7 Reasons to Get Psyched for Western Conference Playoffs

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2013

7 Reasons to Get Psyched for Western Conference Playoffs

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    Although it seems like the case every year, there are actually more reasons than ever to get psyched for what's sure to be a phenomenal slate of Western Conference playoff games this season.

    Every potential matchup has its own built-in intrigue and if you're into storylines, put on your reading glasses—there are enough here to fill a few volumes.

    A handful of potentially scary first-round matchups for the West's top seeds are just the beginning. As the playoffs roll on, potential upsets and late-developing dark-horse contenders could also take center stage.

    And we haven't even gotten to the ultimate wild card: the Los Angeles Lakers. What if Kobe Bryant and Co. suddenly start firing on all cylinders? Who knows how much damage they could do this spring?

    Go ahead and watch the Miami Heat run a one-horse race in the Eastern Conference if you want—everyone knows there'll be eight thoroughbreds charging toward the finish in the vastly more competitive West.

    Here's a primer on the biggest reasons to be excited for this year's wild West playoff showdown.

The Possibility of a Lakers Surge

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    At present, it appears that the Lakers have a pretty firm hold on the No. 8 seed, which would ensure them a date with the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

    And although the Spurs appear to be the machine that just keeps on running long after its components have outlived the manufacturer's warranty, they could run up against a very dangerous Lakers team in the opening round.

    All season long, L.A. has suffered one setback after another.

    Injuries have prevented the team's ideal starting lineup from taking the floor together for more than a handful of contests, and chemistry problems have paired with strategic mistakes to create an ongoing soap opera that could only exist in Hollywood.

    But suppose the Lakers get a healthy Pau Gasol up to speed at the same time Dwight Howard and Steve Nash hit their stride.

    Right now, the latter two are playing their best basketball of the season. Adding a recovered Gasol to that tandem could give the Lakers offensive options they haven't had all season.

    And, of course, Bryant could shift into yet another gear when the games really start to matter. Based on what he's done so far in his renaissance season, there's no telling what else he's capable of.

    Nobody's saying the Lakers can definitely beat the Spurs in the first round, but considering the combination of star power, veteran experience and, most importantly, room to improve, L.A. certainly could make things interesting.

The Battle for California

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    The Golden State Warriors have beaten the L.A. Clippers three out of four times this year, and every single one of those contests have been tinged with some bad blood.

    That's right, a pair of the Pacific Division's perennial doormats have had enough success this year to meet in the postseason. And if they do square off, be prepared for some serious fireworks.

    Dubs guard Stephen Curry has averaged 23 points per game and shot nearly 54 percent from long distance against the Clips this year, making him the ideal threat to occupy (and possibly tire out) Chris Paul over the course of a series.

    Without the luxury of leaving Curry's hip pocket for even a split second, Paul might find himself exhausted on the other end.

    Toss in the choice words David Lee had for Blake Griffin's acting chops, a pair of fast-paced styles and dueling inferiority complexes and you've got the recipe for a fierce intrastate rivalry.

Denver's Newfound "Contender" Status

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    Thanks to a ridiculous 31-3 home record, the Denver Nuggets have established themselves as a real threat to any team that has to venture into the Mile High City.

    For that reason alone, Denver's current half-game lead on the L.A. Clippers for the No. 4 seed is immensely important. As long as the Nuggets have the ability to play more games at home than on the road in a series, they're capable of beating absolutely anyone.

    Of course, with their most recent road win coming against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's possible that the Nuggets' collection of not-quite-star talent has meshed into a bona fide title contender no matter where it plays.

    The usual playoff caveats apply here: Offense and bench depth matter far less in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. So Denver's two specialties probably won't be quite as valuable in the postseason as they are right now.

    But even if the slower pace and shortened rotations that come with the playoffs weaken the Nuggets just a tad, they've proven recently that they're much more than a gimmicky fast-break team; they're the West's newest contender.

The Houston Rockets' Upset Potential

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    Here's a question: Does any team in the West actually want to face off against the high-octane Houston Rockets in a first-round series this spring?

    And here's an answer: Probably not.

    James Harden and Jeremy Lin attack the basket relentlessly, and GM Daryl Morey has surrounded his aggressive guards with a cadre of capable shooters to keep the paint clear. And when attempts at the rim or from long range (the Rockets shoot 29 threes per game, by far the most in the West) are off line, Omer Asik, one of the league's best rebounders, is there to clean up.

    Houston's offense is a glimpse into the league's future. They're a statistically efficient club that has all but eliminated the game's low-percentage looks from its arsenal. If you're a fan of the mid-range jumper, please look elsewhere; you won't see many from the Rockets.

    Because they're a weak defensive team, Houston's title odds are extremely long. But because their offense is capable of nuclear explosions, they're a threat to get hot enough to blow away a superior opponent in a short series.

A Second Rockets Helping, This Time with a Side of Revenge

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    Assuming the current seeding in the West remains the same, Houston would face off with Oklahoma City in an opening-round series that could provide one of the most intriguing narratives in recent postseason memory.

    Harden, traded away from OKC before the season started, would have a chance to knock out his former team.

    Just imagine the multitude of revenge angles.

    Every Harden assist would become "a dish best served cold." Every basket would serve as payback for the offseason trade. And a series win would complete one of the most unlikely turnabouts in years.

    From a purely dramatic standpoint, it'd be hard to top seeing Harden, the league's newest superstar, returning in less than a year to beat a team that didn't think he had it in him.

Memphis Will Try to Do It with Defense

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    The polar opposite of the Rockets and Nuggets teams we've just finished discussing, the defense-first Memphis Grizzlies actually do fit the conventional model of a scary playoff team.

    The Grizzlies boast the West's stoutest stopping power with a defensive efficiency rating of 97.2, meaning they'll be more than happy to slow the game down and turn any playoff series into a bruising war of attrition.

    Normally, defensive battles aren't cause for excitement. But watching any team do something at a truly elite level is always interesting, which makes the Grizzlies a must-watch club.

    Winners of 15 of their last 18 games, including an overtime defeat of the Thunder, the Grizzlies have the size and perimeter defense to make life hell on opposing playoff teams.

    And Marc Gasol, arguably the league's most unappreciated superstar, will get a chance to shine on a much bigger stage. If only for the pure joy that his precision passing and savvy defensive brilliance brings to audiences, the Grizzlies presence in the Western Conference playoffs is a huge reason to be psyched for the postseason.

    Well, not everybody has failed to notice how good the Grizzlies and Gasol are:

    Jerry West: "Memphis, they're like a bunch of pack dogs. Defensively they're really good." Called Marc Gasol "most underrated player" in NBA

    — Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) March 22, 2013

    Gasol's criminally underrated excellence aside, Memphis' defense and size make it a legit contender to come out of the West, too.

Old Dogs and Young Pups

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    We've identified a handful of teams that have a real chance of coming out of the West so far, and while the sheer number of potential contenders is its own reason to get psyched about the playoffs, the two elite clubs in the conference deserve special mention as well.

    The young Thunder are coming off of an NBA Finals appearance a year ago, not to mention a stunning comeback win against a seemingly unbeatable Spurs team in the 2012 Western Conference finals.

    And you had better believe the aging Spurs would love another crack at the upstarts who completely took them apart last time around.

    The potential rematch between these two clubs is almost too exciting to put into words.

    It'd be a clash between eras, a power struggle between the old guard and the new kids on the block. San Antonio has been the league's most consistently excellent team for a decade-and-a-half, while OKC is in the process of establishing a similar run of its own.

    Calling another series between the Spurs and Thunder a torch-passing wouldn't do it justice either, largely because Oklahoma City is going to try to forcibly wrest the torch from a San Antonio hand that isn't willing to give it up yet.

    Here's hoping that when the dust settles out West, these two gunslingers, one aging and the other approaching its prime, will be the last ones standing.