Welcome to the big four from the Western Conference. I have gathered these heavyweights to talk about their team's title chances as the playoffs near and a potential match-up with the defending champion, Miami Heat, loom on the horizon.
Let's get to the introductions.
J.A. Sherman (Welcome To Loud City): I'll be representing the Thunder's interests, and they are currently sitting 2nd in the West, 3.5 games behind the Spurs. While the Thunder have the tie-breaker over SA, even assuming that the Thunder win on Thursday I have a hard time seeing how they're going to make up the additional 2 losses over the next 9 games, especially since OKC still has to play Houston, the Clips, and Pacers (and of course not forgetting that the Spurs are the hottest team in the league now). They're up 3 games over the Clips in the loss column, but that lead gets precarious if OKC loses to the Spurs and then lose to LA next week, the margin for error becomes a single game that OKC has to maintain in order to avoid slipping to the #3 and having to play the Warriors in the 1st round.
J.R. Wilco (Pounding the Rock): I'm J.R. Wilco, editor-in-chief of Pounding the Rock and representing the San Antonio Spurs who currently lead the West by 3.5 over OKC. They're playing great ball at the moment, but you never know when Popovich will decide the win streak is long enough and just sit his starters some random game. Or maybe not a random game but a fifth game in seven nights on the road against a rested opponent at home, on national television -- you know the exact same circumstances under which he rested Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Green in Miami last year and was fined a quarter of a million dollars by the NBA -- the same circumstances as this Thursday's matchup with the Thunder.
Patrick Harrel (The Dream Shake): I'm Patrick Harrel, the editor-in-chief at The Dream Shake, and I'm representing the Houston Rockets. Right now, the Rockets seem to be relatively entrenched at the four seed, with 2.5 games separating them from both the three seed, the Clippers, and the five seed, the Blazers. The Rockets have been playing excellent basketball for the greater part of 2014, but injuries to Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley have taken the wind out of their sails a bit.
Steve Perrin (Clips Nation): OK, I'm in. I just got back from a road trip where I drove from Denver to New York with my sister and my niece, so I'm getting back into the swing of things.
I hope Pop plays the OKC game straight, because the Clippers still have a chance to catch the Thunder for second in the West, with one more game against OKC and given the Thunder's relatively nasty remaining schedule.
Then again, Doc Rivers seems much less interested in the 2 seed than in getting healthy, with four key guys coherently hurt, but expected to be more or less OK (depending on the guy) for the playoffs.
What match-up do you most prefer in the first round?
J.A.: Of the 4 teams jockeying for position in the bottom half of the West, the team that OKC would likely most like to play is the Phoenix Suns. For the Mavericks, Warriors, and Grizzlies, evidence indicates that if they simply play well as a team, they can win games. The Suns team is the only one that needs something freaky to happen (like Gerald Green scoring a career high 41 points) in order to have a shot to win. In the end though, the only key that matters is which team has a player on their roster who can slow down Kevin Durant, and Phoenix doesn't have one. The Mavs have Shawn Marion, the Grizz have Tayshaun Prince, and the Warriors have a combination of Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. The Suns have nothing to prevent Durant from averaging 40, and ultimately, that's really all the analysis you need.
J.R.: One of the darkest moments in the history of the San Antonio Spurs was the first round series that they lost to the 8th seeded Grizzlies in 2011. Sure, Manu Ginobili played with a broken arm, but Tim Duncan looked like a shell of himself, the team couldn't get stops, and the Memphis defense took the Spurs out of their offense for much of the 6 games.
Since then, the Spurs have a) swept the Grizzlies out of last year's playoffs, and b) won 10 of the last 12 regular-season matchups. Memphis' lack of outside shooting allows San Antonio to crowd the paint and Zach Randolph hasn't had a good game against the Spurs since ... well since Game 6 of 2011.
Yeah. I think we'll take the Grizzlies.
Steve: Very late in the regular season, the Clippers have little clue who they will face in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers are likely to be the three seed, but could rise to the two seed or drop to four, and there are five teams from five to nine in the west would could wind up as their first round opponent. And we're not talking "There's a slim mathematical possibility" here -- we're talking none of the five is much more likely than any other.
One of the five is the Memphis Grizzlies, the team the Clippers have faced each of the last two postseasons. The Clippers certainly don't want to see them again, not necessarily because they can't beat them, but because the Grizzlies might have a psychological edge. Even discounting that and assuming that the LAC would emerge from a first round rematch with the dreaded Grizz, it would almost certainly take a toll. Memphis is a physical team and a playoff series against them will wear on any team -- basically, no one wants to see Memphis in the first round.
The West is so good and so deep that any first round opponent is going to be difficult, but my feeling is that the Clippers would prefer to see either Dallas or Portland in the first round. The Warriors have had regular season success against the Clippers in the past two seasons, and as entertaining as a Clips-Dubs series would be, that's another series that has the potential to land one or more Clippers on the injured list. (I'm not saying Mark Jackson's team plays dirty, but... oh what the hell, yes I am saying that, they play dirty.) Not to mention that if Steph Curry gets hot that team can beat anyone. And Phoenix is a complete wild card.
The jump shooting Blazers and Mavs seem more predictable and beatable in a seven game series. Certainly if their shots are falling either team can win some games. But given the chance to game plan for those teams, I feel like a focused Clippers defense can limit them, and I don't see either of them doing much to slow down the Clippers attack.
Patrick: It's looking like the Rockets will matchup against the Blazers in the first round, and that matchup is probably the preferred choice of all the realistic options. That preference, however, is predicated on Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard returning from injury within the next week and being healthy for the playoffs as the Rockets forecast. The two teams met in the 2009 Playoffs when they were also the 4 and 5 seeds, and the Rockets, led by Yao Ming at the time, handled the Blazers methodically in six games.
This year, the Rockets have beaten the Blazers in three of the four matchups, and across the board, the Rockets fit well against the Blazers. Dwight Howard is capable of switching onto LaMarcus Aldridge if he gets hot, Patrick Beverley has harassed Damian Lillard in each matchup thus far, and the Rockets can afford to hide James Harden on Wes Matthews without too great fears of getting burned. Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, the Blazers have had little answer for Harden, with the shooting guard averaging over 30 points a game against them this season.
The Blazers would be a great test for the Rockets, but it's a test they should pass.
What is your team's biggest exploitable weakness and which team can best exploit said weakness?
J.R.: The Spurs defense is set up to allow opposing teams to take the least efficient shot in the game: mid-range jumpers. But they are still one of the league's best at challenging shots, no matter where they're taken from.
Which leads us to bigs who excel from mid-range, and how hard it is for San Antonio to challenge those shots because Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter are their only plus defenders with size and the agility to even attempt to guard stretch fours. That's why LaMarcus Aldridge has a heyday every time Portland plays the Spurs. And it explains why Serge Ibaka could go 11-11 against San Antonio in game 4 of 2012's WCF.
Steve: The Clippers have a vaunted offensive attack that could be even better when all of their pieces are in place (for instance, J.J. Redick has yet to play a game with Danny Granger, and Redick, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford haven't suited up together since November). But the Clippers are not a great defensive team, and in particular they lack athleticism on the wings and don't have anyone who can reasonably be considered a perimeter defensive stopper. Doc Rivers' defensive concepts could take them a long way, and this is a team with a very high collective basketball IQ -- but Redick and Crawford both struggle on defense at times, and while Matt Barnes will work hard, he doesn't have the lateral quickness to stay in front of the top small forwards in the league. All of which means -- Kevin Durant could eat them up in the playoffs. The Spurs offensive execution could expose LA's lack of athleticism on the wings as well, but precise defensive rotations could help to mitigate that against San Antonio.
J.A.: The biggest weakness that the Thunder have exhibited over the past few months is a tendency to get lazy with their perimeter defense. Their defensive scheme is relatively straightforward. They rely on their big men Perkins and Ibaka to protect the rim, they collapse on dribble-drive penetration, and then depend on their perimeter athleticism to close out on shooters. The main problem with this scheme is that not every team is a pure spot-up jump shooting team. Against the Spurs, the Thunder are able to effectively close on their designated shooters in part because they're not afraid that the shooter will pump fake and then drive past them. Against a team like the Rockets or Mavericks, this is not as much the case because of players like Harden and Ellis' ability to get the defender in the air and then drive around them. Once that initial defensive line is broken, everything else breaks down as well because then you get weak-side defenders leaving open shooters to help out. Along with this, the Thunder tend to be a bit haphazard in how they choose their double-team moments. Many times, they'll leave their man to double down on a guy whose ability doesn't justify it, and then one pass later a corner-3 is open.
This is why, although the Thunder are a certifiable 2 seed, lower seeded teams like the Suns and Mavericks have given them trouble, specifically because of their scoring guards' ability to shoot the 3, but to get to the rim as well.
Patrick: The Rockets biggest weakness is a porous perimeter defense that Dwight Howard and Omer Asik have valiantly tried to cover up. At the point guard spot, Patrick Beverley is well-known for his pesky defense, but he tore his meniscus and his status is up in the air for the playoffs. Behind him is Jeremy Lin, who struggles quite a bit in one-on-one situations, and allows far too much penetration. At the two wing positions, James Harden and Chandler Parsons could both use some work. Harden in particular has been much maligned for his effort on that end, and that combination keeps teams in games even if the Rockets are scoring at will.
If Beverley and Howard return to the lineup before the playoffs, this is less of a concern, but it's where teams will look to attack the Rockets.
What team has the biggest advantage when it comes to coaching and what team has the biggest disadvantage? Will this ultimately decide what team advances to the Finals?
J.R.: I don't think there's much doubt that Gregg Popovich has set himself apart as the best coach in the game. The only questions that remain are: how much better is he than the coaches of the West's other top teams, and how much of a difference will it make?
First, I think that players win games, not coaches. Coaches can certainly put their players in a position to succeed, but they don't put the ball in the basket unless they're Bill Russell. And none of these coaches are Bill Russell -- I checked.
Second, since there's no objective measure for coaching greatness, it's impossible to tell how much better one coach is than another. While I'd rank the coaches Pop, Rivers, Brooks, McHale -- I don't know that there's a big enough a gap between any of them to be the difference that a playoff series would turn on. And that's mainly because it's so hard to tell where coaching ends and execution begins.
Steve: Popovich is the best coach in the league, and it's not close. However, when I try to convince myself that the Spurs are not invincible, I can make a case that the coaching advantage is less distinct in the playoffs than in the regular season. Pop's system has been in place for so long, and his players have for the most part been with him so long, that the Spurs execute all season with the precision of a fascist army. In the playoffs, teams will have time to prep for a specific opponent, they'll have a little extra practice time and a little extra focus, and the gap will close a bit. But that's probably just wishful thinking.
By reputation, Doc Rivers would be the next in the group, and I think that's a reasonable conclusion. He's a great motivator, and his system has had success at the highest level. On the other end of the spectrum, I'm not a big fan of Scott Brooks -- but you don't need great team execution when you've got Kevin Durant.
J.A.: Gregg Popovich has been the best coach in the NBA for a long time, and he has earned the trust his players place in him. He's not immune from mistakes (as any quick perusal of PtR's post-game comments following a loss will tell you), but he has accumulated such a dominant track record on how to manage his resources and adjust his schemes to his opponent can only be the byproduct of years and years of experimentation and success.
Scott Brooks on the other hand has become a bit of a whipping boy, despite the fact that he's coaching a bunch of 25 year olds (and younger!) that have legit championship expectations. He's led them to increased wins in each of the last 4 seasons, managed Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka's careers beautifully, and he's got them primed for a deep playoff run. On the downside of course are all the particulars which I don't need to reiterate, but I daresay that he's probably not that much different from coaches like McHale, Stotts, Jackson, etc. In other words, he has his flaws, makes mistakes, but keeps his team going in the right direction. In the end though, the coaches don't (and they know they don't) determine the outcome. In the end, it is still about how well Tony Parker, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, James Harden, and the rest of the West's best players play when the games matter most.
The coaches that scare me the most as a Thunder guy in this postseason are Rick Carlisle and Jeff Hornacek. Carlisle is always a challenge because he's unafraid to shuffle his lineups in any fashion he deems necessary to create mismatches, and not every coach is able to do that. Hornacek is the new blood, and if he manages to get his team into the playoffs in this last week, he's the kind of guy who can coach (and his player play) without fear because he knows his team can't survive unless it gets a little crazy (tm-Seal), and a team that has no fear of being unconventional can be a bane to a conventional team indeed.
Patrick: There's no doubt in my mind that the Spurs have the biggest advantage in terms of coaching. I think this quote from Haralabob Voulgaris sums it up best:
"The best coach in the league (and its not even close) is Gregg Popovich. He is without peer in terms of how well he manages a game, as well as prepares his team. It's really not even close, he is just that much better than every other coach in the league. If you are ever unsure of what the correct strategy is in a certain situation, look to the Spurs. If they are doing it, it's probably the right strategy."
From his rotations and player development to his insistence on keeping his players fresh for the playoffs, no team is better prepared to do battle than the Spurs in the playoffs. Pop is just an incredible game manager, and the Spurs will continue to exceed expectations because of him.
On the other hand, I would look at Scott Brooks as the weakest of the bunch. I think Doc Rivers has gotten away with being a fairly poor in-game strategizer for too long, but Brooks' wacky rotations and overreliance on veterans like Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins over the last few years is somewhat boggling. The Thunder may be the most talented team in the postseason, but Brooks is not helping their cause.
How is your team going to avoid bowing out early and hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June?
Patrick: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. The Rockets are a lethal offensive team when clicking, and their defensive efficiency now rates as slightly above average, but their undoing can be their turnovers. James Harden, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, and Jeremy Lin all struggle with their turnovers, and because of their lack of ball security, the Rockets are tied for last in the league in turnover ratio, giving the ball up on nearly 15% of their possessions.
In the playoffs as games get tight and each possession takes on added meaning, the Rockets can't afford to cough up the ball at anywhere near the same rate as they did in the regular season. If they do, teams will be able to pick them apart in clinical fashion.
J.R.: Well, home court advantage will help. So will having a top five rated offense and defense. A rested big three is a bonus (with HCA wrapped up, there's no reason for them to play) not to mention Kawhi Leonard finally making the leap everybody was expecting him to make after last year's finals.
But if you're looking for one thing, one stat that you can watch to see if the Spurs are tracking to justify their number one seed, it's turnovers. San Antonio does not have a stable of athletic players who are able to take their man off the dribble, so they rely on their system and passing to create scoring opportunities. If the defense is keying on certain actions, or if they scheme to take away lanes that the Spurs don't recognize, that's when passes are intercepted and fast breaks ensue.
The Spurs lead the league in assists for a reason. Every single man on the roster understands the playbook and is able to make his reads, set his screens and complete his passes. But as a seven game series progresses and the opponent becomes just as familiar with the Spurs attack, it's the adjustments that need to be made that will test the players. If San Antonio's main rotation guys are able to adjust on the fly to take advantage of the holes in a defense that's taking away the shots and motion the Spurs are used to creating, then Duncan will probably get his fifth ring.
If not, then the team with the defense that is able to get Popovich's guys to think before they pass -- that team will beat them.
J.A.: The biggest consistent slip-up we've seen from the Thunder this season, even at full strength, is complacency. When the Thunder are playing with urgency and attentiveness, they elevate themselves to one of the best offenses and defenses in the entire league. When they are not, as we've seen over the past few weeks, their offense turns so vanilla that it is positively mellorine, their "collapse the lane!" defense gives up both wide open 3-pointers AND shots in the lane, and they forget sometimes even the best finishers in the game need a little help from time to time. Really though, I think the team's biggest issue is that they wanted the playoffs to begin a few weeks ago.
Fortunately for OKC, the playoffs are now here, and so I do believe that most of the above problems will not surface. To be sure they will still get lazy on the perimeter from time to time and whatnot, but these guys have been waiting for these playoffs to continue/resume essentially ever since last year's mission went down the drain with Westbrook's right knee. Whatever their flaws, I do believe that the Thunder, when operating properly, have enough advantages over the rest of the pack in the West to get back to the Finals. A returning Westbrook is the engine, but Durant is the tip of the spear. Is the prohibitive MVP favorite sharp enough? We'll soon enough found out how nice or not nice Mr. Durant can be.
Steve: The Clippers will win the first championship in franchise history if they outscore their opponents enough times. Yeah, I know that's obvious, but the Clippers are an unstoppable offensive machine when things are clicking, and while they certainly play some good defense from time to time, it's their offense that will carry them to the title if it's going to happen. You know that old saying about how defense wins championships? Well that's a bunch of crap. A good enough offense can win a championship too.
Consider this: the Clippers had the highest rated offense in the NBA this season, and they have yet to suit up their top five per minute scorers (Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Danny Granger) in the same game. In fact, from game 17 (in November) until game 80 (during the final week of the regular season) they didn't even have their top four together, let alone Granger. If Redick and Crawford are in form for the playoffs, the Clippers figure to be at another level offensively, and anything Granger can add is just gravy.