The NBA Playoffs kick off Saturday morning, but more importantly, the Western Conference Playoffs begin. Unless fans have been sleeping under a rock for the last few months, or quite possibly still digging out from the winter snow that seemingly blanketed the east coast for the last six months, they are well aware that this year’s NBA Playoffs are all about the west.
The first round in the east matches the Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors. Yawn. It’s a battle between a far underachieving team in the Nets and the far overachieving Raptors. Nothing about this matchup screams playoff basketball. While the Nets seemingly began to pull it together in the last few months of the season, the lights in Brooklyn don’t shine as they do in the west. The rest of the Eastern Conference games appear to follow this same, underwhelming road toward mediocre basketball.
Things are different out west, where interest soars for a northern versus southern California duel matching the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. The guard play alone should be enough to have NBA fans jumping up, waiving giant #1 foam fingers in the air, and bouncing along to the piped-in music that fills most arenas these days. Chris Paul, the ninth-year veteran from Wake Forest, has upped his game for the Clippers in both scoring and assist totals for the year. With 19.1 points per game and 10.7 assists per game, he has solidified himself as one of the premier point guard’s in the league. That is, unless Stephen Curry has something to say about it. Curry, a 6’3 point guard playing in his fifth season, is a lights-out shooter, skilled passer and a huge overall threat that could give Paul a run for his money. The series has a conference finals feel, pitting the NBA’s highest scoring team in the Clippers and the run-and-gun Warriors. The big difference could be missing big man Andrew Bogut, who is out with a broken rib. The Warriors will need his replacement, Jermaine O’Neal, to step in and control the paint to fill the void of Bogut, who averaged 10.0 rebounds per game.
The second NBA Playoffs game in the west matches the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies. At first glance, it’s easy to look at Durant and Westbrook and give the immediate nod to the Thunder, but the Grizzlies are a physical team, filled with veteran players. They won’t crawl into a hole, curl up into a fetal position and let Durant and the Thunder kick their shins in. By no means are they a typical number seven seed, and don’t be surprised if the fans of Oklahoma City have gnawed their fingernails down to nubs well into game six or seven.
The third game in the west is on Sunday—the battle for Texas, matching the No. 1 seeded Spurs and the No. 8 Mavericks. The Spurs seemingly have had three of the same starters in their lineup since the beginning of time. It seems like Tim Duncan is pushing sixty years old, yet somehow the most boring, best player ever continues to get it done, and he’s not about to let Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs get the best of his Spurs. In fact, San Antonio just might dig their shiny boot spurs into the side of the Mavericks after they wipe the floor clean with them.
It’s not all about the #1 or #2 seeds in the west, which is strongly supported by the No. 4 vs No. 5 matchup between Portland and Houston. This game alone says all that you need to know about the strength of the Western Conference in this year’s NBA Playoffs. While the Warriors versus the Clippers may take top billing and garner the most attention, this series between two 54-win teams can easily co-headline the main event. The inside, outside play of Houston’s all-star tandem of James Harden and Dwight Howard will clash with two all-stars from Portland in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. If Portland looks to slow down the Rockets, they must somehow figure out how to contain Harden, who torched them for an average of 30.3 points in their four regular season meetings. It’s a compelling matchup between two very good teams that is sure to take the energy level to an eleven, easily eclipsing anything that the east coast playoffs will throw at fans and viewers in the first couple of rounds.
The Western Conference games are shaping up to be all the glitz and glamour this NBA Playoff season, and in a year that was all about the Heat and the Pacers in the east, the west has so far proved why they’re the superior league. It is time for players to lace up, fans to lazy up and watch what’s shaping up to be a stellar road to the Finals.
Commentary by Johnny Caito