The Daily Gamecock

Column: Previewing the NBA playoffs

The San Antonio Spurs celebrate with the NBA Championship Larry O'Brien trophy after defeating the Miami Heat, 104-87, in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, June 15, 2014. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT)
The San Antonio Spurs celebrate with the NBA Championship Larry O'Brien trophy after defeating the Miami Heat, 104-87, in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, June 15, 2014. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT)

Today is March 18, which means we are one month away from the beginning of the NBA playoffs. The grueling regular season is dwindling down, award season is within arms reach and, most importantly, teams are frantically fighting for playoff seeding. Here are two teams from each conference that have a chance to make the finals, whether they are an established favorite or a sleeper pick. 

Western Conference favorite: San Antonio Spurs

The seemingly old, washed-up Spurs never cease to amaze. Coming off arguably the most emotional finals victory in NBA history, critics questioned San Antonio’s resiliency when it owned the seventh seed for the majority of the season. Head coach Gregg Popovich has acknowledged his team’s struggles on multiple occasions, but San Antonio’s success, or lack thereof, is contingent upon its health. 

Rising star forward Kawhi Leonard has suffered a plethora of nagging injuries and illnesses, while defensive anchor Tiago Splitter has also missed quite a few games because of a nerve injury in his leg. However, Popovich has strategically rested veterans Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker throughout the season, which has paid dividends as of late.

Sure, on paper the Golden State Warriors are the most logical pick to come out of the Western Conference, but, as we’ve learned in the past, never bet against the infrastructure that is the San Antonio Spurs.

Western Conference sleeper pick: Oklahoma City Thunder

Narrowly edging out the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth seed is the Oklahoma City Thunder. MVP candidate Russell Westbrook has kept the franchise afloat in Kevin Durant’s prolonged absence by posting an ungodly six triple-doubles in his past 10 games, and he’s averaging 27.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game in the month of March.

Oklahoma City took another lethal shot by losing Serge Ibaka, who is set to undergo a minor knee procedure, which could sideline him for up to six weeks. Through all of this adversity, the Thunder are well positioned to potentially make a finals run if they can get healthy in time. General manager Sam Presti did acquire some reinforcements prior to the trade deadline, dealing Kendrick Perkins for offensive machine Enes Kanter and a disgruntled Reggie Jackson to the Detroit Pistons for several valuable role players. With Durant’s anticipated return on the horizon, Oklahoma City remains one of the NBA’s sneakiest title contenders.

Eastern Conference favorite: Cleveland Cavaliers

When LeBron James embarked on his über dramatic journey back to his hometown Cavaliers, nobody expected a season quite like this. Cleveland hovered around .500 through mid-January, James took a two-week vacation in South Beach and coincidentally returned to a totally resurfaced roster consisting of former New York Knicks J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert and the frontcourt presence of Timofey Mozgov. The Cavaliers are now in position to clinch the second seed, trailing just the Atlanta Hawks. Cleveland’s second half to their monster acquisition last summer, Kevin Love, remains the elephant in the room, though. Head coach David Blatt has consistently benched the three-time all-Star in crunch time in favor of Tristan Thompson. Love has majorly served as a way over-qualified three-point specialist who is barely utilized in the paint, where he is most comfortable. Cleveland’s success cannot be denied, though. Until the Hawks can prove otherwise, the Cavaliers simply have too much star power to be dethroned as the Eastern Conference favorites.

Eastern Conference sleeper pick: Atlanta Hawks

Head coach Mike Budenholzer has transformed the former eighth-seed Hawks into a perennial contender and likely 60-win team in the span of one year. The second-year head coach coached under Popovich as an assistant in San Antonio for nearly two decades. Implementing a similar system as the Spurs, Atlanta churned out four all-stars this season. The Hawks should be the favorite, right? Not exactly. Many analysts are still skeptical of Atlanta due to its lack of playoff experience. In fact, the Hawks have one glaring flaw — rebounding. The team is 28th in total rebounds per game, which could spell doom come playoff time. This season is certainly not a hoax, though. Atlanta owns one of the deadliest rosters in the league behind Kyle Korver’s historic three-point shooting, Al Horford’s versatility in the middle, Paul Millsap’s premier offensive game and Jeff Teague’s playmaking abilities. Oh, and small forward DeMarre Carroll just so happens to be LeBron James’ kryptonite on defense.