No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Season series: Spurs, 4-0
Coaches: Narratives seem to change for coaches from season to season. You’re a winner one year and a dud the next. Unless, of course, you’re Gregg Popovich. When you’re Pop, nothing changes from year to year. The Spurs’ system should come with subtitles, because few opposing coaches can understand it. But if there’s a one coach capable, it may be Rick Carlisle. The Jim Carrey look-alike is an elite coach in his own right, and if there’s a proper chess match to be had between a No. 1 and No. 8 seed, it’s between these two. Still, no one has the edge on Popovich. Edge: Popovich.
X-Factors: We could be saying the same thing about both of these guys for another two to three years, but Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki may not have many postseasons left. This matchup between two of the most uniquely talented bigs in the history of the game deserves to be savored. But while Duncan can have a mediocre series and still advance, Nowitzki is going to have to play as a superstar if Dallas will upset.
Breakdown: The Mavericks don’t have enough defense to win this series. The Spurs were a top-five offense in the regular season, and that efficiency only seems to pick up in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have the worst field-goal-percentage defense of all playoff teams. There are simply too many defensive holes for Carlisle to plug against the multitude of offensive options Popovich employs. If the Mavs are going to win, they’re going to have to outscore the Spurs. That’s not easy to do against a San Antonio defense that takes away scores at the basket and from behind the arc. San Antonio forces opponents to settle for jumpers, which is actually Nowitzki’s specialty (he scores 41.2 percent of his points from mid-range). Still, that’s a lot of made mid-range jumpers to win a series, and it’s not as if Dallas has enough youth or athleticism to overcome the Spurs otherwise.
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Season series: Thunder, 3-1
Coaches: The job Scott Brooks does very much depends on whether or not Kevin Durant is in a heroic mood. OK, that’s not fair; Brooks has helped build this on-the-verge dynasty since the beginning, and he’s had fantastic success in the first round. He certainly brings an understanding of managing a playoff series that first-year coach David Joerger does not. Joerger may be busy exhaling from a frantic end of the regular season (Memphis clinched a playoff spot on Monday, the 7 seed on Wednesday) to match the postseason readiness of Brooks. Edge: Brooks.
X-Factors: The Grizzlies ended the season winning 33 of their final 46 games, after the return of Marc Gasol — they had been 10-13 without their center. Gasol’s presence with Zach Randolph in the interior creates the perfect postseason potion. That means the Thunder are going to need answers from bigs Serge Ibaka and 20-year-old seven-footer Steven Adams. These two teams last met at the end of February, and the Thunder won thanks to Ibaka’s 7-of-11 shooting for 16 points to go with nine rebounds (and 30 second-half points from Durant, of course).
Breakdown: There is no magic game plan to stop Durant, just as the entire league learned again this season. Durant deserves the regular-season MVP and his playoff numbers from last season (30.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists) showcase what he’s likely to repeat. But we know what Durant will provide. The bigger question mark is what type of production Russell Westbrook will bring. It’s naive to pretend he didn’t miss big chunks of the season with injury (following his absence in nearly the entirety of last postseason). His health is imperative for the Thunder’s hopes of contending. If Westbrook harmonizes with Durant in this series, it will be a much different outcome than when these teams met last year (the Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder in the second round in five games). The subduing style of Memphis can slow down Westbrook and Durant only so much. Close games, slowed down at the end, will require trading last-second shots. That’s only going to work out well for Memphis if Mike Conley and Mike Miller are up for the task. Sounds like a pretty tall order for the Grizz.
Prediction: Thunder in 7.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs. Golden State Warriors (51-31)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Coaches: There’s an interesting parallel between what Vinny Del Negro went through with the Clippers last season and what Mark Jackson has faced with the Warriors this season. Del Negro won 56 games last season, lost in the first round and lost his job to Doc Rivers. Jackson has led these Warriors to 51 wins in just his third season with the team, the franchise has made consecutive postseasons for the first time since the early ’90s, and yet he is on the hot seat entering the postseason. All that being said, having Rivers in the postseason instead of Del Negro is a huge reason why the Clippers should have more success these playoffs compared to last. That could be something Warriors management looks at when making decisions in the offseason. Edge: Rivers.
X-Factors: Chris Paul must be tired of hearing about how he’s never taken his team past the second round of the postseason. Stephen Curry has already proven how dangerous he can be if he gets loose from behind the arc, but Paul can be tenacious defensively and his play on both sides can more than negate what Curry provides.
Breakdown: This series would have been the premier matchup of the first round if it weren’t for the injury to Andrew Bogut. It’s a rivalry, and it’s a physical one. Golden State was already going to struggle with the size of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but the loss of Bogut to a broken rib takes away the Warriors’ enforcer and that’s a major, major blow. The Warriors did weather the David Lee injury last postseason in their first-round victory against the Denver Nuggets thanks to the shooting of Curry and Klay Thompson paired with the small-ball efforts of then-rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Having Andre Iguodala on their side this time around helps, as he’s one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and leads a Golden State team that ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency. But the Clippers’ league-best scoring offense won’t be easy to tame — especially in the paint. Griffin has developed into one of the best scoring big men in the league, and he’s going to be too tough to contain for the Warriors’ front line (now led by aged veteran Jermaine O’Neal).
Prediction: Clippers in 6.
No. 4 Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Season series: Rockets, 3-1
Coaches: Terry Stotts is a contender for Coach of the Year honors, and he certainly deserves it for the job he’s done accelerating the Blazers way ahead of schedule. Kevin McHale, meanwhile, is often overlooked just because he’s adhering to his team’s schedule — jumping from 34-32 in Year 1, to 45-37 in Year 2 before finishing 54-28 this season. Coaches make their name in the postseason though, and each coach will be under the microscope this series. Edge: toss-up.
X-Factors: Dwight Howard was all the NBA world could talk about last summer. He’s been a primary contributor to the Rockets’ success this season even though he hasn’t been dominant, let alone MVP caliber. If he can channel even something close to his Orlando power, the Rockets will win the series. The Blazers, like the Rockets with James Harden, will count on LaMarcus Aldridge for consistent superstar offense. But if Damian Lillard gets it going, Portland’s offense can outgun Houston.
Breakdown: There’s somewhat phony logic floating around about the Trail Blazers’ defense, and this postseason they’ll have to prove it wrong. Before the All-Star break, the Trail Blazers had the worst defensive rating (108.7) of any Western Conference playoff team. They were atrocious and, because of it, looked like an incomplete team destined for a stumble. They hit a complete free fall in March, going 4-9 from March 3 through 25, and seemed as if they might not even make the postseason. But since then, the only team in the West with a better defensive rating than the Blazers (101.8) has been the Spurs. The question becomes: Will Houston’s offense put the Blazers back on their heels when it matters? Harden is one of the league’s premier scorers, and teamed with Howard and Chandler Parsons, that becomes tough for Portland to keep up with. If the premier defense of Patrick Beverley can take away Lillard, Aldridge is then under a lot of pressure to score 30-plus each night. The series will be close, and it will come down to which superstars rise up. The best bet is on Harden.
Prediction: Rockets in 7.