We continue our previews with the 2013 NBA Western Conference first-round playoff preview. For Ken Berger's complete playoff analysis, click here. For the Eastern Conference preview, click here. For our picks, click here. Click here for the first-round schedule.
by Zach Harper
1. What Happened: The Clippers won the series over the Grizzlies 3-1 this season, but we've got to date back to last year's playoff series to get the full scope of this matchup. Yes, the rosters have changed a bit during this time, but the basics of the matchup are still strong. It started with Memphis blowing a 27-point lead in Game 1 of last year's series, and since then, it seems like the Grizzlies have been trying to stay afloat against the Clippers. Los Angeles won that series in seven games.
This season, they used a lot of transition offense and points off turnovers to win the first two games against Memphis. In Memphis' lone win against the Clippers this season, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had very good games, but the Grizzlies managed to shut down the supporting cast. LA had just nine points off its bench and shot 26 percent from downtown. The Clippers got a big win in their fourth meeting late in the season by grinding out a victory in Memphis. It was the type of ugly, rough game the Grizzlies pride themselves on winning.
2. X-Factor: The pace of the games could very well determine who wins this series. The Clippers like to stretch their legs and get out to run. They love lobs, they love quick layups in transition, and they love hitting the trailing wing in transition for big 3-pointers. When Memphis beat the Clippers this year, it was a low possession game (80) the Grizzlies scored efficiently in. In the other three games, the possession count averaged 92 and the Clippers mostly thrived on transition and secondary transition scoring. If the Clippers can pump up the volume on the pace of this series, they will be playing the style they love and the style Memphis is uncomfortable playing.
3. The Big Play: The Clippers can't get out and run all the time. They know this, so you have to find a way from stopping their half court execution on the offensive end. The Clippers' half court offense seems to begin and end with the side pick-and-roll. It's a very basic play they run with perfection because of two big factors. First, they have Chris Paul orchestrating it and he's the maestro of the pocket pass. Second, their athletic bigs -- whether it's DeAndre Jordan or Griffin -- have impeccable footwork rolling off setting the screen and being in position to attack the basket immediately. And sometimes, even if you defend it well, it will still result in points.
They start the play with smoke and mirrors movement and ball placement on the opposite side of the court. It may seem like unnecessary movement, but it does force Memphis to have to shift side-to-side defensively, which is exactly how you have to try to break down a great defense. Once the ball reverses to CP3, it leaves him with a quick pick-and-roll with Griffin (or sometimes Jordan). In the clip above, Zach Randolph plays the pick-and-roll poorly by never committing to the role man or the ball handler, but it's OK because Marc Gasol is his teammate and is in great help position. Even with the great positioning by Gasol, the Clippers can still utilize their athleticism to score over the defense when it's in place. And if Griffin had felt like he couldn't get a good shot, the dump-down pass to Jordan underneath was available.
4. Prediction. This series is going to be great, just like last year's series between these two teams was great. You've got two contrasting styles with the grit and grind mentality of the Grizzlies, and the highlight-filled execution of the Clippers. That couldn't be more evident than when you compare the two star power forwards battling each other. Home court advantage should help the Clippers enough in this series and their bench has enough firepower that I think they'll outlast Memphis and win this series in seven awesome games.
The pick: Clippers in seven.
by Royce Young
1. What Happened: The Thunder took the season series 2-1, with two blowout wins of 22 and 30 points, and a thrilling three-point loss. In the two OKC wins, Houston's James Harden combined for score 42 points on 9-for-33 shooting. In the Houston win, Harden went for 46 on 14 for 19. So it's pretty obvious here what the key is for the Thunder. And if anyone understands how to focus in on Harden, it should be them.
All three games were played at a frenetic pace, which is obviously the Rockets' style, but also favors OKC. Allowing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to freelance is often ideal, as the Thunder's offense can bog down in halfcourt set situations. But in the open floor, they're free to improvise, and that makes them dangerous.
2. X-Factor: The 3-point line. Another key difference between the games: In the Rockets' win, they hit 15 3s. They moved the ball and got great looks, which they knocked down. In the losses, they hit a combined 16 (eight and eight). So basically for the Rockets to have a chance, they've got to find a pile of points behind the 3-point line.
Houston has the shooters. Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Carlos Delfino, Patrick Beverley, James Anderson -- all capable of hitting more than one 3 in a game. And the Thunder have been vulnerable on the perimeter this season, allowing 7.4 3s per game, which ranked 14th. The Thunder tied for fifth in opponent 3-point percentage (34.6 percent), but clearly made it a focus in their defense to allow the shots as they gave up 21.5 a game (fifth).
So if the Rockets can find the touch from distance, it could be the great equalizer needed.
3. The Big Narrative: Well obviously, the narrative here is about Kevin Martin playing his old team, right? Joking.
It does seem somewhat appropriate, though, for the Thunder's first hurdle to be that old familiar beard. The process and pain of having to deal Harden before the season changed perspective, perception and expectations of this Thunder team, and made many question their validity as a title contender. They've overcome it, finishing first in the West with 60 wins, but just because they were better this regular season doesn't mean they'll be better in the postseason.
Harden's departure was a difficult thing for the Thunder and having to stare across at him in the opening round will be sour. But it's appropriate. Harden was supposed to be part of this journey with the Thunder. Now, he's the first thing standing in the way.
4. Prediction: The Thunder are going to blow the Rockets out at least once, maybe twice. But for Houston, the key is to find a way, much like it did in its regular season win, to squeak out a win. Put some pressure on the Thunder, make them feel the series is far from a certainty.
That'll be tough for the Rockets to pull off because OKC gets downright scary when it's locked in, and while the Rockets have some firepower, they don't match up well at all with Westbrook and Durant, while the Thunder have defenders to throw at Harden. The margin for error is so much slimmer for the Rockets and it's going to take Harden playing near perfect basketball for Houston to win. He's got a lot of responsibility on his beard here and really the number of games the Rockets win in this series will be directly tied to how many virtuoso performances he comes up with.
The pick: Thunder in four.
by Matt Moore
X-Factor: Steve Nash's health. The Lakers badly need someone to create off the dribble and to make an impact from the perimeter. Steve Blake can spot-up, they have some inconsistent shooters, but no one to make it go. Nash's health remains the biggest question in this series, and he's the Lakers' best chance of staging an upset.
Dwight Howard can put up 35 a night with 17 rebounds and it won't matter if the Lakers don't find someone to handle the defensive pressure, make the right play, and provide some scoring with the ball.
The Big Stat: With Howard on the court for two of the games this season, the Spurs shot 47 percent in the restricted area. With Howard off the court, they shot 65 percent at the rim.
That's a huge differential even in a small sample size. Howard's defense has had its issues this year, individually as well as linked to the Lakers' overall problems. But he's been very good the last month, and guys of his mold (super-athletic, ultra-long) tend to give Tim Duncan fits. It's something to watch if the Spurs can't put the Lakers away early in this series.
Prediction: The Spurs are better. The Lakers went on a great run to end the season, and that's nice for them. But they don't have Kobe Bryant and their defense stinks, particularly on the perimeter against one of the best teams at creating high percentage perimeter looks. I'll take Spurs in six based on the Lakers' star power, but I wouldn't be surprised if this one goes shorter. San Antonio should, repeat should win this series handily.
The pick: Spurs in six.
by Matt Moore
X-Factor: Kenneth Faried. Faried suffered a severe ankle injury on Sunday and may not play in the first, or even first two games of the series. The Nuggets desperately need him to outwork David Lee in transition and create easy buckets with his hustle. The Warriors have the more skilled offensive team, but the Nuggets have the more productive offensive unit. (The Nuggets scored 107.6 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors 104.2.)
They need Faried to be the huge energ bug he is for them.
The Big Stat(s): Andre Iguodala is an incredible perimeter defender, but his overall impact may not be as great in this series. Overall, the Warriors shot 40.3 percent from 3 this season, as Stephen Curry set the season record for three point makes.
With Iguodala on the court, the Warriors actually shot 47 percent from three against the Nuggets, and just 36 percent with Iguodala off. The Nuggets have a huge problem with defending the three, and Curry shot 16 of 24 from the arc vs. the Nuggets this season.
So, yeah, that could be a problem.
Prediction: There are matchup issues here that could bite Denver. But there's one factor to keep in mind: Denver doesn't lose at home. Like, ever. They lost three times at home in the entire season (38-3); two of those were to the Wizards and the Timberwolves, who snuck up on them, and one was to the Heat, who you may have heard are pretty good.
So then the question becomes if Golden State can protect its homecourt with a great atmosphere at Oracle. The problem is if Denver protects its homecourt, and can sneak one out like it did in Golden State in the regular season, the Warriors just don't have enough playoff experienced guys to rally.
I'm taking Denver in five, but my confidence continues to drop as we look at these matchups more and more.
The pick: Nuggets in five.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.