Saturday, April 30, 2016

NBA Western Playoff Picks: Upgrade

Let's face it... the first round of the West, which was supposed to be a simple chalk run of beating down lower seeds, was depressing. The injuries to Stephen Curry and Chris Paul made the Warriors just less fun, and Paul's more or less ended any chance that the Clippers had of being intriguing, let alone getting past the Blazers. San Antonio destroyed a crippled Grizzly club that was all heart and little talent, and Oklahoma City had Thug Life and dumb heroball moments in their harder than it should have been advancement past Dallas. (Oh, and here's a fun fact the next time Mark Cuban says something that more or less translates to I'm Rich, White and Smarter Than Everyone: Your team is, annually, the easiest first round out this side of whoever LeBron plays in the lEast. Thank you, and STFU now.)

But the second round? Going to be a lot better, and isn't just the inevitable opening act for the Warriors-Spurs main event that true hoop junkies have been looking for, well, for years now. OKC is athletic enough to give real issues to the Spurs, and the Blazers showed a lot in their first round series to the Clips... which they might have won without Paul and Blake Griffin going down. (Which, um, they do a lot. But remember, Doc Rivers is a great guy, and his teams never thug it up or quit. Moving on.)

Since the second round is moving faster than the lEast, I have to get some picks in without a full accounting. It is what it is.

Oklahoma City vs. SAN ANTONIO

The case for the Thunder
: Might have three of the best four players on the court in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka, in particular, tends to show up big against the Spurs. Westbrook is a nightmare for any point guard, but especially for the Spurs, whose weak spot is defense at the point. Depth, a key reason why the Spurs roll teams and the Thunder do not, isn't as big of a deal in the playoffs. Home crowd is a big deal for OKC, and they have had as much success as any team against the Spurs in recent years. Team has a true edge about them, as the clock on Durant potentially leaving is ticking loudly. The club actually got some bench contributions in the Dallas series. Durant might explode into a Say My Name level of brilliance, and when he's on, he's simply the bet offensive player on the planet. They are healthy and have no more effs to give, and no one is seriously picking them in this series despite all of their assets.

The case against: Just play Idiot Hero Ball in the fourth quarter, which has led them to lose more leads than any team ever should. Bench is nearly Clippers level of bad, which should not happen for a playoff team. Westbrook can be taken out of his game by the refs, passing rain clouds, or Durant showing signs that he's trying to assert himself. C Stephen Adams ties widows to train tracks when he isn't waxing that Snidely Whiplash facial growth, which makes his teammates want to lose so they can get the hell away from him. HC Billy Donovan joins what seems to be a perpetual list of small white men who can't stand up to either Durant or Westbrook. They actually play Dion Waiters and think good things will happen from that, and yeah, um, no. No one is picking them because they love tough shots over ball movement, and can be worn down. Just an exasperating basketball team that is never the sum of its parts.

The case for the Spurs: An impeccable machine of ball movement that can win in a myriad of ways. Best in class defense that leads to opponents settling for terrible shots rather than getting killed in turnover transition, and HC Gregg Popovich usually gets better over the course of a series. F Kawhi Leonard gives them whatever they need on a nightly basis, while F LaMarcus Aldridge is graduating nicely into New Tim Duncan role. Everyone on the bench can shoot, pass and defend, and they never get caught up in the need to make the game pretty or highlight relish when More Effective will suffice. Never look past an opponent, or willing to jam round pieces into square holes because so and so's a star. F Tim Duncan has a role in this series, and when he does, the Spurs win. For, well, decades.

The case against the Spurs: Don't do well against Absurd Athletes, and the Thunder have three of them on the floor during all important minutes. Can't defend Westbrook most of the time. Might be rusty and/or too rested after sweeping the Memphis Byes. Home court has been beaten in the playoffs before, and if the threes aren't falling, they can be beaten, especially in the open court. Historically, when it starts going south for them, avalanches ensue.

The pick: Not an avalanche. Durant's last series in the heartland will result in the franchise being, well, mostly irrelevant, beyond making Westbrook the best player in fantasy hoop. Not real, though. Spurs in six.

Portland vs. GOLDEN STATE

The case for the Blazers: Turned the corner hard against the Clips in round one. If G CJ McCollum is past his playoff jitters, could match the Warriors for backcourt firepower, especially if Steph Curry remains out with his knee issues. G Damian Lillard is the best player in the NBA that no one ever calls the best player in the NBA, and as an Oakland native, tends to play his best games at ROaracle. G Allen Crabbe gives them a good bench scorer, and C Mason Plumlee has become criminally underrated with his mix of rebounding, passing, and three point shooting; he's not a good match up for the Warrior bigs who aren't Draymond Green. F Maurice Harkless had a lot of good moments in the Clips series, as did F Al-Farouq Aminu; if they both show up in this one, the Blazers have more than a puncher's chance.

The case against: Harkless and Aminu aren't going to be able to do anything with Green on their end. Bench work also involves noted stiffs Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Chris Kaman, who the Dubs will turn into turnstiles. Lillard will shoot his team out of sets when things aren't working, and McCollum isn't ready to deal with Klay Thompson. Team is turnover-prone, which is the single biggest thing that you can't be with the Warriors. In the NBA, you generally don't get that much better than your regular season record in the playoffs, and this team went 44-38 for reasons.

The case for the Warriors: Historically great team with something to prove, with Curry sidelined. Unfair bench work that almost always provides separation, and gives the starters an edge because the opponent is forced to go back to their top players to keep the game close, which gets them gassed. Swingman Andre Iguodala is an absolute weapon that flies under the radar, in that he doesn't have to be Curry, Thompson or Green, and can just focus on what he does best. HC Steve Kerr isn't afraid to try new things, hack poor FT shooters, and devises great plays out of timeouts. Sublime ball movement means that you can't just focus on a single player and take them out of their element. Won 73 freaking games in the regular season, and probably should have swept Houston with better officiating.

The case against: Haven't really lived without Curry for extended stretches in some time, and might have mental issues when it gets tough without him. Routinely play terrible FT shooters who a smarter opponent would gleefully hack to avoid more shots for the guys that can make them. Bigs Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli haven't been good in a while, so much that Kerr has dialed up reserves James McAdoo and Marresse Speights. Only really get to Terrifying Levels when Curry is around and on his game, and the team will likely treat the MVP like radioactive china in this series. If they need him and he's rusty, or gets hurt again, this dream season could end in disaster. And the easiest, and least climactic, Western Conference Finals ever.

The pick: Longer than it would be without Curry, but not long enough to rush him back. Warriors in six.

Record so far: 4-2.

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