Editor’s Note: This is Part II in a two-part series previewing the 2014 NBA Playoffs. You can find Part I here.
There were two big story lines out of the West heading into this season. One was that of the San Antonio Spurs, who took the Heat to seven games in the Finals last year, and whether or not they could make yet another run for the title as the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era lives on borrowed time. The answer to that question is “yes, most likely.” Despite Oklahoma City featuring the season’s best player and the Los Angeles Clippers taking a major step forward with the progression of Blake Griffin, San Antonio was great all year, going on a streak of a franchise record 19 straight wins (which, naturally, began with a victory over the Pistons).
The other major story line heading into last October began over the summer when Dwight Howard bolted the Lakers and signed with Houston. For Howard and the Rockets, the signing turned out just fine with Houston finishing out the year with a 54-win season that would have been good enough for second place in the East. As for the Lakers, the departure of Howard, compounded with injuries to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash and incompetent ownership, has left the team looking anything but championship caliber.
The fall from grace for the Lakers aside, there were a lot of great teams in the West this season. The Phoenix Suns were perhaps the funnest story of the season as a team made up of a young, extremely inexpensive roster managed an astounding 48-34 record under first year coach (and former 1990’s video game star) Jeff Hornacek. Sadly, the impressive Phoenix season wasn’t enough to get to claim a playoff berth. Simply put, the Western Conference is stacked.
Here’s a look at the conference’s first round match-ups:
SAS (1) vs DAL (8)
The San Antonio Spurs finished with a league best 62-20 which gives them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The 8th seeded Mavericks will provide an entertaining match-up only in terms of nostalgia. Both teams have experience in spades, and Dirk Nowitzki has been great this season as he hits the downslope of his prime. It’s a shame the Mavericks couldn’t have pulled out a win Wednesday night against Memphis; doing so would have garnered Dallas another consecutive 50-win season (a streak that lasted over a decade) and would have gotten them to the seventh seed. Instead, they will face a San Antonio team that is certain to advance.
OKC (2) vs MEM (7)
The two-vs-seven match-up features a rematch from last year’s conference semi-finals, which was taken by a Memphis team that out-manned and out-powered an OKC team that was without Russell Westbrook. Having their star guard back this postseason will obviously be a major plus. The Thunder’s top player, of course, is Kevin Durant, who has had a monster season. He’ll get the MVP this year, and rightfully so as he’s consistently performed better than LeBron James all year. It’ll be a shame if he doesn’t get back to the Finals this season. But the path begins with a Grizz team that may be tough, but far from impossible, to beat.
LAC (3) vs GSW (6)
Every game of this series will be a “must-watch.” Golden State is constantly being accused of over-performing and under-performing so it’s hard to tell if they really should be labelled the underdog here. A year ago, a GS-Dub victory would seem likely, but this season, under Doc Rivers, the Clippers are playing at a high level. And so is Blake Griffin, in particular. But, then again, so is Steph Curry. Expect the Clippers to advance in what should be a fantastic series.
HOU (4) vs POR (5)
Portland has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season. They started the season playing well, stayed at that level, tapered off slightly, and ended with a 54-28 record that would have gotten them a second seed in the East. Instead, they find themselves without home court (due to a tie-breaker) in a first round match-up against Dwight Howard and the Rockets. Portland has a lot of talent and is a fun team to watch, but Houston should have enough to advance which will lead to an interesting second round match-up against San Antonio.