If you didn’t get a chance to check out the rankings for the four Eastern Conference playoff matchups, by all means, edutain yourself here. But, if like pretty much everyone else, you’ve gotten a little tired of the baby brother East and are just here to check out the big boys out West, save yourself the time. Barring some unforeseen, lights-out play, one of these 8 teams is going to be hoisting that Larry O’Brien come June..
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS
4.) San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies
This one might just be my least favorite of the entire 8 and a strong case to feature some ugly, avert-your-eyes basketball. Not only have these teams faced off in the postseason 3 times in the last 6 years (including last year’s Spurs sweep of the skeleton Grizzly crew and the most recent 1v8 upset in playoff history baxk in 2011), but not much has changed about these guys over the years either. Sure, Old Man River has retired and David Fizdale has the Grit N’ Grind shooting more threes than in any year prior, but for the most part all the key players are the same.
These two teams finished 27th and 28th in pace this year, and figure to slow down even more in the playoffs, as elite defenders force pretty much nothing outside of mid-range shots. We’ll get to see the Gasol brothers squaring off with pick and pop jumpers and JaMychal Green attempting to earn some serious free agent dollars guarding Lamarcus Aldridge. Unfortunately, the intrigue should pretty much end there. Tony Allen was announced as out indefinitely with a strained calf, robbing us of a premier defensive showdown against Kawhi. Mike Conley should be able to greatly outplay both San Antonio point guards and keep the Grizz stable while he’s on the floor, but this team is going to get murdered when they go to their bench (VINCE!!). Expect this one to end quickly.
3.) Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers
The Nurkic injury took a lot of the excitement out of last year’s playoff rematch, particularly when it comes to he and Draymond Green throwing elbows and Bosnian curse words at one another. It’s almost insane looking back at that trade now and realizing that not only did Nurk swing the playoff fates for both of those teams, but that the Trail Blazers were also somehow also able to extract a first rounder for their trouble. Flanking their explosive backcourt with two do-everything wings and a hulking presence in the middle had Portland looking like a real threat in the West and a lock to finish higher than 8th next season.
Still, even without the big man, these Blazers have been 2nd in net rating over the last month of the season, trailing only their first round opponent Golden State Warriors. Damian Lillard has been incandescent, CJ McCollum has been up there with Chris Paul as the best mid-range artist in basketball, and even Noah Vonleh has started to look like a real NBA caliber big man and a decent small-ball center. This team has an insane home crowd and more than enough firepower to outbomb the Dubs for a victory.
Aaaand, that’s about it. The Warriors are riding a 9-1 finish into the postseason and boast a league-leading 12.1 net rating. Kevin Durant seems pretty much fully integrated back into the lineup after his time off, adding layers and layers of icing to a cake that was probably going back to the Finals even without him. I love the ultraconfidence of Lillard, but this that quote is ultimately just fuel for Golden State’s fire. One W should be all the Blazers get.
2.) Los Angeles Clippers v Utah Jazz
Again, that NBA nerd in me wishes I could put this series first. While Utah may be past the point of being criminally overlooked, it still seems insane that this team’s starting lineup went 11-2 when healthy and boasted a net rating up there with Golden State and the early season Clippers. Gordon Hayward is an All-Star, George Hill has looked tremendous running the show outside of Indiana, and Rudy Gobert may be taking home his first Defensive Player of the Year award (and probably not his last). If Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood are 100% ready to go and can provide some glue around Utah’s core, this is a dangerous, dangerous team.
The Clippers, however, have absolutely OWNED the Jazz in the Chris Paul era, winning 17 of the teams’ 21 past meetings. Now, this may be the best Jazz team of that period, but with very little playoff experience on the roster and a number of outstanding health issues Utah looks primed to underperform. The Clippers have had a massively up-and-down season, opening as the best team in the league before going through a woeful period of disharmony, but they’ve been playing incredibly well to close out the season and they should be at full strength with the one exception of Austin Rivers. The Jazz may have the length and size at every position, but they lack the incredible star power that LA can channel when they’re on. It’ll be fascinating to watch how Utah fares in the postseason, after League Pass losers like myself have waited for years to see it, but if Chris Paul and Blake Griffin bring their A-Game, this might not be much of a series.
1.) Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder
If the West features the worst playoff series of the opening 8, it also features the absolute best. Watching Russell Westbrook has been a revelation this year. A broadening and widening of all the things you thought were possible on the court, a superhero thrust into real life to make all his competitors look just stupid silly. And, the way Russ dragging this team out of the 7th seed and a probable death sentence against San Antonio is just one more feather in the cap of a truly outstanding, individual season. The Rockets may be the better team, top to bottom, but it feels almost moronic to try to count Brodie out of anything at this point.
Not only that, but the Rockets have looked decidedly vulnerable recently as Harden has played through a sprained wrist in a valiant effort to boost his MVP campaign. This team still has a ton of surrounding talent, and the two 6th men of the year in Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, but make no mistake. Harden is the straw that stirs this drink. If he’s less than 100%, or if the threes aren’t falling, this series could get close.
And let’s all pray that it does. These have been two of the most super-star driven, stylized offenses in the league this year: one spreading defenses out past 30 feet while the other rams the ball down your throat with breakneck speed and athleticism. It’s a clash of styles, a clash of All-NBA players having historic seasons, and an opportunity to see 10 triple-doubles in a single playoff series. This, should be absolute appointment television, particularly if two of the league’s most dynamic, marketable superstars take it upon themselves to will their way to victory. Cancel your plans, watch the Thunder.
Tune back in for Game 1 recaps!