Lacking the drama of the East, the West features four clear favorites to advance to the semi-finals, with the bottom three seeds limping into the postseason. The money line series bets are likely to be astronomically high. With the Warriors and Spurs such heavy favorites, it’s possible most books (and bookies) won’t even take action on a straight series wager. So the key here is total games. Can the Rockets steal one at home from Golden State? Will the Spurs and their archaic rotation stumble? Here are the investment (better phrase than gambling) opportunities in the Western Conference’s first round:
1. Warriors vs. 8. Rockets
Before the season, some prognosticators and “experts” expected this matchup, but in the conference finals, not the first round. The Rockets, after firing Head Coach (and Boston legend) Kevin McHale barely a month into an already underwhelming season, limped their way to a half game from the NBA draft lottery. The worst defensive team in the playoffs, led by perhaps the game’s worst overall defender in James Harden, the Rockets look like a roster two weeks from total destruction. I could go on all day about Steph Curry and the incredible season the 73-win Warriors have had, but the Rockets are probably the only team in the league more upset about the Utah Jazz missing the playoffs, and subsequently forcing Houston to delay offseason vacation reservations a week or two, than the Jazz themselves. To be fair, on paper, the Rockets are a talented team led by two borderline superstars and a host of reliable role players, including a dynamic front line of athletic (and young) bigs behind Howard, but this team, like Donnie’s solo album, puts forth a disgraceful effort.
Warriors in 4.
2. Spurs vs. 7. Grizzlies
I cannot help but feel bad for coaches in Memphis, where owner Robert Parra apparently feels every season is “championship or bust.” First, there was the immortal (seriously, he’s at least 100) Hubie Brown who was pushed out after making the playoffs in two of his final three seasons. Then Lionel Hollins was fired and damned to a season and a half with the Nets after losing in the Western Conference Finals. And now supposedly current Coach Dave Joerger could be on his way out. The Grizzlies are without their two best players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, for the rest of the season, only falling from the 5th to 7th seed due to the dumpster fires in Houston, Utah, and Denver. Without the services of their “stars,” relying on a starting lineup including Matt Barnes, Mario Chalmers, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, the Grizzlies legitimately must hope for San Antonio’s decrepit roster (only team in the league to include three of their top seven rotation players over the age of 34) to collectively break several hips, to advance to the next round. This one could get ugly.
Spurs in 4.
3. Thunder vs. 6. Mavericks
First-year coach Billy Donovan has managed to justify Scott Brooks’ firing by getting the Thunder back to where they always are: a top three seed everybody knows won’t win a championship. The Thunder have surrendered more 4th quarter leads than any team in the NBA this season, sporting the worst overall record in games decided by five points or less of any top four seed in either conference. Here, however, as much as I hate to say this about a team owned by the most frat owner in professional sports, the Mavs should not be close enough come crunch time to incite another Thunder collapse. The Mavs, apparently attempting to assemble a roster that could make a serious run if it was 2007 (Dirk, Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, Charlie Villanueva, Devin Harris), have watched their championship window slam shut. Dallas, unlike their rival in Houston, is a team of immense pride and grit under two-time NBA Coach of the Year Rick Carlisle. I just can’t see him, or Dirk, letting this turn into a sweep.
Thunder in 5.
4. Clippers vs. 5. Trailblazers
My friends and I refer to everyday failings at what should be simple tasks as “Clippering.” Perhaps due to the unfathomable collapse in last year’s playoffs, or the simple fact the Clippers, led by two of the most popular superstars on Earth in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the league’s second highest paid coach, Doc Rivers, have managed to accomplish essentially nothing in the last half-decade. Rivers, who has full roster control, hence the signing of his son (to be fair, he was a little better this year), will take perhaps this group’s final shot at being something more than the occasional alley-oop highlight. The Blazers are perhaps the most surprising team in the league, after losing essentially all of their good players outside of point guard Damian Lillard (LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, Wesley Matthews) for little to no return. Many penciled the Blazers into the lottery before the season. After a rough start that saw Portland as low as 11th in the conference near the All-Star break, the Warriors completed the second half of the season with the league’s 4th-best winning percentage, with both Damian Lillard and second-year guard CJ McCollum averaging over 22 points per game. The Blazers are extremely young, fast paced, and seemingly unafraid of the big moment, while Head Coach Terry Stiles is the clear favorite for the Coach of the Year award not named Steve Kerr. Chris Paul, though, will refuse to allow this era to end with such a whimper. A high exciting series, though, and a long one.
Clippers in 6.
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