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If you’re looking for potential upsets in the first round, you’re better off turning your attention to the East. Out West, the playoff bracket is loaded with championship contenders who will enter their first–round matchups as heavy favorites.
In fact, the three most lopsided first-round series—as judged by the regular-season point differential split between the two teams—are all in the West. Even the conference’s most balanced series on paper, the No. 4 Clippers vs. the No. 5 Blazers, is more lopsided than three of the East’s four series.
While the West playoffs will have the league’s two most dominant teams (Warriors and Spurs), the presumptive 2016 MVP (Stephen Curry) and four other strong candidates (Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and the top two Defensive Player of the Year nominees (Leonard and Draymond Green), the intensity and competitiveness likely won’t pick up until the second round. In the meantime, the next two weeks should offer a nice taste of what’s to come, as the conference’s titans tune up against unusually middling fare.
Most intriguing series: (4) Clippers–(5) Blazers
There’s a little something for everyone in this series, which is arguably more balanced than the 9-win difference (53 vs. 44) between the two teams’ records indicates. Since Christmas, when Clippers forward Blake Griffin was lost to a leg injury, L.A. compiled a 36-16 record while Portland went 33-18. And while the Clippers won the season series 3-1, they needed a J.J. Redick buzzer beater to avoid going to overtime at home last month.
Love offense? L.A. and Portland both rank in the top seven in offensive efficiency, they both rank in the top eight in three-pointers, and they’re both led by dynamic All-NBA point guards in Chris Paul and Damian Lillard.
Love drama? Coaches Doc Rivers and Terry Stotts have been engaged in minor feuds all season long, bickering over minutia like improperly filled out lineup cards and bench celebrations.
Love gamesmanship? Stotts will enter the series knowing that his frontcourt personnel are facing an uphill battle against DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Portland may look to work around its roster limitations by playing Hack-a-Shaq on Jordan and looking to use small ball, spread-oriented looks to create mismatches against L.A.’s traditional bigs.
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Love pressure narratives? The “Can’t get over the hump” Clippers will bear all of the pressure against the “Not even supposed to be here” Blazers. After four consecutive playoff trips with no trips to the conference finals to show for it, L.A. entered the season with both title hopes and the knowledge that another disappointing exit could lead to major changes to its core. Portland, meanwhile, retooled on the fly with a young and largely unproven roster after losing four starters from last year’s squad. They’re playing with house money and led by two guards, Lillard and CJ McCollum, who would love nothing better than to steal some national attention by playing spoiler.
Thanks, but no thanks: (2) Spurs–(7) Grizzlies
Remarkably, the Warriors set an alltime NBA record for most wins (73), and yet they won’t enter the first-round with the most lopsided matchup. That designation goes to San Antonio, who nipped at Golden State’s heels all year and finished with a +10.6 point differential, a top-10 all-time mark and just a fraction behind the defending champs. The Spurs boast the league’s best defense—thanks to Leonard and Tim Duncan—and a No. 3 offense that leans on Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and others.
Compounding the inequity: a rash of injuries has decimated the Grizzlies, giving this match-up a “legends versus no-namers” vibe. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and midseason acquisition Mario Chalmers will all miss the playoffs, leaving coach Dave Joerger to make do with the likes of Jordan Farmar, Lance Stephenson and a bunch of non-household names like Xavier Munford, Jarell Martin and JaMychal Green. The Grizzlies not only enter the postseason with the worst point differential (-2.2) of the 16 playoff teams, that mark has slipped to -4.7 since the All-Star break, which ranks No. 25 league-wide.
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The head–to–head matchup provides zero cause for optimism for the Grizzlies, as the Spurs swept the season series 4-0 and won by an average of 12.5 points. In their last postseason match-up, San Antonio swept Memphis 4-0 in the 2013 Western Conference finals. All signs point to this being a quick, tidy and thorough butt-whooping.
What to watch: Series by series
No. 1 Warriors vs. No. 8 Rockets: Any signs of a let-up?
After completing its historic season, Golden State didn’t get the benefit of an extra day to recover from the chase. Instead, the Warriors will open their series against the Rockets on Saturday with an early 3:30 p.m. ET start. Although these two teams met in the 2015 Western Conference finals, with Golden State prevailing in five games, this isn’t a conventional rematch.
Houston has struggled with its defensive effort and focus all season, leaving it especially vulnerable to Golden State’s signature explosions. It’s possible that the only team that can beat Golden State in this series is itself. Perhaps the Rockets will be able to avoid a sweep and extend the series if the defending champs get loose with the ball or struggle to muster full energy after months of chasing the 1996 Bulls.
No. 2 Spurs vs. No. 7 Grizzlies: How does LaMarcus Aldridge look?
Aldridge has played at an All–NBA and All–Star level in his first season with the Spurs, but he does face some questions heading into the postseason.
First, he sustained a dislocated finger on his shooting hand during a loss to the Warriors last week. Will he be affected by the injury during what should be his best shot at a deep postseason run during his 10–year career?
Second, Aldridge struggled mightily against the Grizzlies during the 2015 playoffs, shooting just 33% from the field as his Blazers lost in the first round in five games. Historically, Zach Randolph, Memphis’s physical power forward and a former teammate of Aldridge’s in Portland, has succeeded in making Aldridge uncomfortable and limiting his effectiveness. The good news for Aldridge: San Antonio should be able to easily win the series, even if he loses his individual match-up.
No. 3 Thunder vs. No. 6 Mavericks: OKC’s late-game lineups and execution
From a pure talent standpoint, it’s hard to pick against a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the first round, especially when they’re facing a mediocre Dallas team without good individual defensive matchups for either of the Thunder’s stars.
There’s a chance, however, that this series is more complicated than simply, “OKC’s superstars are simply too much.” Keep an eye on two things: the Thunder’s lack of postseason experience and their late–game struggles this season.
On the experience front, Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have been through plenty of battles together over the years. The same can’t be said for their supporting cast. Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, Anthony Morrow and rookie Cameron Payne have a combined zero career postseason minutes. Andre Roberson? Nine. Enes Kanter? Forty three. Even starting center Steven Adams has just 331 from the 2014 playoffs, when he was a reserve. That’s an awful lot of untested pieces to put on the court against well-oiled machines like the Warriors and the Spurs. Can they make good use of their first-round series repetitions against the Mavericks?
As for the late-game execution, Oklahoma City finished just 22-22 in games that went to clutch situations this year, a .500 winning percentage that was far below other top teams like Golden State, San Antonio, the Clippers and Cleveland. Can first-year coach Billy Donovan find better success constructing functional late-game lineups in the playoffs? Can he hold his own against Dallas’s Rick Carlisle, an experienced coach who has seen it all and will surely have a bunch of tricks up his sleeve?
No. 4 Clippers vs. No. 5 Blazers: The Hoopers’ Family Feud
With the possible exception of James Harden vs. Klay Thompson, the battle between the Clippers’ Chris Paul and the Blazers’ Damian Lillard should be the premier positional matchup in the West’s first round. Although they play different styles, with Paul favoring a more traditional approach and Lillard fitting a score–first mold, both leave huge marks on the offensive end: Paul (19.5 PPG, 10 APG, 4.2 RPG) ranks third among point guards in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, while Lillard (25.1 PPG, 6.8 APG, 4 RPG) ranks fifth.
As it so happens, the two stars appear together in a national advertising campaign for an insurance company. In the “Meet The Hoopers” spot, Paul is the family’s father while Lillard is the baby, and sarcastic quipsters have been quick to note that the casting is reflective of their relationship in head-to-head matchups. Simply put, Paul has sonned Lillard to date, racking up a 9-3 record in 12 games, doing whatever he wants on offense (22.7 PPG, 11.3 APG, 49.5 FG%), and holding Portland’s point guard well below his usual averages (16.5 PPG, 5.9 APG, 37.8 FG%). Remember, however, that Lillard is no stranger to big postseason performances: just ask the 2014 Rockets.
Biggest X-factor: Blake Griffin’s health
During the 2015 playoffs, only three players who advanced out of the first round averaged more minutes per game than Blake Griffin (39.8): Jimmy Butler, LeBron James and Bradley Beal. Those were hard minutes, too, with Griffin regularly running himself to exhaustion as he pushed the ball up the court, battled for rebounds in traffic, shifted between life as a facilitator and a finisher, and absorbed blow after blow on his way to more than seven free throw attempts per game.
That 2015 Griffin is a thing of the past, not the present. The 2016 Griffin has logged just 123 minutes in five appearances since Christmas thanks to a leg injury, which is still causing him some pain, and a broken hand sustained during an off-court incident with a team employee.
While coach Doc Rivers seemed to be taking a cautious approach to Griffin’s return throughout April, he’ll likely need more than what he’s received from Griffin over the past month if L.A. is going to handle Portland with anything resembling ease. This month, Griffin has averaged 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 24.6 minutes per game, numbers that are sharply down from his 2015 postseason averages (25.5 PPG, 12.7 RPG). While offseason acquisition Paul Pierce and midseason acquisition Jeff Green can help pick up the slack, Griffin’s availability, form and conditioning combine to make him the biggest question mark in the West’s bracket, bar none.
Warriors over Rockets in 5. The defending champions have the talent, balance and depth to sweep a disappointing Houston team, but recent home losses to Minnesota and Boston suggest that a slip–up is possible. Just don’t expect more than that.
Spurs over Grizzlies in 4. The sooner that Memphis can get back to licking its wounds and finding a way to lock up Mike Conley to a long-term deal, the better. San Antonio should have no problem squeezing the life out of Memphis’s sub–par attack.
Thunder over Mavericks in 6. Dallas has a way of making first-round series more competitive than they might appear to be on paper. The loss of Chandler Parsons to a knee injury will ultimately make life too difficult for Rick Carlisle, who has no great answers to either Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant.
Clippers over Blazers in 6. While this looks like the most interesting and competitive of the four series, Portland has two Achilles heels that could prove to be their undoing. The Blazers are tied with the Grizzlies for the worst road record (16-25) among the postseason field and they’re tied with the Rockets for the worst defense among the 16 playoff teams. Those weaknesses will likely prove fatal in a series in which they open on the road against the league’s No. 6 offense.