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The Western Conference playoffs are suddenly wide open

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Can the Thunder beat the Spurs this time, or does San Antonio have too big an advantage? Will the Warriors be okay with Stephen Curry? Are the Clippers done? (The Clippers are done.)

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Strange things are afoot in the Western Conference. Injuries are beating up one side of the bracket, while we're preparing for the start of an epic battle on the other side. In this week's FLANNS & ZILLZ we try to make sense of it all.

FLANNERY: We've been talking all year about how this season was a done deal: The Warriors will win and everything else is meaningless, man. So depressing, we thought. So nihilistic. If only we could go back to those happier times when Golden State was unbeatable and Steph Curry wasn't undergoing MRIs.

For the record, my feelings on this don't stem from any particular affinity for the franchise. Rather, it's because I want to see historic teams and players perform at their best. I want to witness history. If they lose, it will be epic. If they win, we will celebrate them. Either way it's still a great story and I always root for the best possible story.

It's all wide open now isn't it?

ZILLER: It's totally wide open, though the prognosis on Curry's knee was about as optimism-preserving as possible. At best, Curry's injury opens the window for the other contenders a little wider. At worst, it leads to the Warriors' unceremonious demise and mars their historic season. (And let's not pretend as though failing to win the title won't cheapen the 73-win record, injury or no. The case for these Warriors as the best team ever dies with a playoff series loss.)

The Warriors are finally paying the injury piper in the playoffs, but so is their presumptive second-round opponent. How cruel that Chris Paul breaks his hand playing defense months after Blake Griffin broke his hand punching a co-worker. The Clipper Curse is strong, and Portland should be the favorite to move on to the second round. Golden State should beat Portland even without Curry, but that'd have been a different story against a healthy Clippers team.

Meanwhile, the Spurs and Thunder are preparing to wage seven games of war. I shall pray to the Basketball Gods that both teams stay healthy.

FLANNERY: I want to get to ThunderSpurs in a minute because holy hell is that series going to be great.

But first, let's not take anything for granted before it's done. Not calling you out here, but I'm not putting Portland into the next round until the Blazers win four games. People had the Clippers in the conference finals on Monday afternoon. Now we've got them losing to the Blazers. That's a very likely scenario if everything stays as it is right now, but did we learn nothing from the last 24 hours? I'm just guessing here, but there are a half-dozen injuries each year that swing these things and probably a dozen more that only become evident after the season when dudes start lining up for surgeries.

So yeah, that side of the bracket is a mess, but I'm with you that the Warriors still have the upper hand given all the circumstances. Two last thoughts before we got to the apocalypse: Who is Golden State's best player while Curry is out? My head says it's Draymond Green, but it could be Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala or an unexpected role player on any given night. To put it another way: How good do you think they are without the MVP?

ZILLER: Fair points; my Clippers nihilism is a combination of three things: CP3, Blake Griffin and this being the Clippers. Fate frowns on the Clippers.

Draymond Green remains the top non-Steph Warrior in terms of quality and importance even in Curry's absence. This isn't to say other Warriors cannot have bigger impacts in any given game, but that's the case for every team everywhere. Swapping Shaun Livingston in for Curry puts a bigger playmaking onus on Green and forces the Warriors to avoid defensive lapses. Green, Iguodala and Thompson may also may need to play more minutes, which is something to watch. And Harrison Barnes has a huge role to play as a release valve. It'll be really interesting to see how Golden State adjusts knowing Curry isn't coming back any day now. It's a different flavor of pressure than, say, Game 3 in Houston.

FLANNERY: I'm very curious to see how they come out in Game 5 against the Rockets. That second-half beatdown in Game 4 was damn impressive and I'm sure they're savvy enough to know they shouldn't mess around back at Oracle. I root for close games and chaos, generally, but I do love to see a superior team throw the hammer down when it's needed. For the record, I think they can survive the next round without Curry, but I don't like their chances against either San Antonio or OKC without him.

Segue!

ThurderSpurs is the best series no one talked abut during the regular season. Sure we paid lip service to its importance and we all knew it was inevitable once the Dubs ran away with things. Now that it's here, though, it feels monumental. This should be really, really fun, both for the geeks like us and the casual viewing public. I mean, Kawhi Leonard's going to guard Kevin Durant for two weeks!

We'll save our predictions for a later date, so let's start with general thoughts. What are the matchups you're looking at the most here?

ZILLER: Does it need to be said? Kawhi vs. Durant, of course! I'm obsessed with this battle and, no offense to Dame Lillard, I might check out of the West playoffs for a few days to watch the tape from the regular season meetings. We saw this matchup in 2014, as well, though Kawhi was just at that moment becoming Kawhi. He's a whole different monster now, and this is a positional head-to-head matchup between two of the top five players in the world. I am so beyond hyped.

I figure Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker will see cross-matches on both ends. Westbrook is way more productive than TP at this point, and Danny Green is substantially more useful on offense than Andre Roberson. Add in Patty Mills and Dion Waiters and the guard play is going to be mighty interesting.

But Durant vs. Kawhi!

FLANNERY: I'm tingly.

The backcourt matchups will be fascinating. Westbrook is going to be a problem for whoever draws that assignment, but I like the Spurs depth. Let's not forget about Manu Ginobli here. I think he'll have a big impact on this series. As for Waiters Island, it's either going to get overrun with thrill-seeking tourists or a barren landscape that will serve as the next destination for Dual Survival by the time this is over. And then the frontcourt, where you have the Spurs length and savvy matched against OKC's athleticism. There's some nasty here, as well. Who gets the first flagrant: Steven Adams or David West?

We're also going to find out an awful lot about Billy Donovan. We've expressed our feelings about Constant Coach Critique Twitter, but Billy D is going to be under the microscope like never before. I'm curious to see how he handles all of this.

I'm not quite ready to make a prediction yet. I'm thinking Spurs because of their depth, their experience and Kawhi, but I'm not all the way convinced yet. Care to make a case for OKC?

ZILLER: In my pre-playoffs prediction post, I took Spurs in seven. Nothing would surprise me, but I am still leaning San Antonio because the Spurs were an INCREDIBLE regular season team while the Thunder were merely REALLY DAMN GOOD. That, home court, and the Gregg Popovich factor push me to the Spurs.

BUT ... while we wring our hands over OKC's fourth-quarter meltdowns, close watchers of San Antonio will note that the Spurs' offense can really bog down late. They don't have a solo creator on the level of Westbrook or Durant. Kawhi is an excellent, efficient scorer who isn't afraid of anything, ever. But he doesn't drive as readily or aggressively as the Thunder duo, and his relative lack of ego might lead to more possessions for the Spurs than is optimal. A fix is adding Ginobili to the finishing lineup, but that poses some defensive issues.

In other words, this series has levels. Plus it has Tim Duncan, who still gets the damn job done.

Meanwhile, Blake Griffin has been ruled out for the playoffs. Bye, Clippers. What an unfortunate season for that man.

FLANNERY: And LaMarcus Aldridge! We have gone this deep into this post and still not mentioned the biggest free agent of last summer. Man, this series is going to be so great. I will note that you did not really make a case for OKC and I won't either except there always the exists the possibility that KD and Russ go crazy-nuts.

Oh right, Blake. Once again, when news breaks, it breaks during an F+Z marathon. Tough break for Blake, but he brought a lot of this on himself. Not to get sidetracked, but I think we've seen the end of him in a Clipper uniform. (A sign-and-trade involving Durant isn't that crazy, is it?)

Let's bring this full circle. The playoffs are wide open again. Can the second round redeem what has been a fairly meh postseason? I say yes, but I'm a secret optimist.

ZILLER: The West has been alternately depressing and boring while the East has been entertaining but perhaps less relevant in the endgame. The second round should fix all that, I hope.

I really do think OKC has a shot; we saw the Spurs fall to a similar quality of foe last year, though San Antonio is better now than then, largely because of Aldridge. You can't really count out either team until they're dead.

Meanwhile, I'll just be over here grooming my Cleveland title pick like the beautiful pony it is.

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