With the Utah Jazz beating the Phoenix Suns and claiming the last playoff spot last night, the playoff picture is set in the Western Conference. Let’s see if we can answer five big questions in the Western Conference.
5. Will Metta World Peace‘s suspension hurt the Lakers in the first round?
As it stands right now, the Los Angeles Lakers are set to face the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Denver poses a lot of problems for the Lakers. The Nuggets have a lot of high-energy players and a deeper bench that could make life difficult for the Lakers. World Peace was playing at a high level before his elbow, now the Lakers might be without him for the first round of the playoffs. Having Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum will help the Lakers, but I could see the Nuggets making a lot of noise in the first round of the playoffs.
4. How far can Chris Paul take the Los Angeles Clippers?
Once people found out that Paul was headed to the Clippers, a lot of people picked the Clippers to make it to the Western Conference Finals. But since Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles, a lot of people have jumped off that prediction. Also, head coach Vinny Del Negro almost “lost” his team halfway through the season. But over the last month or so, the Clippers have been one of the hottest teams in the league. Their defense has picked up and the offense has been more efficient. Remember, Paul played the Lakers tough in last year’s postseason. I think he will show some more playoff magic again this year. The only thing that worries me is their opponent that they will more than likely face in the first round. And I will cover that in the next question.
3. Are the Memphis Grizzlies the “dark-horse” to make it to the Conference Finals?
The Grizzlies upset the San Antonio Spurs in the first round last year as an 8-seed. And they haven’t looked back since. They will be a 5-seed this season and could possibly be a 4-seed if they win their last game and if the Clippers lose their last game. The Grizzlies have the strength inside to play against the Clippers and their overall roster is better than the Clippers. Rudy Gay is healthy (they didn’t have him last postseason) and Zach Randolph is starting to play well. I think the Grizzlies can beat the Clippers. More than likely, the Spurs will be waiting for the Grizzlies in the second round. I think the Grizzlies match-up with the Spurs better than any other team in the West. Mike Conley is one of the best defenders in the league, so he can take on Tony Parker. Tony Allen against Manu Ginobili will be a nice match-up, too. The Griz have enough big bodies inside to bang with the Spurs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Griz make it to the Conference Finals. So the answer is: they are about as much of a “dark-horse” as there could possibly be in this year’s playoffs.
OK, I realize we are talking about a bench player. But James Harden is no ordinary bench player. He is the best passer on the Thunder, most efficient scorer, and in my mind, the second best player on the team. The Thunder has been dealt a big “blow” with Harden receiving a concussion courtesy of Metta World Peace. He has not been cleared to play and the playoffs are three days away. You saw what happened when Harden went out of the game: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant struggled. Now, I know that Westbrook and Durant had a bad game, but Harden helps those guys with his play-making skills. If you are asking me, Harden DOES hold the key to the Thunder making it all the way to the NBA Finals. One of the most underrated players in the NBA. The dude can absolutely ball!
1. Which team will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals?
You have the Spurs, Lakers, Thunder, and Clippers. All of those teams have semi-to-legitimate shots of making it to the NBA Finals. In the beginning of the season, I picked the Thunder to play the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder is going to be the 2-seed and the Lakers the 3-seed. So that’s out of the question. I have to change my pick now. I am picking the Thunder to play the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals and I am picking the Thunder to beat the Grizzlies. At the end of the day, the Thunder has too many play-makers (Westbrook, Durant, and Harden) and Serge Ibaka will help keep [Zach] Randolph in-check. The Thunder advances.