By Rahul Lal
The Western Conference has truly been the wild, wild west all season long. The storylines alone are enough to keep people invested. But, as basketball fans, we live for matchups like what we're about to see in the NBA Playoffs, which tip off this weekend. With the playoff matchups for the first round set out west, let's look at how the teams got this far and what they're capable of going forward.
(1) Golden State Warriors
This shouldn't surprise anybody. During the offseason, the Golden State Warriors acquired Kevin Durant, the former MVP, to join Steph Curry, their own unanimous MVP, and a squad that won a record-setting 73 games the season before. The Warriors were already a Bentley set to cruise through the regular season. So adding Durant essentially put them on cruise-control straight for the top overall seed in the West.
There were a few bumps along the way however, as Durant missed a handful of games down the stretch, but the team looks fairly healthy heading into the postseason. Since the All-Star break, Steph Curry has reemerged and Klay Thompson has regained the consistency we've come to expect. Everyone knows what Durant and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green are capable of, but this team has been bolstered by the improving play of their bench. Patrick McCaw has proven to be a draft-day steal, and Ian Clark has shown himself worthy of an extension this summer. Players like Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, Matt Barnes, David West and even JaVale McGee provide a veteran presence when they're on the court. It's hard to imagine anybody beating the Warriors four times in seven games now that they're healthy.
(2) San Antonio Spurs
Since the 1997-1998 NBA season, the Spurs have had 11 seasons of 58+ wins. This season, the Spurs won 60 games for the third time in their last four seasons yet managed to do it without Tim Duncan (who was present for each of those seasons mentioned before). Instead, Kawhi Leonard has become the true heir to Timmy's tranquil throne in San Antonio. The league hasn't seen many players improve so dramatically as has Leonard; he's absolutely ready to show what he can do on his own. Even if veteran play has declined of late, Pop can (and will) bring out the best in them in the postseason.
(3) Houston Rockets
Probably the biggest surprise team of the season, the Houston Rockets have turned themselves into a legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors. James Harden wraps up his impressive MVP campaign this season as part of Mike D'Antoni's incredibly fun offense. If you're looking for some fun prop bets, the Houston Rockets, with their supporting cast of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams and even Trevor Ariza on occasion, should fulfill just about every one that has anything to do with three-pointers. While defense remains an issue for the Rockets, it's just as big of an issue for other playoff teams, including the Warriors.
Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights and Austin Rivers (L-R) (Photo Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(4) Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are like that student who annoyed everybody in school, the one who was clearly smart enough to get straight A's but instead skipped classes, blew off exams and just didn't focus. Austin Rivers has had a breakout season, but both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have had injury concerns and just haven't looked as steady together as in years past. DeAndre Jordan, while spectacular defensively, still has those very same offensive limitations that have slowed discussions on whether he could be a full-on superstar. The Clippers can gut out some pretty impressive performances, but can they do it consistently? If I were a betting man, I wouldn't put money on these Clippers doing anything beyond the second round.
(5) Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are the quietest nightmare any NBA team can ever have. The Jazz are about as dominant on defense as the Rockets and Warriors are on offense. The Jazz (along with the Spurs) hold teams under 100 points per game on average, and much of that is because of Rudy Gobert, who should bring home the Defensive Player of the Year award. Gobert has become the league's premier defender and is developing into a force on the offensive end as well. Gordon Hayward is set to have a very interesting free agency this summer, as he'll demand max money on the open market. In the meantime, these playoffs will let the unflashy bunch of George Hill, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and company prove to Hayward that this team can get to the next level and be legitimate contenders. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Jazz give the Clippers a run for their money in the first round.
Russell Westbrook (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(6) Oklahoma City Thunder
Any writeup of this season's Thunder has to start with Russell Westbrook. And that's because this guy needs to be talked about. Westbrook did the impossible, averaging a triple-double on the season to beat the Big O's triple-double record, and getting a team into the playoffs that most people counted out last October. The Thunder are all-heart, and they wouldn't have it any other way. Playing the Houston Rockets will certainly be a challenge. But this team made some moves to get players with experience, like Taj Gibson, and has seen Victor Oladipo grow more comfortable in his roll. Westbrook going against Harden will certainly be a lot of fun to watch, but a Thunder-Rockets matchup might wind up being just as entertaining.
(7) Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are a strange team. They've been so consistent as a playoff-bound team through the years, but so inconsistent in their playoff performances. Last year the Spurs swept the Grizzlies, and the Griz haven't forgotten this for one second. Armed with Mike Conley, who signed the NBA's biggest contract last year, and loads of experience in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, they look to summon a vintage performance in the first round and move on. While the Grizzlies should never be counted out and Gasol will be extra-motivated playing against his brother, beating the Spurs to make it out of the first round will be tough.
(8) Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers are undoubtedly a good and exciting team. While they may not be elite or have the defensive ability to truly contend, they'll throw a lot at the Warriors in what will be a fun first-round series for anybody who loves point guard matchups. Damian Lillard lives and breathes basketball, and that's on display every single game, including when he recently put up 59 points with nine threes and zero turnovers. When he and his backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum, are lighting it up, these two are among the best backcourts in basketball. Midseason acquisition Jusuf Nurkic, who has finally found a great fit in Portland, will provide a spark in the postseason, along with Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner and Mason Plumlee. The Trail Blazers probably won't advance out of the first round, but they'll keep the series interesting.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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