Russell Westbrook’s injury has left the Oklahoma City Thunder weakened and the Western Conference playing field leveled. Traditional thinking would conclude that the San Antonio Spurs are good and ready to emerge out of the West if the Thunder can’t learn to adjust to Westbrook’s absence.
All four teams left in the Western Conference Playoffs are on fairly equal footing right now. The Golden State Warriors are going to surprise people with how well they’ll challenge the Spurs. They already showed they are capable of giving the Spurs a good run in San Antonio, but the Warriors couldn’t quite pull off a Game 1 win; San Antonio had to pull off a few miracles to come back and win in double overtime. The Spurs still have much to worry about, but I fully expect them to win the series.
My personal choice to go to the Finals is the Memphis Grizzlies. I thought they’d have a fairly easy time with a Westbrook-less Thunder, but I was surprised to see them lose in Game 1. Memphis, however, straightened it out and took Game 2 in Oklahoma City. The Grizzlies are going to have a tough road to the Finals; they already beat a tough, deep Los Angeles Clippers team in the first round, and they’re now facing the initial Western favorites in Oklahoma City, and they’ll likely face the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. With my two favorite teams not even making the playoffs this year, I have jumped on the Grizzlies bandwagon for this playoffs, and I like their chances for going to the Finals.
That said, whichever Western team makes it to the Finals will likely see the Miami Heat, which nobody can bet against this year. The Chicago Bulls have already made their second-round series with the Heat more interesting than it should be, but something drastic would have to happen for the Heat to blow this series — or even the next one.
At the beginning of the playoffs, I called the New York Knicks going to the Eastern Conference Finals. Through their first three games against Boston, I felt pretty good about that prediction. Over the next four games — three against the Celtics and one against the Indiana Pacers — I became quite unsure of New York’s chances to go far. Their game tonight stopped the bleeding, convincingly so, but I doubt it’s going to be an easy ride for them as they try to outlast the well-coached, fundamentally sound Pacers.
If New York does advance, Miami will likely dispatch the Knicks fairly easily in the Eastern Finals, and I predict it will be a Grizzlies-Heat Finals matchup. Miami is the favorite, like it or not. There is no reason why the Heat shouldn’t win it all again this year.