HoopsHabit Hangout #3 – NBA Northwest Division Preview

In this past Sunday’s HoopsHabit Hangout session, my fellow HoopsHabit writers and I discuss the Northwest Division in an NBA season preview. Fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz or my basketball opinions should give it a listen!

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2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Free Agency News: 7/3/12 Roundup

As is the case with free agency every year, it’s been a busy week filled with headlines for numerous stars and the smaller pieces that might go unnoticed. Here’s a quick recap of the major deals and rumors that have gone down in the past week.

Hawks Trade Joe Johnson to Brooklyn Nets:

I already covered this one earlier today, but the Hawks sent their All-Star guard and his not-so-All-Star contract to Brooklyn in exchange for the majority of the Nets’ bench and a future first round pick. Atlanta finally accepted Johnson and Josh Smith weren’t working out and the overpaid Johnson left for Brooklyn in exchange for Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, Jordan Williams and DeStawn Stevenson. The Hawks are looking like they’ll struggle during the 2012-13 season, but their next acquisition might help a little bit.

The Nets didn’t get the All-Star they wanted (Dwight Howard), but got Joe Johnson instead. Now they need to hope Deron Wiliams stays on.

Hawks Acquire Devin Harris from Utah Jazz Trade:

Don’t get too excited, Atlanta. You’re still going to be sorry next season, but at least the acquisition of Devin Harris from Utah will ease the incredible burden that’s been placed on Josh Smith’s shoulders. The Hawks sent Marvin Williams to the Jazz in exchange for Utah’s inconsistent point guard as Atlanta’s new GM Danny Ferry has wasted no time making his intentions clear: getting rid of the the organization’s two peskiest (and overpriced) contracts in Johnson and Williams. With so much money being cleared out, the Hawks are clearly trying to make room to make big moves, possibly for Dwight Howard or Chris Paul should he not resign with the Clippers. Whether high-caliber moves such as these happen this offseason or the next remains to be seen, but Ferry has done an excellent job with these two moves to ensure the Hawks see long term growth. Plus, Harris isn’t a shabby point guard and can certainly help a team out with 3-point shooting when his shot is on. His streaky shooting and overall inconsistent play makes him a bit of a gamble from week to week, but the Hawks need a revival and certainly got the upper hand of this trade with Utah. The move is particularly curious for the Jazz, who gain little from shopping their starting point guard for a former number two draft pick who hasn’t ever lived up to expectations.

The Hawks certainly improved by trading Marvin Williams for Utah’s Devin Harris.

Deron Williams Still Undecided:

At first, Brooklyn’s trade with Atlanta for Joe Johnson was contingent upon whether or not Williams resigned with the Nets. However, the deal went through anyway, leaving the Nets in limbo waiting for their All-Star point guard to decide between resigning or heading to his hometown of Dallas to play with Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavericks. Williams is likely to make his decision known within the next one or two days, either liberating Brooklyn from the ever-growing concern they might only be left with Joe Johnson’s ridiculous contract or turning Dallas into a much more dangerous force in the West. We’ve already been over what the Nets would look like in the backcourt with Johnson and D-Will, but if the Mavericks get their hands on Brooklyn’s star point guard, the combination of Williams and Dirk could get interesting.

Will D-Will stay with Joe Johnson in Brooklyn? Or will he join Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas?

Lamar Odom Goes To Clippers:

A few days ago, the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks worked out a deal that sends Lamar Odom back to his former team in exchange for Mo Williams. As part of a four-team trade, Odom will try to restart his career where it began in Los Angeles as Williams moves on to the Utah Jazz. I don’t see the move as a good one for the Clippers for the time being, but if Odom can play more like the Sixth Man of the Year that he once was, it could prove to be beneficial in the long run. The acquisition of Williams for the Jazz meant they had an extra guard, which might help explain why Devin Harris was shopped for Marvin Williams.

Lamar will get to revitalize his career where it all began in Los Angeles.

Bulls Looking for Veteran Guards:

With Derrick Rose likely missing a significant chunk of the next NBA season, it’s no surprise the Bulls are looking for veteran guards who won’t eat up too much money and can step in to take over while their star point guard recuperates. The Bulls have already reached out to Derek Fisher and Brandon Roy and while there are no solid deals to report on yet, keep your eye on this one. Fisher is also being pursued by the Thunder, Heat and Mavericks while Roy is fielding offers from several teams as well.

With Derrick Rose recovering on the sidelines, the Bulls will need to add another point guard.

Celtics Hoping to Resign Allen, Bass, Green:

Despite the popular opinion that Ray Allen will be in a Miami Heat uniform next season, Danny Ainge has said that the Celtics are making resigning Allen a priority, along with Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, who may be able to return to Boston as a free agent. While the possibility of resigning all three of these Boston regulars may be difficult, I wouldn’t doubt that they get their hands on at least two of those three. Allen has been offered deals with Miami and the Memphis Grizzlies, but would make the most money if he stayed in Boston. It will come down to whether or not he believes he can win with Miami and whether or not he’d be willing to take a pay cut to do so, but for the time being, nothing has been decided regarding Allen, Bass or Green yet.

Will Ray Allen choose the Celtics and more money over the lure of a championship in Miami?

Dwight Howard Drama Continues:

Dwight Howard came out and said there’s only one team on his list earlier this week, and although he wouldn’t say outright that it was the Nets, no one else seemed capable of being that team if not Brooklyn. Until yesterday, that is, when the Nets basically took their names out of the Howard sweepstakes with an ill-advised trade for Johnson, who will take up a considerable chunk of cap space. The Mavericks and Hawks are both clearing room for big offseason acquisitions, so Howard might want to think about adding more teams to his stubbornly short list. Howard said if he doesn’t get traded to the one team on his list, he would play the season out and then explore free agency, although the choice is not his to make if the Magic decide to shop him.

Dwight Howard continues to ruin his legacy by running his mouth about his trade demands.

Steve Nash’s Future Still Unclear:

The Toronto Raptors made Nash a 3-year offer, which Phoenix seems unwilling to do at this point. The Suns are leaning toward a 2-year deal if their All-Star point guard stays, but with the drafting of Kendall Marshall, they seem to be preparing for the worst. Nash says he is keeping his options open, which is a smart decision considering his large number of suitors, which includes the Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors and Suns. At this point it seems more and more unlikely Nash will stay in Phoenix, but to leave one non-contender for another doesn’t seem like something an aging veteran in search of his first title would do (ruling out Toronto).

Nash’s future in Phoenix seems unlikely, but no one else has put a great offer on the table yet.

Roy Hibbert Offered Deal by Portland:

The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to strengthen their frontcourt even further after offering All-Star center Roy Hibbert a four-year deal for $58 million. The Blazers went through a major upheaval last season and had a disappointing year but adding Hibbert to LaMarcus Aldridge would form a formidable team in the paint, especially with rookie Meyers Leonard likely coming off the bench. However, if Hibbert is smart (and not motivated primarily by money), he’ll stay in Indiana. After such a disappointing playoff performance with the Pacers, Hibbert definitely has something to prove to his team, a squad that can actually contend in the East if they continue to mature.

Hibbert has unfinished business in Indiana. It’d be a shame for him to leave for the weaker Blazers just for the money.

That’s all for now, but keep checking back for the latest free agency news and analysis.

2012 NBA Draft Recap

In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:

Winners: New Orleans Hornets

No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.

Anthony Davis was taken first in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

Winners: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.

Here’s a look at the young talent that the Houston Rockets brought in this year.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.

The face of Portland’s new point guard: Damian Lillard

Winners: Golden State Warriors

Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.

Harrison Barnes joins Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green in Golden State.

Winners: Milwaukee Bucks

With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.

The Bucks needed a shot-blocking big man and they certainly got one in John Henson.

Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder

They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.

Perry Jones III may have been the steal of the draft, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 28th pick.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.

Was he really worth not getting any new talent in the 2012 NBA Draft?

Losers: Phoenix Suns

It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.

The Suns swear the Kendall Marshall pick wasn’t influenced by free agency coming up, but why else would they take a passing point guard unless they were worried Steve Nash might leave?

Losers: Los Angeles Lakers

I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.

Robert Sacre is heading to LA, but he won’t be able to replace Pau Gasol is he’s traded away.

Losers: Charlotte Bobcats

Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.

The Bobcats got Kidd-Gilchrist, but then spent their second pick on the similar Jeff Taylor.

Question Marks: Boston Celtics

There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?

The Celtics picked up two quality big men, but both are major projects for Boston to work on.

Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks

After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.

I still need to see how these draft picks play in to acquiring Williams before I pass judgment.

Question Mark: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.

You’re looking at the face of a coach who doesn’t have much to be excited about after the draft.

Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.

The Wolves have a promising future, but needed to do more in the 2012 draft.

Question Mark: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.

I don’t see any Kenneth Farieds in the Denver’s 2012 draft selections.

Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.

I can’t help but think the Cleveland Cavaliers could’ve done better with their picks in the draft.

In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:

  1. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
  2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
  3. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
  4. Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
  6. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
  8. Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
  9. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
  10. Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
  11. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
  12. Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
  13. Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
  14. John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
  15. Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
  16. Royce White – Houston Rockets
  17. Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
  18. Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
  19. Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
  20. Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
  21. Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
  22. Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
  23. John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
  24. Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  25. Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
  26. Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
  27. Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
  28. Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
  29. Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
  30. Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
  31. Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
  32. Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
  33. Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  34. Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  35. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
  36. Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
  37. Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
  38. Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
  39. Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
  40. Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
  41. Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  42. Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
  43. Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
  44. Kim English – Detroit Pistons
  45. Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
  46. Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
  47. Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
  48. Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
  49. Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
  50. Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
  51. Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
  52. Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
  53. Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
  54. Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  55. Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
  56. Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
  57. Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
  58. Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
  59. Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
  60. Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers

Western Conference Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

The streaking San Antonio Spurs and the formidable Oklahoma City Thunder tip off tonight in Game 1 of what is sure to be an exciting and enjoyable series. These two teams are coming off convincing victories and certainly earned their appearance in the Western Conference Finals. But with two seemingly unstoppable, high-scoring teams heading on a crash course to get to the NBA Finals, who’s got the edge?

The San Antonio Spurs have silenced critics who wrote them off, calling them old, boring and irrelevant. They’ve won 18 games straight and swept the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in dominant and convincing fashion. Tony Parker has been involved in MVP talks all year, Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth that allows him to continue producing at a high level despite being way beyond his prime and Manu Ginobili is starting to warm up on the offensive end again after missing significant time with an injury. Ginobili’s absence during that stretch strengthened the Spurs’ supporting cast and his return only boosted this high-scoring team’s offensive totals. The Spurs are averaging 102.5 ppg in their eight playoff games and haven’t lost in a month. However, they did face a rather weak Jazz team in the first round, followed by an inexperienced and pretty banged up Clippers squad. Now we’ll get to see just how deep this team is against a team that has a prolific starting five and the bench depth and defense to back them up.

The Oklahoma City Thunder convincingly swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round and then made the Lakers look like an eight seed by finishing them off in five games. OKC is a jump shooting team that can play quality defense, has decent depth and can get out and run. They are the only other team in the playoffs averaging at least 100 ppg (by averaging exactly 100.0 ppg in their nine games so far), so we can certainly look forward to a high-scoring and exciting series. The Thunder’s games were much closer than the Spurs’ and unlike San Antonio, they’ve lost a game, but these two teams are pretty evenly matched. Each side has a big three. Each side has a great coach. Each side knows how to score and how to win. So who’s going to come out on top? The experienced, streaking Spurs? Or the young, white-hot Thunder?

Which big three will lead their team to victory? Durant, Westbrook and Harden? Or Parker, Duncan and Ginobili?

This series is basically a pick ’em, but the outcome will be decided by a few key factors. First of all, whichever big three outperforms the other will give their team a huge advantage in this series. Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have been great in the postseason so far, but because of San Antonio’s depth, they haven’t had to carry the load or even play extended minutes. The Thunder can’t afford for the Spurs’ big three to outplay Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I don’t think that will happen, but the Thunder’s big three have got to squeeze every ounce out of what little advantage they have in their big three. In a which-octane matchup like this, the Thunder’s big three have got to come to play every single night and outshine the Spurs’ best three players. The second major factor will be the role players. The Spurs are able to put up so many points because of how many guys they have that consistently put up solid numbers. Their bench is fully capable of piling on the points by knocking down 3-pointers with good ball movement and they’re a big reason why the Spurs tack on so many points every night. The Thunder can’t afford for guys like Gary Neal, Daniel Green, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner to knock down open looks.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s supporting cast is more defensively inclined (we’re not counting Harden as supporting cast since he’s OKC’s third-best player), but they’ve shown they can provide solid offensive contributions from time to time. If OKC’s big three puts up big numbers, the Thunder will have an advantage, but they’ll still need to score a decent amount of points to balance out how many points San Antonio’s bench will pile on. Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed and especially Derek Fisher, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to be ready to step in and knock down a few shots in addition to locking down the Spurs’ prolific offense. The Thunder have an advantage in their starting five, but if their bench isn’t capable of putting up points, San Antonio will be extremely tough to beat. The final factor is defense. With such high scoring teams on the court, whoever can get a few stops, especially down the stretch, will come out on top. The Thunder need to limit Duncan’s production with their defensive specialists, Ibaka and Perkins. Duncan has the fundamentals and post skills to put up points, but if Ibaka and Perkins’ physicality and length can bother him, the Thunder will have a big advantage. On the defensive end, Oklahoma City will also need to limit Tony Parker’s penetration. But because Russell Westbrook is so quick, I think the Thunder can slow him down and limit the Spurs’ wide open looks on the perimeter.

All in all, this is going to be a close series between two unstoppable teams. Whoever advances from this matchup and on to the NBA Finals is an automatic favorite to win a championship just because of how good these two teams in. Whoever wins have all the momentum coming off such a monumental series and I can’t say the Heat or the Celtics will pose much of a threat to either the Spurs or the Thunder. So even though San Antonio is 2-1 against the Thunder during the regular season and has home court advantage, when all is said and done, I think the Thunder are too much for anyone to handle when they hit their jump shots. They have a tendency to fall in love with jumpers, even when they’re not falling, but with everything on the line, I think this OKC is too young and too hot to stop. This is their year to advance to the Finals and win an NBA championship. Keep in mind that the last two teams to sweep their first two playoff series didn’t advance to the NBA Finals, and the Spurs fit that category perfectly up against the formidable Thunder.

Prediction: Oklahoma City over San Antonio in six games

If Westbrook can keep Parker out of the paint, the Spurs won’t get so many open looks.

Second Round Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers showed great resilience and determination in their big road win against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 7 just a few days ago, but it doesn’t get any easier for them from here. Chris Paul and the Clips now face the offensive juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, and you can be guarantees they will provide a much more difficult challenge for this talented team in its first year together.

Unfortunately for fans of Lob City, the Spurs will present numerous matchup problems for LAC. Chris Paul has an advantage over Tony Parker, but San Antonio’s depth will not be easy for the Clippers to overcome. Blake Griffin would normally be a challenge for the aging Tim Duncan to handle, but it’s still unclear how healthy Griffin will be for this series. The Spurs’ biggest weakness is talented post players, but Griffin’s post play is limited to his athleticism and high-flying dunks, which will be pretty limited if he’s not 100 percent. And because Duncan will still produce on offense, Griffin doesn’t constitute enough of a challenge from the Clippers in the paint, especially considering how offensively inept DeAndre Jordan, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin have been at times during the postseason.

Will Blake Griffin be healthy enough to give the Clippers an advantage over Tim Duncan?

To be competitive in this series, the Clippers will need to play stellar defense and find a way to slow down this well-oiled offensive machine. That requires a strong defensive effort from the entire roster, because San Antonio’s offense doesn’t ever slow down with their starters on the bench. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker and the other big names of this series have excelled in the three meetings between these two teams during the regular season (San Antonio went 2-1), so this series will come down to which role players and supporting cast outplays the other. Everyone knows Manu Ginobili is a threat, but guys like Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter and Daniel Green can all put points on the board. The Spurs’ bench is fully capable of extending leads against opposing teams’ supporting casts with a barrage of 3-pointers and good ball movement. So if the Clippers’ bench can’t keep up or gain a clear advantage from their starting lineup, they will have rough time competing in the series.

You can never count out Chris Paul in the playoffs, but if Blake Griffin is anything less than 100 percent, the Clippers are going to struggle against the Spurs’ balance scoring and depth. Los Angeles will be able to do a better job of keeping Tony Parker from penetrating than Utah did, but he will still find a way to facilitate and with so many perimeter and post options to choose from, the Spurs are extremely difficult to guard. Los Angeles needs a constant high level of production from guys like Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Nick Young, who have all had big nights in the playoffs but haven’t been able to consistently do so. The Clippers have a promising future and will hopefully receive a huge boost next year when Chauncey Billups returns to the floor, but they don’t match up well with the Spurs and will likely not be able to overcome San Antonio’s depth.

Prediction: San Antonio over Los Angeles in 5 games

Chris Paul has to keep Tony Parker out of the lane and outplay him on the offensive end.

Spurs Sweep Jazz

Al Jefferson and the Jazz gave San Antonio everything they could handle, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid elimination by the top-seeded Spurs thanks to Manu Ginobili’s breakout performance on the offensive end. Utah fought hard to get the Game 4 win at home and put together a late rally, but the Spurs kept their distance and finished their sweep of the Jazz with an 87-81 victory.

Manu Ginobili, who had been virtually non-existent in the scoring column through San Antonio’s first three playoff games, finally had a productive offensive night, leading the Spurs with 17 points. The Jazz stayed in the game due to Al Jefferson and Devin Harris, but also because Tony Parker and Tim Duncan had poor shooting nights, finishing a combined 8-for-24. In fact, San Antonio’s starting five all struggled from the field, but their bench picked up the slack, outscoring Utah’s bench 57-10. Jefferson had 26 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Jazz while Devin Harris chipped in 19 points and seven assists. Derrick Favors, who moved into the starting lineup, had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Paul Millsap helped take care of the boards with 19 rebounds, but could only put up 10 points on the offensive end.

Al Jefferson led a late Jazz rally, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Utah from being swept by the balanced San Antonio Spurs.

It was San Antonio’s balance that overwhelmed the Jazz in Game 4, as Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal all reached double digits in scoring off the bench. The timing of Ginobili’s offensive burst was impeccable, as he hit consecutive 3-pointers to silence Utah’s rowdy crowd after the Jazz had cut the lead to three in the third quarter. From there the Spurs built up at 21-point lead that proved to be insurmountable despite Utah’s late rally. But the Jazz were extremely close to extending the series and sending it back to San Antonio for Game 5 behind that late run, putting themselves in position to win by doing almost everything they needed to. They outrebounded the Spurs 57-43. They only committed 12 turnovers. And they had eight blocks compared to San Antonio’s four. But in the end, three major factor prevented them from coming out on top.

First of all, they missed nine free throws. If you want to unseat the top seed in the West, you need to take advantage of free points when you have the chance. Second, they got absolutely nothing out of Gordon Hayward, who basically disappeared from this series after Game 1. Hayward made the Jazz a potentially dangerous matchup entering the postseason, but he had zero points on 0-of-7 shooting in an elimination game. And speaking of poor shooting, the Jazz’s third blunder was failing to make a single 3-pointer at home in Game 4, finishing 0-for-13 from downtown. Utah has struggled with their 3-point shooting all season, but this area really hurt them as San Antonio shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of their 22 attempts. So while Utah was able to exploit the Spurs down low, their inability to convert from long range prevented them from getting a win.

Looking ahead, the Spurs will face either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. At this point, LAC has a 3-1 series lead and will likely be San Antonio’s next opponent. If the Clippers advance, the key matchups will be obviously be Tony Parker against Chris Paul and Tim Duncan against Blake Griffin, but the series will ultimately come down to the two benches. The Spurs have a clear advantage in their bench production over the majority of the league, but if LA can get something out of their reserves and Paul and Griffin outplay Parker and Duncan (which isn’t out of the question), it could be a close series. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies somehow come back from a 3-1 deficit and advance to the next round, the Spurs should beat them pretty handily. This isn’t the same dangerous Memphis squad as last year, Zach Randolph is still up and down, the Grizzlies are having problems getting anything out of their bench and San Antonio will want revenge for last year’s upset. Fortunately, the Clippers should advance barring a complete meltdown over the next three possible games, so we should be treated to a high-octane second round matchup between the top-seeded, experienced Spurs and the dangerous, entertaining Clippers.

If the Clips advance, we have a good second round matchup on our hands. But if Manu Ginobili plays like he did in Game 4, San Antonio will move on easily.