Thunder versus Rockets. Spurs versus Lakers. Nuggets versus Warriors. Clippers versus Grizzlies. How will the first round of the Western Conference postseason play out?
1. Thunder or Rockets: Who wins, and in how many games?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Thunder in 5. The dominant storyline here will be obvious -- James Harden as the Thunder's first roadblock back to the NBA Finals. But while the debate over the trade has raged on, the Thunder have quietly built the NBA's fourth-ranked defense. OKC's speed and savvy should be enough to slow the Rockets in transition and along the perimeter.
Matt Cianfrone, Roundball Mining Co.: Thunder in 4. The Rockets struggle to defend anyone, and the Thunder have two of the best offensive weapons in the game. Thabo Sefolosha will make life tough for Harden, which will make life tough for Houston. Harden may win a game for Houston, but it would be one at the most.
D.J. Foster, Clipper Blog: Thunder in 5. Houston wants to get out and run and play in isolation, but Oklahoma City can oblige and still have the upper hand. In theory, this could be a series if the Rockets' perimeter defense were passable, but there are no speed bumps here for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Andrew Han, Clipper Blog: Thunder in 5. It's no slight to the Rockets, but Oklahoma City is not only the better team but also the more cohesive team. Houston's swift construction days before the season and then reshuffling at the trade deadline sacrificed short-term gains for the long term. But the Rockets could win a game under the "James Harden's revenge" or "Houston supernova from beyond the arc" provision.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Warriors World: Thunder in 5. Can we stop nagging the Thunder? This team is fantastic and much improved since last season. Yes, losing James Harden to the opponent made life temporarily difficult, but OKC has responded with a cinched-up defense and improvement from Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. I'm spotting Houston a game because every time Harden takes contact, free throws fall out of that beard.
2. Spurs or Lakers: Who wins, and in how many games?
Cianfrone: Spurs in 5. San Antonio will pick apart the Lakers' slow rotations on the perimeter, and Tony Parker will be able to create whatever he wants to whenever he wants to. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol won't make things easy, but the energy expelled to get into the playoffs will catch up with the Lakers.
Foster: Spurs in 5. It's easy to fall victim to recency bias and peg the Spurs as vulnerable because of the past 10 games. The injury concerns are understandable, but Parker should be able to carve up a Lakers defense that still suffers too many lapses, even if he's not 100 percent.
Han: Spurs in 5. Similar to Houston, the Lakers have had little roster consistency this season. Now, days before the playoffs, they lose their most ball-dominant, high-usage player. The Lakers are certainly talented enough to win, especially considering San Antonio's injury concerns, but familiarity usually breeds success. And nothing is more familiar that the Spurs.
Strauss: Lakers in 6. What? We aren't allowed to choose an upset in our brackets? In four consecutive seasons, San Antonio dropped a series it was favored in. The Lakers are reeling off that Kobe injury, but disaster can create opportunities. Bryant often played like a big man, posting up near Pau and Dwight. Now the paint is freer for L.A.'s twin towers, and Dwight's recently looked limber enough to help on D against Tony Parker. By the way, if Steve Nash doesn't come back, this paragraph never happened.
3. Nuggets or Warriors: Who wins, and in how many games?
Arnovitz: Nuggets in 7. The state of the Nuggets' frontcourt is shaky, but they play on the NBA's most dominant home court. That, along with a platoon of strong perimeter defenders, should be enough to hold serve against the most dangerous sniper in the game, Stephen Curry.
Cianfrone: Nuggets in 6. Denver just doesn't lose at home, and even with its recent spells of injuries, that won't change. Andre Iguodala will be able to switch off and contain whichever Warriors guard starts getting hot, and Golden State will eventually succumb to the Nuggets' superior depth and athleticism.
Foster: Nuggets in 7. I'm still not sold on Denver's ability to close out games offensively, and something tells me that George Karl's overreliance on Andre Miller will come back to bite him in this matchup. Still, it's hard to ignore the league's best home-court advantage and the playoff inexperience of Golden State.
Han: Nuggets in 5. Denver's recent health woes coupled with what could be the best 3-point shooter in the NBA (Curry) makes this series ripe for an upset. But the Nuggets' home court is a true advantage, and they've shown an ability to win in Oakland. Could Golden State win the series? Yes, but more likely it'll only be close in Oracle.
Strauss: Nuggets in 7. Both teams play at a fast pace, but with completely different styles. Denver uses speed to attack the rim, and Golden State pushes the ball to find transition 3s. My pick is Denver because Andrew Bogut has looked gimpy, and Golden State badly needs him to wall off Denver's driving onslaught. Nuggets fans should be beyond fearful of Curry, though, as Denver plays distracted 3-point defense.
4. Clippers or Grizzlies: Who wins, and in how many games?
Arnovitz: Clippers in 7. As a kid, there were few things more exhilarating than coming to the end of the best roller coaster in the park, then getting right back in line to do it all again. That's what we're in store for with the redux of this classic from the '12 postseason. The Grizzlies' defense won't be stumped for long stretches, but the Clippers are an efficient crew and have a ball stopper in Eric Bledsoe, who could be a decisive factor in a razor-thin series.
Cianfrone: Clippers in 7. The series will be a slugfest, and ultimately it will come down to the smallest things like how a ball bounces, or who gets to a 50-50 ball first. When a series looks this tight, I always go to the team with the best player. Since Chris Paul is that player, in the series, I go Clippers.
Foster: Clippers in 7. It's always smart to side with the drastically better defensive team, but the Grizzlies are still prone to terrible play in the beginning of fourth quarters. Lightning isn't supposed to strike twice, but the Clippers' second unit could very easily bail out the starters in a big spot and swing the series once again.
Han: Clippers in 5. Memphis could probably beat any other team in the West. But Lob City is an odd matchup for the Grizzles. The Clippers last season were up 3-1 before injuries dragged them down and forced a Game 7. Both teams are greatly improved and largely healthy. And the only thing assured in this series is that every game will be very close.
Strauss: Clippers in 6. The absence of Rudy Gay works in the Grizzlies' favor, but I'll err on the side of extra minutes for Paul and Blake Griffin. A "Tribe Called Bench" got much media coverage, but this team's strength lies in what happens when that bench shrinks. As for the Griz, I love that defense, but that offense isn't well-equipped to exploit the Clippers' mediocre D on shooters.
5. Who will represent the West in the Finals?
Arnovitz: Would love to see a Manu-revived Spurs team face off against the Heat, but Oklahoma City has found a defensive formula to pair with its voracious attack that never stops chewing up defenses. Kevin Durant is poised and ready. It may or may not be his time yet, but he believes it is.
Cianfrone: The Thunder. Oklahoma City has the two best players in the conference and is the healthiest of any the contenders. It finished tied for first in offensive efficiency and tied for third in defensive efficiency, proving the Thunder can get it done on both ends of the floor. Add in a great home-court advantage, and you get a favorite.
Foster: Thunder. Can the Thunder be improved and yet still be more vulnerable than last year's team? Relying on Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins to provide anything is a risky proposition, and Kevin Martin's load might be a little too heavy. This team has warts, but Durant and Westbrook are plenty capable of covering them up and bringing OKC back to the Finals.
Han: OKC Thunder. As good as the Thunder have been this year, theoretically they could have been even better. According to their point totals and Expected Pythagorean Win-Loss, the Thunder's season expected seven wins more than their West-leading 60-22 record. The only other Western Conference teams with win-to-expected-win differentials that large are the Rockets (52 expected wins, plus-7) and the Clippers (61 expected wins, plus-5).
Strauss: Oklahoma ... (yawn) ... City. Probability is often mistaken for inevitability in sports, but few Finals matchups have felt more predetermined. The Thunder are much better than any other Western Conference team. The Heat are much better than any other Eastern Conference team. I'm anticipating a sequel.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Matt Cianfrone, D.J. Foster, Andrew Han and Ethan Sherwood Strauss contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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