- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives.
Let's get three things out of the way: Any playoff series featuring the Golden State Warriors is going to be entertaining, any series with the Memphis Grizzlies will be contentious and any series with the Los Angeles Clippers would be a mixture of both.
That doesn't mean we can't mix and match combinations to find the optimal Western Conference series we want to see -- even if sometimes they are the obvious series. Any possibility in any round is in play here, no matter how much seed-shifting it would take before the end of the season, or how many upsets they would require in the early rounds of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets
What could provide the rarest of matchups -- a team facing a key player in the playoffs in the same season it traded him -- also would be the easiest to make happen. All it would require would be for the Thunder to retain their current No. 2 seed while the Rockets remain seventh and then it's on. These instant revenge scenarios are so uncommon because (A) teams rarely trade key players within their own conference and (B) most teams that trade a major player don't immediately make it to the postseason. It's to the Thunder's credit that they still had championship-contender talent after trading James Harden to Houston. But if their old teammate dropped 46 points on them to lead the Rockets to a comeback victory in OKC on Feb. 20, just imagine what he'd do over the course of a full playoff series. I'm thinking something along the lines of "Teen Wolf."
The most similar scenario I can recall is when Horace Grant faced his old team, the Chicago Bulls, in his first season after signing as a free agent with the Orlando Magic. After the Magic ousted the Bulls (with the No. 45 edition of Michael Jordan), Grant's new teammates carried him off the court.
It probably won't end as well for Harden, but he'll make the Thunder squirm before the series is over. And imagine the quandary he'll put the Oklahoma City fans into. Do they dare pull out their fake beards and No. 13 jerseys to honor their favorite former player during a playoff series?
The Thunder could pull out their spreadsheets, host a seminar on the luxury-tax rules and give a prudent explanation for why they traded Harden, but it would all be drowned out by the noise and the emotion of the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors
Golden State's games against the Thunder, Lakers and Rockets all have been higher-scoring affairs. Still, there's nothing wrong with the 208-point average that the Warriors and Nuggets produced this season. And this series comes with the most intriguing individual matchup: Ty Lawson vs. Stephen Curry. Two young point guards who have had their moments (i.e., Lawson's game-winning shot against the Thunder and Curry's 54 points in Madison Square Garden) but still haven't passed the true test of NBA success: winning a playoff series.
Neither can be considered one of the league's elite stars at this stage. A great playoff performance could alter that perception.
You know who comes up big in the playoffs? JaVale McGee. At least, that's what the small data set we have from last year's seven-game series against the Lakers indicates. In his first-ever playoff series, McGee had two big double-doubles (16 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3, and 21 and 14 in Game 5, plus two other games with at least five blocks). You can be sure those came up during negotiations for the $44 million contract he signed last summer.
But it's JaVale McGee, so you never know what's coming next.
As they say in boxing, the best fights are made from contrasting styles, and even though both teams are up-tempo, they're trying to score from different areas. The Warriors are the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league; the Nuggets are one of the worst. The Nuggets lead the league in points in the paint (and they scored 66 of 'em in their first game against Golden State); the Warriors are 24th.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies
With wrestling on its way out of the Olympics, you could get your Greco-Roman fix right here. Last year's first-round series had pushing, grabbing, staredowns and 19 technical fouls.
It also featured three games decided by two points or fewer, and one historic fourth-quarter comeback. The intensity of the series carried over into the 2012-13 season opener, which felt like Game 8.
A rematch would come with a new wrinkle this year: Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince, two key components of the 2004 Detroit Pistons championship team, competing for their new squads. Billups missed last year's playoffs with the Clippers because of a torn left Achilles tendon, and Prince was just traded to Memphis last month.
I'd expect more from Blake Griffin, who dipped his toes into the playoff waters for the first time last season. I'd expect the Grizzlies to find ways to get more from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, who were at times devastatingly effective against the Clippers but also curiously uninvolved for stretches.
And while the Clippers are a deeper team this season, you wonder if they would miss the toughness Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin that gave them a boost in the matchup with Memphis last year. You also wonder if the playoffs are when the Grizzlies will miss Rudy Gay, whose absence hasn't hurt them so far after the trade to Toronto. Even with Gay, the Clippers outscored the Grizzlies 183-137 in the fourth quarters and overtime of their series. Where will the Grizzlies get their late baskets without him?
The Clippers and Grizzlies are tracking toward opposite sides of the bracket, which would make the conference finals the only possible meeting place for them. It would be unexpected but not unwelcome.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant's recent "retro dunk" has me in the mood for a retro series.
If Spurs-Lakers is going to happen at all it would probably occur in the first round, which for these two teams would be about as out of place as Beyonce singing in the tryout stages of "American Idol."
What's even stranger is that after meeting five times in six postseasons from 1999-2004, the Spurs and Lakers have played each other only once since then (the 2008 conference finals).
You might think you know how this series would turn out, but you can't be sure because we have yet to see the Lakers play the Spurs with Kobe, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol all in the lineup. It could happen on April 14, the final Sunday of the regular season, when the Spurs play in Los Angeles.
For a while it looked as though it would be a prime time for Gregg Popovich to rest his stars ahead of the playoffs, but what if Tony Parker's absence throughout March requires the Spurs to win that April 14 game to secure the No. 1 seed? Or what if the Spurs and Lakers are locked into a first-round matchup at that point and the Spurs want to send a message that the Lakers won't stand a chance in the playoffs? OK, if I'm getting that intrigued about a regular-season game, imagine the drama a seven-game playoff series would bring.
Just think of what Spurs-Lakers has delivered in the past: everything from great shots (Derek Fisher 0.4, anyone?) to great quotes (Brent Barry, after the NBA admitted it missed a potential game-changing foul on Fisher at the end of 2008's Game 5: "That's awesome. Because Doc Brown is waiting for me outside, and we're going to get in the DeLorean and fire up the flux capacitor and we're going to go back and shoot a couple of free throws.")
The more I go on, the more I want this series. Can we make this happen?
You might revel at the possibility of the Lakers missing the playoffs after their high-profile acquisitions last summer -- and that would actually be the biggest regular-season NBA story in a long time -- but the playoffs wouldn't be the same without them.