The first round of the Western Conference playoffs was thrilling, dramatic, and at times... maddening. Four teams remain in the West while the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Jazz and Nuggets have been forced into early offseasons. The Thunder swept the defending champion Mavericks and the Spurs swept the young-and-big Jazz in swift contests, but the Clippers and Lakers were pushed to 7 games to close out each series. Round two of the Western Conference playoffs begins tonight.
Los Angeles Clippers (5) vs. San Antonio Spurs (1)
Regular Season Series: Spurs lead 2-1
Having just edged out the Memphis Grizzlies last night, the Clippers head to San Antonio for what will be a much more challenging match-up. The Spurs led the league in the regular season and easily dispatched the Utah Jazz in four games. If the Clippers hope to compete in this series, they'll need to do so on the defensive end, as the Spurs bring the most efficient, productive offense in the league to San Antonio tomorrow night.
Key Player for the Clippers: Blake Griffin
At this point, Chris Paul is largely a known quantity. The real question is what Blake Griffin is made of and what he can accomplish against Tim Duncan in a best-of-seven series. Griffin is dealing with a sprained left knee (not enough to warrant an asterisk, John Hollinger), but he may not be playing his best against Tim Duncan. If Griffin can't compete with Duncan and help LA control the paint, you might as well pen in a quick victory for the Spurs.
Key Player for the Spurs: Tony Parker
For the first time in 18 contests, the Clippers defeated the Spurs in San Antonio in January. Tony Parker was not present. Chris Paul has struggled against the Spurs in the past but he can control the series if Parker isn't playing at his best. So long as Parker is in uniform and on the court, he can hold his own against the player widely considered to be the best point guard in the league.
Verdict: The Clippers are tired, the Spurs are rested. And despite the Spurs age, they were the best team in the league in 2012. The Clippers have a bright future ahead of them but they are no match for this prolific, dynastic Spurs team that is hungry to put the 2012 Lob City story to bed. Spurs in 6.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (3)
Regular Season Series: Thunder leads 2-1
I'm going to go ahead and give the Lakers/Thunder commentators a full 5 minutes at the beginning of game one to get the whole "World Peace vs. Harden" and "Derrick Fisher Drama" out of the way. It's not interesting but they'll do their best to make it interesting until everyone watching/listening is certain it's not interesting. Can we fast forward to the part where the Thunder close out the series and the media spends the next four months talking about The End of the Lake Show? Here are the early Cliff's Notes: "is Kobe too old, is Pau too soft, is it Mike Brown's fault, etc." Answers: yes, no, a little bit.
Key Player for the Lakers: Andrew Bynum
This was a tough call. Kobe is a twilight-aged volume shooter who can hurt as much as he can help. Bynum can be a beast, and OKC can't match his offensive production up front. Expect OKC to run a varied frontcourt rotation to prevent Bynum from getting comfortable or for picking up easy baskets. Kobe will take a lot of shots to make a lot of shots, but Bynum is their most effective player. If they can get the most out of Bynum, they can make some noise against the otherwise inked-in winner of this series.
Key Player for the Thunder: Kendrick Perkins
Durant, Harden, Westbrook and Ibaka are going to do what they always do. The question is whether or not the injured Kendrick Perkins is at full strength throughout the series. He went down with an injury in game 4 against the Mavericks and is a game-time decision tonight. His production will have an important impact on this series given the value of Andrew Bynum to the Lakers. Fortunately for the Thunder, their frontcourt rotation is as deep as it gets, and they can use that depth to slow Bynum down. Having a healthy perkins will be quite an important luxury for this team, regardless of its depth.
Verdict: The Lakers looked sluggish against a fast-paced, high-scoring Nuggets team. If the Nuggets took the Lakers to 7, the Thunder should bring even more pressure. Thunder in 6.