2017 NBA Playoffs: Western Conference round one preview

Inasmuch as the Eastern Conference is home to the reigning kings of the NBA, the powerhouse squads of the league all reside on the other side of the fence. Need proof? Three of the top four candidates for this season’s MVP all came from the Western Conference, which is expected to boil down to either Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook or James Harden of Houston earning the right to be crowned this season’s best cager. And that doesn’t stop there. From 2009 until 2016, 5 out of the 8 NBA titlists came from Pacific coast. With that, here’s SLAM Philippines’ 2017 playoff preview of the Wild, Wild West.

#1 Golden State Warriors vs #8 Portland Trail Blazers

Dame time in 6: Just how confident is Damian Lillard?

After his squad clinched the final seat in the West’s playoff cast, Portland backcourt general Damian Lillard was asked about the Blazers’ chances against the top-seeded and two-time NBA finalist Golden State Warriors. His reply? The Oregon-based side advances to the semis in six games.

While Lillard’s statement was a bit tongue in cheek, and the reporter did ask if he thought Portland was going to win in six or seven games, you can’t blame the man, as he is known to back up his bark. After all, the Dame did just fire up a franchise-high 59 just a few days ago when the Blazers were making their playoff push. It may be a David and Goliath situation as they’ll be battling the powerhouse from the Bay, but it has been done before with the Nuggets against the Sonics in 1994, and ironically, the Warriors at the expense of the favored Dallas Mavericks a decade ago. So it’s well within the realm of possiblity that Lillard and co. pull the rug from their foes and shock the world anew.

This will be the first real test for Golden State’s supercharged lineup

Obviously upset when they failed to defend the crown several months ago, the Golden State Warriors tinkered with their cast, though “tinker” might be an understatement, as they added former MVP and perennial scoring threat Kevin Durant to their fold.

With four All-Stars on their roster, how can they not be the favorites to win it all again?

Granted, the journey back to the Playoffs wasn’t exactly smooth-sailing. The team had to do plenty of adjusting, from incorporating Durant, to figuring out how to play without him when he went down with an MCL sprain, and now, working him back in anew. The Blazers will serve as the first of many hurdles, en route to the crown, and they’ll be a potent assessment of sorts, as to whether or not Golden State has flipped the right switches, in order to make it all the way.

Crunch time: Who will take the last shot for the Warriors?

It’s a given that whenever Portland gets a crack at nailing that clutch basket, all eyes will be on Damian Lillard. On the opposite side, well, you obviously have several options (Steph, KD, Klay even Dray and Andre) that can get the job done. This may be fine during the regular season, but come the postseason, underneath all the bright lights, someone will have to come up clutch. How Steve Kerr and his staff address this question, essentially working out the team’s pecking order, should dictate his team’s identity in the playoffs.

#4 Los Angles Clippers vs #5 Utah Jazz

Jazz may be the sleepers of the Western Conference

Not since the days of Karl Malone and John Stockton did such playoff buzz emanate out of Salt Lake City, until now.

Why so? It’s because after four straight seasons of failing to make the grade, the Jazz are marching to the playoffs. It may be too early to tell whether this 2016-17 version can duplicate the success of what the two did more than two decades ago, but having a cast of George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson and Rudy Gobert is as solid as any team wanting to make noise in the postseason.

With a healthy and intact core, there’s no reason for the Clips to slow down

For years, talks have always been rife as to whether the spotlight of Hollywood has shifted from the Lakers to the Clippers. But while the C’s have managed to accumulate 50+ win seasons and top-three finishes, they’ve only gone as far as the Western Conference semifinals, before getting the boot.

With no silverware to boast of, the Clippers still seem to linger in the shadows of its inter-town rival. However, that may all change in their latest venture in  the postseason, as they boast of a relatively healthy lineup that may just be enough to pose a serious threat to traditional Western powerhouse such as Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.

Can Paul Pierce exit on a high note?

His farewell tour may not have rivaled that of Kobe Bryant, but Paul Pierce did managed to accomplish something that the Black Mamba wasn’t able to in his final playing season in the League, and that is to make it to the postseason party.

At 39 and on his last legs, Pierce will rely on his younger teammates to prolong his last dance in the NBA. Still, the man is a career 20-point scorer and has hit key baskets in the past. Perhaps he and Doc Rivers can relive the magic of 2008 and deliver an NBA title to the franchise. Should that happen, then that’ll be a truly fitting ending to the great career of the one dubbed as the “Truth”.

#2 San Antonio Spurs vs #7 Memphis Grizzlies

A new set of Twin Towers rise in San Antonio

What is the common denominator in San Antonio’s five NBA crowns? Well, aside from Gregg Popovich, who is the chief architect of these title runs, every championship roster has had a dominating inside presence (or two in ’99 and 2003, when they had Tim Duncan AND David Robinson).

Although Duncan and Robinson are not with the team any more, Popovich is still very much around at the helm of the squad, and he has again concocted the same formula that reaped significant gains for the franchise back in 1999 and 2003: getting a pair of skilled bigs in LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol to man the frontcourt.

This playoffs will be the first for the tandem, and the Spurs faithful are waiting with bated breath to see whether this will culminate similarly in what the Duncan-Robinson partnership enjoyed before. Kawhi Leonard is no doubt the team’s MVP, but Aldridge and Gasol may literally be the foundation that will determine if the San Antonio brings another NBA crown into its fold.

Rookie vs. veteran: David Fizdale and Gregg Popovich

It is only fitting that David Fizdale gets his props after being named as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, beginning with this season, after being an integral piece of Miami’s back-to-back championship conquests in 2012 and 2013 as deputy to Erik Spoelstra.

Now, Fitzdale gets to experience his first playoff series as head taskmaster against a familiar foe in Gregg Popovich. For his part, Popovich still has that near-miss in 2013 on his mind, which makes for enough motivation going against Fizdale. This should be an interesting series if past history between the two should serve as the basis.

Rare air: Vince Carter is key for Memphis at the three spot

Entering the 2016-17 season, the Memphis Grizzlies had one of the more sturdier starting fives in the League on paper. Then of course, Chandler Parsons got sidelined, and since then, the team has shuffled various faces in and out of the small forward spot.

It is Carter who has the most experience under his belt, especially when the alternatives are the likes of James Ennis and Troy Daniels. He may not be a spring chicken anymore at 40, but Memphis will still be getting quite a lift from VC. Carter is also perhaps, the team’s most consistent threat from downtown, so you know he’ll be getting plenty of key minutes in this series.

#3 Houston Rockets vs #6 Oklahoma City Thunder

Weapon of choice: When James Harden and Russell Westbrook collide

There can be no other perfect plot to this series other than the clash of these two MVP candidates. Incidentally, both of them were thrusted into and responded well to the superstar status accorded to them after toiling in the shadows of their more heralded teammate at the time.

Though both have the ability to produce mind-boggling numbers in almost every available statistical category in the NBA, Harden has a deeper squad to provide support than Westbrook. Still, Russ has shown that he can carry a team all by himself if need to be, and this postseason should be no different.

Mike D’Antoni can still do wonders for an NBA team

When the Lakers gave Mike D’Antoni the pink slip some years back, many thought that this also signaled the end of an era for the celebrated bench tactician, who was once an NBA Coach of the Year.

Turns out, he only needed the right personnel to make his system relevant again. He found that at Houston, as he patterned the 2016-17 Houston Rockets squad after his Phoenix Suns teams of yesteryears, coaching them to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference in just his first year as Houston’s head coach.

It won’t be surprising if D’Antoni ends up with another MVP under his tutelage as James Harden has greatly improved his all-around game after D’Antoni moved him to man the point for Houston, in the process creating a stronger and bigger version of an earlier D’Antoni protégé in Steve Nash.

Thunder (still) up: No KD, no problem for OKC

When Kevin Durant left for greener pastures in NorCal, Russell Westbrook had the option of bolting town as well. After all, the future is uncertain for a franchise without an MVP-caliber player such as Durant.

Yet instead of taking flight, Westbrook stayed and became the MVP-type of player that Oklahoma City needed in the wake of Durant’s departure, to the tune of 31.6 points, 10.7 boards and 10.4 assists per outing. But Westbrook’s not done yet and this playoff run will add a ton to his budding legacy in Thunder history.

Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

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