Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The Western Conference playoff bracket is filled with landmines left and right, but it's only fair for the basketball gods to bestow a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference finals upon us in 2013.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs clearly established themselves as the conference's two top teams this season. After dodging bullets in the first two rounds, both teams should pick up in the conference finals right where they left off last year.
There's just one problem for the Thunder: They don't have James Harden anymore. With 30 seconds left in Game 5 last year, the bearded one drilled a backbreaking three-pointer that crushed the Spurs' spirits and propelled the Thunder to their third straight victory in the series.
Without Harden's ball-handling proficiency and ability to create his own shot off the dribble, more offensive responsibility will fall upon Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in this year's series. Both players posted career seasons in Harden's absence, but there's no telling how they'll respond once the pressure ratchets up in the playoffs.
This series, more than anything, depends upon the health of the Spurs. If Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all make it to the conference finals in one piece, there's a good chance they'll be favored to win, despite being the lower-seeded team. If one of the Spurs' Big Three gets sidelined for multiple games, the air will get immediately sapped from the Spurs' chances of advancing.
I'm guessing that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich plays his stars as conservatively as possible in the first two rounds, with one eye on this potential conference finals matchup. With Duncan playing like he's 26, the Spurs may well be too much to overcome this season for the Harden-less Thunder.
Prediction: 4-2 San Antonio Spurs