West playoff picks: Thundering to the finals?

West playoff picks: Thundering to the finals?
April 20, 2013, 10:00 am
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J. Michael and Ben Standig predict the entire Western Conference playoff bracket plus discuss key players, intriguing opening round series and which stars need to turn the postseason in a personal showcase.
J.Michael, Wizards Insider
If I could only watch one first round series in the Western Conference it would be...Nuggets-Warriors. This No. 3 vs. 6 matchup might be the most entertaining in the playoffs. Both are quick-hitting offenses that look to run. Denver is the NBA’s highest-scoring offense at 106.1 points per game. Golden State is seventh in scoring and also first in three-point shooting at 40.3%.
Key Western Conference player not named Kevin Durant: James Harden. He has shined since being traded by the Thunder to the Rockets before the season and has his team in the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. They’re a No. 8 seed so the Rockets aren’t expected to have a chance, but they play an-open court, high-possession style that can pay major dividends. Harden has proven he can be an alpha dog in the regular season, but this is his first time in that role in the playoffs. In the NBA Finals last season, he froze.
Western Conference player most in need of a strong postseason: Dwight Howard. The Lakers don’t have Kobe Bryant (Achilles tear) and their first-round foe, the Spurs, aren’t as dominant as they appeared earlier in the season. Howard has had an uneven first season in Los Angeles, but he can make up for a lot of it if he comes through and it starts with this series. The Spurs won the regular-season series 2-1 but are thin in the middle after Tim Duncan, 36. Howard should have his way. He had 13 consecutive double-doubles in March.
If one Western Conference team other than the Thunder or Spurs shocks the world with a run to the finals it will be...the Grizzlies. Now that PF Zach Randolph appears to be over a knee injury and back to All-Star form. Add C Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies are a half-court team with size and brute strength that make them a difficult matchup. They also have one of the best perimeter defenders in SG Tony Allen, who made the NBA’s All-Defensive first team last season even though he played only 26 minutes per game. The Grizzlies’ weakness: Perimeter shooting.
Western Conference - First round
Thunder over Rockets, 4-2
Spurs over Lakers, 4-1
Warriors over Nuggets, 4-2
Grizzlies over Clippers, 4-3
Western Conference - semifinals
Thunder over Grizzlies, 4-3
Spurs over Warriors, 4-3
Western Conference - finals
Thunder over Spurs, 4-1
Overview: The Thunder have too many horses for the older Spurs, who don't have any depth in the middle behind Duncan. They also have the length and speed to run the Spurs' shooters off the three-point line and make them put the ball on the floor to create which isn't their overall strength. C Kendrick Perkins can rough up Duncan to make him pay for every bucket and rebound and PF Serge Ibaka cleans up the dribble penetration from the the guards.  
Ben Standig, Wizards correspondent
If I could only watch one first round series in the Western Conference it would be...Nuggets-Warriors. After covering the offensively-challenged  I can't wait for games where 50's and 60's are not final scores but first half totals. Call it breakneck or blinding, but the speed at which Denver and Golden State will certainly be glorious. Plus the matchup between Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry has the makings of an old fashioned scoring duel, but with little guards. The Nuggets enter the postseason all kinds of beat up, but they should advance out if the first round - if they can score 120 points per game.

Key Western Conference player not named Kevin Durant: Tony Parker. Tim Duncan is playing at crazy levels, but there is no way the soon-to-be 37-year-old can carry the Spurs all the way into the NBA finals without All-Star caliber help from his point guard. For all of Parker's brilliance, he still can disappear at times, which cannot happen in the postseason considering Manu Ginobili remains hobbled and the Spurs supporting cast is there to, well, support, not lead. Oklahoma City is beatable, but only if Duncan and Parker have their mojo at full blast.

Western Conference player most in need of a strong postseason: Russell Westbrook. If the Thunder short-circuit before returning to the NBA finals, blame won't land on Durant. Facing former teammate James Harden in the first round does Westbrook no favors because it could immediately start him off on a try-proving-to-much path, one that over time could shoot the Thunder out of the playoffs. Still, only LeBron James offers a higher level of perimeter skill and athletic freakiness than the Thunder's lead guard. If Westbrook can harness those talents while combining the right mental approach, then we could have a new first-time NBA champion this year.

If one Western Conference team other than the Thunder or Spurs shocks the world with a run to the finals it will be...the Nuggets, but that assumes Kenneth Faried's relentless energy is on the court and not watching from the sideline because of his current ankle injury. The perception is that Denver doesn't have that overt end-of-game star but Lawson's not afraid of the big moment. Plus with a deep pool of options, there are many players including Wilson Chandler, Andre Iguodola, Andre Miller and Corey Brewer that can step as the scoring hero on a given game. However, none of them can replace Faried which is why this call is all about the rebounder returning sooner than later.

Western Conference - First round
Thunder over Rockets, 4-2
Spurs over Lakers, 4-3
Nuggets over Warriors, 4-2
Grizzlies over Clippers, 4-2

Western Conference - semifinals
Thunder over Grizzlies, 4-3
Nuggets over Spurs, 4-2

Western Conference - finals
Thunder over Nuggets, 4-1

Overview: Durant's high potent efficiency is simply the NBA's single greatest offensive weapon. Westbrook's forceful baseline-to-baseline drives are downright frightening. The true scary part is that the Thunder's dynamic duo have all kinds of help including the lengthy Serge Ibaka, who (prediciton time) officially gives OKC a new Big Three following after a productive postseason. Kendrick Perkins's strength won't allow Zach Randolph in the semis or possibly Duncan in the finals to overpower the Thunder. If healthy, the Nuggets have the depth and scoring punch to make the Western finals a seven-game series, but not enough to actually win it.