The NBA playoffs are less than a month away and the playoff race is fully underway. The playoff matchups, especially in the West, are still up in the air, but the contending teams are starting to separate themselves from the others.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs appear to have a firm hold on the top-two spots, but the rest of the seeds are within four games of each other. Here are my predictions on how the Western Conference playoffs will shape up.
The bottom seeds in the Western Conference are still very much up for grabs. None of the teams appear to have a firm hold on any of the spots, but the Jazz have been playing very well as of late and with that, combined with Danilo Gallinari's injury, the Jazz will sneak in as the No. 8 seed, while the Nuggets miss the playoffs.
The Jazz have a very deep and talented frontcourt rotation with Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, which will severely challenge the Thunder's frontcourt of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison.
Perkins and Ibaka can hold their own against any big men duo in the NBA, but if the big men of the Jazz give them a challenge, they can steal a game or two from OKC.
The Thunder boast the NBA's highest scoring duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and that combo along with the play of probable sixth man of the year, James Harden, will ultimately be too much for the Jazz to contain.
The Jazz have Devin Harris, CJ Miles, Gordon Hayward, Earl Watson and Raja Bell to throw at the Thunder, but the Thunder are the more talented and complete team overall.
Prediction: Thunder in five
The Clippers have come a long way since last season.
The acquisiton of Chris Paul has vaulted the Clippers into the top five in the Western Conference and a year after finishing 32-50, this team will have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Mavericks, on the other hand, have had a somewhat disappointing season as they try to defend their title. Nowitzki started the year slow but has since returned to his old form.
The Mavericks have never cared whether they are at home or on the road for the playoffs, and their strong play on the road will help them in this series. Nowitzki showed that he is extremely clutch in the playoffs leading the Mavericks to several improbable comeback wins on their way to winning the NBA Finals.
Chris Paul has been equally dominant in the fourth quarter this season, often scoring the bulk of his points during the fourth and leading his team to the win.
The acquisition of Nick Young gives the Clippers a reliable scoring shooting guard to give Paul another weapon on offense to work with. He has also played better defense than he has been given credit for.
While Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been exciting to watch this season, the Mavericks depth and experience will be to much to overcome in the first year of the Chris Paul era in LA.
Prediction: Mavericks in six
The Lakers are trying to win another championship with Bryant on the roster. The Grizzlies continue to improve and are trying to repeat last season's playoff success.
Tony Allen has shown the ability to lock down Kobe for an entire game, most recently frustrating him into a 7-15 shooting performance for 18 points with three turnovers. While the shooting percentage is good, Allen repeatedly forced Bryant to give up the ball or make a bad pass leading to a Grizzlies' steal.
Memphis is one of the few teams that has the big men to counter the Lakers' two seven footers—Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Grizzlies' bench is far superior than that of the Lakers, and their starting five matches up very well with LA's. The Grizzlies have also shown they can win in Los Angeles despite the Lakers' dominant record at home.
I expect this series to last the full seven games with the Grizzlies pulling it out in Game 7. Memphis's youth, athleticism and superior depth will outlast the Lakers over the course of this series.
Prediction: Grizzlies in seven
The Rockets have been playing well despite not having two of their best players in Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. The Spurs have been on a tear all season, winners of seven straight and 10 of 11. If the Rockets want to have any chance in this series, Martin and Lowry must be healthy.
These two teams have been pretty evenly matched this season, splitting the series with each winning both at home. The only lopsided game between the two was back in December when the Rockets won by 20. The rest have been decided by single digits.
The Spurs have been dominant this season, though they may just be the most underrated team in the NBA, or at least the championship contender nobody talks about.
Last season they had the No. 1 seed in the West and were upset by a younger and hungrier team in the Grizzlies. Don't expect that to happen again.
The Rockets have been a prolific offensive team this season, though they have tended to struggle more on defense. The Spurs core of Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have years of playoff and championship experience together, and coach Greg Popovich is among the best coaches in the league.
The Rockets are good enough to make a series out of this matchup, but don't expect them to pull off a Grizzlies-like upset this year. The Spurs experience, depth and coaching will lead them to a victory in this series.
Prediction: Spurs in six
The Thunder get another shot at the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs after being eliminated in five games during last season's Western Conference Finals.
Durant and the Thunder should have plenty of motivation in this series when Dirk and the Mavericks come to face them.
Dirk destroyed the Thunder in last season's Conference Finals, but the Thunder have been flat out dominant this season, leading the league in scoring. The Thunder gained valuable experience from last season's playoff run and will be ready this time to take down the defending champions.
The Mavericks no longer have Tyson Chandler to discourage Durant and Russell Westbrook from driving to the lane, and James Harden is the best sixth man in the NBA. Dallas has lacked the firepower off the bench when they lost key players in JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Peja Stojakovic. Lamar Odom has been a huge disappointment in his first season as a Maverick.
The Mavericks' depth will be neutralized by the Thunder's bench play, and the scoring of Durant and Westbrook will be too much for the Mavericks to overcome as the Thunder book a second straight trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Prediction: Thunder in six
The Spurs surely have last season's playoff matchup in the back of their minds as they prepare to face the Grizzlies for the second straight season. This time, the Spurs are the No. 2 seed, but the Grizzlies have shown they can compete with anybody regardless of home-court advantage or not.
The Grizzlies boast one of the top frontcourts in the NBA with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mareese Speights—they are all valuable contributors. Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo, Tony Allen and Mike Conley are excellent on the perimeter and attacking the basket.
The Spurs biggest strength is their coaching and experience, but the Grizzlies have the depth to compete with San Antonio's bench.
Parker has been able to score efficiently against almost any player he has faced, and Ginobli is a dangerous offensive player when healthy. The key to the Spurs winning this series will be the performance of Tim Duncan.
Last season, the Grizzlies bullied the Spurs in the paint with their big men repeatedly posting up and scoring on the Spurs' smaller bigs. Duncan struggled in last season's playoffs averaging just 12 PPG and 10 RPG.
The Grizzlies are beginning to show flashes of what they will become in the very near future. Expect their depth, youth and athleticism to carry them to a victory in this series.
Prediction: Grizzlies in seven
The Grizzlies and Thunder meet in the Western Conference Finals in a rematch of the second round of last season's playoff-series thriller that lasted the entire seven games.
These are two very similar teams who have used similar strategies to build their teams into potential championship contenders.
The Grizzlies will have to rely on their size to bully the Thunder's bigs in the paint while trying to contain Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook can use his size to his advantage against the smaller Mike Conley, but Conley is quick enough to stay in front of Westbrook in the half court.
Rudy Gay versus Kevin Durant will be a matchup to watch closely. Both players are excellent at attacking the basket, and while Durant is definitely the better shooter, both can shoot from the perimeter.
The two will likely be battling it out most of the series barring the coaches don't put their two stoppers (Thabo Sefolosha for the Thunder and Tony Allen for the Grizzlies) on the team's two superstars.
Allen is the best perimeter defender in the game this season, but Durant has a height advantage that will be hard for him to match up against.
The Grizzlies thrive off of getting steals and easy baskets on the fast break, but the Thunder are equally athletic and love to run.
The battle of the benches will be intense as well as both teams feature players who are instant offense off the bench. James Harden is undoubtedly the sixth man of the year, but OJ Mayo can heat up in a hurry and carry his team to a win with his scoring.
Despite Memphis's advantage in the paint, the duo of Westbrook and Durant will be too much for the Grizzlies to contain over the course of an entire series. This is the Thunder's year to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Thunder in seven