In a recent interview, the veteran San Antonio Spurs forward David West said, “It’s a whole new ball game in the playoffs.”
West, 34, signed for one year with the Spurs in the off-season for the league minimum, $1.4 million, passing up a player option to re-sign with the Indiana Pacers for $12 million, in hopes of increasing and strengthening his chances of winning a championship. West stated, “Our job is just to keep improving, and prepare ourselves now for a tough first-round matchup against whoever.”
And he’s correct, except for the part about his team’s tough first-round matchup. The playoffs, the postseason, is a whole new season. The regular season games are behind us. The Golden State Warrior’s quest to tie and break the record of 72 wins-10 losses held by the 1995-96 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls is behind us. Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ head coach who coincidentally played on that Bulls team, finally won a regular season game in San Antonio’s arena last weekend, ending Golden State’s 33-game losing streak dating back to 1997, and that’s behind us. Blake Griffin’s return? Behind us. Kobe Bryant’s retirement, his season-ending 60 points? Behind us. The battle for the eighth and final playoff position between the Houston Rockets and the Utah Jazz? Behind us.
What’s trending out west, now? The Warriors defending their championship. Will they repeat? Are they still the best team in basketball? There are questions of how far Coach Gregg Popovich can advance his Spurs, who are recognized as the NBA’s second-best team this season. Having 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward Kawhi Leonard, who was just named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season on their roster, will be helpful. Billy Donovan, who coached college ball up until last season, now in his first year and his first playoff appearance as an NBA head coach, is learning on the job with the Oklahoma Thunder. His pro inexperience may or may not be an issue. And how competitive will the fifth through eighth seeds really be? The Portland Trailblazers, the Dallas Mavericks, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets.
Thus far, the Mavericks, the sixth seed, have been the only lower seed in the West to win a playoff game against the top four since the series began last Saturday, beating the third-seeded Thunder. It was a close 85-84 Monday night victory on Oklahoma’s floor. They resume tonight, Thursday, in Dallas. Any more Mav wins will challenge Donovan’s inexperience and put a cloud over the Thunder franchise at a time when they’ll have to compete for their star player, Kevin Durant, whose contract will be up for renewal. Portland, the fifth seed, is playing the Los Angeles Clippers, the fourth. The Grizzlies at seventh, who’ve been without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, two of their best players, are playing the Spurs, and are already down 2-0. The Rockets, who barely qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, are in against the Warriors. At this rate, it won’t be long before the first round of playoffs are behind us. The top Western Conference seeds are sweeping through the first round.
“The goal is to win a championship. That’s the goal,” said Warrior’s all-star guard Stephen Curry, happy about how their regular season ended but clearly focused on the playoffs. So far, the first round has been an easy run for Golden State, playing the Houston Rockets, who are eighth-seeded and have an interim head coach. A team with a 41-41 regular season win-loss record is also down 2-0. This series resumes tonight in Houston. The best-ranked versus the lowest-ranked. Game 4 is scheduled for Sunday. Curry, who twisted his ankle in Game 1, didn’t play in Game 2. His appearance tonight will be a game-time decision.