The 2017 regular season has come to an end. All 30 NBA franchises started the journey back in October of ’16. After a brutal 82 game schedule, through the grit and grind, the highs and lows and for many into the record books, 16 have made the cut. After battling for the next couple of months the NBA will declare new champions for the season. However, it will start from the first round (of 3 in all) before any team gets a shot at their counterpart from the other coast. Here are the match-ups from the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs:
Warriors (1) vs. Trailblazers (8)
The Golden State Warriors have won all four head-to-head regular season games against the Blazers. The story certainly is not going to alter now. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA and are simply too talent laden to lose in the first round. The Blazers had a dreadful start to the season with defensive vows that are positively going to plague them against one of the most potent offenses in the league. Although C.J. McCollum has had a good consistent season and Damian Lillard has certainly come into his own since late January, they can steal a game here and there (with a terrific pick-up in Jusuf Nurkic); but their fate is more or less set in stone now.
The series is going to prove more important for the Dubs, though the win is a guarantee, they should be invested more in getting their rhythm back as a team with a rejuvenated Kevin Durant who had a 20 game period to get his legs back. Compared to last season where the spotlight was entirely on them on their road to 73 wins, this time around has been different- they are well rested and have undergone lesser wear and tear (both physically and mentally) heading into the playoffs. The series would be a perfect stage for them to ease back to their old selves again and will give them ample time to work out the line-up and playing time adjustments.
Spurs (2) vs. Grizzlies (7)
The San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies split the season series at 2-2 where both teams won at their respective home floors. Memphis Grizzlies often go unnoticed and are one of the more consistent teams out there but just like the Clippers, they too have never made it to the Western Conference Finals. Marc Gasol and Mike Connely have both been great for them so has Zibo who is now giving their bench the much needed push. However, they will be up against the battle tested coaching and the system of the Spurs who are just too deep to succumb to a team without a real dominant force for ”take-over” type situations. Just like Kawhi Leonard is the go-to guy for the Spurs, Chandler Parsons is simply not what Memphis was hoping him to be. The Grind-house are an old-school team and so is the Spurs and together will make for a good hard-nose basketball with low scoring and a ton of scrappy games.
Rockets (3) vs. Thunder (6)
This is the series that everyone is hyped about. Russell Westbrook going straight up against James Harden, two MVP candidates and basketball titans in a seven game series, will most likely going to be one for the ages. Houston Rockets were 3-1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the regular season. So who gets to go to the next round? Coming into the season, both Harden and Westbrook were in similar situations- sole superstars with expectations to carry their respective teams on their backs. But the Rockets did a marvelous job of getting long range snipers and a supporting cast that well compliments Mike D’Antonie and which can be perfectly orchestrated by Harden now at the point. The entire system now functions at a high offensive gear and leads the league in both 3-point shots attempted and made. Together they are the third best team in the NBA and produced a compelling MVP candidate in Harden and Sixth Man of the Year suitors in both Gordon and Williams. Combining them with a difference maker like Patrick Beverley makes them uninhibited favorites.
On the other hand, Russell Westbrook is surrounded by big bodies, suitable for dominating the boards and the glass and together killing teams in transition. Unlike Houston, they lack offensive parts outside of Enes Kanter who is a liability on defense. Time and again the regular season has proven one thing- Russell Westbrook is not to be overlooked. If an upset is indeed in the cards, it certainly can be pulled off by this bunch. Russell Westbrook has defied odds by earning the sixth seed, leading the league in scoring, averaging a triple-double and being astoundingly clutch (with numbers comparable to Le’Bron and Kobe Bryant). They lead the league in rebounding and will have to muster every inch of their willpower to get to the boards and capitalize on all the raining shots that are unavoidably going to come their way. They say that you live and die by the three, never will it be so apt as in a series as in this one- a match-up that will most definitely settle who the real MVP is.
Clippers (4) vs. Jazz (5)
The Clippers have also won the regular season 3-1 over the Jazz. Both finished the with the same record so the home court advantage will go to the Clippers. This match-up has garnered a lot of intrigue. The Los Angeles Clippers started out the season guns blazing, but due to their own issues and the injury bug that is still haunting them (the absence of the services of Austin Rivers) they did derail a bit. Nevertheless, right on queue, the Clippers re-banded to put forth a respectable run for the 4th seed. Due to their history, the Clippers could possibly see an extended series against the Utah Jazz and their infamous defensive prowess.
What makes the series interesting is when we account for the stakes for both the franchises. Another disappointing season for the Clippers could mean the end of this iteration of their line-up with Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, J J Redik all hitting free agency. An early loss will only solidify the need to bring changes in the locker room and personnel to make their championship dream a reality. The first round is also pivotal for the Jazz as rumors are floating of Gordon Hayward taking his talent elsewhere.
Given the stakes and the fact that the Clippers Big-3 have their backs against the wall at this point, Los Angeles should prevail. They have a tremendous upside of experience on their roaster over the much younger Jazz squad. Blake needs to assert himself more in the game and carry them to the finish line. He has developed a lethal jumper from the top of the key (something that he does exploit a lot in the pick-and-rolls that they execute) but since has relied on it and to a fault. He needs to attack the rim and play with his back to the basket, in the paint, more often. The window of opportunity is closing and the time is now for them to make a final push.