Four questions for four writers, previewing the upcoming NBA playoffs with a league-wide scope:
1. What 1-2 seed is most likely to get upset before the Conference Finals?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Oklahoma City. The Thunder has by far the toughest road to the conference finals, with a wrestling match out of the gate against Memphis and a shootout series on deck with either the Clippers or Warriors. San Antonio should execute the Mavs in the first round and easily out-savvy either Houston or Portland in the second round. And the East isn't even in the discussion.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - San Antonio. The reason: old legs. I think way more highly of the Spurs and the Thunder than I do of the Pacers and the Heat, but the East is just so weak. I just don’t see either Indiana or Miami losing before the conference finals. And while the Thunder has struggled down the stretch, the matchups seem more favorable in the first two rounds for Oklahoma City than for San Antonio. The Spurs are going to face a youthful team in the second round, Rockets or Blazers. That will be a huge test over a seven-game series. As good as the Spurs are, it just seems like their age might get the better of them.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - It's a pretty easy answer: The Thunder. Of the four teams, OKC has the toughest first-round opponent AND the toughest second-round opponent. Memphis is dangerous and underseeded and the Clippers are explosive on offense and far better on defense than people realize -- 102.1 points per 100 possessions, seventh lowest in the NBA. Miami will cruise to the conference finals and Indy should bruise its way there. San Antonio has a bumpy road, but the Thunder is weaving through a minefield.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Indiana is the team most likely to get upset before the conference finals. The Pacers have done more than just hit a rough stretch. They are playing beyond poorly. And they’re in the same bracket with the Bulls, who will positively chew up the Pacers. If Indiana’s offense doesn’t improve quickly, the Pacers won’t reach 80 in any game against Chicago.
2. Who's the most likely darkhorse contender (seeds 4-8)?
Mayberry - Memphis. The Grizzlies' defense gives them a puncher's chance against anyone. Their toughest test comes in the first round against the Thunder, which I doubt they get past. But if they do, it'll set up for them to make a nice run. I still have major questions, however, about first-year coach Dave Joerger and his ability to match former coach Lionel Hollins as a postseason tactician.
Carlson - Chicago. The Bulls will get after you defensively. That’s the kind of thing that wins ballgames in the playoffs. And the East is ripe for the picking. And Joakim Noah is a difference maker. He is a guy who will make a shot or block a shot to win games.
Slater - To me, Houston is a near lock to get out of the first round. Portland has revealed its true colors in the second half. The Blazers aren't a title threat. Can the Rockets then get past a scorching Spurs team? It'll be tough. But in some ways, that matchup actually favors Houston. Like OKC, the Rockets went 4-0 against the Spurs this season, using its youth and athleticism to overwhelm San Antonio. Can they play enough defense in the playoffs? We'll see. But any team with a legit shot to make the conference finals is a legit contender.
Tramel - Memphis, not even close. The Grizzlies are a totally different team from the squad that started 10-15 thanks to Marc Gasol’s injury. The Grizzlies are built for the playoffs. Tough defense, veteran leadership. It’s a tough stretch for Memphis: OKC, probably Clippers, maybe Spurs. But Memphis will be a tough out for any of those.
3. What first round series interests you most?
Mayberry - Clippers-Warriors. But the loss of Andrew Bogut mars that matchup a bit. It still should be entertaining and competitive. Rockets-Blazers should be a good one, too.
Carlson - Thunder-Grizzlies. Yes, it’s the local team, but this matchup is a juicy one. It’s become a regular occurrence in the postseason, and to this point, the playoff series between these two franchises have been good. Very interesting. Always close.
Slater - Avert your eyes from the East and turn West. Then close your eyes and take a pick. There's a ton of intrigue on that side of the bracket. Clippers-Warriors will provide run-and-gun fun, Thunder-Grizzlies has two offensive dynamos trying to burst past a brick-wall defense, Spurs-Mavericks matches a pair of aging legends and Rockets-Blazers will make for some quality late-night viewing. Can't go wrong in the West. Can't say the same about the East.
Tramel - Besides OKC-Memphis? It would have been Warriors-Clippers, if Andrew Bogut had been healthy. But I don’t like Golden State’s chances without Bogut. So I guess it’s Portland-Houston. I don’t think the Blazers’ depth can hold up, but if it can, Portland could challenge Houston. But really, Thunder-Grizzlies is No. 1. Memphis could win this series, especially if the Thunder doesn’t flip on the switch.
4. Which non-Durant/LeBron player is likely to steal the postseason show?
Mayberry - I'll go with John Wall. He quietly enjoyed his best season this year but is still flying under the radar nationally. All he'll need to do is push his Wizards past the Bulls in the first round and give the Pacers a scare in the second. Both are totally doable since neither the Bulls nor the Pacers have anyone who can slow him down despite both teams fielding great team defenses.
Carlson - I said before how much I like Joakim Noah’s nose for big games, but if he doesn’t steal the show, I’d say Blake Griffin has a chance to be that guy. He has taken his game to a whole other level this season. And the Clippers are likely to be in a very up-and-down, fast-paced series in the first round. That means the potential for lots of high-flying dunks. Look for Big Blake to be a playoff star.
Slater - Remember back to last season, when Russell Westbrook seemed poised for a playoff breakout. He was already known as a superstar, a top-15 player. But he looked about ready to vault his name into that 'best point guard in the world' conversation. The freak Game 2 knee injury -- when he dropped 29 points anyway -- derailed his and the Thunder's postseason. And he's been dealing with health issues since. But now, he's back on the big stage. And despite the cautious approach, he looks as healthy and explosive as ever. Plus, he's got a Titanic-sized chip on his shoulder, out for revenge against Memphis, Houston and anyone who ever even looked at him funny. Watch out, fellow point guards.
Tramel - Joakim Noah. Noah grows on you, the more you watch him. And the Bulls center is headed for a bunch of games, because Chicago will make the East finals and be standing in Miami’s way. He’s a wonderful player that is overlooked because the one thing he does subpar – shooting – is the one thing the masses embrace the most.