Apr 18 2014 1:46PM

2014 Western Conference First Round Preview


Danny Bollinger/NBAE/Getty Images

1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. 8. DALLAS MAVERICKS

SPURS (62-20)

SRS: +8.00 (1st)

OFFENSE: 108.2 (5th)

DEFENSE: 100.1 (4th)

PACE: 97.07 (12th)

MAVERICKS (49-33)

SRS: +2.91 (11th)

OFFENSE: 109.0 (3rd)

DEFENSE: 105.9 (22nd)

PACE: 95.74 (17th)

SRS Simple Rating System from Basketball-Reference combines scoring margin with strength of opposition; Offense and Defense efficiency numbers listed are points per 100 possessions, while Pace numbers are possessions per 48-minute game, and all three come from Stats.NBA.com; Real Plus Minus numbers listed below come from ESPN.

WHEN THE MAVS HAVE THE BALL

Most of the analytics crowd has followed the model of the Rockets in looking for 3s, 2s at the rim and free throws. The Mavs, fellow pioneers in this Moneyball, thought when that market got saturated teams would return to the mid-range J since that's where the open shots were. They already had best-in-the-biz mid-ranger Dirk Nowitzki (52 percent on long 2s this season and 49 percent on 10-to-16 footers), but went out and got prolific mid-rangers Jose Calderon (career 46 percent on long 2s) and Monta Ellis (career 39 percent on long 2s) in hopes the trend would switch. Enter the Spurs. Their defensive philosophy is to give up the long 2. There is no doubt Kawhi Leonard or Boris Diaw, along with the rest of the Spurs defense anchored by All-Defense candidate Tim Duncan (+5.29 defensive RPM) will give Nowitzki (+4.15 offensive RPM) their full attention. But if the Mavs are going to pull an upset or two out of this series, it will most likely come on the 16-to-20 footers, if Calderon (43 percent on long 2s this season) and Ellis (39 percent) can get hot.

WHEN THE SPURS HAVE THE BALL

The Spurs--the starters especially--have had little trouble scoring on Dallas' subpar D, the lowest-ranked defense in the playoffs. The Mavericks guards specifically have trouble keeping up with the free-wheeling Spurs, giving up 109 or more points in all four losses to San Antonio. This may be a series that Dallas starts giving Devin Harris as many minutes as Calderon, in hopes of curtailing Tony Parker's forays. You may even see Dallas try relying on its defensive-closer lineup more often earlier in the game, with Samuel Dalembert, Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and a guard trying to contain the NBA's best offense since March 1. Even still, Dallas may only have a handful of good defenders to try, whereas the Spurs have a dozen good offensive players to counter with themselves.

PREDICTION: SPURS IN 5.


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2. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. 7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

THUNDER (59-23)

SRS: +6.66

OFFENSE: 108.1 (7th)

DEFENSE: 101.0 (5th)

PACE: 97.91 (9th)

GRIZZLIES (50-32)

SRS: +2.18

OFFENSE: 103.3 (16th)

DEFENSE: 102.1 (8th)

PACE: 92.25 (30th)

WHEN THE GRIZZLIES HAVE THE BALL

The Grizzzzzzzzlies offense has been known to put fans to sleep, with the mediocre-efficient, slowest-paced attack in the NBA. Thankfully, new additions Mike Miller and Courtney Lee have brought a bit of life to the O and complement Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol nicely. But it is going to take much more than that to infiltrate OKC's first line of defense, which features the long arms of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha getting their hands in the passing lanes and being off tot he races. On the inside, the Thunder has many of the type of bigs who can keep Memphis' giant frontline at bay--Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Steve Adams.

WHEN THE THUNDER HAS THE BALL

Coach Scott Brooks doesn't run a creative offense, but his two stars, MVP candidate Kevin Durant and injured-well-injured-well Russell Westbrook pretty much just run above-the-break iso's when all else break down. This might not be a good time for OKC to limit themselves to limited options, especially against this team. Since 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol returned to the lineup January 14, the Grizzlies have been the second-best defensive team in basketball.

PREDICTION: THUNDER IN 6.


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3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS VS. 6. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

CLIPPERS (57-25)

SRS: +7.27 (2nd)

OFFENSE: 109.4 (1st)

DEFENSE: 102.1 (7th)

PACE: 98.39 (7th)

WARRIORS (51-31)

SRS: +5.15 (4th)

OFFENSE: 105.3 (12th)

DEFENSE: 99.9 (3rd)

PACE: 98.53 (6th)

WHEN THE WARRIORS HAVE THE BALL

Welcome back, small-ball. The Warriors really have not broke out this skill-set since the 2013 NBA Playoffs when David Lee got hurt and the Warriors upset the Denver Nuggets. Remember when the Dubs went to small-ball lineups with Harrison Barnes primarily playing Lee's power forward position as a stretch 4? Well, now that Warriors center Andrew Bogut is hurt, look for Draymond Green and Barnes to fill that role at the 4 spot again, with Lee and veteran backup center Jermaine O'Neal filling Bogut's role at the 5, as best they can. Thankfully, in Stephen Curry (+5.77 oRPM) and Klay Thompson (+2.68 oRPM), the Warriors have arguably--only Manu Ginobili (+5.27 oRPM) and Tony Parker (+3.05 oRPM) could argue--the two best offensive guards on the planet. With the small-ball lineup and Andre Iguodala at the 3 providing spacing, Chris Paul and the Clipper guards are in for some long defensive nights.

WHEN THE CLIPPERS HAVE THE BALL

Now that Bogut is hurt and out for the series, the Clippers should have little trouble scoring. However, it is even more imperative that they now take advantage of this and turn up the scoring two notches, to keep up with Golden State. CP3 may have to hand-off some of his point-guard duties to Darren Collison and also to point power forward Blake Griffin to initiate the Clipper offense, with the L.A. guards being so busy on defense. That said, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan present some size and athletic mismatches for the Warriors replacement frontline. Scoring indeed will be high. For this series, Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler may have to update Lawler's Law: "First team to 120 wins."

PREDICTION: CLIPPERS IN 6.


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4. HOUSTON ROCKETS VS. 5. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

ROCKETS (54-28)

SRS: +5.06 (5th)

OFFENSE: 108.6 (4th)

DEFENSE: 103.1 (12th)

PACE: 98.81 (5th)

TRAIL BLAZERS (54-28)

SRS: +4.44 (6th)

OFFENSE: 108.3 (5th)

DEFENSE: 104.7 (16th)

PACE: 97.48 (10th)

WHEN THE BLAZERS HAVE THE BALL

Damian Lillard (+4.57 oRPM) will score because James Harden (-2.66 dRPM) doesn't play any defense. Now before Lillard gets too comfortable, the Rockets still have Patrick Beverley (+1.68 dRPM) to throw at him, while Dwight Howard (+4.97 dRPM) or Omer Asik (+4.61 dRPM) will be patroling the paint 48 minutes a night. That said, Lillard is never alone out there, having two nice post-up and mid-range options in LaMarcus Aldridge (+2.32 oRPM) and Wesley Matthews (+1.62 oRPM), not to mention do-everything small forward Nicolas Batum (+0.93 oRPM), who makes his share of 3s, 2s and 1s.

WHEN THE ROCKETS HAVE THE BALL

James Harden (+5.69 oRPM) will score because Damian Lillard (-2.03 dRPM) doesn't play any defense. Now before Harden gets too comfortable, the Blazers still have Wesley Matthews (-0.84 dRPM) to make him work, while Robin Lopez (+3.52 dRPM) and LaMarcus Aldridge (+2.84 dRPM) will always keep an eye out for help, as they do so well. Harden, however, succeeds because he also gets a lot of help from his friends, whether it's from his attacking guards Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley, or spacing/slashing forwards Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, or super center Dwight Howard.

PREDICTION: ROCKETS IN 7.