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Saturday / April 20 / 2013

Playoffs Preview: Western Conference

Oklahoma City Thunder

By Earl Leonard Sebastian

Before the start of the season, there were some issues they had to face, including the sudden trade of James Harden for Kevin Martin, the long-term deal of Serge Ibaka and the “chemistry problem” of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But it seemed that none of that mattered, and the Thunder are still winning and once again at the top of the standings in the West.

What also makes them impressive is their frontline of Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka. Although not really much of an offensive threat, both provide defensive intensity and wreck havoc inside the paint. Anyone driving down the lane encounters nightmares when these two control the interior. At any given night, they won’t hesitate to challenge any frontline in their conference. Martin has also made them suddenly forget that once upon a time, they had Harden as their solid Sixth man, providing them the spark they required with his timely offense off the bench.

The team has been so unstoppable at home. There would be doubts if a lower seed would be too impossible to pull off an upset over the Thunder. An issue in the playoffs would be how Durant and Westbrook will blend during clutch moments. During the Finals last year, Westbrook had moments of holding his own against Miami’s Big 3 but Westbrook should have learned from the mistakes and give back the torch to Durant. Derek Fisher is back with the team and can also provide the leadership and locker room presence just like last season. Just as Thor is the “God of Thunder” in mythology and in fantasy comics, Oklahoma City will surely bring the hammer down on any teams they face in the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs

By Erik Ong (@FantasyHoopla)

You can poke fun about their age all you want. You can make funny insinuations at how they’re past their prime and are over the proverbial hill. What you cannot do, however, is deny the fact that Tony Parker is playing the best season of his career. You cannot deny that Tim Duncan has gone several rounds with Father Time this season and has “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee” and even scored a few knockdowns here and there. The Big Fundamental has been kicking it old school like never before and has been gulping from the Fountain of Youth like it was Gatorade being handed to him by the intern on the training staff. He’s been playing some of his most inspired, most rejuvenated basketball since the mid 2000s. The last time we saw Timmy D average 2.7 blocks per game was in the 2003-04 season. In addition, no one can deny how Kawhi Leonard has come into his own, burst onto the scene, and truly living up to what Coach Popovich’s dubbing him as “the future of the Spurs.” His emergence as an impact player has simply added another potent weapon to the Spurs’ quietly dangerous arsenal. The rapid pace of Leonard’s improvement was partly one of the predicates for the Spurs’ decision to waive veteran swingman Stephen Jackson. Leonard is an efficient shooter, great on defense (1.7 steals per game), and helps spread the opposing defense on the floor.

Western Conference teams should be on notice. The Spurs should not be taken lightly, nor should they be underestimated and considered as an easy target to just be out-run and out-gunned. Their mastery of Popovich’s patented stifling defense and their ability to impose their pace and grind on their opponents will be a true headache that team’s will simply have to deal with and try to work around.

On the other hand, as different as the Spurs appear to be this season, the key to their success still lies in their players to compete at 100 percent health. Their Argentinian Superman, Manu Ginobili, has already received an extended rest for him to get back to close to his optimal form. Tony Parker, who arguably is the most critical cog in the Spurs’ “upset machine,” has recently returned to action after dealing with neck strain. He’s been on a tear for most of the regular season, catapulting his name to be mentioned among the league’s elite point guards. Let’s give credit where credit is due, and Parker is truly deserving of accolades this season. What else can you say about a guy whose name is mentioned just after the likes of Durant and LeBron James when talks venture into the realm of the “Most Valuable Player.” The Spurs will need his dribble penetrations, excellent passing and teardrop floaters in the lane to convert their demoralizing defense into equally punishing offense on the break.

As they say, “defense wins championships,” and when it comes to defense, few teams have it down as masterfully as the San Antonio Spurs.

Denver Nuggets

By Marco Aventajado (@aventajado)

All throughout the 2012-13 season, the Denver Nuggets have touted their depth to make all their opponents dread playing them, especially at the Pepsi Center where they have the best home record in the NBA. Coming into the playoffs though, they will be really testing their depth as starting small forward Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the season while point guard Ty Lawson is hobbled by a faulty heel and can only play limited minutes as well as Kenneth Faried, who is day-to-day with an ankle sprain

Moving forward, Coach George Karl will rely on Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller to fill the void left by the injured players and Andre Iguodala to take charge and play like he can play, all over the court. Harder to replace if he misses any significant time is Faried, whose athleticism and tenacious rebounding have been a staple for the Nuggets this year. In his place is castaway Anthony Randolph who has had the “big upside” label on him since being drafted but only shown glimpses of it.

A first round matchup against the Golden State Warriors for the Nuggets points them to the direction of a quick-paced, up-and-down game and as long as Karl has the Nuggets play their brand of basketball – fast-breaking and 3-point bombing – they will not miss their injured players much BUT if the offense stalls, then their run at the NBA Championship might be short lived.

Los Angeles Clippers

By Edison Ching (@MrEdChing)

With a franchise-best record of 56-26, the Clippers won their first division title in 2013. There were a lot of things that got the Clippers faithful excited this season. From the continued development and chemistry of the Blake Griffin-Chris Paul duo, to the emergence of the bench mob (Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom) and that inspiring 17-game winning streak, the Clippers were the most exciting team in Los Angeles.

What famously started as “Lob City” with the arrival of Chris Paul, the highlights this time around not only included dunks, but more importantly, wins. The players weren’t abuzz about winning the division crown for the first time, claiming that they have their sights set on bigger things.

The playoffs are here, the bigger thing. First up are the Memphis Grizzlies, a rematch of last year’s encounter. They still have home court advantage, but there are quite a few changes from last year’s match-up. For the Clippers, they have more depth with the addition of Barnes and Odom, and the veteran leadership they sorely lacked in last year’s playoffs got a huge shot in the arm with a well-rested (but still hobbling) Chauncey Billups.

The Clippers will rely on their incredible depth in these playoffs. Normally teams start to use shorter rotations, but with the vast array of weapons for Vinnie Del Negro, he has plenty of options to thwart the Grizzlies.

Starting backcourt duo of Paul and Chauncey Billups can and will control the game with their high basketball IQ. Potential Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and the ultra-talented Bledsoe lead the bench, while Willie Green, whose role has diminished with the return of Billups, can still be expected to play spot minutes from time to time.

Up front, the dynamic dunking duo of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will make highlights and cause fits for the opposing big guys. At small forward, Caron Butler and Barnes share time causing mayhem for the opponents. Odom and Grant Hill provide veteran leadership, while Ryan Hollins will be expected to get some playing time when the bigs get into foul trouble.

The X-factor here will be Coach Vinnie Del Negro. He will be judged by how far he can take these Clippers in the playoffs this year. All year there have been talks of getting other coaches, so it’s time he shut his critics up.

Memphis Grizzlies

By Earl Leonard Sebastian

When one thinks of the Grizzles, it is really hard not to mention the likes of Pau Gasol, Shane Battier and Mike Miller, especially because of their contributions for the franchise. This is not really much of a team that creates noise and buzz during the off-season, because being in a small market they are not really the team that can attract big free agent names.

The Grizzlies have totally evolved from whipping boys to a team struggling to win even a single game in the playoffs and now a constant playoff contender. They have been bullying their way in the league not by intimidation of big-name superstars in their roster, but by pushing their weight around inside the paint. With a hulking frontline of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who would dare go drive and slash inside? And with Tony Allen’s “in-your-face, stick to you like glue” defense and Mike Conley’s speedy footwork, any backcourt would have difficulty overcoming them. Anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Gasol, the team brings to the table their stingy defense that ranks among the top in the league, bringing back the Bad Boys era to the Western Conference. Giving up Rudy Gay to acquire Tayshaun Prince means that they have their commitment on defense.

What’s impressive with the team is that nobody averages more than 16 points per game, meaning the ball is distributed well and anyone can explode anytime. Any frontline in the West would have second thoughts against the towering Gasol and Randolph combination. The Grizzlies have made the paint their territory and have patrolled the lanes extremely well. They have proven that this season by pounding the ball inside, making it their strength, and grinding it out with the others. Prince and Allen are two of the league’s premier defensive stoppers and can give any scorer nightmares. They say that defense wins championships, and we will see if this team would have it to be able to win it all.

Golden State Warriors

By Earl Leonard Sebastian

In the 2007 playoffs, the Golden State Warriors rallied behind the battle cry “We Believe”. Back then, they had Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson leading the way to pull off the one of the biggest upsets in league playoff history by stunning the number one seed Dallas Mavericks. The hungry Warriors had the noisiest home crowd that any decibel readers would surely rocket sky high.

They are at it again with a different crew. Coach Mark Jackson boldly promised that he would lead the Warriors back to the playoffs, and they have made it to the promise land. Borrowing from Hall of Famer coach Don Nelson’s offensive playbook, he has relied on the rainbow territory shots to be the team’s main weapon. The team gradually climbed up the standings and is now at sixth in the West but is having some late struggles losing two and around six of the last ten games. Believe me, this Warriors team will not be simply backing down from any challenges given to them, they can also rise to the occasion given any night.

It will be Stephen Curry’s first trip to the playoffs. As the team’s heart and soul, much is expected from him to step up big time. He has had his history of ankle problems, but he has carried the team on his shoulders for most of the season and has matured from just being a shoot-only guard into becoming a scorer and creator. Snubbed as an All-Star, he made up for it by scoring 54 points built around 11 triples at the Madison Square Garden, garnering national attention. His backcourt partner Klay Thompson has complemented Curry’s game pretty well, as both have set a league record for most triples combined during an entire season. For the longest time, Golden State’s weaknesses have always been its frontcourt and lack of defense. Andrew Bogut and David Lee have been providing the team interior presence, intensity and intimidation. Lee was the first All-Star of Golden State in almost 17 seasons.

Entering the playoffs, the Warriors will once again be the underdogs, but unlike before, their opponents are now more cautious and aware of what this team can bring to the table. Despite their lack of playoff experience, they make up for it with their youth, hunger, dedication and unity. They would want to prove something to critics that their qualifying for the playoffs is not a fluke, but rather a reality. Their big men are ready to bang bodies inside, while their guards are ready to provide the outside artillery. They have the lineup to compete against any of the Western Conference elite. They want to prove to everyone that they belong to the best in the West, and not as simply happy being just there.

Los Angeles Lakers

By Timothy Jay Ibay

There are few words that can encapsulate the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers season better than cursed. A string of injuries, a coaching change, aging stars, a superstar coming off an undermined back surgery, the unending quest for chemistry — comprise the list of narratives pointed out to try and make sense of a team battling to snap out of mediocrity after an offseason teeming with great expectations. But despite these, a late season push gave a glimmer of hope that they could actually turn things around with a made-for-Hollywood playoff push.

And then it happened. What has been a constant for the better part of two decades — Kobe leading his Lakers in the playoffs — won’t be happening this year. In what would turn out to be yet another cruel twist of fate for this Laker season of tumult, Bryant suffering the worst injury of his career to end his season would be the most devastating one so far.

Yet the crazy train keeps chugging along for this Laker season, as NBA destiny would see them winning their final two games, with the other unlikely stars aligning to find them in the seventh seed, slated for a trip to San Antonio against a team who enters the postseason losing seven of their last 10 games, and avoiding the dynamic buzz saw of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the first round.

But without the failsafe of Kobe’s heroic performances, and sheer will to provide them a sliver of hope when it gets tight and testy in playoffs (which it will), can what remain of these Lakers compete against the precise machinations of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs?

One thing the Lakers do have is momentum. They’ve won eight of their last nine games. Howard and Gasol, who have struggled to find a way to co-exist on the court all year, have discovered a slick opposite elbow action that have led to alley-oops, good post position and easy looks for Howard. Gasol, who hasn’t had a refined role since 2010, had two triple-doubles in their last three games, embracing an offense that, by default, now has to go through him. After Kobe went down and out, Steve Blake masqueraded as the “Blake Mamba” in the crucial two-game stretch to end the season, scoring 47 points. Antawn Jamison has been an unsung hero in the late season playoff push, finding the defensive cracks for timely layups just when the Laker offense seemed ready for a trip to nowhere. He’s also provided offensive rebounding and steady outside shooting — something that the entire team must be able to do in order to allow this new Gasol-Howard connection ample room to operate. It’s still unclear just how much Steve Nash will be able to provide with his triumvirate of hip-back-hamstring issues.

But as inspiring as the way they’ve manufactured offense without Kobe, it will be a matter of them being able to bring the consistent defensive energy they’ve shown during this past string of must-win games into the playoffs that will ultimately decide just how long this Kobe homage will be. The Spurs’ incredible ball movement and accuracy with the long ball will require tremendous focus from the Laker defense to make the right defensive decisions, make quick and aptly-angled closeouts, help the helper, and have Howard be the defensive anchor he has been in the season’s last few games.

The post-Kobe effort on both ends has been something Laker Nation has been clamoring for the whole season. It’s curious how much of it is short-lived inspiration from their fallen leader, or how much of it is a glimpse of what could be. With the future so uncertain for many of these Lakers after this season, this may just be their last chance to salvage what they can of this Murphy’s Law season.

Houston Rockets

By Ernest Hernandez (@ErnestLeo)

It started out that Rockets GM Daryl Morey is losing his mind by overpaying Jeremy Lin and investing on an unproven center in Omer Asik. But everything fell into place when Morey suddenly made the blockbuster trade in acquiring James Harden from the Thunder.

Better than expected, Harden just became the savior of the Rockets franchise and Morey’s reputation. Averaging 25.9 ppg, he has not just become the leader of the Rockets but also a candidate for the Most Improved player award and earning his first appearance to the NBA All-Star game.

In addition to that, Chandler Parsons stepped up and became a significant contributor for the team. With the late pick-up of Aaron Brooks during the mid-season, the Rockets are one of the teams that can pull out a huge upset in the upcoming playoffs.

Harden seems to be in a familiar ground when he is surrounded by the league’s youngest team at 23.7 years old. But this time, he is leading that team and the most exciting part is that he will be facing his old team in the first round.

Will they pull an upset? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it would be a great storyline and Morey will probably be the genius in disguise.

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