Ah, the playoffs. At last, you have returned.
This season hasn't quite carried the momentum of the 2014 campaign, when the basketball world last gravitated toward what seemed like an inevitable Finals rematch, featuring the Heat's quest for a three-peat. A similar anticipation, awaiting a Warriors-Cavaliers rubber match, should have carried a similar energy. Instead, the 82-game slog presented opportunity after opportunity to poke holes at each contender, question each MVP candidate and yet again gripe about tanking.
But now that the brush has cleared, this playoff picture might shape into one the most exciting postseason we've witnessed in quite some time. There are question marks surrounding each power player on the chess board, especially in the Western Conference. Both Golden State and Portland will look to reincorporate major pieces on the fly. Kawhi Leonard's offensive punch has cooled since the All-Star break, the Rockets' defense remains more suspect than Dwight Schrute as regional manager and the Clippers have been as inconsistent as ever. The West may be more than a two-dog race for the first time since 2011.
Most Intriguing Series: Rockets vs. Thunder
A historic MVP debate has been muddied by a smaller argument: Whose supporting cast is better: Russell Westbrook's or James Harden's? The NBA's awards ballots are past due, but there's no better case study to determine the answer to a question so many—rightfully or not—feel is pertinent to the award than a seven-game series. The Jazz and Clippers likely boast the most evenly matched twosome out West, but Westbrook vs. Harden is a narrative straight out of Greek mythology. Arguably the two best players of the season, posting nearly identical numbers, thriving out of similar high-action sets, clashing in the postseason. What more can you ask for?
Thanks, But No Thanks: Spurs vs. Grizzlies
Spurs-Grizzlies has brought a plethora of notable playoff action in recent years. Memphis's 1–8 upset in 2011 not only knocked off San Antonio, but captured the franchise's first-ever playoff series victory. With two overtime bouts, the 2013 Western Conference finals morphed into one of the most entertaining sweeps in postseason history. A battle of the Gasol brothers is a fun wrinkle, but these teams met in the opening round a year ago, and San Antonio dispatched the Grizzlies in four games as well. A nostalgic matchup will likely be over very quickly once again.
What To Watch: Series By Series
No. 1 Golden State vs. No. 8 Portland: Paint presence
Portland's season pivoted with its midseason addition of Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers collected the third-most victories in the league following his arrival and soared to the sixth-best offense in that span. Nurkic is the kind of overpowering interior presence that these Warriors have struggled to combat. He can pulverize Golden State's switching defense while also possessing the ability to find open shooters should the Warriors collapse on his paint touches. But that advantageous size and strength tends to plague Nurkic on the opposite end of the floor, plodding while protecting his own paint. And while Golden State slaughters opponents from deep, the Warriors truly torture teams with relentless pressure toward the basket. Portland ranks just No. 22 in the league in opponent scoring at the rim. The precious real estate immediately engulfing the basket could ultimately decide just how competitive a series this becomes.
No. 2 San Antonio vs. No. 7 Memphis: Methodic tactics
This will be the 10th postseason appearance in Grizzlies history, and the fifth occasion they've run into the Spurs. There's more than mere familiarity on both sides. While the Grizzlies' coaching staff will make its postseason debut, head coach David Fizdale played an integral role on the Miami teams that faced San Antonio in back-to-back Finals. A Gasol brother stands on each side, and the opponents play a nearly mirror-image style. The Spurs and Grizzlies rank No. 27 and No. 28, respectively, in pace and boast top-six defenses. The team that can find an extra gear and rev its offensive engine will ultimately race past the other.
No. 3 Houston vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City: Opposites attract
The Rockets have launched toward the upper echelon of the Western Conference on the jet fuel of Mike D'Antoni's high-octane offense, mixed with Harden's brilliant orchestration of a lethal shooting corps. Even following Kevin Durant's departure, the Thunder have maintained their top-10ish stingy defense, performing a solid 2001 Sixers impression, with Westbrook's kamikaze play supported by an army of interminable, athletic defenders. OKC clearly doesn't have the firepower to match Houston's scoring prowess, yet the Rockets may struggle to run up the score against the Thunder's tangle of limbs, and Houston's breakneck pace may ultimately favor its opponent's superior athletes. Will fire melt ice, or will the chill turn the flame into embers?
No. 4 Utah vs. No. 5 Los Angeles: Changing of the guard?
The Jazz are arguably the worst West matchup for the Clippers. While L.A. took the regular season series 2–1, Utah boasts a long, athletic guard to combat Chris Paul in George Hill, a larger, rangier and superior version of DeAndre Jordan in Rudy Gobert and an endless wing rotation that the Clippers have never been able to compile. The Jazz boast the deepest rotation in the league, while the Clippers may ultimately be best served shrinking their postseason rotation to seven or eight players. But Doc Rivers's offense can hum with the best of the NBA, and tenured chemistry typically shines through on the defensive end in the postseason. This series could propel L.A. forward, or derail the Clippers' window for contention and launch the Jazz into a new era.
Biggest X-Factor: Eric Gordon
After toiling in New Orleans, Gordon has regained his Los Angeles form with a breakout season with the Rockets. He could very well claim this year's Sixth Man of the Year honors. When Harden sits, D'Antoni hands Gordon the keys to Houston's racecar and the Rockets hardly skip a beat. In the 801 minutes Gordon has played with Harden on the bench this season, the Rockets have scored 107.9 points per 100 possessions—equivalent to 11th-best offense on the season—according to nbawowy.com. When Westbrook sits for Oklahoma City, the Thunder's offense stalls to a production worse than the Brooklyn Nets. Those precious swing minutes, when reserves relieve starters at the conclusion of the first and third quarters, can derail a prolific opening lineup's success. Gordon's understudy performances could prove back-breaking against opposing bench units and vital in a potential Warriors matchup, when Golden State counters with two of its core four at all times. Gordon may prove the difference between Houston serving as a punchy challenger or a threatening contender.
Warriors over Blazers in 4.
Portland's closing spurt has been a joy to watch. Damian Lillard has been a flamethrower down the stretch. But the Warriors found their mojo with a 14-game winning streak spanning March and April and will be anxious to quickly put any "Can Durant and Curry seamlessly co-exist?" discussion to bed.
Spurs over Grizzlies in 5.
As the Chandler Parsons investment hasn't yet broke even, Memphis has never found its wing component to complement the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph triumvirate, and Kawhi Leonard is the model terminator to dismantle this iteration of Grit 'n Grind. The Spurs harbor a sneaky-lethal scoring attack with which Memphis will struggle mightily to keep pace. In today's NBA, a team that has Tony Allen as its fourth-leading scorer is not long for this world.
Rockets over Thunder in 5.
So, which supporting cast truly has the upper hand? The Rockets clearly went all-in on shooting this season, using the deadline to add Lou Williams. Four nights of 25-of-50 shooting from three-point land would be devastating in a seven-game series, and Houston may be the only team capable of reaching that ceiling. The Thunder could very feasibly slow down the Rockets from taking off, but Westbrook's tremendous performances should ultimately prove thin in comparison to a far more complete team. Both teams will deliver vicious punches, but Houston has demonstrated a greater ability to throw haymakers that consistently land.
Jazz over Clippers in 6.
A seven-game series can ultimately prove to be a battle of attrition and the Jazz are objectively better suited to win a marathon than their opponent. Utah can mix and match a variance of playing styles. Gordon Hayward can dance off Gobert and Derrick Favors screens to score 30 and power an offensive explosion, or Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson can combine for a methodical small-ball clinic. Rodney Hood, Hill, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles and the finally-healthy Alec Burks can all shoulder creation responsibilities as well. Utah just comes in waves. If the Jazz can crescendo at the right time, the Clippers don't have the bodies to counter.