It's that time of year again. We are at the business end of the NBA season, the Play-offs. Here we will take a look at the match ups in the Western Conference, where the Oklahoma City Thunder will once again look to assert their dominance and make a return trip to the finals.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs Houston Rockets (8):
It just had to be, didn't it?
Only a few months removed from the blockbuster trade, James Harden must now come up against his former team in the environment that matters most, the Playoffs. The Rockets were demoted to the eighth seed on the final day of the season and they now have the unenviable task of trying to overcome last seasons Western Conference Champions, The Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder have picked up right where they left off last season. Most people thought that with the loss of the sixth man of the year they would struggle somewhat when Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook are out of the game. This has not been the case, Kevin Martin has stepped in and the Thunder has not missed a beat. Martin has always been an efficient scorer and with more open looks playing with better players he has thrived.
Durant has had another sensational year and while he has narrowly relinquished his scoring title to Carmelo Anthony he has developed other aspects of his game superbly this season. What's been most impressive in this improvement is his distribution of the basketball. His court vision is now another thing opponents have to consider when guarding the smoothest shooter in the game. Westbrook has also had a stellar year, and this one-two punch will once again be counted on to get the Thunder back to the promised land.
The Rockets spent big in the off-season acquiring Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omar Asik and it has resulted in a Playoff berth. Their form has dipped towards the end of the season, but this is a young team with room to develop who can give anybody a run for their money on any given night. This is Harden's team and he has been playing like that for the majority of the season. He has relished the extra responsibility in Houston and is now one of the premier players in the league.
There's no doubt that the Rockets overpaid for Lin, maybe still in the 'Linsanity' tailspin the contract they offered to him was too much for even the New York Knicks. Lin has been inconsistent this season but people forget just how little playing time he had before he had last season. Lin is crucial to the Rockets chances in this series as Westbrook has owned him in recent games between the two and will need to step up considerably on both ends of the floor if he is to influence this series in a positive way.
Thunder: Kevin Durant (Small Forward).
- Durant has had a field day against the Rockets this season and look for that to continue in this series. He was visibly hurt at the manor of their defeat in the finals to Miami last season and this has been the driving force behind his play this season. A focused Durant is too much for anyone on this Rockets team and his play should dictate this series from start to finish.
Rockets: James Harden (Shooting Guard).
- Harden should be more motivated for this game than anybody. He has stated there is no bad feeling between the parties but he must have felt aggrieved that they gave the money to Serge Ibaka and traded him due to Salary Cap constraints. He has played well against the Thunder this year and he does have some insider knowledge to share with his team-mates but the general concensus is that Harden is going to have to average 35-8-7 if the Rockets are going to get anywhere neat advancing from this series.
- There will be some nervy moments for the Thunder, especially when Harden goes through his scoring streaks but with fast perimeter scorers and fierce interior defenders you can't predict anything more than a Thunder victory as they look to go one better than last season.
- Thunder advance 4-1 (Best of 7).
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs Los Angeles Lakers (7):
The Lakers couldn't have envisaged a Playoff appearance at the start of the year. It was a catastrophe and with the help of the inspirational Kobe Bryant they pulled themselves together and turned it around. Bryant's tragic injury had some doubting their ability to make it, but a fine end to the season has seen them not only make the Playoffs but attain the seventh seed and that old rivalry will not resume against the Spurs.
The Spurs have been their normal selves this season, nearing the top of the West is now par for the course for this team under the Popovich rule. Even with his ageing stars needing more rest than in previous years they have been utilised superbly and while the suits in the NBA offices may not have taken kindly to 'Pops' decision to rest his stars that is of no consequence to this team who have bigger fish to fry than the NBA Commissioner.
Their 'Big 3' have once again been key this season, in particular Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Parker has cemented himself as one of the elite Point Guards season-after-season and this one has been no different. He gets to the rim with ease and is electric off the dribble. Duncan is timeless, still as findamentally sound and efficient as the day he entered the league. His playing time has decreased significantly this season but it has ensured Duncan's influence has not diminished. Both players will need to be fresh and at their best if they are going to redeem themselves for last years disappointing exit.
Without Bryant, the Lakers will be heavily reliant on their interior scoring. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have struggled this season with injuries and form but recent signs suggest they are on the turn. Gasol and Howard were magnificent towards the latter part of the season and it is imperitive that they stay healthy and cohesive if the Lakers are to cause a serious upset in the first round.
Spurs: Tony Parker (Point Guard).
- How much Tony Parker influences this team will determine how far they go in the Playoffs, it's as simple as that. Parker will have more freedom during this series as Bryant is unavailable and won't be guarding him. Whether Steve Nash is up to the task or not remains to be seen. Nash has never been renowned for his defensive prowess and he will now be given the task of containing Parker, something I fear he won't be able to accomplish.
Lakers: Dwight Howard (Centre)£
- Howard has had a rollercoaster year in Los Angeles, with rumours of friction between him and Bryant causing some to speculate whether this was the catalyst to the Lakers' poor form. With Bryant now out for the foreseeable future this has now become Howard's team. This isn't Orlando, he is scrutinised more in L.A and he has taken his time adjusting to this. On his day, he is the best Center in the league by a fair distance but consistency has been a problem as he battles injuries. This must not continue in the Playoffs.
- This will be a hotly contested affair between two veteran teams who know what it takes to win when it matters most. It's hard to fancy the Lakers judging by their form but the signs have been encouraging as of late and this will be a lot closer then people think. The Spurs will advance, but not without some worrying moments along the way.
-Spurs advance 4-3 (Best of 7).
- Denver Nuggets (3) vs Golden State Warriors (6).
On your marks, get set.... Go!
If you like high octane offense then this is the series for you. There is a general consensus around the NBA that when the Playoffs arrive that the games become more half-court orientated as teams become more familiar with each others offensive strategy. It's hard to envisage that in this case. These are two teams that pride themselves on fast-breaking baskets and it promises to be a thrilling encounter.
The Golden State Warriors have been a joy to watch this season. Coach Mark Jackson has added a defensive steel to this high-scoring outfit and it has resulted in a deserved trip to the post season. They have improved across the board and now have a genuine superstar in Steph Curry. He has been a revelation this season and would be in anybody's top 10 when it comes to MVP consideration without question. He is Isiah Thomas-like off the dribble and has improved his mid-range jump shot tremendously. The unquestioned leader of this team will have to re-produce his regular season form in order for the Warriors to do some damage in this series.
They also have David Lee. Lee has spent the majority of his career as an afterthought, first with the Knicks and then the Warriors. He has always put up outstanding numbers and is a double-double machine but because of his shy demeanour and dislike for the limelight hasnever got anywhere near the credit he deserves. That is now changing, he is now a focal point for this Warriors team and is counted on nightly to provide efficient scoring and non-stop pressure and rebounding on both ends of the floor. The first time all-star has had an outstanding year and his play will go a long way to determining the winner of this series.
The Denver Nuggets have been colossal at home this season and can count themselves very unfortunate to have two outstanding teams infront of them in the West seedings. They have a perennial all-star in Andre Iguodala who has added a much needed defensive presence on the perimeter that will stand them in good stead come Playoff time.
Their young players will also have a big part to play during the business end of the season. Although inexperienced, they have showed they are capable of turning it on in big-game situations. In particular Ty Lawson, who has matured into one of the better Point Guards in the league who's court vision and ability to stretch the floor will be vital in the Playoffs.
Nuggets: Andre Iguodala (Small Forward).
- 'Iggy' is the heartbeat of this team. A full USA international and member of the Gold winning squad at this Summers Olympics in London. This experience will be vital on a team with very little Playoff experience. Whether he will be quick enough to guard Steph Curry or not remains to be seen. He has a reputation of knocking the confidence of whomever he is guarding by making them go for tough jump shots and altering their rhythm. This will be a key factor in this series without question.
Warriors: David Lee (Power Forward).
- We have already spoken of Lee's underrated ability on the court. Although he has very little post season experience himself he is one of the elder statesmen on this team and his interior scoring will be essential in slowing the game down and creating opportunities for the plentiful shooters on the outside for the Warriors. The stage is set for Lee to emerge from the shadows and into the limelight for the first time in his career.
- It is sure to be exciting, that's a foregone conclusion. The Nuggets having home court advantage could be the turning point here. They have been almost unbeatable at home this season and that could prove to tip the scales in their favour.
- Nuggets advance 4-2 (Best of 7).
- Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs Memphis Grizzlies (5).
The 'Irrisistable Force' meets the 'Immovable Object'.
This promises to be a clash in styles of epic proportions. The Clippers having been one of the standout teams in the league this year and certainly one of the most exciting. Led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers have gone from an NBA afterthought to a legitimate threat in the West in the space of two seasons.
What's most critical for the Clippers chances is how much production they will get from their roleplayers. We all know the production they are going to get from Paul, Griffin and Chauncey Billups. These are all proven performers at the highest level and in Paul and Billups they have two of the best players to have in clutch situations in the entire league. The Clippers chances will rely on the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe and they must perform to a high level on a nightly basis if they are to go as deep as many hope they will in the Playoffs.
The Grizzlies were the team nobody wanted to come up against in the post season. They are an old-school Basketball team. Physical, hard-nosed and will make you work for every point. This is without doubt one of the toughest teams in the league and even though they are missing Rudy Gay (Traded to the Raptors) they still have the firepower and the know-how to do some serious damage in the Playoffs.
It all starts upfront for the Grizzlies with one of the most dominant Center/Power Forward combinations in the entire league in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol has emerged out of his brother Pau's shadow and many experts would now rather Marc instead of Pau given the choice. He's had a marvellous season and his touch around the basket is extraordinary. Randolph now seems to have knuckled down and realised just how much potential he has. He has been a giant this season, comfortably averaging 20-10 and when he's really in the mood has the potential to make 35-20 depending on the opposition. He will need every minute of his experience to contain Griffin and that matchup will be the focal point.
Clippers: Jamal Crawford (Shooting Guard).
- Crawford has been one of the most dangerous scorers in the league off the bench for some time now. If it wasn't for the sensational play of J.R Smith then Crawford would be a certainty for the sixth man of the year award. He will need to fill in and provide powerful scoring throughout this series if the Clips are to be successful. He will no doubt be guarded by the tenacious Tony Allen, who will look to stamp his physical defense on the lightweight Crawford from the outset of this series.
Grizzlies: Mike Conley (Point Guard).
- Conley has a massive responsibility in this series. He must contain the best point guard in the league while facillitating the offense for his own team. Conley has shown a marked improvement in his game this year but the thought of taking on Paul must make him a little fearful. The pick-and-roll offense with Gasol and Randolph must be executed perfectly if the Grizzlies are to stand any chance of upsetting the odds.
- This game will come down to whether or not the Clippers can deal with the Grizzlies' physicality. If they can, then they should win the series reasonably comfortably. I have my doubts though and this is another that has the potential for an upset and could go down to the last game. I just feel the Clippers have too much firepower and this could be the occasion that the Grizzlies finally admit they made a mistake in trading Rudy Gay because they will miss him.
- Clippers advance 4-3 (Best of 7).
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_