Two of the four first-round series have direct connections between the opposing teams, and those linkages provide another level of intrigue to these matchups.
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets
Quite the ironic situation for former Thunder forward James Harden. One year ago, he was OKC’s valuable sixth man off the bench; this season he’s one of the leaders of the Rockets, determined to show up his former team which traded him to Houston after the two sides couldn’t reach agreement on a contract. Houston relies on another “castoff”: point guard Jeremy Lin, who was traded from the Knicks in a controversial and highly unpopular deal. Add in small forward Chandler Parsons and center Omer Asik — a monster on defense — and that’s a strong core which can hold its own with most teams in the league, especially on the fast break.
Unfortunately for Harden and the rest of the Rockets, they are up against one of the best teams in the NBA. Small forward Kevin Durant has been amazing: he shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc, and 90 percent from the foul line. He’s only the third non-guard in NBA history to do that in a season: Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki are the others. Russell Westbrook is the top scoring point guard in the league (23.2 PPG) as well as the top rebounder at his position (5.2 per game) and ranks in the top 10 in assists, steals and blocks. When those two have their pick-and-roll working, they’re almost unstoppable. They also have power forward Serge Ibaka and bench players such as guard Kevin Martin and forward Nick Collison providing quality minutes. So while it’s possible that Harden could shoulder the burden single-handedly for the Rockets — which he has done before — and take a victory or two, it would be the stuff of legend if Houston could pull off an upset in this series.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in six.
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers
After struggling all season just to get to .500, the Lakers beat the Rockets on the last day of the regular season and grabbed the seventh seed away from Houston. Of course, their road doesn’t get any easier now that they face the Spurs. The matchups here are intriguing, though, as point guard Tony Parker will square off against all-time assists leader Steve Nash (who is hurting, but could play nonetheless) and the battle at center between San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and L.A.’s Dwight Howard. Kobe Bryant, of course, is not available because of his Achilles surgery, so the Lakers have to change the way they do things. The Spurs can keep running their game, and have more bench depth than L.A. does.
Prediction: San Antonio Spurs in five.
(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
This is a pairing which can be summed up with a line from the musical Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Both teams have fast and exciting offenses, but Denver’s is just a shade quicker than Golden State’s. The Warriors as a team finished seventh in total points, but the Nuggets are at the top of the heap. Golden State had a home record of 28-13, which is pretty good, but Denver is the best at home (28-3!). One area where the Warriors dominate is three-point country: Steph Curry is the king of the land beyond the arc, having recently set the single-season mark of 272. It will take more than that for the Warriors to prevail here, though.
Prediction: Denver Nuggets in six.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Here they go again: this is the second year in a row that these two teams meet in the first round. They are opposites, with L.A.’s “Lob City” gameplan while the Grizzlies favor ball control and a half-court style. Last spring it was the Clippers who beat Memphis in seven games. Chris Paul is still the go-to guy on the floor, and the ball will be in his hands much of the time. If he continues to make good decisions, it will be that much tougher for Memphis to compete. Tougher, but not impossible: the Grizzlies allowed the fewest points in the NBA at 89.3 PPG. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph must keep a closer eye on Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. This promises to be one of the most intense and closely-played series of the first round, but the comparative levels of talent will eventually make the difference, especially if Chauncey Billups can be effective as the Clippers’ “secret weapon.”
Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers in seven.