x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

NBA play-offs: early intrigue is all out West

As the first-round of the NBA play-offs get underway it seems all the best storylines are ones that are west of Miami, writes Steve Dilbeck.

Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City Thunder is up against James Harden, whom Thunder gave up tot he Rockets. Christian Petersen / Getty Images
Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City Thunder is up against James Harden, whom Thunder gave up tot he Rockets. Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Eight NBA play-offs series opened over the weekend, and the home team won every game. No surprise there. But several pairings offer a possibility of long and involved story lines, though most of them in the Western Conference and away from the Miami Heat.

Oklahoma City Thunder, the top seed in the West, ought to dispense easily with the No 8 seed Houston Rockets, but the clash pits the Thunder against James Harden, whom they sent to Houston in a controversial trade days before the season. "It's definitely surreal, not only being my first postseason [with the Rockets], but being back here in Oklahoma City," Harden said.

"It's crazy."

The Thunder enter the play-offs as a team with something to prove, and not only to Harden.

Kevin Durant, their best player, is still only 24 years old, but he just completed his sixth regular season. The Thunder cannot be the "young team on the rise" forever. They advanced to the NBA finals last season and only one thing remains for an encore.

San Antonio Spurs face Los Angeles Lakers, minus Kobe Bryant, in a No 2 versus No 7 match-up. Yet this is a series some believe could offer an upset. The Spurs have been struggling, and although the Lakers have, too, they still have the big men Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and it was a team with big men up front - Memphis - who upset the Spurs in the first round two years ago.

The No 3 Denver Nuggets versus the No 6 Golden State Warriors feature teams who like to run and could be the best series of the first round. The Warriors were dealt a blow when David Lee suffered a season-ending hip injury, but they still have the sharpshooting Stephen Curry, who set an NBA season record for three-pointers.

The No 4 Los Angeles Clippers and the No 5 Memphis Grizzlies are teams who do not like each other. In a bruising series last season, the Clippers had to win a Game 7 in Memphis to beat back the Grizzles. And this series is important to the Clippers beyond just this season. Chris Paul, the point guard, can become a free agent on July 1 and is the cornerstone the Clippers want to build around. He may leave if they flame out in the first round.

"We want to keep building this in the right direction," said Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers coach. "The only way to do that is by winning in the biggest moments."

Miami is the presumed winner in the East but in the meantime, the No 2 New York Knicks and No 7 Boston Celtics are playing, and New York versus Boston is a hot ticket in any sport.

New York's Carmelo Anthony, the league's scoring leader, scored 36 in a narrow victory in the opener. History suggests the Celtics of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will not go quietly.