There is less than a week left in the NBA regular season and the only drama left in the Eastern Conference playoff picture is about whether Indiana will host Chicago or Atlanta in the first round. It's pretty exciting stuff. On the other hand, basketball fans are in for a treat out west over the next few days and weeks.
Golden State has a half-game lead over Houston for the sixth spot after falling to Oklahoma City last night and the Lakers and Jazz are duking it out for the eighth spot, with LA currently one game ahead of Utah.
A lot is at stake in both races. The winner of the Warriors-Rockets battle will play Denver in the first round while the loser has to travel to San Antonio. The Jazz are fighting to extend their season, and the Lakers are hoping to avoid the torrent of criticism from fans and detractors that will come if they fail to make the playoffs.
It's always good for basketball fans when the last few days of the season actually matter, and this year they certainly do.
Take tonight, for example. Golden State will be at Staples Center to take on the Lakers in what is a huge game for both teams, Houston is hosting Memphis, and Utah - a team that essentially needs to win out - is playing Minnesota. Even though Memphis isn't playing for positioning and Minnesota is Minnesota, all three games should have the urgency and drama of playoff games.
The nice thing about the West, though, is that no matter how it shakes out the first round will be loaded with awesome matchups. The next five days are going to be a teaser for the spectacle that the Western Conference Playoffs are sure to be.
Here is my list of dream matchups for the first round:
(1) Thunder - (8) Lakers
(2) Spurs - (7) Warriors
(3) Nuggets - (6) Rockets
(4) Clippers - (5) Grizzlies
No offense Jazz fans, but I think the universe wants the Lakers to make the playoffs, if for no other reason than that no one wants to hear the talking heads focus on a team that didn't make the playoffs while actual postseason basketball is happening.
And the excitement for a Thunder-Lakers series would be huge. Remember when that was supposed to be the Western Conference Finals matchup? The intriguing thing about this series is that nothing has changed with regards to our view of the Lakers over the last few months, this season has clearly been a massive disappointment, but there's a sense that they could break out at any moment. Kobe can still win playoff games single-handedly and the Lakers potential for success this year, despite all of the evidence, has to be unsettling for Thunder fans.
Warriors fans desperately want to avoid playing the Spurs but this is a matchup that I think could actually be pretty interesting. As we've seen so many times in college basketball, an underdog that can shoot is always a threat. The series format of the NBA playoffs tends to eliminate the possibility that a streaky underdog will win, but the Warriors shooting isn't actually streaky - it's just plain good. The three ball is a huge part of Golden State's game and that allows them to be a threat no matter who they are playing. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson constantly run off screens and nail jumpers. They make opposing guards work and when they get free they're lights out.
This season, Curry and Thompson combined for more three pointers than any backcourt combination in NBA history. It will be interesting to see if Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can perform at their usual high level when they're exerting so much energy trying to chase the Warriors guards all over the court. And with Andrew Bogut's ankle injury apparently not serious and question marks surrounding Ginobili's health, this series could be a lot closer than many people think.
A Denver-Houston matchup would be wonderful television and I pray that it doesn't get pushed to NBA TV and poor time slots simply because of other marquee teams squaring off. The two teams have a total of one superstar (James Harden) but I can't think of a first-round series that would be as fun to watch.
Denver and Houston rank fifth and sixth respectively in OffRtg which tells us something that we already know: they score a lot. Harden is a monster in transition, getting to the free throw line more than anyone in the league this year. The Nuggets are up-tempo and love to use their high-altitude advantage to run teams out of the building and I hope we get the chance to see them try to outrun James and his boys.
The best individual matchup in the first round might be between Omer Asik and Kenneth Faried, two of the hardest working big guys in basketball. They are going to kill each other on the block going for rebounds and their individual battles will be just as exciting as the full-court sprints that we'll see from both squads. Another reason I want to see these two teams face off is that it would make for a much better matchup than Spurs-Rockets. With the Rockets' reliance on James Harden acting as a one-man fast break, you could see 'Pop" really narrowing his focus on stopping Harden and simply shutting down the Rockets attack and slowing the game down.
The last of the first-round matchups that I want to see is really the only one that is set. The Clippers and Grizzlies will be going at it for the second year in a row after LA won in seven games last year. That series saw three games decided by one or two points, including the memorable 27-point comeback by the Clippers in the opening game. It looks like a nice little rivalry may be brewing between these two quasi-contenders and both teams actually have a shot to make a deep playoff run this year. Assuming that OKC advances to the second round, both of these teams will believe they can beat the reigning Western Conference champs. Memphis won the season series with OKC 2-1 and LA got swept, but had two close games including an overtime loss.
In this series, I'll be looking to see if Blake Griffin can hold his own in a half-court game. Memphis is big and talented and the Clips will need more than Chris Paul dribbling around to win. If they can get consistent play from Griffin and have effective half-court possessions to complement their explosive open-court ability, this series could go to seven games again and show the country that these two teams are legitimate threats to the top teams in the West.
March Madness may be over, but this year's NBA Western Conference playoffs and the days leading up to it may be even more exciting. And who knows, maybe something interesting will happen in the East too.