The Western Conference is most definitely the dominant conference in the NBA at the moment. This year's final standings make the disparity more evident than in recent years, with the Western Conference teams winning a total of 652 games, averaging 43.5 wins per team, and the East managing only 577 wins, for an average 38.5 wins. Examining the top tier teams in the NBA in terms of record, five of the top seven come out of the West. As a results, NBA fans are about five times as excited for the first round of the Western Conference playoffs as they are about the four Eastern Conference series. One could argue that injuries to Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger were critical in that disparity, as the Bulls, Celtics and Pacers would all likely have won 5-10 more games had these three players been healthy.
Still, the Western Conference has been forced to beat up on each other for the past three years, and there is a reasonable case to be made to revamp the playoff format, and instead of seeding teams 1 through 8 in each conference, moving to a 1 through 16 format. Of course, removing the East/West format would remove much of the drama that comes with geographic rivalries (Boston-New York, Oklahoma City-Houston) as well as the greatly increased travel hours. Imagine a Boston-Golden State first round series, followed by a Boston-Los Angeles Clippers second round, and then a Boston-Denver third round. There is a reason the NBA schedule, for all of its absurdities (7 games in 10 days, 4 games in 5 days), has extended road trips. The efficiency of travel decreases a team's chance to recover from the wear and tear of a too-long season.
Without further ado, here is the Western Conference Playoff Preview:
Kevin Durant to James Harden, "Welcome back, James. I love you, but for the next five games, I will destroy you." James Harden to Kevin Durant, "Hey, Kev. Nice shoes. Better lace 'em up, 'cause I'll be leaving you in the dust." Result: Durant averages 38 points per game, Harden averages 36 points per games, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat Houston in five games. Russell Westbrook will torch Jeremy Lin, and Serge Ibaka will limit Harden's penetration. The only way Houston extends this series beyond game five is if Chandler Parsons plays out of his mind, and hits a string of 25-footers, like the one he did to extend the Rockets-Lakers game to overtime. This might happen once. Possibly twice. Definitely not four times against OKC's defense.
Players to Watch: Durant and Harden scoring duel. Serge Ibaka's jumper: it will be one of the keys to OKC's chances down the road. Chandler Parsons' versatility and range.
Darko Index Predicts: Thunder in 5. (97% confidence rating).
San Antonio waived Stephen Jackson and signed Tracy McGrady within the last week. McGrady entered the league in 1997, as an eighteen year-old. He played in China this year, averaging 25 points per game. He's still only 33 years-old. Though the Spurs record doesn't indicate it, they may need McGrady more than they'd like to. Manu Ginobili's legs and Tony Parker's ankle will determine how badly the Spurs need Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and now McGrady to support Duncan. The Spurs still have more depth than the Lakers, who are without Kobe indefinitely, and will be cautiously optimistic that Steve Nash can provide some kind of stability with the ball. By the way, Steve Nash has played exactly five minutes on the court all season with both Dwight and Pau and without Kobe. This trio will have zero familiarity with each other, and it's uncertain if Nash can really give the Lakers a boost. It may be smarter for D'Antoni to play Nash off the bench, hopefully bolstering the second unit. Which means D'Antoni will probably play Nash 100% of the time with the starting unit.
The two games the Lakers have won post-Kobe have highlighted the fact that Pau Gasol has a lot left, and is determined to show it if given the opportunity. Against the undersized Rockets, Pau put together a scintillating triple-double, starting the offense from the high-elbow area. Dwight Howard appears healthy and dominant again. If Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks continue to shoot well, Nash provides some creativity and decision-making (if he can stay on the court), then all the Lakers will need is Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark to not look foolish defensively.
The uncertainty of Parker's ankle and Ginobili should be weighed against the uncertainty of every Laker other than Pau. Remember, Popovich will play Hack-a-Dwight relentlessly. Though this match-up will feature some tight games, the Spurs will survive.
Injured players to watch: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Steve Nash. Healthy players to watch: Pau's resurgence, Kawhi Leonard's defense and corner 3, Tracy McGrady and his last shot at a playoff run.
Darko Index Predicts: Spurs in 6. (78% confidence rating)
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