2014 NBA Playoffs First-Round Preview: Western Conference

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With the 2014 NBA Playoffs beginning Saturday, we begin our previews for the first round matchups. You can find the Eastern Conference preview here.  Here's a look at the Western Conference:

by Zach Harper

Season series:  The San Antonio Spurs won their season series against the Dallas Mavericks 4-0, and while some of the games were close finishes, the Spurs handled the series pretty easily. Offensively, the Spurs were a juggernaut, putting up an offensive rating of 115.2. Tony Parker averaged 23.2 points in his three games against Dallas. Nowitzki averaged 18.5 points in the series but made just 1-of-6 from downtown in four games. The closest contest of the series was a 106-100 win by the Spurs in which the Mavs matched them nearly shot-for-shot but there was a huge free throw disparity. The Mavs turned the ball over just seven times in that game.

San Antonio Spurs Dallas Mavericks
Tony Parker Jose Calderon
Danny Green Monta Ellis
Kawhi Leonard Shawn Marion
Tim Duncan Dirk Nowitzki
Tiago Splitter Samuel Dalembert

X-Factor: Devin Harris. It’s a very small sample size but the only player for the Mavs who seemed to be capable of disrupting what the Spurs do is Harris. In 48 minutes over two games, he had a net rating of plus-20.8 points per 100 possessions. The reason Harris can be so effective is he’s capable of forcing turnovers and getting into the teeth of the defense. Making the Spurs feel a little discomfort could go a long way for key stretches.

Narrative: The narrative of this series will definitely be whether or not this is the last time we get to see Tim Duncan face off against Dirk Nowitzki in a playoff series. They’ve had some pretty incredible battles in the past with Duncan ahead on series wins 4-2. Duncan has a much better shot at a ring than Nowitzki does but that doesn’t mean we won’t see another great effort from Dirk. We’ll be reminded to cherish these match-ups because there may not be another one left after this.

Prediction: As much as I want to believe this Mavericks team can make some noise, their defense this season is really bad and the Spurs didn’t seem to have much trouble against it. There are changes the Mavs can employ but do they have the personnel to execute it? This Spurs machine just seems too good.

Spurs in five

by Royce Young

Season series: The Thunder took three of four from Memphis, and did so in fairly convincing fashion. But there are caveats to all but one of the games. In three of the four, key parts were missing, as Russell Westbrook sat two, and Marc Gasol missed two. The most recent matchup, Feb. 28, has all components involved, as Kevin Durant scored 30 of his 37 in the second half and Westbrook added 21 on 7-12 shooting as the Thunder held off a Grizzlies comeback, 113-107.

Oklahoma City Thunder Memphis Grizzlies
Russell Westbrook Mike Conley
Thabo Sefolosha Courtney Lee
Kevin Durant Tayshaun Prince
Serge Ibaka Zach Randolph
Kendrick Perkins Marc Gasol

X-Factor: Here's one for each side:

For the Thunder, it's Russell Westbrook. He sat in the five-game second round series last postseason, and his absence was greatly felt. The Grizzlies were able to bracket Durant, doubled, tripling and sometimes quadrupling him. In two games this season against Memphis, Westbrook's presence opened the game up, allowing the Thunder to get into their preferred attacking style of play.

For the Grizzlies, it's Mike Miller. The biggest issue this team has faced the past few seasons was the lack or perimeter shooting. They've desperately needed a knockdown guy for Randolph and Gasol to find on kickouts, and Miller has provided that. Plus, he's a noted Thunder killer, having iced them in Game 5 of the Finals in 2012.

Narrative: The overwhelming narrative is going to be about the Thunder and their quest to avenge last postseason's loss to the Grizzlies, one in which Westbrook was out. Now, he's back and therefore, should be the difference. At least that's the thinking. The more intricate, more important story is that while this is a two-seven matchup, the Grizzlies aren't your everyday low seed. They won 50 games, which is impressive, but consider: They went 40-19 with Gasol in the starting five. Really, they're much closer to a 55-57-win team, which would've earned them the No. 3 or 4 seed. This is a matchup more suited for the second round, so if the Thunder are going to move on as most expect, it's going to come with some challenges.

Prediction: The Thunder have been frustratingly inconsistent the last month and a half, and it's been largely due to issues on the defensive end. They've had problems securing the perimeter and matching up in transition, two things the Grizzlies don't do primarily well. The Thunder have always possessed the ability to outscore opponents, and it's mostly been about getting stops. Matching up with Memphis plays into their hands, as the games will likely slow in pace, and in halfcourt possession battles, Westbrook and Durant give OKC quite the edge.

Still, the Grizzlies have a knack for making live miserable for opponents, and Westbrook is always a wrecking ball teetering on the edge of brilliance and self-destruction. The Grizzlies know how to push the right buttons and if Westbrook gets offset, and Durant has to carry the offense exclusively, the Grizzlies could easily push this to seven games. But it just seems to me the Thunder's offense, which has been lights out since the All-Star break, will be too much for the Grizzlies to keep up with.

Thunder in five.

by Zach Harper

Season series: These two teams split their season series 2-2, and don’t seem to havemuch admiration for each other. They don’t even really allow joint chapel sessions for the two teams, which is odd in the NBA. These two teams don’t like each other and they proved that during the season. The Clippers drew a ton of fouls and shot a lot of free throws, which seems to bug the Warriors. Each team thinks the other flops, which is always a recipe for entertainment.

Los Angeles Clippers Golden State Warriors
Chris Paul Stephen Curry
J.J. Redick Andre Iguodala
Jared Dudley Klay Thompson
Blake Griffin David Lee
DeAndre Jordan Jermaine O'Neal

X-Factor: David Lee. Without a healthy Andrew Bogut, Lee will be asked to play some small ball 5 and try to tussle with Blake Griffin when Draymond Green isn’t in the game. Lee doesn’t have to be perfect and we can’t expect his defense to be good, but we can hope he provides about 75 percent to the Warriors of what Griffin should give to the Clippers. It’s time to prove his doubters wrong.

Narrative: Are the Clippers real contenders? The Clippers are another one of those teams that has to prove they aren’t mostly hype. With the Warriors too battered to possibly be favored in this series in any way, it will be the Clippers’ mission to prove they should be in the same conversation with the Spurs and Thunder out West. If they can slow down Curry, we’ll see a defense solidify before our very eyes.

Prediction: I think we’ll get a couple of amazing games from DeAndre Jordan, an MVP-level performance from Blake Griffin, and it will still take their full complement of weapons to slow this Warriors team. Curry won’t have much pressure, which means we could see him attempts 15 threes per game. The Clippers will have to get past the toughest perimeter defense to get everything they want at the rim, but they’ll ultimately do it.

Clippers in six

by Matt Moore

Season series: Houston won the season series 3-1, averaging in their three wins 120 points per game, 117 per 100 possessions. They overwhelmed the Blazers with offense, blitzing them and leaving them befuddled. The one game in which the Blazers won, Damian Lillard was 1-for-10 but plus-20 with six assists. So basically, it made no sense.

Hope you guys like offense.

Houston Rockets Portland Trail Blazers
Patrick Beverley Damian Lillard
James Harden Wesley Matthews
Chandler Parsons Nicolas Batum
Terrence Jones LaMarcus Aldridge
Dwight Howard Robin Lopez

Terrence Jones is their usual starter at power forward, but in the 50 minutes he's played against Portlnd this year, the Rockets have given up 130 points per 100 possessions, which in layman's terms is "all of the points, ever."

I would bet he'll stick with Jones and have a quick hook on him to put Omer Asik in at some point.

X-Factor: Jeremy Lin. The beleaguered point guard has had an up-and-down season. But against Portland, I've got a bizarre number for you. The Rockets were 28 point better on defense with Lin on the floor. Even if that number is conflated with the work of his teammates, as long as he's not a bleeding wound defensively, that's huge. He runs the pick and roll well and can shoot, and the Rockets need both of those things to keep up with the Blazers' offense. He averaged 18 points per 36 minutes vs. the Blazers this season.

Mo Williams should dominate this matchup of backup point guards but instead Lin has been huge.

Narrative: Can Dwight Howard put his money where his mouth is? Howard left the most storied franchise in sports last summer to join Houston where he would presumably pursue championships. The Rockets don't look like contender yet, but a dominant first-round performance from Howard, something we haven't seen since 2010, would go a long way in making people notice what's going on in H-town.

Howard has to dominate, though. Not win. Dominate. Robin Lopez has been good this season for the Blazers, but Howard should control the glass, be the defensive force he can be, and dunk on fools. Put your play where your money put your mouth, Dwight. Or something.

Prediction: Offense. That's the prediction. Lots and lots of offense, because neither of this teams defend well. Since All-Star Break, the Blazers have the 12th best defense in points per possession, but have struggled against the West playoff teams.

The Rockets aren't exactly defensive stalwarts either, but they have mot in the way of playoff style personnel. Beverley should give Lillard problems and the Rockets will be able to get what they want offensively.

It should be an entertaining, wide open, and high-scoring series, but Portland's defense and lack of home court eventually does them in.

Rockets in six.

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