NBA: Western Conference playoff preview
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NBA: Western Conference playoff preview Staff
Friday April 17th, 2015

Can the defending champion Spurs repeat for the first time in the Gregg Popovich Era? Will LeBron James reach a fifth straight Finals? Can Stephen Curry and the Warriors cap their banner season with a championship?
With the 2015 NBA playoffs set to tip off,'s NBA experts offer their conference finals and Finals predictions for the postseason.​ Let's get to the picks.

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Lee Jenkins: Warriors over Cavaliers

East finals: Cavaliers over Hawks

Both teams will be tested along the way: the Hawks by the Raptors, who have given them problems all season, and the Cavs by the Bulls, who may finally be healthy at the right time. But these teams, clearly the class of the Eastern Conference, have been on a crash course since the All-Star break. Atlanta has beaten Cleveland the past two meetings, but since March the Cavs have been surging while the Hawks have been coasting. The Hawks already had the East sewn up, thanks to their stellar first half, but they’ll need to regain their old edge in order to reach the Finals. ​

West finals: Warriors over Clippers

The Warriors path to the conference finals looks fairly smooth, with the banged-up Grizzlies or Blazers waiting after the Pelicans. The Clippers face the toughest first-round draw, considering the Spurs have lost only nine games since Jan. 31, but two of those defeats were against L.A. In a series that has all the makings of a seven-game game struggle, the Clips will outlast the Spurs and then upend the Rockets. The Clippers defend James Harden as relentlessly as any team, but their lack of depth will be exposed against Golden State, when that rivalry reaches its apex. As long as the Warriors can remain healthy through a street-fight with the bare-knuckled Grizz, they will be in excellent shape to reach the Finals.

Finals: Warriors in 6

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The Warriors have a rookie coach. They have never been out of the second round. They lean heavily on their guards. I suppose, if somebody wanted to pick against them, these would be some of the popular reasons. At various times this season, I’ve thought the Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs could all upend them, and the Spurs probably still could. But if the Warriors fall, it will be a major upset. They have been a historically dominant team according to all the relevant numbers. They have the best offense, the best defense, the best shooter, the best stopper, the best backcourt and the best crowd—which will be especially riled up at this spring. A lot of the old playoff tropes have been disproven in recent years. Just because the Warriors employ a first-year coach, lack conference finals experience and lean on a spindly point guard to score does not mean they can’t take the title. What’s most important is that they’ve consistently been the best team for the past six months, and the best team usually brings home the hardware. 

Ben Golliver: Spurs over Cavaliers

East finals: Cavaliers over Hawks

Look for LeBron James’ conference dominance to continue for a fifth straight season, although the Hawks shouldn’t be written off. If Cleveland’s rotation takes an injury hit or its still-developing continuity unexpectedly lags, Atlanta will be poised to send James and company packing. But, if James and Kyrie Irving play to their capabilities and everyone else simply gets in line, the rest of the East will be hard-pressed to keep up. The Finals will be a different story for the Cavaliers, who are unquestionably talented but possess a middling defense and get weak production from their bench. Those deficiencies could easily prove decisive in a hypothetical showdown against the Spurs, who picked apart and outlasted James’ Heat in the 2014 Finals.​

West finals: Spurs over Warriors

NBA playoffs preview: Unseating Warriors will prove tough for Pelicans

While the Spurs are the defending champions, they will cede most of the pressure to the Warriors (who are embracing major expectations after enjoying one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history) and the Cavaliers (who always face extra scrutiny thanks to James’ singular star power). Although San Antonio might not achieve the same level of consistent excellence it displayed during the 2014 playoffs, this is still a talented, deep, unselfish, and well-balanced group led by two All-NBA worthy performers in Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. As long as its aging core pieces remain healthy, San Antonio is without a glaring weakness. Beating Golden State in the dream Western Conference finals showdown will require San Antonio to win at Oracle Arena, the NBA’s toughest building this season. The Spurs won’t shy from that task—they do have five rings during the Duncan Era, after all—and Leonard’s ability to play steady, focused lockdown defense against opposing superstars should prove crucial to handling adverse conditions​

Finals: Spurs over Cavaliers 

If the Spurs are going to deliver on my preseason prediction of a Finals triumph over the Cavaliers, they will need to survive an obscene playoff gauntlet that could require them to beat four of the top seven teams in point differential (the Clippers are No. 2, the Rockets are No. 7, the Warriors are No. 1, and the Cavaliers are No. 5) and four of the top six MVP candidates (Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry and LeBron James). That’s just crazy. Golden State and Cleveland will represent major tests, as both possess A-list talent and significant positive momentum coming into the postseason. The same can be said for the Spurs, who have looked up to the challenge of this tough draw in recent weeks, posting a league-best +13.1 point differential since March 1 and winning 11 of their last 12 games. San Antonio is surely the most known quantity in the field, and it would enjoy a significant experience advantage over both Golden State and Cleveland. 

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Phil Taylor: Warriors over Cavaliers

East finals: Cleveland over Atlanta

With apologies to Atlanta, the Cavs finished the season finally looking like the best team in the East and they should get to the Finals and push Golden State. But if the series goes the distance, it’s hard to imagine Cleveland or anyone else going into Oracle and taking the title away from the Warriors.​

West finals: Warriors over Spurs

Anyone who beats the Warriors in a series is going to have to win at least one game at Oracle Arena, and considering that Golden State is 39-2 on its home floor, that will be no easy task—not even for the Spurs, who figure to be their toughest challenger in the West​.

Finals: Warriors in 7

The Warriors are the deepest team in the league, which gives coach Steve Kerr tremendous flexibility. For instance, the Warriors go small as well as any team in the NBA, creating matchup problems for opposing big men with a quick, center-less unit that has 6’7” Draymond Green as its biggest player. They will create a multitude of matchup headaches for any team, even the Cavaliers, who have the ultimate all-purpose player in LeBron James. Conventional wisdom says a team like Golden State that hasn’t gone deep into the playoffs at least a time or two can’t win a title, but these Warriors, with their defensive excellence and adaptability—and have we mentioned that they’re pretty good offensively, too, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson?—might be the exception to that rule. 

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Rob Mahoney: Warriors over Cavs

East finals: Cavaliers over Hawks

The East is tricky to parse given Atlanta’s slow roll to close the season. The Hawks haven’t had much reason to engage since January; while other teams fretted over seeding, Atlanta moseyed its way to the finish line. The chemistry that underlines the Hawks’ play should again come naturally. Yet beating the Cavs will require near-perfect execution, and LeBron James and co. have the talent to throw Atlanta slightly off balance. Expect a dramatic series where neither team can quite figure out how to stop the other.

West finals: Warriors over Spurs

The West pits a dominant Warriors team against the contender best suited to puzzle them out. San Antonio has the elite defenders, the offensive execution, and the first-rate coaching to challenge an opponent with a historically great statistical résumé. I’m just not sure that it will be enough to quell Golden State’s wildfire offense throughout an entire series while still turning out enough points against the top defense in the NBA.

Finals: Warriors in 6 

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While a handful of teams could step in to play spoiler, the Warriors and Cavaliers seem bound on a collision course for the NBA Finals. Between them I favor the Warriors for the simple reason that a superior defense serves as a hell of a fallback. Golden State has the length and savvy needed to tie up LeBron, all within a second-nature system that informs their patterns of help and recover. It takes quick, reactive decision-making to get past the Warriors on D. That isn’t exactly the Cavs’ strong suit, as James and Kyrie Irving are both guilty of holding the ball at times at the cost of playmaking momentum. 

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will consistently get the better of Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, drawing the Cavs’ help defenders into increasingly uncomfortable rotations. Golden State requires its opponents to cover an unreasonable amount of on-court real estate. Shooters, cutters, and facilitators engage a defense on multiple levels simultaneously, and with consecutive games of trial and error I suspect the Warriors will work their way through the base patterns of Cleveland’s defense.

Matt Dollinger: Spurs over Cavaliers

​East finals: Cavaliers over Hawks

Sorry Chicago and Atlanta, Larry O'Brien isn't walking through that door—LeBron is instead. The biggest test for the Cavs will come in the second round, when they'll meet the Bulls in a marquee seven-game slugfest. Whichever team survives will likely follow-up with a triumph over Atlanta, which dominated the regular season but enters the playoffs with questions (experience and depth, mainly). The Bulls are a proven playoff team that finally has a clean bill of health, making them as dangerous as any East team. But the Cavaliers' second-half momentum will simply be too much for the Bulls or Hawks to stop in the playoffs. LeBron James and Cleveland's best is significantly better than anyone else's and the clicking Cavs have the players to match up adequately with either conference rival. LeBron's team has been the East representative the last four seasons—put me down for a fifth. 

West finals: Spurs over Warriors

Please go seven, please go seven, please go seven...oh, sorry. A West finals matchup between San Antonio and Golden State would be a win for all basketball fans. The defending champions versus a historic front-runner that was the best all season? Yes, please. While it's tough to pick against a squad that's been as systematically dominant as the Warriors this year, history tells us the Spurs save their best basketball for the postseason. And if their recent 11-game winning streak tells us anything, it's that this team is just as good as last year's. No Spurs team has ever repeated in the Popovich Era, but this one has the best chance of any. With Kawhi Leonard achieving new levels of stardom and the Big Three still more than kicking, San Antonio is the team to beat.

Finals: Spurs in 6

The Spurs steamrolled the rest of the league in the playoffs last year and the table is set for them to plow through again. In the last 12 games of the regular season, San Antonio pulled off the holy trinity of dominance, ranking No. 1 in net rating (17.9), offensive efficiency (113.3) and defensive efficiency (95.4). That's like being the most popular, most athletic and best-looking kid in your school. It seems like every year we come up with reasons not to pick the Spurs—they're too old, LeBron's team is too good, the Warriors are too deep—but this year the evidence is simply too overwhelming. Popovich knows the regular season rhythms better than anyone. San Antonio is peaking at the right time of the year with its full roster at its disposal and the know-how to pick the rest of the league apart. I'm taking the defending champs.

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