Is anything gonna be better than this Western Conference first round? I couldn’t have plotted it better myself — all four matchups are the exact ones I was hoping would shake out going into the final weeks of this regular season, not an obvious NBA TV series among them. (OK, maybe Warriors-Nuggets, but that’s more about the market sizes and lack of marquee players than any comment on the likely quality of the games themselves.) The four series should be filled with enough drama for an entire postseason, with player comebacks, long-simmering feuds, stylistic clashes, and a whole lot of across-the-board star power. It’s gonna be great, seriously.
But before that starts — like, TOMORROW — you gotta know your subplots for each series. Here are the five biggest for each of the Western Conference first-rounders.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (1) VS. HOUSTON ROCKETS (8)
1. James Harden vs. His old team.
Duh. This subplot is worth two or three regular subplots just on his own. The two teams behind the biggest trade of the season (technically last offseason, whatever) meeting up in the first round of the playoffs, with the biggest name moved in the deal taking his new team from the lottery to postseason respectability, and his old club prospering even further in his absence. And there’s absolutely no telling how Harden will perform in the series. In three regular-season games against the franchise that drafted him, Harden had 17 on 3-16 shooting, then 25 on 6-17 shooting, then 46 on 14-19 shooting. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a couple games of each in this series.
2. Sam Presti vs. Daryl Morey
Most debates about the league’s best GM will include these two guys at the forefront, the rare front-office types with visibility and name recognition on par of their head coaches and even some of their players. Even before they pulled off the biggest and least-expected trade of the year in tandem, they were associated with each other for their smart drafting, innovative cap-management techniques and ability to see both the short and the long game. But after the Harden deal and this upcoming first-rounder, they’ll likely be mentioned in the same sentence for the rest of their careers.
3. Derek Fisher vs. the Rockets
Yeah, technically Fish was an ex-Rocket (as were, of course, Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, as well as Hasheem Thabeet for a minute there), but he never actually played a game in H-Town before being cut and re-routed to OKC, so that’s not why he’s listed here. Rather, he’s listed for this play in the 2009 postseason, where he responded to his Lakers getting muscled around by the tougher Rockets in their second-round matchup by absolutely decking Luis Scola (who probably flopped a decent amount, but still), then giving a kind of “What? Me worry?” head-scratch. The list of teams around the NBA that hate Derek Fisher for various reasons is a long one, and the Rockets’ case against him will likely only get stronger after he gives Jeremy Lin a forearm shiver this postseason (and somehow gets Lin called for a charge in the process).
4. Winston Garland Flashbacks.
Journeyman point guard and Leigh Ellis trading card favorite Winston Garland made the news last year for something he had done nearly two decades earlier, when he illegally snuck on to the court at the end of the Rockets’ Game Seven of the ’93 Western Conference Semifinals matchup with the then-Seattle SuperSonics, a minor and ultimately inconsequential cheat that went unnoticed until Ethan Sherwood Strauss noticed it and wrote about it for ESPN. Memories of the play and moment will be especially strong for one guy involved with this series: Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who was on the sideline right next to Garland when he made his out-of-bounds creep, and who played with the Rockets for two-and-a-half seasons, even winning a championship with them in ’94.
5. The divided loyalty of the Oklahoma City RedHawks.
The triple-A team of the Houston Astros — and a bunch of future stars they surely are — is based out of OKC, called the Oklahoma City RedHawks. Who will such part-time major leaguers as Jordan Lyles and Jimmy Paredes, or prospects like Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Villar, be rooting for in this series? In any event, the Triple A club should do a promotional scrimmage with the big league club at some point in this series. At best, the Astros would be 3:2 favorites.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (2) VS. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (7)
1. Old guys!
Though the Western Conference playoffs this year is filled with young whippersnappers, up-and-coming teams looking to take over as the conference’s reigning powers with old Western perennials like the Mavs and Suns fading into darkness, two squads from the old guard remain: the Spurs and the Lakers. Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are all in their 30s, and have a combined 36 All-Star appearances between them — a number would’ve been a lot bigger still if Kobe Bryant wasn’t injured. One of these teams is gonna have to hold it down for the NBAARP crowd for the rest of the playoffs, and both will be battling to be the last of the ’00s powers to go gently into that good night.
Speaking of Derek Fisher, break out your 2004 West Semifinals YouTubes and practice your best Charlie Murphy voice, because Spurs-Lakers were the teams behind one of the craziest finishes in NBA history, when an insane, across-his-body, top-of-the-arc, seemingly game-winning jumper from Tim Duncan was negated by an even nuttier Fish turnaround jumper with less than half a second to go — in San Antonio, no less. By the way, the underrated thing about this game? Even with those two literally last-second baskets, the final score was still only 74-73. The last playoff game we had where the two teams combined to score fewer than 150 points came in 2009: Cavs 79, Pistons 68, for the morbidly curious.
3. Nash and D’Antoni vs. the Spurs
As rich a history as the Spurs and Lakers have had in the 21st century — five total matchups, including two in the conference finals, with LA holding an overall 4-2 edge — it’s nothing compared to the drama that two new Lakers, point guard Steve Nash and head coach Mike D’Antoni, had with the Spurs over the years as members of the Phoenix Suns. There’s the Robert Horry bodycheck (and subsequent bench-leaving suspensions), the Tim Duncan three-pointer, Joe Johnson’s eye, Steve Nash’s eye, and so much more, though it almost always ended with the Spurs winning. Steve Nash finally got his revenge with Alvin Gentry at the helm in 2010, but Mike D’Antoni still has an 0-fer against Gregg Popovich in the playoffs. Something to consider, anyway.
4. Can T-Mac get out of the first round?
This doesn’t have anything to do with the Lakers, but it’s a late add as one of the most intriguing subplots of the entire first round anyway. Tracy McGrady, once a scoring champ and regular MVP candidate, has still never won a playoff series as an active player on the roster (the ’09 Rockets did it with him on the IR), and until a few days ago, looked like he would retire without having done so. But after signing with the Spurs earlier this week, and expected to fill the bench swingman role left by the recently waived Stephen Jackson, McGrady finally has a chance to play on a postseason favorite in which he isn’t expected to carry the entire load (or even a large part of it) himself. If he can’t get the series victory here, T-Mac might have a case for being legitimately cursed as an NBA player.
This one doesn’t have anything to do with the Spurs, but again, it’s inarguable as one of the biggest storylines of the first round. Kobe Bryant nearly killed himself getting the Lakers to the postseason, and now they’re 2-0 in games without him. Can the emotional lift from Coach Vino’s inspirational tweets and text messages be enough to carry the Lakers to an unlikely series win, making up for Kobe’s missing 27 points and six assists a game? The world will be watching.
(By the way, combining these last two points — it would’ve been nice to see Kobe and T-Mac, the two most prodigious young wings of the early 21st century, going at it in this series, wouldn’t it? Even if it was only for a couple possessions a game. Kind of a shame.)
DENVER NUGGETS (3) VS. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (6)
1. Points, points, points.
The ghosts of Doug Moe and Don Nelson are in the building, for sure. Perhaps the two franchises most associated with points-at-all-costs basketball over the last three decades, the 2013 Nuggets and Warriors should do their predecessors proud in this series. The two teams both average over 100 points a game, ranking 1st and 7th in the league (respectively) for the season, and in their four matchups this season, only once did one of the teams fail to crack triple digits, when Denver beat Golden State 101-92 in November. There won’t be any 74-73 games in this series, that’s for damn sure.
2. Dunks vs. Threes.
What’s the most exciting offense in basketball? Is it when a team is constantly on the fast break, throwing each other alley-oops and posterizing helpless defenders? Or is it when a team hits 18 threes a game, catching such fire beyond the arc that you have to start checking them as soon as they cross halfcourt? Nuggets-Warriors will certainly have something to say in the debate, as two of the league’s pre-eminent dunking and bombing teams (again, respectively) square off for four to seven games, guaranteed to give us enough highlights of each to avoid any small-sample-size concerns. (Personally, I have my money on threes, but you can’t ever really count out dunks, can you?)
3. Coaches vs. Old teams.
Neither was the former team they were best known for, but both Mark Jackson and George Karl have history with the opposing clubs in this series — Mark Jackson having been traded by the Pacers to the Nuggets before the ’97 season (though weirdly, the Pacers traded back for him before season’s end), and George Karl having spent almost two seasons as head coach of the Warriors just before the dawn of Run-TMC (though he was around for Sleepy Floyd’s legendary 29-point quarter against the Lakers in the playoffs). Really though, with the number of franchises these two guys have played and/or coached for, it’d be virtually impossible for them to find a first-round matchup without some sort of personal connection.
4. Remember Anthony Randolph?
The forgotten man on the Nuggets’ roster, Anthony Randolph first started tantalizing and then infuriating fans with his intriguing-but-inconsistent play as a member of the Golden State Warriors, selected in the lottery of the 2008 NBA draft. Unsurprisingly for his disappointing and losing-filled five-year NBA career, Randolph has yet to play a game in the postseason, but with the Nuggets down a frontcourt rotation player, it wouldn’t be surprising if he got a shot or two in this series. And if he can’t rise to the occasion against his old team, the Nuggets might be the last team whose fanbase he gets to tease.
I’m not sure that there’s any actual history to this rivalry — the only connection I can recall offhand between the two teams is that they always seem to be the crappy late game during the first Monday Night Football of the year — but hey, there’s a Wikipedia page for it, and what do I know about the AFC West anyway? (Ed. note: I think it has to do with Mike Shanahan being fired a billion years ago, but I’m not really too concerned with finding out the particulars.)
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (4) VS. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (5)
1. Rematch of Last Year.
Arguably the best first-round series we had last year — though that’s mostly because we didn’t have a whole lot of good first-round series last year — the seven games between the Clippers and Grizzlies were some of the most intense of the entire playoffs, and Nick Young and Chris Paul made sure that at least one of the contests was a true classic. The two teams have kept the drama going all regular season, natch, and seemed to be on a crash course to meet again in the playoffs ever since their season-opening matchup. The fact that it actually worked out like that is just awesome.
2. Individual player matchups.
You gotta love Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin squaring off against one another for a whole series, especially since Randolph wasn’t really himself last year. But the matchup I’m most excited for is Chris Paul vs. Mike Conley, with the two players much closer in style and skill than a lot of people probably realize. Both are relatively small point guards with excellent handles, craftiness near the rim, strong shooting from distance and solid decision-making in the clutch. CP3 is more the takeover type, obviously, but Conley’s coming into his own with that since the Rudy Gay trade, too. Expect some good me-then-you battles between these two in this series.
3. Best Season Ever?
Both teams come into this matchup having set franchise bests for regular-season records, both teams ending with a 56-26 record that beat their previous franchise bests by at least six games. With a playoff series win — and neither club has ever scored more than one of those in a postseason — either team could very easily make a claim to being the best squad in their franchise’s history. You don’t get a banner for it, and it’s not something that either club will talk about much, as both stay ostensibly focused on their championship aspirations, but it’s something worth noting anyway.
4. Sharp-dressed men.
You’re not likely to find a coaching matchup in the postseason this year with two snazzier-looking gentleman patrolling the sideline than Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins, two of the highest-rated for their attire and hair in my Coachiness power rankings. Pretty sure both would’ve done OK in last year’s imaginary “Coach vs. Coach tournament” on TBJ had they not been facing one another in the first round, too.
5. The final nail in Rudy Gay’s coffin.
The Grizzlies’ trade of Rudy Gay in a three-way deal with the Raptors and Pistons appears to be an unqualified success, as the team went 27-11 without him, a higher winning percentage than they had with their leading scorer, and the Raptors kinda fell apart with Rudy Gay as a core player (until their inexplicable season-ending hot streak, anyway). A series win for the Grizzlies here — making them 2-0 in first rounders without Rudy, and 0-1 with him — would be the last word on Gay’s time with the Grizzlies. Though if they come up short against the Clippers, especially if they struggle offensively late, it opens the door for another round of “See, now THAT’S why you don’t trade Rudy Gay”-type whinging. If I were Rudy, it’d be pretty hard for me not to root against my old teammates here.