Western Conference Preview: FUCKING FINALLY IT’S THE PLAYOFFS
1) San Antonio Spurs vs 8) Utah Jazz
The NBA, like most major North American organizations, is kind of fucked up. This season, in its lockout-induced shortened madness, has been especially fucked up. Amidst accusations of nepotism and the loss of our sweet prince Ricky Rubio, the somber story of the Utah Jazz has kind of gone unnoticed. Oh, but what a somber story it is.
See, the Jazz are a team with plenty of promise. They have a surplus of big men (Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap, Derek Favors, Enes Kanter) that would start/star on teams better than this one. Alec Burks has been solid both offensively and defensively, and Gordon Hayward has become a legitimate threat on the offensive end (and only somewhat of a liability on the defensive end). This is a team that, with the addition of a dynamic guard, could easily become elite.
The Jazz’s first-round pick, traded to the Timberwolves in the Al Jefferson deal, was lottery-protected. Even towards the tail end of this year’s lottery, there will be plenty of exciting guards (guys like Kendall Marshall, Austin Rivers, Marquis Teague, Tony Wroten, and Dion Waiters) available, exactly the kinds of players this team so desperately needs.
But they were too good. They made the playoffs. They lost their pick. There’s been plenty of conversation about the evils of tanking this season (most of it absurd and unsubstantiated), but the plight of the Utah Jazz really makes you question things. This is a good basketball team that needs some help. A first-round exit courtesy of the Spurs won’t provide that.
And, I’ll admit, I have not watched an entire half of San Antonio Spurs basketball this season (I have, however, watched two entire Wiz-Bobcats games). I think this says a few things: 1) This playoff preview is off to a great start! 2) I kind of hate myself. 3) Gregg Popovich and his player-coach compadre Tim Duncan have been so successful year in, year out that you can just assume the team’s doing well without ever watching them.
Still, this Spurs team seems like an interesting one. Tony Parker has transformed from being that guy that fucked Brent Barry’s wife instead of his own desperate housewife into someone who is in the MVP conversation (whatever that means). Duncan’s seen his minutes drop (DNP-OLD), but he’s been productive during his time on the court and probably just as productive during his time off of it. Kawhi Leonard has done a pretty good Bruce Bowen impression, and it would be impossible to call a team that gives Stephen Jackson minutes of any kind boring. I mean, this team finished higher than an absolutely frightening Oklahoma City team even though they played a greater part of the season without Manu Ginobili. That’s insane.
And yet it is really hard to get excited about this team. Maybe, given all the games in which Pop has rested his aging stars, this is the year that Spurs break out of their playoff funk. Or maybe they’ll just lose to the Grizzlies again.
Prediction: Spurs in five
2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs 7) Dallas Mavericks
Things aren’t looking quite as good for the Thunder as they had been looking earlier in the season, but this is still the conference favorite by a long shot. The team’s main concerns at this point are James Harden (RIP) and Russell Westbrook, whose shot has gone wayward as of late. But even those concerns are minor, at least at this point. Harden will be back. Westbrook should hit his groove (or at least contribute in the plenty of other ways he can contribute). Kevin Durant is a person. It’s honestly hard to say much more. This is the best basketball team on the Western half of the nation, and, post-last year’s playoff collapse, this team is hungry.
How appropriate, then, is it that the Thunder face off against the team that knocked them out in last year’s conference finals? Make no mistakes, though, this is not the same team that won the NBA championship last year. That’s mostly due to the absence of Tyson Chandler. His departure last summer seemed significant, though not major, and his max-level contract probably hadn’t been earned at that point given his history of injuries. Welp, now he’s on his way to winning the defensive player of the year award and the Mavericks are so far removed from the team that destroyed the Flying Death Machine last season.
Look, Dirk is still capable of scoring a bunch of points on any given night, and a Carlisle team will always put up a fight, but this series honestly shouldn’t be close. The Thunder have gotten that much better, and the Mavericks have gotten that much worse. Of all the interesting first round match ups, this one should be one of the most skippable. Just wait for the Delonte West and Vince Carter gifs to hit tumblr.
Prediction: OKC in five
3) Los Angeles Lakers vs 6) Denver Nuggets
Kobe Bryant had a chance to compete for the scoring title this week. Instead, he sat out. Many people reacted to this along the lines of “WHAT IS LIFE HOW COULD YOU KOBE WTF???” but I think it’s a sign that Kobe is finally starting to realize his body isn’t the same as it used to be, illegal German knees and all. For the Lakers, that’s a good thing. I mean, say what you want about Kobe being an egotistical asshole, but no one’s ever questioned his game. His transformation from high flying slasher to jump shot assassin has been incredible, and maybe this is the point in his career where Kobe realizes his best position isn’t always at the forefront of attention.
Or maybe Kobe will launch 58 shots after the Lakers lose a game or two. And then maybe Andrew Bynum will murder Mike Brown and set up shot at the three point line every possession. And then maybe Pau Gasol will cry. And then maybe Steve Blake will get major minutes on the league’s premiere team. What I’m saying is that there is a chance things could go brilliantly for the Lakers, but there’s a significant chance things could crash and burn.
It certainly doesn’t help that they’re playing one of the league’s deepest teams. The Nuggets have multiple solid players at every position (hey, Timofey Mosgov’s name might by synonymous with getting dunked on by Blake Griffin, but he’d start for plenty of teams in this league). And, when they’re at the top of their respective games, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, and JaVale McGee (don’t let YouTube fool you) can be downright scary.
The four times the two teams matched up this season resulted in four closely contested games. This series shouldn’t be any different. But when it comes down to it at the end of these games, who do you want to have the ball? Kobe? Or anyone on the Nuggets roster?
Prediction: Lakers in seven
4) Memphis Grizzlies vs 5) Los Angeles Clippers
This Clippers squad is a very flawed basketball team. Blake Griffin doesn’t quite know what he is yet (I mean, outside of a FUCKING MURDERER). Chauncey really was an important piece. DeAndre Jordan is susceptible to disappearing entirely. And, oh yeah, this team is coached by fucking Vinny Del Negro.
And yet, almost all of that is rendered irrelevant by Chris Paul. He’s taken the Clippers from being the NBA’s biggest laughingstock to being one of the NBA’s most exciting and frustrating teams. His crunch time numbers are absolutely ridiculous, and if last year’s Lakers-Hornets series was a sign of anything, it was that Paul is capable of carrying an entire time on his back in the playoffs, shaky knees and all.
Too bad, then, that he’s facing the West’s scariest team that doesn’t play its home games in Oklahoma. The Grizzlies finished fourth in the West without a fully healthy Zach Randolph at any point this season, and it seems like healthy Zach Randolph might finally be back. No one’s going to shut down Chris Paul, but Tony Allen might come close. Marc Gasol might not be the best Gasol brother, but he’s close. Mike Conley (MIKE CONLEY!) was second in the league in steals. OJ Mayo can score!
Look, Chris Paul, congratulations. You’ve done the impossible. Now hopefully this first round exit will land you a new coach next season.
Prediction: Grizzlies in five