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.

Chris Paul And LA Bench Provide Biggest Win In Clippers’ History

Chris Paul led the way as the Clippers’ got their biggest win in franchise history with an 82-72 Game 7 victory on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier today. With the win, LAC won their third playoff series in 41 years and will advance to take on the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the second round.

Chris Paul had 19 points and nine rebounds in Los Angeles’ impressive road win, but it was the Clippers’ bench that provided the biggest spark to win the series. Kenyon Martin had 11 points (seven in the fourth quarter) and 10 rebounds, Nick Young had 13 and Mo Williams pitched in nine. Eric Bledsoe also added in eight points as the Clippers’ bench scored half of LA’s points and outscored the Grizzlies’ bench 41-11. In fact, the bench played so well that Coach Vinny Del Negro opted to keep Blake Griffin out late in the game and leave Martin and a few other bench players in. The Clippers trailed by one after three quarters, but they opened the fourth quarter with a 16-5 run that silenced Memphis’ home crowd and sent the Grizzlies home disappointed.

Mike Conley and the Grizzlies couldn’t get the job done at home in Game 7.

Rudy Gay led the Grizzlies with 19 points and nine rebounds while Marc Gasol also had 19. Zach Randolph led Memphis with 12 rebounds but only had nine points. And Mike Conley, who had been playing pretty even with Chris Paul throughout the series, was only able to muster seven points on 2-of-13 shooting. The Grizzlies really wasted their postseason opportunities this year. Memphis was probably the better overall team because of their frontcourt advantage, but they didn’t start putting it to use until Game 5 when they faced a 3-1 deficit. They played great defense in the first few games (one of which was a monumental fourth quarter collapse) but struggled with turnovers and because of it, weren’t able to gain much of an advantage from their steals. The Grizzlies surrendered two double digit fourth quarter leads in this series that translated into wins for the Clippers. O.J. Mayo and Marreese Speights disappeared completely, pretty much decimating the Grizzlies’ bench production. And when it mattered most, Gasol and Z-Bo weren’t able to dominate in the paint like they needed to. You can’t give a guy like Chris Paul that many opportunities to capitalize, injured hip flexor or not. Credit Reggie Evans, Blake Griffin and Kenyon Martin for their physical defense, but it was a truly disappointing effort from the Grizzlies. Considering they were expected to take momentum from winning two straight into their home arena and blow out an injured CP3 and Griffin to take the series, it was a very underwhelming elimination game for Memphis.

Fortunately, the Clippers’ bench took Memphis’ mistakes and capitalized. They played stellar defense on Memphis’ bigs while the Grizzlies’ perimeter guards struggled to put up points. So even though Blake Griffin ended up with just eight points and four rebounds off of 3-for-11 shooting, the Clippers shocked the world with a huge road win to send them to the second round. The Clippers will need much better performances from their starters and the same type of effort from their bench to have even the slightest chance against the Spurs in the next round. Randy Foye will need to put up more than six points. Caron Butler will need to do better than eight. And DeAndre Jordan has to actually score. The Spurs are one of the highest-scoring teams in the NBA, so the Clippers need point production from guys other than Paul and Griffin if they want to contend.

Chris Paul and the Clippers’ bench are moving on.

Memphis Sends Series To Game 7

With a 90-88 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center, the Memphis Grizzlies swung momentum back in their favor, forcing Game 7 as they try to become the ninth team  in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit and win the series. And with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin not at 100 percent, this resurgent and dangerous Grizzlies team might just do it.

Memphis had their work cut out for them facing a playoff hole, but the Grizzlies believed they should have been up in the series. After a historic Game 1 collapse and losing a few close games in LA, the Grizzlies were right to think so. But it wasn’t until they started getting their star post players involved that Memphis was able to prove it. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have had back-to-back phenomenal games and with the offense operating through their post players, the Grizzlies once again look like the deadly playoff team that knocked the top seeded Spurs out in the first round last year. After blowing a few double digit leads in the series, it was the Grizzlies who owned the fourth quarter in Game 6, chipping away at an eight point deficit and eventually taking a five point lead with just under three minutes to play. Without Chris Paul making clutch shots or assists to Blake Griffin, the Clippers had little chance of coming back, even with their home crowd waiting to go wild if their team had been able to give them anything to cheer about.

Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have to give it everything they’ve got in Game 7 or Lob City will have to wait until next year.

Now the series shifts back to Memphis, with all the momentum in the Grizzlies’ favor. CP3 and Griffin aren’t at full strength. Memphis has won two games in a row. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have come to life and look impossible to stop. And Mike Conley is matching Lob City’s star point guard blow for blow. So even though O.J. Mayo and Marreese Speights might be done contributing for the series, the Clippers’ problems with their starting lineup look to be far more troublesome. In fact, it was Los Angeles’ bench that kept the Clippers in the game last night. Eric Bledsoe had 14 points, Kenyon Martin had 10 and Reggie Evans had six points and 10 rebounds while playing his physical brand of defense that helped give his team their 3-1 advantage. Unfortunately for the Clips, Gasol and Randolph are unstoppable right now.

Gasol led the Grizzlies with 23 points and nine rebounds while Z-Bo had 18 points and 16 rebounds. Mike Conley pitched in 13 points and nine assists while Rudy Gay chipped in 13 points of his own. And even though the Grizzlies lost the turnover battle by a large margin (Memphis had 20 comported to LAC’s seven), they also out-rebounded the Clippers by 16. Memphis has been getting the job done down low, they’re now settling for outside jump shots in the fourth quarter, and because of it, they have a great chance to win this series. It’s hard to underestimate Chris Paul in the playoffs, but if he’s not playing at full strength (and he certainly didn’t look like he was last night), Lob City’s promising first year together might come to an abrupt end Sunday morning. The Clippers have their work cut out for them to win an elimination game in front of a packed house in Memphis that knows Los Angeles is vulnerable and believes they can win. If the Grizzlies continue to operate through their talented posts and the Clippers’ two superstars aren’t at 100 percent, Memphis will easily advance.

Z-Bo and Gasol have been unstoppable in the past two games. Will they finish the Clippers off at home?

Grizzlies’ Bigs Arrive

The Los Angeles Clippers had all the momentum heading into Game 5, but the Memphis Grizzlies played their patented style of basketball and forced another game with a 92-80 win last night.  It took almost an entire series, but the Memphis Grizzlies finally returned to operating through their talented post players instead of Rudy Gay, making them a very dangerous team. Marc Gasol, who was averaging just 10.3 ppg heading into last night’s potential elimination game, finally got involved on offense and led the Grizzlies with 23 points. Zach Randolph, who has failed to live up to his heroic playoff performance last year, notched a double double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. And Rudy Gay, who had been hoisting up 17.8 shots per game, only put up 14 as Memphis seemed to remember what made them so effective in the postseason last year: operating through their skilled bigs.

When the Grizzlies’ frontcourt shows up to play, they are incredibly tough to beat. So far, Los Angeles has benefitted from a Memphis offense consisting of Rudy Gay jacking up a bunch of perimeter shots. They also have outlasted surprisingly proficient scoring nights from Mike Conley. But last night, Marc Gasol finally played well against the Clippers’ Reggie Evans, who has been a defensive nightmare for the Grizzlies up to this point. So even though Conley and Gay only scored a combined 23, Memphis still came out on top after their sizable lead dwindled down to just six points with less than a minute to play. The Grizzlies had surrendered large leads in the fourth quarter but were finally able to hang on to one and extend the series to six games. However, as helpful as it was for the Grizzlies to revert back to what makes them a dangerous playoff team, they did receive a little bit of help from Los Angeles, especially in the fourth quarter. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have been the two most dominant players on the court so far in the series, both missed time in the decisive fourth quarter because of injuries. Paul  strained his right hip flexor and Griffin sprained his left knee. With the Clippers’ two best players in and out, it’s no surprise the Grizzlies were able to hold off a late Los Angeles run.

Blake Griffin and Chris Paul both missed some time with injuries. Will they be healthy enough to close out Memphis at home?

With the series shifting back to LA for Game 6, the Clippers absolutely need to finish this series off at home. Which means CP3 and Griffin will have to be able to play like they are 100 percent healthy. It’s no question about whether or not these two will take the floor tomorrow night; but whether they will be effective or not is a pretty serious issue. Outside of Paul and Griffin, this Clippers team can’t hold off the Grizzlies, especially if they continue to play like they did yesterday. Mo Williams led Los Angeles with 20 points and Randy Foye pitched in 11 yesterday, but the Clippers can’t contend unless Griffin and Paul are both putting up 20-30 points every night. The Grizzlies have confidence and they’ve gone back to the style of play they’ve been missing for this entire series. If Paul and Griffin can’t do what they normally do, the Clippers are in serious danger of dropping the series.

For the Clippers to win, they need Paul and Griffin to be healthy and continue to do what they do best. But they also need continued production from guys like Mo Williams, Caron Butler and Randy Foye. And although Reggie Evans doesn’t have a knack for scoring, he should be starting over DeAndre Jordan by now, because if he can irritate Gasol and shut him down like he has for the majority of this series, the Grizzlies will come up short again. From Memphis’ perspective, they need to operate through their big men just like they did in Game 5. You’d like to see Rudy Gay and Mike Conley get a little bit more involved on offense, but Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol still need to be the main focus here. Another thing the Grizzlies will focus on doing is using their scrappy defense to force turnovers again. After leading the league in steals, Memphis needs to put pressure on Chris Paul and the rest of the Clippers’ point guards and turn defense into offense. Finally, the Grizzlies would really be in good shape if they could get anything more out of O.J. Mayo. Mayo put up 18.5 ppg in the Grizzlies’ first two playoff games but has averaged just 5.7 in the last three. So even though Quincy Pondexter has been a nice surprise off the bench, they’ll need Mayo to start contributing again if they want to be a serious contender.

Marc Gasol finally had a great game and the Grizzlies won. This is not a coincidence.

Chris Paul Leads Clippers To Overtime Win

Blake Griffin may have led the Clippers with 30 points in their overtime win over the Grizzlies, but it was Chris Paul’s complete command over the game and control down the stretch that gave Los Angeles a 3-0 series lead in a huge Game 4 victory.

Mike Conley and Rudy Gay kept Memphis in the game as they erased a 10 point deficit with just under five minutes to play in regulation, but Chris Paul completely took over in the game’s final period. He finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists while minimizing turnovers to keep the Grizzlies from capitalizing. After failing to score at the end of the fourth quarter, Paul made up for it by scoring eight of the Clippers’ 14 points in the extra period. He committed only two turnovers and LAC only had nine total. Turnovers had been a huge advantage for the Grizzlies up to this point as they had been able to get a large number of steals and turn defense into offense. The Clips weren’t perfect and they still struggled with from the free throw line (missing 12 of 30), but they made them when it mattered most. Mo Williams sank two big ones with seven seconds left in OT, giving his team a four-point advantage and putting the game out of reach.

Chris Paul turned his game up when his team needed it most.

The Clippers basically did everything I wrote about in my last post that they needed to in order to win. They hit free throws at the end of the game and they minimized turnovers. They didn’t get as much out of their bench as they’ll need if they advance to the next round against the Spurs, but it was still enough to beat the Grizzlies and take a 3-1 lead. Memphis, on the other hand, failed to fix what has prevented them from getting wins in this series so far: they didn’t turn Los Angeles over, they didn’t put up a consistent effort over a full four quarters and O.J. Mayo failed to contribute for the second game in a row. Rudy Gay had 23 points, but shot just 8-of-25 from the field. Mike Conley led the Grizzlies with a big offensive night, racking up 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds while Zach Randolph pitched in 12 points and nine rebounds. Other than that, Memphis didn’t get much help on offense: Marc Gasol only had eight, Tony Allen had six and Marreese Speights only put up nine.

With the series shifting back to Memphis for a potential elimination game, the Grizzlies will need O.J. Mayo to score more than five points. They’ll need Speights to turn back into an effective power forward despite shortened minutes. They’ll need Marc Gasol to wake up and shoot more than four shots. They’ll need Mike Conley to play exactly the same and hope that Rudy Gay can be more efficient with his shooting. But most of all, they’ll have to bring everything they’ve got for four full quarters. Because even though it took a few games for Chris Paul to get warmed up, he’s fully on fire right now and it’s going to take a lot to down this Clippers team now. And don’t forget about Blake Griffin, who had 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds in Game 4 and is averaging 21.5 ppg in his first postseason. In addition to their two best players, the Clippers also benefit from Caron Butler being back on the floor. He struggled in his first game back but had 14 points in Game 4. If LAC can get consistent play from Randy Foye, Mo Williams, and/or Nick Young, they will be pretty tough to beat in this round and the next.

Memphis has a lot of things to work on, but one of the biggest is Rudy Gay shooting efficiently.

Clippers Hold On, Take 2-1 Lead

The Los Angeles Clippers held off the Memphis Grizzlies and a late offensive onslaught from Rudy Gay yesterday to earn their first home playoff victory in six years. Despite missing some key free throws down the stretch, the Clippers beat the Grizzlies 87-86 in Staples Center and grabbed a 2-1 series lead. But for Memphis, a couple of bonehead plays were the biggest difference between winning and losing a game that came down to a missed shot at the buzzer.

Then again, if the Clippers had taken care of business at the free throw line, it wouldn’t have even been a close game. Los Angeles shot a paltry 43 percent from the line and missed 17 of 30 free throws, including Eric Bledsoe’s two attempts that would have given the Clips a three point lead with less than ten seconds to go. Rudy Gay had just hit two threes in a row to pull the Grizzlies within one, so missing those free throws with the game on the line was almost an extremely costly mistake and would have been one of the worst last-minute collapses I’ve ever seen if Gay’s double pump jump shot at the buzzer had gone in. That being said, even though the Clippers’ free throw shooting hurt them, the Grizzlies’ inability to finish a game out and a few poor decisions gave Los Angeles momentum and ultimately, the win.

Rudy Gay missed his second potential game-winner of the series. But that was just one of many Memphis mistakes that lost Game 3.

The first mistake that made the difference in this game (from a simple scoreboard perspective, at least) was Marreese Speights’ horrible decision to throw a soft past to half court with 2.3 seconds left in the first half. Blake Griffin easily intercepted it and slammed it home right over Speights, who offered no resistance and actually tried to get out of the way. The pass was bad enough, but Speights compounded his poor decision by not fouling Griffin and making him earn the two points that ultimately mattered in a one-point game. The second poor decision on Memphis’ part was made by Mike Conley at the very end of the game. I’ve been stressing all year how important it is to attack the basket with the game on the line, which makes Conley’s decision to pull the ball back and pass it over to Gay for a contested jumper at the buzzer questionable. In his defense, Conley isn’t a prolific scorer and Rudy Gay had just hit two incredible, contested 3-pointers to keep his team in the game. So I understand his thought process and at least he didn’t do a few crossovers before pulling up for some ridiculous fadeaway 3-pointer like we see from so many superstars today. But after Bledsoe missed that second free throw, there were about eight seconds left and the Clippers’ defense was in transition. Had Conley attacked the basket and tried to get to the rim or at least the free throw line, Memphis could have pulled off the incredible last-minute comeback. But instead, Gay had to double pump his contested jump shot with the game on the line (after already missing a game-winning attempt in Game 1) and it rimmed out.

Moving forward, both teams need to alter a few things to increase their chances of winning. On the Clippers’ side of things, they have to shoot better from the line. While it was a good sign to see Caron Butler playing despite the broken hand (he played in a splint) and the bench finally contributing, they’ll have an even bigger advantage if they make their free throws and take better care of the basketball. LAC also needs the bench to continue to produce on the offensive end to take the burden off Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Aside from Mo Williams and Nick Young putting up some points, Randy Foye dropping 16 after scoring just nine in his last two games was a very welcome sight. And despite going just 2-for-8 from the free throw line, Reggie Evans has taken over DeAndre Jordan’s minutes by outperforming him on the offensive end and grabbing rebounds, evidenced by his four points and 11 rebounds compared to Jordan’s zero points and three rebounds in Game 3. For the Grizzlies, O.J. Mayo, Marreese Speights, Tony Allen and Mike Conley all disappeared offensively, even if Quincy Pondexter had a surprisingly elevated offensive night. Zach Randolph seems to be distancing himself from Speights now that he’s moved back into the starting lineup but the Grizzlies will still need him to be productive coming off the bench. Memphis also needs to learn how to bring the same effort and energy for a full four quarters, as they’ve surrendered two fourth quarter leads and should be up 2-1 (at least) in this series. This playoff matchup is still very much up in the air, but if the Clippers improve where they need to, they’ll ultimately benefit from having home-court advantage in two of the next four potential games and have a greater chance of winning the series.

Blake Griffin and company have the 2-1 lead, but need to improve in a few areas like free throws and turnovers.

Grizzlies Stay Alive

After blowing a 27-point lead at home in one of the biggest playoff collapses in NBA history, it’s safe to say Memphis’ 105-98 Game 2 victory over the Clippers on Wednesday might have saved the series. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin gave LAC everything they had, but an all-around team effort from the Grizzlies took care of business and tied the series at one game apiece.

A second loss at home would have sent Memphis to Los Angeles facing a 2-0 deficit and the very real possibility of a sweep, but the Grizzlies seemed determined to not let Game 1’s unbelievable collapse affect the rest of the series. Rudy Gay led the team with 21, but everyone came out firing on all cylinders: O.J. Mayo had 20 points off the bench; Mike Conley played well against Chris Paul again with 19 points and 6 assists; Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights made up an effective 1-2 punch yet again and combined for 26 points and 13 rebounds; even Tony Allen, who is not known for his offense, chipped in 10 points, which made up for Marc Gasol’s poor shooting night. On the Clippers side of things, Chris Paul (29 points, 6 assists, 5 steals) and Blake Griffin (22 points, 9 rebounds) did their part, but no one other than Mo Williams and Nick Young really contributed very much. Bobby Simmons, who started in place of the injured Caron Butler, had nine points in his debut and shot effectively, but couldn’t quite make up for Butler’s absence.

O.J. Mayo’s instant offense off the bench has been huge for the Grizzlies so far.

With the series shifting back to Los Angeles, the Clippers still did what they had to going into Memphis: they got a valuable road win and head back to their home court for the next two games. If they take care of business at home, the Clippers exponentially increase their chances of moving on. Memphis put itself in a tough position by dropping Game 1 in such remarkable fashion, but can atone for that mistake by picking up a win on the road in Game 3 or 4. They’ll need to bring the same all-around effort, scoring and defense they had in Game 2 and the majority of Game 1 to do so. If they can also limit the Clippers to just Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, those two guys alone can’t beat this balanced Grizzlies team. CP3 and Griffin will continue to shine and grab highlights, but as long as Memphis doesn’t allow the Clippers’ role players to play well, they will have a big advantage. Another key factor will be making Los Angeles turn the ball over. In Game 2, the Grizzlies got their hands on 13 steals as the Clippers turned the ball over 20 times. If they can continue to get steals while limiting their own turnover (only 12 for the Grizzlies in Game 2), they will take valuable possessions away from an athletic and offensive-minded Clippers team.

On the Clippers side of things, Los Angeles’ depth took a huge hit when it lost Chauncey Billups earlier in the season and now it will have to adapt again with Caron Butler gone. If the Clippers bench can find a way to pitch in some points, Los Angeles will have a huge advantage for the remainder of the series with three of five possible remaining games being played at Staples Center. Chris Paul needs to take better care of the basketball and LAC needs to take care of business at home today to send the message that all that really mattered from that road trip to Memphis was the Game 1 victory. In what will be their first home playoff game in years, nerves and history can’t get in the way of playing a fundamentally sound basketball game. The highlights will come, but the Clippers just need to worry about taking care of the ball and not allowing the Grizzlies’ good defense to translate into offense. Rebounding will also be key, as they were out-rebounded 37-28 in Game 2. If the Clippers take care of the basketball, rebound and get some offensive production out of their bench, they will get their first playoff victory in what feels like forever for LAC fans.

Chris Paul committed five of LA’s 20 turnovers in Game 2. This can’t happen again, especially with no Caron Butler.

Don’t Call It A Comeback

No, seriously. Don’t call it a comeback. Because as valiant as it was for the Los Angeles Clippers to find a way to rally from being down 21 in the fourth quarter, Memphis lost this game more than the Clippers won it. After an appalling first quarter, the Clippers played the Grizzlies pretty even for the next two quarters. But despite the fact that they were down by as much as 27, the Clippers roared back in one of the greatest playoff comebacks/worst playoff collapses in NBA history.

Give credit where it’s due; Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and most especially, the Clippers’ bench, never gave up and did what they needed to to pull off the improbable win on the road, which was especially impressive after losing Caron Butler to a broken hand. Griffin rallied from an absent first-half performance to finish with 17 points and 7 rebounds while CP3 managed to rack up 14 points and 11 assists despite a poor shooting night. But it was the Clippers’ bench that surprised everyone and stole Game 1 from the Grizzlies. Nick Young had 19 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe had nine points apiece. Even Reggie Evans got involved, scoring seven points and making a huge layup that first gave LAC a late lead. If the Clippers can keep this kind of bench production going, they’re going to be dangerous in this series and moving forward. There are definitely areas that need to improve (actually showing up in the first half, Randy Foye only scoring three points, turning the ball over 17 times), but a win like this has to feel good, especially considering they got a crucial road victory.

Rudy Gay and the Grizzlies played great for three quarters before collapsing to Chris Paul and the Clippers.

But as fun as it was to watch as an Clippers fan or someone rooting for the underdog to get the improbable win, it was absolutely miserable to watch as a Memphis fan or someone who understands what it takes to win a basketball game. There’s only one word to describe the Grizzlies down the stretch last night: choke. There are no excuses to dominate a game for three quarters and completely fall apart like that. The Grizzlies played extremely well and couldn’t do wrong: Mike Conley was outplaying Chris Paul, Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights were functioning as an effective 1-2 combo, O.J. Mayo was putting on a show off the bench and the Grizzlies were hitting all their 3-pointers. But then everything fell apart. They turned the ball over, kept taking 3-pointers long after they stopped falling, didn’t get to the free throw line, were out-hustled, and displayed extremely poor transition defense (someone probably should have guarded Nick Young for those back-to-back corner 3’s. Just a thought). All while looking completely terrified and shocked.

When you have your foot on a team’s throat in a playoff game, these guys are taught to step on it. But tonight, Memphis took their foot off, helped the Clippers up, gave them a lozenge and apologized profusely for the whole affair. The biggest case-in-point: When Rudy Gay hit a huge shot to put the Grizzlies back on top with under 30 seconds to play, Memphis cheered for about two seconds before the air in the building completely dried up again. No one was surprised a dumb foul sent Chris Paul to the line, no one was surprised he made both free throws to take the lead back and no one was surprised when Rudy Gay missed the buzzer beater to win it. At that point, everyone in the building and watching at home knew the Grizzlies didn’t deserve to win anymore and the Clippers were going to make them pay. The entire arena was shocked that their blowout had rapidly turned into a competitive game, let alone an upset. So when LAC took the lead for the first time and the impossible thought of actually losing entered everyone’s minds, the tension in the arena was palpable. When an entire arena full of rabid Memphis fans doesn’t go ballistic for a Rudy Gay-go-ahead shot with less than a minute to play in a highly anticipated playoff match, you know that there is a reason for the stunned silence. Everyone lost faith as soon as the Clippers took the lead on a Reggie Evans layup. There was no way the Grizzlies were winning that game, everyone could feel it and the game played out that way exactly.

Memphis is still a dangerous team and they have home-court advantage in this series. But a loss like this definitely shook up this team’s confidence and composure. Marc Gasol looked absolutely terrified in the game’s final minutes, bobbling a few passes and committing a costly turnover that sent Blake Griffin to the line (he made both). Rudy Gay could barely show any emotion other than being stunned, even after he made the shot to reclaim the lead. And the look on his face after missing the potential game-winner said it all: He looked regretful about missing the shot, but he almost looked like he had already accepted the fact the Grizzlies weren’t going to win. Basically, he was nowhere near as emotional or upset as you’d expect someone in his position to be. The Clippers should be concerned about losing Butler and about their overall performance, because they really only played well for one quarter. But Memphis should be even more concerned, because LAC now knows it can compete no matter what the scoreboard says.

Blake Griffin and the Clippers will get credit for the comeback, but the Grizzlies lost this game more than anything.

Western Conference Playoff Predictions

It’s finally that time of year: the 2012 NBA Playoffs! The matchups are set, so let the debating begin! With games starting tomorrow, here are my playoff predictions. Eastern Conference predictions are soon to follow, but for now, let’s take a look at the first round matchups in the Western Conference.

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Utah Jazz – Everyone is loving the Spurs right now. Maybe because the Thunder didn’t finish the season on a strong note, maybe because people were throwing Tony Parker in the MVP conversation as San Antonio took over the one spot in the West, and maybe a combination of all those things. But let me remind you: just like this year, the Spurs had one of the best records in the NBA and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the West last year. And they lost in six games to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Now it did take a particularly dangerous Memphis team to do it, but the point is, the Spurs are not safe just because they can rack up regular season wins. The Jazz aren’t as dangerous as that Grizzlies team was last year, but they’ve been playing well recently and their youth could either guide them to victory (like the Grizzlies) or it could be their downfall due to a lack of playoff experience. Although I still think San Antonio is overrated, the Spurs will advance, if only because Utah doesn’t quite have the firepower to dethrone them. But don’t be surprised if this series is actually competitive thanks to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap’s youth and athletic ability in the paint against Tim Duncan.

Prediction: San Antonio in 6 games

Tony Parker has an advantage over Devin Harris and will use it to lead the Spurs to the second round.

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks ousted the Thunder from the playoffs last year and you’re not going to tell me Oklahoma City has forgotten it. The fans are going to be fired up in OKC and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should be able to sort out their recent struggles against this unimpressive Mavericks squad. Jason Kidd is a good defender but I don’t think he can hang with Westbrook’s athleticism for a seven-game series. The same goes for Shawn Marion guarding Kevin Durant. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry might be able to sneak in a win or two at home, but the Thunder are just too good for the aging Mavs, even if James Harden doesn’t return at full speed. If OKC can get offensive production out of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, Dallas is in serious trouble. The Mavs have plenty of playoff experience, but have never looked like a quality contender this year, so the nod has to go to KD and Westbrook to clean their game up and move on to the next round.

Prediction: Oklahoma City in 5 games

Durant and the Thunder have struggled recently, but Dallas doesn't pose enough of a threat to unseat the scoring champion and his team.

#3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #6 Denver Nuggets – The first two series won’t be extremely competitive, but with Ron Artest (I’m still refusing to call him Metta World Peace) sitting out, the balanced Nuggets have a chance against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee will have to play extremely good defense against Andrew Bynum to have any chance. We all know Kobe will likely get his 20-30 points every night, but if Denver can limit Bynum and possibly frustrate him (we’ve all seen what happens when Bynum gets riled up), the Nuggets will make it competitive. Danilo Gallinari will be another factor in the series: if he shoots the ball well, Denver is dangerous. The final major factor in this series is Pau Gasol. If Gasol has big games, he might be able to make up for any poor performances from Bynum, especially if LA’s bench doesn’t mess things up. This should be a good series, but I’ve got to give the edge to the Lakers. Overcoming Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is a little too much to ask of this balanced Nuggets team.

Prediction: Los Angeles in 6 games

Will Kobe be able to lead LA to the finals once again? It all starts with a brutal first-round matchup against the very balanced Nuggets.

#4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers

On paper, it doesn’t take a genius to assert that the four/five matchup will be the most competitive, but in this case, the fourth and fifth seed actually do deserve to be where they’re at and should give the audience one hell of a first-round playoff series. On the one side, you’ve got playoff and crunch-time champion Chris Paul along with the athletic freak-of-nature Blake Griffin, and on the other you’ve got Rudy Gay, a resurgent Zach Randolph and the rest of Memphis’ role-playing lineup. This series will come down to how much Mo Williams and Randy Foye contribute, whether or not Mike Conley can put up big numbers on offense and whether or not the Grizzlies’ impressive defense can hold CP3 when it matters most. Earlier in the week, I had the Clippers winning in seven, but after seeing them stumble over the finish line and concede home-court advantage to Memphis, I’m taking the Grizzlies in seven. LAC’s supporting cast disappeared this week and Chris Paul missed a game with a mild groin injury. If that injury continues to bother him and if their supporting cast doesn’t pick their game up, this series is too easy for the Grizzlies.

Prediction: Memphis in 7 games

I wanted to give Chris Paul and the Clips the edge, but if Memphis has home-court, we might see more postseason magic from Zach Randolph.

Top 20 Players To Watch in The Playoffs

Now this list can’t technically be fully complete since the playoff teams aren’t determined yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on which players have had the most meaningful seasons for their teams and which ones will be the most essential to both their team’s success and a viewing audience. So even though Milwaukee is only two games back and Utah is only half a game behind, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume they don’t make it to the postseason. The Suns currently hold the eighth spot, owning a tiebreaker over Houston, and since they’re both so close to the Nuggets and Mavs, I included a player from each of those four teams just in case. Spoiler alert: the biggest snubs on this list are Dwyane Wade, Andrew Bynum, Russell Westbrook, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. Now that that’s out of the way, without further adieu, here are the top 20 players you need to watch in the NBA playoffs this year:

20) Steve Nash – There’s no guarantee this guy even gets a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but if Phoenix does somehow maintain their current playoff standing, Steve Nash is the one you want to pay attention to. The way he facilitates and runs the point guard is absolutely gorgeous to watch, and if he takes a decent number of shots, he can be pretty entertaining in close games as well. Don’t count this championship-hungry point guard out just yet.

Can Steve Nash give the Suns another playoff run?

19) Andre Iguodala – I’m not big on the 76ers. The numerous posts I’ve written about them this year should have gotten that point across already. I didn’t even want to put anyone from Philadelphia on this list, because they don’t really have anyone exciting on their roster anymore, but if anyone in Philly were to help the Sixers finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it would be Andre Iguodala. The new A.I. has seen better seasons, but he finally hit the 20-point mark for the first time in 40+ games. If he can somehow put up solid numbers in multiple categories like he tends to do, who knows? Maybe Philly will be worth watching this year.

Andre Iguodala will need to score for Philly to have a prayer.

18) James Harden – What? Russell Westbrook gets snubbed and somehow James Harden makes the cut? Let me explain. While Westbrook is certainly one of the top players to watch every night for his pure athleticism and entertainment value, James Harden is the definitive role player to keep an eye on during the postseason this year. We’ve grown accustomed to both Kevin Durant and Westbrook going for 40+, but few people realize how vital James Harden’s scoring ability is for this team. Harden has been the perfect sixth man and third-best player on the Thunder, and if he plays as well as he has all season, I still think the Thunder are favorites to make the NBA Finals. Plus, for the millionth time, you can’t ignore that ferocious beard!

I give you...the black King Leonidas!

17) Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo is running the show down in Boston as the ringmaster, but Paul Pierce is the main attraction. Pierce is the one who puts up big points, take game winning shots and usually rises to the occasion when matched up with another superstar at his position (LeBron James especially). Rondo is the one with the pretty assists making critical plays for his team, but Paul Pierce is the one knocking down threes and somehow getting around younger defenders to the rim to fire the crowd up.

Pierce dropped 43 last night. Safe to say he's still got it.

16) Chris Bosh – Yes, I am fully aware the Dwyane Wade is probably the biggest snub on this list (Russell Westbrook is up there too), but from a team’s success standpoint, the Miami Heat always have the comfort of D-Wade showing up to play well. Saying Wade is going to play well in the playoffs is like saying the Bobcats are a terrible team; we already know that. But whether or not Chris Bosh shows up will be a huge question for Miami. If Bosh rebounds and puts up 20+ points a night, the Heat will be extremely tough to beat, but if he disappears, so will Miami.

Plus, come on, how funny is that?

15) Arron Afflalo – I wanted to give this spot to Danilo Gallinari, but with the way Arron Afflalo’s been playing lately, it’s impossible to deny that he is the player to watch on the Denver Nuggets this postseason. It’s hard to pick just one player on such a balanced team, but Afflalo’s been leading this team in scoring and playing very effectively. While I still think the Nuggets need Danilo Gallinari to play like an All-Star to win and even though Ty Lawson is prone to having big nights, Afflalo will most likely be Denver’s most consistent offensive weapon.

Arron Afflalo is leading the charge for a balanced Denver team.

14) Tony Parker – Someone from the Spurs had to make the list, and since Tim Duncan is so fundamentally sound that his dominance has become boring to us, I had to go with Tony Parker. Parker has had an All-Star season and is probably the most exciting player to watch on a very mundane Spurs team. San Antonio has never been the most entertaining team to watch, but if they want to avoid another first-round playoff exit, they will rely on Tony Parker to run the offense and pump up the fans.

Tony Parker is the Spurs most entertaining and essential player.

13) Goran Dragic – Now everyone in the NBA knows what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Goran Dragic is a quality point guard who should be starting somewhere. Now that he’s gotten that chance in Houston, he hasn’t disappointed expectations, averaging 19.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg and 2.0 spg in April. He was a terrific replacement when Kyle Lowry was out with a bacterial infection and is keeping Houston in the playoff race as a starter even with Lowry playing again. Dragic is exciting, athletic, attacks the basket and has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the league. Keep your eye on this kid, he can score points in bunches.

Dragic has become the man down in Houston.

12) Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay is Memphis’ main main and can get a crowd on their feet extremely fast with one his signature high-flying dunks. Marc Gasol will need to keep performing consistently and I almost gave this spot to Zach Randolph because of how badly the Grizzlies need him to play well again, but Rudy Gay will be leading his team in the playoffs this year, for better or worse.

Rudy Gay is an exciting player on a surging Memphis squad.

11) Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce connects better with the crowd, but Rajon Rondo’s tendency to rack up triple doubles and find the open man with fancy passing and dribbling makes him the show-stopper in Boston. Rondo doesn’t always put up big scoring numbers, but the way he runs the point powers this Celtics team and is worth noticing.

Rondo is one of the most exciting guards in the league.

10) Josh Smith – Josh Smith is Atlanta’s Do-It-All Guy. The Hawks really don’t look like they’ve improved much over the past few years and seem primed for a first-round playoff exit (again), but if they somehow do compete, it’ll be behind superhuman performances from Atlanta’s high-rising, all-around stud Josh Smith. Smith can score, rebound, block shots and do whatever else his team needs to win. Joe Johnson used to be the alpha dog in Atlanta, but Smith has taken over that role now.

Josh Smith is a high-rising dunk machine, but he's an all-around great player too.

9) Dirk Nowtizki – Don’t forget the guy who’s the main reason we refer to the Dallas Mavericks as “defending champs.” Dirk has struggled at times this season, but if he finds the right motivation, he can single-handedly keep his team in games down the stretch. Dirk is nearly impossible to guard, so when he’s starting to get hot, you can almost guarantee audiences are in for something special.

You definitely can't forget about the big German in the playoffs this year.

8) Dwight Howard – After a drama-filled season, Dwight Howard almost needs to come back and play. Herniated disk in his back or not, Superman has to show up and play his heart out this postseason to save his team and his reputation. The Magic have been on the steady decline with Howard sitting out, and after all he’s put the Orlando organization and fanbase through this season, the least he could do is come out and roll over every center unfortunate enough to cross his path. Dwight Howard flip flopped on staying in Orlando. He was involved in rumors that he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired. He mailed-in an awful, half-hearted performance the day those rumors surfaced. He owes the Magic everything he’s got and if he’s healthy (big IF there), we could be in for a treat.

Howard is currently questionable for the playoffs, but he needs to suit up and play some amazing basketball for the sake of his team, his coach and his legacy.

7) Danny Granger – Danny Granger never gets enough credit for being the superstar that he is; he didn’t make the All-Star team this year getting completely snubbed, yet he’s led the Pacers night in and night out. Indiana still isn’t getting credit as a tough postseason matchup, yet they’re third in the Eastern Conference and find a way to just keep winning thanks to Granger’s consistent scoring every game. The Pacers were my sleeper team before the season even began, and rightfully so after they gave the Bulls all they could handle in the first round last year (Chicago won in 5, but had to work for all of those wins). If the Pacers turn out as dangerous as I think they are, Danny Granger will be the guy to keep an eye on.

The Pacers are dangerous. Is it Danny Granger's time to move into the elite category?

6) Kobe Bryant – Kobe Bryant is always a player to watch come playoff time, but this year his story will be more interesting based on how he deals with that shin injury that has sidelined him for five games now. Make no mistake, Kobe has no problem playing through pain. So with him missing so much time, he is either in a lot of pain or he’s really making a commitment to being 100% for the playoffs. Either way, how Kobe comes to play this postseason will be worth following, especially now that the Lakers have established some chemistry and have been able to win without him on the floor. Andrew Bynum was a big snub, especially considering his temper and what he did in the postseason last year, but Kobe is still the biggest reason to watch the Lakers and that won’t change even if Bynum is still a head case.

Kobe Bryant is still THE player to watch down in LA

5) Chris Paul – There is one player you need to watch during the playoffs this year on the Clippers, and no, it isn’t Blake Griffin. I’m sure Griffin will provide us with plenty of Lob Alert specials on SportsCenter’s Top Ten, but Chris Paul is the player to watch for LAC this season. CP3’s complete control of the game has been quintessential of what a true point guard does: managing and facilitating, deferring to teammates for the majority of the game and taking over in the fourth quarter when they need it the most. If there’s a close game for the Clippers, notice how it will come down to Chris Paul’s heroics.

CP3 has taken worse teams to the playoffs before. How far can he take the Clippers?

4) Derrick Rose – The Bulls success this postseason is contingent upon one thing: how Derrick Rose fits in with Chicago’s new team chemistry. Everyone knows the Bulls won’t win a championship without D-Rose, but it’s also pretty clear they can’t win if he’s taking too many shots or not 100% up to speed. Because of all the time he’s missed with injury, D-Rose has to make sure his own skills and play are up to par as well as fit in with the team dynamic again. The Bulls are the best team in the league as of right now, so if Derrick Rose can elevate his game again and if Chicago’s supporting cast can play as well as they have without him on the court, the Windy City might get its first championship since the days of Michael Jordan.

Can D-Rose stay healthy long enough to give the Bulls more last-second, game-winning magic?

3) Carmelo Anthony – Here’s his recent resume: over 30 ppg and 7 rpg in the month of April, singlehandedly turned New York into the most dangerous underdog in the East, inspired the entire city’s hope in a Knicks team with an interim coach, finally started playing like the top 5 superstar he was down in Denver, played much better defense, looked like he cares about both sides of the court, developed into a leader for a team without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, and finally looked happy playing the game again. I’d say that sounds like a player worth watching when the playoffs roll around. Based on how everyone in the NBA is playing right now, if I had to pick one guy to lead this Knicks team to a first-round upset over the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls (their most likely opponents as of right now), it’d be Carmelo Anthony. I told you Melo wasn’t the problem!

Carmelo Anthony has finally got his game face on. He dropped a triple double last night. What does he have in store for the playoffs? I'm excited to find out.

2) Kevin Durant – People have been saying it all season long: This is Oklahoma City’s year. This is Kevin Durant’s year. The Thunder have handled all that talk all year long and have done it well until recently when they dropped a few games. But OKC still sits atop the Western Conference and anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big failure for them. Kevin Durant has stepped up in big games all season long, can score from anywhere on the court and electrifies audiences and home crowds with elite crunch-time performances. Durantula is one of those players that you just sit back, relax and enjoy.

Is it finally Kevin Durant's turn? If OKC is going to win it all, Durantula is has to bring it.

1) LeBron James – LeBron might be the number one guy to watch this postseason. Not only because of his MVP season that he’s had this year, but because this year, LeBron NEEDS to win it all to save his name, his reputation, his Decision and possibly even his legacy. The fact that Miami didn’t win it all last season was disappointing, but not inexplicable; it was only their first year together. But this year, after having a whole season to improve with that thirst and anger after losing last year, falling short this year would be indefensible. So now everyone will tune in to watch LeBron James either finally succeed, score in the crunch time and prove everyone wrong, or they will watch as LeBron shies away from the fourth quarter spotlight, the Heat implode and revel in watching this misunderstood superstar fall flat again. Either way, you know you’re going to be watching.

Win or lose, choke or championship, you know you want to see this guy either way.