SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest playoff question of the day. Today, we examine …
Lee Jenkins: Thunder-Clippers. It's the best matchup for reasons that have nothing to do with Donald Sterling or Oklahoman headlines. Both teams feature two top-10 players, harbor legitimate title hopes, and enter with monumental stakes. Chris Paul has never been out of the second round and re-upped with the Clippers last summer because he believed they were the squad to do it. Kevin Durant has two years until free agency and must be convinced that he can win a championship in Oklahoma City. Durant makes the Thunder the favorite, but the Clippers roster is arguably more balanced, with sharpshooters J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford spacing the floor around Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Oklahoma City native Blake Griffin. These teams split the season series, and unless the Clippers are sapped by the Sterling episode, they will push the Thunder again.
Phil Taylor: Pacers-Wizards. A couple of months ago, this would have shaped up as a relatively easy conference finals warm-up for the Pacers. Now it looks like it might be more of a challenge than they can handle. Their Game 7 win over Atlanta was encouraging, but the Pacers have miles to go before anyone believes they have fully recovered from the bizarre malaise that has infected them since the All-Star break. Indiana is still staggering, and the Wizards, athletic, deep and confident, have the kind of knockout ability that could take them out. The Wizards won’t go in thinking of themselves as an underdog; they just faced a defensive-oriented, grind-it-out team like Indiana, and dispatched the Bulls in five games. It will be fascinating to see whether the Pacers can save their season against a team that is just now realizing its own could be filled with possibility.
Chris Ballard: Thunder-Clippers. The Nets-Heat series offers more drama, and Blazers-Spurs has the potential to go deep, but the matchups are what make LA-OKC. How will the Clippers, who lack a Tony Allen of their own, guard Durant? Who on the Thunder is going to be an effective Griffin-stopper? How much will Scott Brooks play Kendrick Perkins? The series features arguably four of the top ten offensive players in the NBA, with wildly different styles, and both teams are legitimate title contenders. Expect plenty of continued hand-wringing about Westbrook's shot selection, and complaining about the histrionics of CP and Blake. In the end,though, it will likely be the bench guys who make the difference - Jamal Crawford, Reggie Jackson, etc.
Chris Mannix: Pacers-Wizards. Call me crazy, but I still think Indiana has a chance to rediscover its mojo. There were flashes of the old Pacers in Game 7 against Atlanta--a stifling defense, a superb Paul George, a solid Roy Hibbert--and the Wizards, frankly, may be a better matchup for them. The Wiz like to play big with Nene and Marcin Gortat, keeping Hibbert out of those embarrassing one-on-one-with-Paul-Millsap type of situations. And though John Wall will be a nightmare for George Hill to handle, Hill will have the protection of a big front line backing him up in the paint. The Pacers will have to chase Washington off the three-point line (38.3 percent in the playoffs) but if they can, their size and strength could control the series.
Rob Mahoney: Spurs-Blazers. I'm eager to see just how well either of these teams can stop one another. San Antonio is easily the better defensive outfit in theory, though through much of the first round the Spurs had trouble hindering the offense of an opponent functionally similar to the Blazers. Tiago Splitter could come to bother LaMarcus Aldridge just as he did Dirk Nowitzki, though Gregg Popovich might have to do all kinds of cross-matching to keep Tony Parker (who was a defensive wreck in the first round) away from the red-hot Damian Lillard. The Blazers' balance, too -- both in terms of player contributions and court spacing -- makes for a tough team-wide cover, and it was through those means that they forced the Spurs into two of the worst defensive performances of their season.
Portland, for its part, quietly allowed the most points per possession in the first round among all surviving teams. That mark came against an opponent with an entirely different composition and style, though it does raise some concern in the prospect of the Blazers getting the stops necessary to win a series like this one. San Antonio went full bore offensively for Game 7 against Dallas; if that at all forecasts the Spurs' offensive performance going forward, the Blazers might be reliant on firepower to overcome.
Ben Golliver: Thunder-Clippers. Let me first preface this by saying I think Spurs-Blazers will provide the most offensive fireworks and could easily produce the most "Oh. My. God. Did. That. Just. Happen?" moments. Even so, Thunder-Clippers just has too much going for it. On the one hand, you have Kevin Durant looking to deliver on his first MVP season by driving towards his second Finals and a possible first title. On the other, you have a franchise that survived unprecedented off-court turmoil at the worst possible time thanks to Doc Rivers' steady hand and big Game 7 performances Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Both Clippers All-Stars stand among the league's 10 best players, and both are seeking the first conference finals trips of their respective careers. Throw in the never-ending Russell Westbrook rollercoaster -- which produced untold highs and lows against the Grizzlies -- and the emergence of DeAndre Jordan, dominant presence, and there are almost too many individual storylines to keep track of. During the first round, both teams looked incredible at times, and beatable at other times, and that should make for an insanely wide range of possible outcomes when they go head-to-head. Let's get it on.
Matt Dollinger: Spurs-Blazers. The young grasshopper takes on his sensei in this series as Lillard and Aldridge, coming off the first playoff series win of their careers, face off against Parker and Tim Duncan, who has won 31 on his own (not literally, that would be a record). After outdueling the Rockets in the first round, Lillard and Aldridge now get a chance to validate their coming-out party with a series against the top-seeded Spurs. Lillard not only became the first player since 1997 to hit a series-winning shot, but he averaged 25, six and six along the way.His matchup against Parker should be worth price of admission alone. The 31-year-old showed he's just as dangerous as ever with 32 in the Spurs' Game 7 win and is sure to use the experience he's gaining winning three titles against the 23-year-old Lillard. As for Aldridge and Duncan, we're just talking about arguably the MVP of the first round (29.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game) vs. the greatest power forward of all time still playing at a high level. Nope, nothing to see here.
Chris Johnson: Thunder-Clippers. League-pass enthusiasts have spent many a late night watching these teams, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The possibility that Blake Griffin will "Mozgov" a defender or DeAndre Jordan will humiliate another innocent bystander or Kevin Durant will erupt for 50-plus points is simply too tantalizing to pass up. Fortunately for casual fans, every game of this series will be broadcast on national television. You won’t want to miss a second of the action. Forget the off-the-court controversies and headlines, this is the most compelling matchup of the second round for reasons on the floor.
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