s defense and corner 3, Tracy McGrady and his last shot at a playoff run.
Darko Index Predicts: Spurs in 6. (78% confidence rating)
Round One: #3 Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State Warriors (47-35)
Stephen Curry sets the NBA record for most 3-point field goals made in a season (272), while shooting 45.3%, and hitting 20 3’s in his final three games. Curry’s shooting this season was also historic in the fact that he hit 45% of his field goals, 45% of his 3’s and 90% of his free-throws. Steph’s shot is a thing of beauty, and his ability to sustain a hot streak is unparalleled in the game today. However, the Warriors will not win relying solely on Steph’s shooting (as they did in the 118-116 loss to the Lakers last Friday. Curry’s 47 points were majestic, but without all five Warriors playing physical, determined defense, they won’t survive Denver’s athleticism and pace.
The Nuggets, who will be depending on Ty Lawson’s healing foot (plantar fascitis) push the pace more than any other club in the league, which plays into the Warriors hands, but also demands Golden State play big men who can keep up. Andrew Bogut re-injuring his ankle against OKC on April 11th is a prime reason the Warriors won’t be able to keep up. Bogut, who has struggled offensively, but provided critical interior defense and relentless rebounding, will not be able to keep pace with Denver, especially at altitude. Without being able to depend on Bogut, the Warriors will either go small, despite David Lee’s shot-blocking inabilities, or big and slow with Festus Ezeli and his lack of any offensive game. Either way, Kenneth Faried and Javale McGee are going to make life difficult if Bogut can’t give the Warriors at least 25 useful minutes.
On offense, Curry will need help from Klay Thompson. As I wrote about here:
Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut. When Klay Thompson shoots well, the Golden State Warriors win. It’s almost that simple. Curry and Lee are about as consistent on the offensive end as any high-scoring duo in the NBA, but Klay Thompson is a shooter, and a young shooter at that. At age 23, and in his second NBA season, Thompson’s long-range shooting has determined the fate of many Golden State games this year. In wins, Thompson shoots 44% from distance, dropping in 17.9 points per game, compared with 33% in losses, accounting for a scoring average of 13.9. Thompson’s season, like the Warriors, has had its mountainous peaks and its desolate valleys. The valleys came in November and again in February (29% and 32% from the arc) while the peaks were sustained through the deep winter months, putting up a mark of 45% in December, 40% in January, and back up to 44% in March.
With the exception of Jarrett Jack, the Warriors are not a drive-and-kick team, and rarely draw double teams, which puts pressure on Curry and Thompson to take threes whenever they have open space. While this works for Steph because he is arguably the best pure shooter in the NBA (hop here for SI‘s Chris Ballard’s excellent Steph Curry profile, and the importance of Jarrett Jack’s play-making as a complement to Curry’s game.), Thompson could benefit from a wing player with penetrating ability. Despite his occasional flashes, Harrison Barnes is nowhere near ready to play the minutes he’s been forced into because of Brandon Rush’s absence. Mark Jackson has to find a way to run Thompson off of Bogut picks and get him space in the half-court, similarly to how Garnett was consistently able to open up shooting space for Ray Allen during Boston’s playoff runs. Thompson doesn’t have Allen’s innate maneuverability, but has the size to ward off smaller two-guards.
On the other side of the ball, Andrew Bogut is a force under the basket, and his presence will be especially critical against Denver’s penetrating ability. Bogut’s length and his Gasol-like ability to stretch out and avoid jumping for up-fakes drives would-be lane-slashers crazy. If Bogut can keep his stamina, and avoid foul-trouble, the Warriors will have a legitimate chance of upsetting the Lawson-impaired Nuggets. Keeping Denver’s Faried off of the glass is next to impossible, but Bogut, Lee, and pretty much every Warrior on the court, must make it a priority.
Players to Watch: Steph Curry and Kenneth Faried, just because they are two of the most entertaining and unique players in the NBA. Also: Ty Lawson’s ability to get to the rim as well as his foot, Andrew Bogut’s defense and his ankle, Klay Thompson’s 3-point shooting, and unheralded rookie Evan Fournier’s defense. But mainly, you’ll be amazed by Curry’s quick-release and Faried’s rebounding.
Darko Index Predicts: Nuggets in 7. The heart says Warriors in 6, the head says Nuggets in 7, too good at home. (65% confidence rating).
Round One: #4 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
I’ve run out of time. This match-up will be similar to last year, except this year, Lamar Odom was deciding whether or not he every wanted to play basketball again and Zach Randolph was displaying ridiculous post-moves and a lethal step-back jumper. This year, Odom is dedicated to making another playoff run, and Randolph is hobbling around on a bad ankle. On to p of that, this Clippers bench is better than any other bench in the NBA.
Players to Watch: Chris Paul, as always. The entire Clippers bench (Odom, Crawford, Bledsoe, Barnes). These four Clippers represent Vinny Del Negro’s best chance at a Western Conference championship. Though the Clippers haven’t been getting the buzz that OKC, Denver, or the constantly talked-about Lakers have been receiving in the last month, they have the deepest team in the West, and they will survive round one, and have a shot at upsetting Oklahoma City in the second round.
Darko Index Predicts: Clippers in 6. (71% confidence rating).
Let the playoffs begin!
Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index because he can’t get enough of the NBA Playoffs and the drama of the seven-game series. Contact Jonah at firstname.lastname@example.org