While the Eastern Conference may be easier to predict on paper, there are a number of big stories that could emerge as we prepare for the Western Conference Playoffs to begin.
The Miami Heat might be championship favorites, but of the six franchises with the shortest odds, four are from the West. One thing’s for sure, there’s plenty to look forward to over the coming weeks.
San Antonio Spurs +140
Oklahoma City Thunder +165
Los Angeles Clippers +450
(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)
1) Who is favourite – the Spurs or OKC?
It seems utterly bizarre to ask this question when the Spurs have won 62 games despite no player playing over 30 minutes per game. The fact remains that this team is really, really good. They have had an obscene amount of injuries, got a year older and were written off yet again. But here they are again. They face Dallas in the first round, a team they swept in the regular season and even with Dirk being Dirk, it’s hard to see that series go beyond 5. Then it gets interesting.
Their next 2 series’ would be against two teams that swept them in the regular season. Obviously this is all ifs and buts, the Rockets face a very good Portland side and it’s hard to take too much from the Spurs in the regular season given how often they sit big players. But the fact remains, it is two really tough match-ups for the Spurs on paper. They struggle with athleticism and Houston match up very well with them. Howard can do a job on Timmy and Patrick Beverley is a great perimeter defender for Tony Parker. Smart money would still be on the Spurs but that series could be a long slog. Not what they want going into the seemingly inevitable Conference final with OKC.
This is a big problem for the Spurs. No-one can stop Kevin Durant. He will get 30 points 9 nights out of 10 and often much more than that. Durant on his own will need to be doubled and with Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder have the best 3 pronged attack in the league. I would back the Thunder in this series and honestly, I’d also back them to do it in 6. There is one minor problem for the Thunder. Though the Grizzlies are an awesome team, a sleeper team, the one match-up they didn’t want was this one.
Still, Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. I reckon he could average about 35 for this series. His presence alone makes OKC instant contenders but an athletic roster and two superb back-up stars in Westbrook and Ibaka arguably makes them favourites. They will just pray they can stay healthy.
2) The Clippers – are they for real?
The Clippers have been superb this season, no doubt. Doc Rivers has done a great job, the leap in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is testament to that. They have 2 of the best 5 players in the league right now. It all seems awfully rosy for the Clippers. But this team has fundamental flaws.
The other contenders all have one thing in common – a perimeter stopper. The Spurs have Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green as a bonus. The Thunder have Thabo Sefolosha and Durant, tall, rangy and under-rated on the defensive end. The Heat have LeBron, the best perimeter defender in the game when he wants to be. Wade is also a fine defender when fit, though that is a big if. And the Pacers have Paul George, right up there with LeBron and Kawhi Leonard as the best stoppers around.
The Clippers have two options – Matt Barnes, a severely underrated player and defender but not quick enough and with a notably short temper, and Danny Granger, a really good defender… 2 seasons ago. He is due to return in game 1 but he hasn’t looked healthy yet. Having no-one to stop scorers is a big problem when out West and, if by some miracle they get to the Finals, in the toughest series in basketball.
Then there is offense. It seems crazy to question the best offense of the regular season but in Playoff basketball the game slows down and two things become crucial – a go-to scorer and 3 point shooting for when that player gets double teamed. The Clippers have got a scorer in theory – Blake Griffin is insanely good. But his jumper does not fall enough to make it a consistent weapon in the playoffs. The Thunder let Griffin have his jumper against them and it worked well. Blake is one of the best post players in the league and will get points there if left one on one. Therein lies the problem, he won’t be. He needs players to kick out to. Chris Paul’s 3 pointer is starting to fall and this is great news for the Clippers. If he shoots the 3 at over 40%, they look a lot scarier. But this season, they are 22nd in the league in 3 point shooting, with only two playoff teams (the Bulls and the Bobcats) below them. It will take big, big contributions from CP3, the returning JJ Redick and Matt Barnes from outside for the Clippers to top the Thunder. And that’s assuming they get through round 1. On that note…
3) Who are we sleeping on?
So we know the Spurs, the Thunder and the Clippers are supposedly our contenders. But there are two teams getting very little coverage who will be just fine keeping it that way.
It seems bizarre to single out only one team from a 4 vs 5 match-up that could go 7 as a sleeper and not the other but the Houston Rockets have 2 players in or around the top 10 of the league and two really good perimeter defenders in Beverley and Parsons, as well as the fascinating wrinkle of the Asik – Howard twin towers. This Houston team is just one of those match-ups that teams hate. If they top Portland, they have a shot against the Spurs as mentioned earlier. They have a player in Harden who can get hot and win games and an elite inside presence in Dwight Howard. This might come one season too early for the Rockets, especially with the unconvincing Kevin McHale in charge, but keep an eye on them.
A team with an awful lot in common with the Rockets is my other sleeper for very similar reasons. Golden State have Steph Curry, one man heat check and perfectly capable of winning games on his own. They have Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala (here is their Kawhi / LeBron / George) on the perimeter to guard tough assignments. They look like a nightmare for any team.
The problem comes with Andrew Bogut. Bogut is kind of Dwight-lite. He isn’t anywhere near as good on offense but both are elite inside forces. The problem is, he’s injured, and it becomes clear an injury is bad when Bogut won’t play through it. There is no schedule for his return as of yet and this is what might well decide the series against the Clippers.
Without Bogut the Warriors lack rim protection but may become even deadlier on offense. All logic points towards a Clippers win in this series but it’s probably the most reluctant I’d be to put money on of the first round match-ups even with Houston-Portland seemingly geared for a long one. Of these teams, the Rockets are perhaps the better bet but people aren’t so much sleeping on the Warriors as they are forgetting them completely. That’s an ill-advised strategy when Steph Curry is around.
Betting Instinct tip – OKC are +165 with Intertops.eu to win in the west, and that represents good value with Kevin Durant in his current form
DIARMAID HILL (@dhillmu7) is a basketball and football fan who plays both even worse than he writes about them. He supports the LA Clippers and Manchester United and yes, he’s heard every joke about both. Follow him on Twitter @DiarmaidHill