Saturday, April 18, 2015

NBA Playoff Preview Part 2: Western Conference First Round

Late last night, I took a look at how the first round of the Eastern Conference would play out. Now, let's take a look at the Western Conference. So what if there's only an hour and a half till the first game from the West? Better late than never right?
Western Conference Preview (First Round Edition)

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans

Major Storyline: MVP candidate vs. MVP candidate. I know, I can't believe there's no question here either! The fact of the matter is that Stephan Curry and Anthony Davis have both been too cool for school this year. Curry is the best point guard/shooter in the game (he might even be the best player in the game) and Davis seems like something Dr. Frankenstein would try and fail to create in his lab. There's no telling what his ceiling is. What more do you need to get excited about other than that match up? Well, other than the fact that you don't have to watch Russell Westbrook do his Allen Iverson impression on the most depressing team in the league. Remember when the Thunder were cool? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Poor Russ

Warriors Player to Watch: Draymond Green. Some would have you believe this is Curry. Stephen A. Smith would have you believe it's Andrew Bogut, for whatever bizarre reason. The reality is that Golden State's biggest key is Green, the rough and rugged power forward who might just win Defensive Player of the Year. More than anything, his insertion into the starting lineup this year (one of the many great moves by first year coach Steve Kerr) has taken the Warriors to another level from where they were under Mark Jackson. If the Warriors want to win this round and the rest, his defensive contributions must continue, and they must start against Davis. Will they?

Pelicans Player to Watch: Davis. As much as I love Jrue Holiday, he's been injured a good chunk of the year, and like the rest of the Pelicans roster, he likely wouldn't make nearly the difference Davis does. I can't put it into simpler terms; this kid is a freak, a once in a generation who could easily end up dominating this league for years (he's not even 23!). This is his first crack at playoff basketball, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure. If he handles it as he has everything else, watch out; the Pelicans have a chance. If not, at the very least his match up with Draymond Green will be fascinating to those who love one on one matchups.

Pelicans Will Win If...: Davis becomes the best player in basketball and one other player from the Pelicans (be it Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, ect.) steps up as a legit second banana. Davis ascending is likely. The second one isn't.

Prediction: Warriors in five. Would it shock me to see this go six or seven games though? Absolutely not. Here's hoping it does; a Game 7 with a red hot Davis and a Warriors team with more pressure on it than Orlando Bloom performing in any movie would be a sight to behold.

(4) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Major Storyline: Which team stays the healthiest? From what I have been reading, a combined seven players from both the Blazers and Grizzlies will come into the playoffs hurt, never a good sign. The Blazers seem to be the most effected, with five guys coming in banged up or not playing at all (most notably Wesley Matthews, who will miss the whole playoffs with torn left achilles tendon). At the same time, the two players ailing on the Grizzlies are their best defender in Tony Allen and their floor general/second best player in point guard Mike Conley. You know, the guy whose injury concerns have helped derail Memphis' playoff hopes in the years past. Pretty much, whoever can keep their team from dropping like people in The Happening will win this series. Be on alert, team physicians!

Blazers Player to Watch: Damian Lillard. Last year, the young Blazers point guard was busy hitting clutch shots to send Portland into the second around and looked like a future super duper star. This year, he's regressed as a shooter and has taken over for James Harden as one of the more embarrassing defenders in the league (how is it that all these great offensive players suck on defense? I never understand it). LaMarcus Aldridge can't do this all by himself for Portland, especially with Matthews gone, Nic Batum struggling with his shot and Aaron Afflalo disappointing since a deadline deal from Denver. Lillard must return to last year's form if the Blazers wish to win this series.

Grizzlies Player to Watch: Mike Conley. Marc Gasol and Zack Randolf might be Memphis' primary offensive weapons, but Conley is the straw that stirs the drink. More than anything, his health has kept the Grizzlies from making a major difference in the playoffs, and was the biggest reason they lost in the first round just a year ago. Keep him healthy, Memphis will win.

Prediction: Blazers in seven. Our first series predicted to go seven games, and it almost took seven series' to get there! In the end, Portland has just enough talent and Memphis has enough bad luck with health that it'll tip the favor to Portland. Unfortunately, don't expect them to do much damage past this round.

(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

Major Storyline: Bad blood, the one with another d at the end bad like WWE used to do. This could be said about a lot of teams the Rockets played this year, but it's pretty clear these two teams don't like each other. It makes sense, as they both play in Texas, the Mavericks messed up Houston's offseason plan when they stole Chandler Parsons away and, oh yeah, the Rockets seem to piss off everyone they play anyway. This will likely be the series with the most trash talk, shoving and potential brawls that were quickly broken up in this postseason. It'll also feature two exciting teams with a lot to prove, playing at full throttle every night.

Rockets Player to Watch: Dwight Howard. Unless he reverts back to the disappointment he was in the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden will continue to be James Harden, which means he'll continue to be the second best player in the league behind Steph Curry. That makes Howard the key. He was brought to Houston to be the man to take Houston over the top, only Harden has been the guy to do that while Howard spent the year dealing with injuries. He doesn't have to be the guy who was an MVP candidate in Orlando, but if Houston wants to win, Dwight Howard needs to be one of the five best centers in basketball again.

Mavericks Player to Watch: Monta Ellis. The Mavericks resurrected Ellis' career when he joined them two summers ago, and he's managed to be more of his positive qualities (a fearless locomotive heading to the basket) than his negatives (a below average midrange jump shooter). He needs to be their best player to win this series. There might be more question marks about Rajon Rondo and Chandler Parsons facing his old team may intrigue people more, but make no mistake; Dallas will go as far as Ellis and ageless wonder Dirk Nowitzki take them.

Mavericks Will Win If...: They play their game. Don't let the seven seed fool you; there is enough talent on this team and Rick Carlisle is such a good coach that Dallas could easily walk away with this series, the same way they almost walked away with their first round series against the Spurs last year. It's just a question of whether Houston will allow them too.

Prediction: Rockets in seven. In the end, it'll be close, but James Harden is too good, Dwight Howard will do just enough, and the Rockets will prevail. It'll be entertaining till the end.

(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs

Major Storyline: Is this the Spurs last run? I feel this question is asked every year, and every year it's answered the same way Tyson Tomko answered Christian when he was asked to give him a beat ("no."). That said, Tim Duncan is now pushing 40, Manu Ginobli is nearly 38, Tony Parker isn't Tony Parker anymore, and dammit, at some point this just has to stop right? Is this the year? Perhaps later on, but I'm not banking on it this round. Neither is Tyson Tomko.

Clippers Player to Watch: Chris Paul. He's still the best player, no matter how much Blake Griffin tries to convince you he can work well as a ball handler/mid range shooter. He's also starting to feel the heat from critics, as Paul hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs in his wonderful career. He'll have to be special this year if the Clippers can advance, and he'll have to do it with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders (especially since it's not like the Clippers bench has a whole lot to offer).

Spurs Player to Watch: Kwai Leonard. Have you seen the way he's been playing the last few months? Leonard was always a special player, but he looks poised to become the sort of two way player the likes of LeBron and a healthy Paul George. His continued evolution is exactly what the Spurs need, not just for this year, but for the foreseeable future.

The Spurs Will Win If...: They show up. That's it. I'll let you decide if that means I have too much faith in the Spurs or too little faith in the Clippers.

Prediction: Spurs in five. The first and only upset of the first round, if you can call it an upset. As good a coach as Doc Rivers is, the Clippers lack of depth means that Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan must be superhuman, and that's just not something that's sustained against the Spurs. The defending champs take it, and move onto stronger competition in the quest to defend their title.

That's it everyone. Enjoy the games!

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