Storylines to watch in the Western Conference first round

Scott Halleran/Getty Images/ZimbioThe NBA postseason kicks off on Saturday. If you are like me, you are really looking forward to watching the Western Conference playoffs unfold. The talented teams run 1-8, and we are in for some pretty intense battles, even in the first round.

Heading into the weekend, there’s a few interesting storylines to keep an eye on.

1. James Harden returns to OKC

The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder meeting in the first round of the playoffs should go down as one of the most entertaining 1 vs. 8 matchups ever. There are going to be a lot of points scored and the games (even if there are only four) are going to be action-packed.

More importantly, James Harden’s first playoff experience with his new team is against his old team. There were a lot of questions about what Harden would be able to do without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and whether or not he could lead a team to the postseason. Well, the answer is yes and now we get to see how he’ll handle a series against the defending Western Conference champs.

It will be interesting to see how the Oklahoma City fans react to Harden’s return when there’s a lot more than just a regular season game on the line.

NBC News2. How will the Lakers fare without Kobe?

Kobe Bryant guaranteed that the Los Angeles Lakers would make the playoffs. He got them there but they will have to do the rest without him.

The team that many were predicting to be one of the best ever did not quite live up to those expectations, but they made it this far and now they are up against a faltering Spurs team that they beat at home less than a week ago. They have a shot to advance if all the players not named Kobe step up, but who’s going to fill that role?

It is pretty clear that the Lakers want Dwight Howard to be the new leader of this team, but whether he is ready or not remains to be seen. They still have Pau Gasol and Steve Nash (if he can get healthy), who have plenty of playoff experience and are capable of some pretty amazing things.

This Lakers team without Kobe is a big question mark. Will they catch lightning in a bottle and get hot at the right time?

3. How vulnerable are the Spurs?

The San Antonio Spurs are literally limping into the postseason. A number of players are injured or recovering from injury. They’ve lost seven of their last 10 and seven in a row on the road.

Teams that do not preform well before the playoffs typically do not do so well in the playoffs, but if any coach has the ability to flip a switch and have his team do a complete 180, wouldn’t you guess it would be Gregg Popovich?

If the Spurs cannot turn it around, they will be on upset alert starting from day one. If they can pull it together and get back to their midseason form, then they have a great chance of getting back to the Western Conference Finals.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images/Sports Illustrated

4. Can the Nuggets continue their magic run at home?

The Denver Nuggets went 38-3 at home this season, best in the NBA. If they are going to be unbeatable at home, then they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. They have their own injury problems, with the loss of Danilo Gallinari for the season and Kenneth Faried’s Game 1 status up in the air.

So how long can Denver’s magic run in the Pepsi Center continue? Golden State might not be the best team to test if the Nuggets are unbeatable at home, but it will be something to keep an eye on for the rest of the postseason.

5. Can the Clippers finally get over the hump?

When you look at the Los Angeles Clippers, you could predict they make it to the NBA Finals or you can predict they will lose in the first round and I would not criticize you either way. They have one of, if not the best point guards in the NBA and a group of high-flying big men, but they also have chemistry and maturity issues that make this team very sporadic.

The Clippers have looked like they were finally ready to compete for a title in the past but ultimately left the fans disappointed in the end. Is this the year that they finally put it all together and play past their potential?