How things have changed!
The Western Conference seems to be wide open, just one round in, with new and significant injuries to Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, Clippers forward Blake Griffin, and Warriors forward David Lee. Two of those three teams did find a way to advance, despite the misfortunes, while Griffin and the Clippers lost four consecutive games to a Grizzlies squad that had no problems playing tough, physical defense and pounding the ball inside.
We may not have seen any Game 7s in the Western Conference, but we were spoiled with three of four match-ups going six games. The Grizzlies and Clippers series was, without a doubt, the most physically-demanding, while the Rockets had a lot of Thunder fans concerned about going to Houston for Game 6. Warriors coach Mark Jackson wasn’t too happy with the opposition’s treatment of guard Stephen Curry, and in four games, the Spurs didn’t seem to be playing with injured starters after all.
The 1st round of games were possibly more entertaining than you and I could have predicted. However, the NBA Playoffs are only getting started, and the 2nd round starts Sunday.
#1 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Offense versus defense. Fast-paced, uptempo scoring with a superstar player will match up against a slower halfcourt team that likes to capitalize off of their defensive stops and their inside-out game.
Against the Rockets, the Thunder struggled to put points on the board when forward Kevin Durant went cold from the floor, or while he was being denied the ball multiple possessions. Westbrook’s absence put pressure on forward Serge Ibaka and guard Kevin Martin to carry larger scoring roles, and both had trouble delivering at that magnitude, especially Martin, for most of the series.
With Memphis on deck, Oklahoma City will need to excel in two key areas: defending the Grizzlies’ big men, and knocking down perimeter shots. Durant’s biggest challenge of his career may not have been in the 2012 NBA Finals, but in a series against a Memphis team that can throw two exceptional defensive players at him, one being arguably the best perimeter defender in the league (guard Tony Allen) and the other an experienced, longer defender that still has the ability to make life tough for perimeter scorers (forward Tayshaun Prince).
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies will look to wear down the Thunder on the offensive end, as stated above, while forcing them to become a more physical team back on defense. Only one other team locks up the three-point line better than the Grizzlies, and they are the top team in opponent rebounding. Feeding the post will create open shots and easier opportunities at the rim, and in the regular season, it was guard Jerryd Bayless who led the team in scoring against the Thunder, not among the players you would expect.
With a healthy Westbrook, the Thunder would win this series in seven games. Unfortunately for the Thunder, guards Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson won’t be able to duplicate the all-star play they desperately need at the guard position, and the Grizzlies should be able to advance to the Western Conference Finals in no more than six games.
#2 San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. #6 Golden State Warriors (47-35)
Are the Warriors the most exciting team in the league right now? Even in Oklahoma City, you may not be able to find a louder, rowdier crowd than what you see in Oracle Arena during the playoffs. In addition, I can only assume it doesn’t help when a player, like guard Jarrett Jack, is playing like an all-star out of nowhere. How would that be significant to the Warriors in this upcoming series against the Spurs? Let’s take a look at Jack’s playoff numbers in the 1st round series against the Nuggets.
18.8 PPG on 52.6% FG, 5.2 RPG, 7.0 APG
What if Jack produces those all-star numbers in the 2nd round? All things come with an explanation, though, because Jack’s two “bad” games of the series were the first and last: the only two games he did not start.
Let’s not forget guard Stephen Curry, who is out to prove he’s a legitimate all-star that should have been voted as such back in February. His 24-point, nine-assist average is combined with nearly 47 percent shooting, 43 percent from downtown, and a perfect 100 from the foul line (21-21).
As much as we know about the Warriors, we know even more about the Spurs, simply based on their history. Forward Tim Duncan and guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have been winning games for so long, it makes all non-Spurs fans want to roll their eyes. Coach Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest to stand the sidelines in NBA history. San Antonio can dump the ball inside and give opposing smaller teams headaches, or they can frustrate the bigger teams with Parker pick and roll, and when all else fails, they call on forward Matt Bonner and their three-point marksmen to go on scoring runs from 25-feet out.
San Antonio is super-efficient, 2nd in the league in shooting percentage, and they pass the ball better than the other 29 teams in the NBA. They are a top three defense, and 7th-ranked offense, and even though the Warriors can run up the score when controlling the tempo, the Spurs may hold the keys to the Corvette most of the series. Expect them to defeat Golden State in five games. There’s no reason not to hand at least one game over to the Warriors, as they did steal one in overtime against a healthy Spurs team back in February, but needed a combined 55 points from Jack and forward David Lee (who will be playing injured) to get the job done.