The NBA Playoffs will finally arrive on Saturday, April 20, with a similar sort of hype as Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne. We know the best two teams in the League – Miami and OKC – and it’s more a matter of finding out what they’re really made of and whether they can take the game to another level.

Unfortunately, teams like the Lakers didn’t pan out and would-be challengers, like the LA Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies, didn’t evolve into true contenders – at least not conspicuously. As a result, the Western Conference may have already seen it’s most excitement for the next couple of weeks. After flirting with missing the playoffs, the LA Lakers took the Houston Rockets to the brink in the last game of the season, knocking them out in overtime to snag the seven seed.

Thankfully, this created far more interesting first-round matchups than the reverse – or if Utah had managed to sneak in for the final spot. James Harden will lead the Rockets against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Lakers will take on their long-time rival, the San Antonio Spurs.

 

THE RED CARPET WALK THROUGH

 

(1) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. (8) HOUSTON ROCKETS

This series is interesting for the “Harden vs. his former team” angle, which would be much more prevalent if there were any hard feelings, or any salt in the NBA, at all. But there isn’t. This basically comes down to two young teams playing in the first round, with a major difference in experience. Houston isn’t ready yet, and they need another scoring piece if they want to compete with the output of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Harden can only do so much, and it’s the first trip to the playoffs for Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons as a group. Hopefully, they bring their notebooks, because class is about to start.

 

 

GET YOUR REFILLS READY

 

(3) DENVER NUGGETS VS. (6) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

If you can’t stay up late to watch this one, then set TiVO/DVR. The fact that skeptics doubt these two teams have a chance at winning the title only fuels these mid-market powerhouses with excellent fan support and a lot of heart. This will be the most exciting series in the first round. Whether Denver’s JaVale McGee or Andre Iguodala are dunking on dudes and catching alleys, or Stephen Curry continues his record-setting three-point-shooting, neither team will be out of many games in this series. Better yet, one of these shoulder-chip squads is going to advance, and nobody is going to want to deal with either team when they have a hot hand.

 

 

(4) LA CLIPPERS VS. (5) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

This rematch of last season’s seven-game series could be another gem. Then again, the Grizzlies downgraded their roster by jettisoning Rudy Gay to the Great White North (but still won 56 games), and the Clippers have improved under the guise of Chris Paul. So, perhaps, we’re due for a letdown. Still, both teams are more than capable of making plays, and more importantly, getting hot and knocking somebody off. Neither team is going to back down, and if the series gets tight, look for some chippy behavior from the Clippers, who might think they’re a little better than they actually are.

 

 

DON’T SLEEP ON...

 

(2) SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. (7) LA LAKERS

What, did he forget Kobe’s out? I hear you, really. But San Antonio isn’t exactly ballin’ out right now, going just 10-10 down the stretch. The Lakers can’t defend quick guards and were burned all season long, which would be great for the Spurs if Manu Ginobili’s annual injury didn’t come during the playoffs and Tony Parker wasn’t playing “awful” basketball, as coach Gregg Popovich called it. Parker is only averaging 13 points per game since he returned from injury. A veteran team – particularly one led by Popovich – is supposed to be able to turn it on when it matters most, but managed to lose the top overall seed in the final 12 games. Realistically, the Lakers will need a huge performance from Dwight Howard, who can’t turn the ball over or get in foul trouble – a somewhat unlikely proposition (though he did man-up in his last game against the Spurs). But D12 has wanted more of the ball and more attention offensively, and, with Kobe out, his wish is coming true. Let’s see what you got.