The championship landscape has shifted considerably through the first week of the postseason, and unfortunately these alterations have only obstructed the Miami Heat’s path to the title. At first blush, the loss of Russell Westbrook would appear to boost the prospect of a Heat repeat, but I would recommend taking a second glance. Since the introduction of Shane Battier into the starting line-up in Game 2 of the 2012 Finals the Heat are 6-0 against the Thunder. While the 2013 Thunder lacks a playoff-caliber contender from 2012 in Harden, the Heat have added key contributors this season in Ray Allen and Chris “Birdman” Anderson. I have a hunch that even with a healthy Russell Westbrook the Thunder would have posed little challenge to Miami in this year’s Finals. Where the Westbrook injury will play a significant role is in the Thunder’s ability to reach the Finals at all. With that in mind, here’s the week two update to the Miami Heat fan’s guide to the Western Conference Playoffs.
(1) Oklahoma City vs. (8) Houston (3-1)
I won’t repeat my thoughts on Westbrook, but with the Houston series all but over let’s take a look at how the Thunder may fare in the coming rounds. Oklahoma City will have the luxury of being the more rested team as they draw the winner of a Clippers Grizzlies slugfest that will likely leave the conquering team battered. Nevertheless, both Memphis and L.A. have looked to be legitimate threats to make a run for the Western Conference Title. Kevin Durant is undeniably the second best player in the NBA and I have every confidence that he will do whatever possible to keep his team’s postseason alive, but he’s only a man, he’s not…Lebron James. The Clippers and Grizzlies both feature rosters littered with much more talent than the Westbrook-less Thunder, and defenses much less forgiving than Houston’s. If the Thunder fails to advance to the Western Conference Finals the Heat could face the victor of a nightmarish match-up between the Spurs and Grizzlies. Going forward, Heat fans should be rooting for the Kevin Durant to shoot the Thunder all the way through the West.
(2) San Antonio vs. (7) Los Angeles (L) (4-0)
San Antonio handled the Lakers with the systematic ease that only the Spurs seem to possess. With Dwight Howard throwing a tantrum in the third quarter of Game 4 the Spurs had little trouble completing the sweep and earning some much needed rest. The path has never been clearer for the Spurs now that Greg Popovich has successfully pulled off his greatest coaching move of the season, sacrificing Russell Westbrook’s knee to the basketball gods for one more run to the NBA Finals with a healthy Tim Duncan. This development does not bode well for Heat fans, as a vigorous Tim Duncan and surprisingly capable Tiago Splitter could represent just enough of an offensive post threat in conjunction with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to seriously challenge the Heat in a Finals series.
(3) Denver vs. (6) Golden State (2-3)
Golden State has been able to jump out to a 3-2 lead on the series despite having David Lee for less than one game. Steph Curry has hijacked this series with an offensive explosion establishing himself as a star in this league, and Andrew Bogut has begun to resemble the player drafted first overall in 2005 Draft. The Warriors pose an interesting match-up for the Heat, but with David Lee sidelined for the remainder of the postseason they likely lack the requisite experience and firepower necessary to win a series over the defending champs. The Warriors still need to finish things off against Denver, but barring a collapse, Heat fans should be in full support of a Warriors upset in round two over San Antonio.
(4) Los Angeles (C) vs. (5) Memphis (2-3)
A series that everyone expected to be a battle and has not disappointed, Clippers vs. Grizzlies is slowly morphing into a genuine NBA rivalry. Only adding to the entertainment value of the series is the older brother-like pleasure Zach Randolph is taking in irritating Blake Griffin every second he’s on the court. While the Grizzlies look like the more championship ready team, Chris Paul may have just enough magic up his sleeve to player-coach the Clippers into the second round. Heat fans should hope this is the case and the Clippers emerge from this war of attrition victorious, removing the ominous duo of Z-Bo and Marc Gasol from the list of potential Heat championship challengers. With the Thunder crippled by the loss of Westbrook the Clippers may be the most capable challengers the Grizzlies face before the NBA Finals, and potentially, after the Finals as well.