NBA Playoffs to begin Saturday; matchups set

NBA Bracket FTW2By Greg DeVries
Sports Editor

NBA’s West highlighted by top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder

The Western Conference seeding wasn’t established until the very last day of games. The Utah Jazz just barely missed out on the postseason, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided having to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round and the Houston Rockets slipped from the No. 6 spot down to the No. 8 spot in just two games.

The Oklahoma City Thunder reached the NBA Finals last season, and after earning the Western Conference’s best record, Oklahoma City is a popular pick to represent the West in the Finals.

The Thunder will have home-court advantage in their opening series against the NBA’s youngest and second-highest-scoring team, the Houston Rockets. Oklahoma City finished 2-1 against the Rockets this season. In the loss, former Thunder and current Rocket James Harden scored a career-high 46 points. Harden’s battle against his former team will be a big storyline in this matchup.

After finishing the season winning just three games out of their last 10, the San Antonio Spurs have backed into the No. 2 seed and will take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.

Superstar Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles and will not be able to participate in the playoffs. Laker guard Steve Nash, who has been hurt recently, will play, but perimeter defense is still an issue for the Lakers. After the addition of Dwight Howard, many predicted that the Lakers would play the Miami Heat in the finals, but the Lakers fought until the end to make it into the top eight in the West.

All of San Antonio’s aging “big three” are listed as day-to-day, but are expected to play. Manu Ginobili, who has battled a hamstring injury, missed many games down the stretch and only played 12 minutes San Antonio’s final game of the season. That being said, the Spurs are loaded with discipline and playoff experience.

The 3-6 matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors will likely be one loaded with high-scoring games. Denver Nuggets have the NBA’s highest-scoring offense and finished the season with a 57-25 record despite failing to send a single player to the 2013 NBA All-Star game. Head coach George Karl has his team playing like a machine, not a collection of individuals. At one point this season, the Nuggets won 15 games in a row, but Miami’s 27-game winning streak overshadowed the story. Denver’s leading scorer, Danilo Gallinari, tore his ACL on April 5, but veteran Wilson Chandler has stepped up in a big way and has averaged 20 points per game over the last 5 games.

Golden State, the NBA’s seventh-highest-scoring team, is led by Stephen Curry. Curry averaged nearly 23 points per game this season and set the all-time record for 3-pointers made in a season this year. The Warriors are a fast, young team can hit a lot of 3-pointers. In fact, Golden State was the only team to shoot above 40 percent from the arc this year.
The Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers met in the playoffs last season, and Los Angeles won in seven games. In the first game, Chris Paul and the Clippers overcame a 27-point deficit to take down the Grizzlies 99-98.

The Grizzlies are one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA, but allow a league-low 89.3 points per game. Tony Allen and Marc Gasol are two of the league’s best defenders, but they will be taking on a Clippers team that likes to get up and down the floor.

The Clippers, sometimes called “Lob City,” are led by point guard Chris Paul. Through Paul, high-flying players like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan thrive. Los Angeles will likely try and speed up the pace of the game, and the Grizzlies will likely try and slow the game to a crawl.

James, Miami sit atop Eastern Conference, seek another title

The Miami Heat are the clear favorite in the East. Miami posted a 66-win season, and 27 of those came in a row, the second longest winning streak in NBA history. The heat finished the season 12 games ahead of the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks.

The Heat will take on the Milwaukee Bucks, the only team to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record. The Bucks have a strong guard duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but Milwaukee won just four of its last 16 games, including losses to the two worst teams in the league, Orlando and Charlotte.

In one of the most compelling series of the playoffs is Boston and New York. While New York is the favorite, Boston will be playing with heart after the Boston Marathon tragedy. The Celtics have Championship experience, but New York tallied 13 more wins on the year.

Despite being considered one of the best players in the NBA, Knicks forward and 2012-2013 scoring champion Carmelo Anthony has never advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

The Indiana Pacers lost forward Danny Granger for all but a few games this season. Seemingly out of nowhere came Paul George to the rescue. Now an All-Star, George led the Pacers to a 49-win season. The Pacers are a team centered on defense and toughness, and they will be taking on the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks lost guard Joe Johnson to free agency last summer. With forward Josh Smith’s contract expiring at the end of the year, the Hawks are in a bit of a transition period. Atlanta has managed a 44-win season despite the doubts, but the Hawks have lost five of their last seven games to end the regular season.

The Chicago Bulls, much like the Memphis Grizzlies, are a team centered around defense. They managed to reach the No. 5 spot in the East despite playing the entire season without All-Star point guard Derrick Rose. Rose has been cleared to play by doctors, but he remains on the bench. If he returns in full form, the Bulls have a serious chance to make a run at the Miami Heat.

Their first obstacle, however, will be the No. 4 Brooklyn Nets. The Nets are going into the playoffs with a lot of momentum, having won six of their last seven games. Brooklyn has been resting its starters, so the Nets should have fresh legs and momentum behind them.