Kinda late getting to this but here it is:
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder versus (8 Houston Rockets
Projection: Oklahoma City wins 87.2 percent of the time
When Oklahoma City has the ball: Omer Asik better get his rest between now and Sunday. He is going to be busy throughout this series dealing with Thunder players driving the paint against Houston's porous perimeter defense. During the regular-season series, the Rockets held Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook near their typical production but allowed too many kickouts for open 3s. Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha were the beneficiaries, knocking down a combined 18 triples in the three games. If the outside shots aren't falling, Houston might be able to hang in on defense by keeping the Thunder off the line. The Rockets rarely foul, and Oklahoma City shot free throws on 8.8 percent of its plays against them as compared to 11.1 percent overall.
When Houston has the ball: Welcome to the James Harden show. The former Thunder star is likely to show his old team what it's missing, as he did during the regular season, averaging 29.3 points in head-to-head matchups. Harden was able to find his way to the line, helping Houston shoot more total free throws than Oklahoma City in the three games. The Rockets' next two leading scorers against the Thunder were forwards Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson, both of whom were traded at the deadline. But Houston's lone win over Oklahoma City came the day of that trade, when the short-handed Rockets had little choice but to go small and spread out the Thunder defense.
Prediction: Oklahoma City can't be excited about drawing Houston, one of the strongest 8-seeds in recent memory. The Rockets had a better point differential than Golden State, the L.A. Lakers and five of the eight playoff teams in the East. Consistency was Houston's problem throughout the regular season, which is to be expected from a team that relies so heavily on the long ball. That's a bad thing when it means losing to Phoenix in a game that would have made the Rockets the seventh seed but a good thing in a series like this where Houston can win a game or two by getting hot.
Oklahoma City in 6.
(2) San Antonio Spurs versus (7) Los Angeles Lakers
Projection: San Antonio wins 86.7 percent of the time
When San Antonio has the ball: These two units come into the game in opposite directions. The Spurs have struggled on offense since Tony Parker badly sprained his ankle on March 1. In April, they've actually been substantially worse than average in terms of points per 100 possessions. At the same time, the Lakers have stepped up their defensive effort since Kobe Bryant's injury. Adjusted for opposition, three of their six best defensive performances since November have come with Bryant out of the lineup or playing limited minutes -- the last two games and a March win at Indiana. With Parker alternating good games and terrible ones and Manu Ginobili out of the lineup, San Antonio's only consistent threat has been Tim Duncan.
When the L.A. Lakers have the ball: We saw the game plan Sunday night when these two teams met at Staples Center. While Steve Nash's return could give Mike D'Antoni more options on offense, the Lakers will want to pound the ball down low to big men Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Gasol, healthy at last after a frustrating season, has been a hugely valuable playmaker from the high post in Nash's absence. Howard, meanwhile, is starting to dominate as he did prior to back surgery. Together, they've made the Lakers suddenly dangerous on the offensive glass. If Gasol and Howard click in the high-low game, the Lakers just need a couple of role players to make open shots from the perimeter.
Prediction: Because both teams are so different than they have been much of the season, the numbers tell us less about this series than any other. In fact, we've basically never seen the unit the Lakers hope to put on the floor. According to NBAwowy.com, Nash, Gasol and Howard have been on the floor without Bryant just five minutes all season. So this series could go any direction. Though the Spurs might have a renewed sense of urgency once the playoffs start, their finish to this season is disturbingly reminiscent of 2011. I think they'll escape this series, but I don't think it will be easy.
San Antonio in 7.
(3) Denver Nuggets versus (6) Golden State Warriors
Projection: Denver wins 86 percent of the time
When Denver has the ball: Hey, remember the NBA in the 1980s, when teams scored 110 points a night and nobody played too much defense? If you loved that, Denver-Golden State is the series for you. Expect up-tempo, entertaining basketball on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets' style is also a throwback because of how relentlessly they attack the basket off the dribble. Basically every perimeter player has been empowered by George Karl to try to get to the paint to score or set up someone else. The Warriors will counter by packing the middle on defense and daring Denver to shoot the ball. Golden State might even go zone for extended stretches. No team allowed more 3-point attempts than the Warriors, though they held opponents to a below-average percentage from beyond the arc. Of course, Denver shot poorly (32 percent) from downtown and still won the season series 3-1. So loading the paint might not be enough to stop the Nuggets.
When Golden State has the ball: While Denver has improved defensively, the Nuggets are still vulnerable beyond the arc. They were second in most 3-point attempts and makes by opponents. The Warriors have some fair shooters, including single-season 3-point record holder Stephen Curry, and getting out on them will be paramount. Curry shot 16 of 24 (66.7 percent) from 3 during the four head-to-head meetings. Denver did a better job against Klay Thompson, who was held to 31.4 percent beyond the arc. Otherwise, the Nuggets match up well with Golden State on the perimeter, especially since both teams like to finish with a pair of point guards (Curry and Jarrett Jack against Ty Lawson and Andre Miller).
Prediction: Even without injured Danilo Gallinari, Denver is the deeper and more talented team. There's been little sign that the Nuggets have missed Gallinari, and the emergence of rookie Evan Fournier gives Karl yet another weapon in this series. (The long-limbed Fournier might guard Curry at times.) It's hard to see the Warriors winning in Denver, so if the Nuggets can steal a game in the Bay Area, Golden State's return to the postseason might be brief.
Denver in 5.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers versus (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Projection: L.A. Clippers win 79.4 percent of the time
When the L.A. Clippers have the ball: Don't expect Los Angeles to be Lob City during the course of this series. The Grizzlies' stout defense will take away transition opportunities and force the Clippers to play in the half court. That's not necessarily a terrible thing. According to Synergy Sports, the Clippers rate better in the half court (fifth among all teams in points per play) than transition (12th). (They do score more points in transition, because teams are typically better in transition.) A slow-paced game does mean relying heavily on Chris Paul to create out of the pick-and-roll. Memphis will counter with the league's top perimeter defender, Tony Allen, and it also has Mike Conley and Tayshaun Prince to throw at Paul at times. Paul's best scoring game (24 points) actually came in the Grizzlies' lone head-to-head win. But he controlled the game with 12 points and 12 assists Saturday.
When Memphis has the ball: The action will all be in the frontcourt, but that doesn't mean it will necessarily be down low. When the starting lineups are on the floor, the Grizzlies' best option may be putting Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in a series of pick-and-rolls to try to free Conley to penetrate. Zach Randolph should have an advantage in the post too -- especially if the Clippers finish with their smaller frontcourt of Griffin and Lamar Odom, who's their best pick-and-roll defender. The other player to watch for Memphis is sixth man Jerryd Bayless, who has picked up his production playing alongside Conley since the Rudy Gay trade. Bayless went from 12.6 points per 36 minutes before the All-Star break to 16.7 thereafter.
Prediction: Surprised the Clippers are such heavy favorites? Believe it or not, this method would have given them the edge even if Memphis held home-court advantage. Why? First, the Clippers had the superior point differential, finishing third in the league, ahead of Denver and San Antonio, at +6.5 points per game. While you might chalk that up to the Clippers' December streak, they're +5.8 since the All-Star break -- better than Memphis (+5.2). The Clippers also won the season series 3-1, including Saturday's win at FedExForum that served as the unofficial Game 1 of this series and last year's playoff matchup. One of the West's top five teams was guaranteed to be eliminated early, and it looks like it's going to be the Grizzlies.
Clippers in 6.
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