NBA playoff primer: Western Conference
The interlude between the conclusion of the NBA regular season and the start of the playoffs lasts but a few short days, during which players and coaches are expected to thoroughly prepare for the series to come while fans attempt to make sense of complicated, fast-approaching matchups. The Point Forward is here to get you up to speed with both our big-picture previews and this more detail-oriented primer. We've already discussed the nuances of the Eastern Conference bracket, and now we look to the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
• The James Harden subplot is a nice draw, but even that selling point -- and his terrific offensive game -- won't make this a competitive series. It should be compelling, but only in the way that watching the Rockets usually is; win or lose, Houston's all-out sprint toward the finish line gives every game a keen sense of drama. That will have to do in place of a contested verdict, as the Thunder have the potential to run away with this thing based on their capacity to match the Rockets' explosive offensive potential while playing far superior defense. In the season series, Oklahoma City held Houston to a mere 97.2 points per 100 possessions -- almost 10 points below the Rockets' season average and a cut below the typical output of the bottom-ranked Wizards.
Transforming one of the league's most blistering offenses into a scurried mess is no easy feat, but the Thunder manage to push Houston's pace even higher than usual while maintaining defensive discipline. Part of that is thanks to athleticism and effort, but fundamentally they're equipped to beat the Rockets at their own game thanks to a sturdy team defense and a pair of Harden-level shot creators.
• Houston actually had the most success against OKC this season in going small (with Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino at the forward spots), which should be a good means of countering the two-big lineups that Scott Brooks is still fond of employing. Forcing the shot-swatting Serge Ibaka to guard a perimeter threat is an easy way to open up the middle a bit, and should allow the Rockets to preserve some of their offensive efficiency.
That said, those same lineups have rather predictably hemorrhaged points on the defensive end, as Parsons and Delfino just aren't physically or mentally equipped to be back-line defenders. That's a bit problematic against a team that attacks the rim as obsessively as the Thunder, and largely counteracts whatever gains are to be found in terms of Houston's offensive execution.
• This series will surely gravitate around the stars involved from a narrative standpoint, but Thabo Sefolosha (17.3 points per game vs. HOU) and Kevin Martin (17.0) have been the real, silent killers for OKC. Sefolosha is the Thunder's primary on-ball option for halting Harden, and he knows the pacing and patterns of his former teammate's game about as well as any defender could. He does a fantastic job of sprinting back in transition (and semi-transition) to keep Harden from slinking into easy, uncontested shots, and works beautifully in tandem with the Thunder bigs to control Harden in the pick and roll. That effort is aided by the fact that Houston's big men don't make for particularly fearsome roll threats; Omer Asik may have improved dramatically in his ability to catch and finish, but his lack of range allows OKC to guard pick and rolls rather conservatively -- with the big man dropping back to catch Harden if he slips through the initial defensive line.
On the other side of the floor, Sefolosha and Martin have both fired up wide-open three-pointers at their leisure, as Harden (in particular) tends to collapse into the paint on drives from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook despite lacking any means to help. As a result, Sefolosha and Martin averaged a combined 13 three-point attempts per game against the Rockets this season, relative to eight a night against other teams. That in itself wouldn't be so problematic if Sefolosha and Martin weren't converting 46 percent of those long-range looks, but they are and it is.
The Pick: Thunder in 5.
• The season series between these two teams is useless for predictive purposes, as Kobe Bryant's absence puts almost every positive element of the Lakers' performance in jeopardy. Say what you will about his tendency to dominate the ball, but the sudden void of such a gravitational offensive player has made L.A. an entirely different team. Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and an injured Steve Nash will have a lot of work ahead of them, and as noted by Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (via NBA Wowy), that trio has registered all of five minutes of playing time this season without Bryant on the floor.
• I'm a bit less optimistic about the longevity of this series than most, in part because I see a good, unselfish offensive team facing one of the defenses in the league most vulnerable to the extra pass. Forget how the Lakers might run their offense without Bryant for a moment; how are they going to defend the Spurs -- even if Tony Parker is limited by injury -- with a rotation so contingent on notoriously slow defenders? L.A.'s defense has been better of late, but hasn't improved so much as to be above Parker's off-the-dribble dissections. The Spurs have a habit of decimating opponents who aren't up to snuff defensively (see Los Angeles Clippers, 2012), and I suspect that whatever drives Parker can manage will set in motion the ball movement necessary to pick the Lakers apart.
• It's worth noting that Gasol is playing some of his best basketball of the season while Howard is getting healthier by the day, but some of their high-low work might be mitigated by San Antonio's sturdy tandem of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs were the third-best team in the league in defending against post-ups this season, holding their opponents to just 0.78 points per play on those low-block possessions. The Lakers won't rely solely on back-to-the-basket work to manufacture offense, but between Gasol and Howard it figures to be a prominent -- and likely ineffective -- staple of L.A.'s play actions. With Duncan and Splitter both so capable of contesting post position and challenging shots down low, the Lakers will be even more reliant on finding supplementary scoring to round out whatever production is to be had from those core two bigs. I ask, in all seriousness: Do you really trust Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, and Metta World Peace to be big-time scorers?
The Pick: Spurs in 5.
Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
• The absence of Danilo Gallinari, the injury impediment to Ty Lawson and the questionable mobility (and availability) of Kenneth Faried make this Nuggets team a bit more vulnerable than they've appeared in recent weeks. The format of the postseason figured to be a challenge for Denver regardless of opponent or circumstance, but now they'll have to overcome some structural weaknesses in addition to an opponent prepared for their fast-breaking game.
Fortunately for Denver, Golden State isn't exactly a perfect foil. The Warriors' top individual scorers have had success within their matchups (Stephen Curry, in particular, thrived in the curious wealth of space that Ty Lawson afforded him) in the season series, but overall their offense doesn't produce as well at the breakneck pace that the Nuggets' style invites. The margin between the two teams isn't so large that it can't be overcome, but Denver's focused bursts toward the rim simply translate more consistently than the three-pointer-heavy offense of Golden State ever could.
• I'm interested to see how Mark Jackson goes about managing his rotation of bigs, as Festus Ezeli, Andris Biedrins, Carl Landry and even Draymond Green each offer inelegant solutions to the Warriors' defensive problems. On the one hand, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos -- Denver's slotted centers -- are the least of Golden State's concerns, and present more X-factor potential than consistent production. Yet, going too small (or skewing too heavily toward offense) with Landry and Lee together on the front line creates a standing invitation for the Nuggets to stroll to the rim. There's no easy way out of his matchup quagmire, but Jackson will have to find the best ways to mitigate the damage.
• With Gallinari out, many are looking to some combination of Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer and Evan Fournier to fill the void of minutes and production. In terms of filling Gallinari's actual role and function, though, much of the responsibility will fall to Andre Iguodala. He's more than capable, but Iguodala has long-standing problems in figuring out how to attack in the right ways at the right times, and as a result seems oddly tentative in spots where he should be aggressive.
That doesn't seem to be as big of a problem against the Warriors, who are a good defensive team but nonetheless vulnerable to the delayed transition work that has become an Iguodala trademark. Golden State hasn't quite figured out how to protect itself against that secondary break just yet, and beyond that doesn't have a particularly good defensive grip in one-on-one coverage against Iguodala. As a result, Iggy averages more field goal attempts per game (17.8, good for 20.0 points per game to go along with 5.0 assists) against the Warriors than against any other team, and thus may prove to be more in-tune offensively overall.
The Pick: Nuggets in 6.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
• It takes a rare opponent to score with any consistency through the gauntlet of the Grizzlies defense, but the Clippers have proven to be just such a foe. The Clippers ranked as the fourth-best offensive team against the Grizz this season, scoring at a rate (106.0 points per 100 possessions) just a few ticks below their season average (107.7). Contrary to L.A.'s star-centric makeup, much of that scoring came piecemeal; Chris Paul was the engineer behind most every play, but he and Blake Griffin were flanked reliably by Jamal Crawford (14.0 points per game vs. Memphis), Eric Bledsoe (12.0), and Matt Barnes (11.7) in their efforts to break down the initial line of defense.
• Eric Bledsoe drew the smallest sliver of the national spotlight the last time these two teams met in the postseason, and this time around he remains every bit the difference-maker. Bledsoe is hardly a perfect fit for every matchup, but it's entirely possible that he was put on this Earth for the sole purpose of defending Mike Conley.
Bledsoe also offers plenty in the way of off-ball cutting and effort rebounding, but let's dwell for a moment on that matchup with Conley -- which is of such great import that it has the potential to turn the series. That may seem like an over-the-top way to categorize the defensive effect of a player who logged just 20.4 minutes per game in the regular season, but Bledsoe has been so jaw-droppingly good in his coverage of Conley that he may well earn the time necessary to do consistent and concerted damage. Over the course of the season series, Conley did poorly against the Clippers overall in shooting just 30.2 percent from the field en route to 10.3 points per game. Yet with Bledsoe on the floor (and in most every case, guarding him), Conley's scoring dropped, assists plummeted and field goal percentage dipped even further to 18.8 percent. For a team that now relies on Conley's shot-creating talents rather heavily, such miserable play within this matchup has the potential to turn the Grizzlies' offense fruitless for minutes at a time.
• Marc Gasol will have a busy series as both Memphis' offensive focal point and a key defender against Griffin and Paul, but his most important task may be in forcing the Clippers to compromise when faced with foul trouble. Gasol is versatile and clever enough to lure Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into some cheap fouls, and if he can attack those players consistently he could force them out of the game as the fouls pile up. Deep as L.A. is, things get particularly dicey when the Clippers are forced to rely on Lamar Odom or Ryan Hollins. In those two, the Grizzlies have an ideal matchup that would not only be vulnerable to the the post work of Gasol and Zach Randolph on the block, but also provide low-risk threats on the defensive end that would allow Memphis' bigs to focus on the threat of Paul's dribble penetration.
The Pick: Clippers in 7. Statistical support provided by NBA.com.