This weekend marks the beginning of the best two months of basketball (outside of March Madness), the NBA Playoffs! The Western Conference brings us the exact opposite scenario of the East, where only one series seems to be a foregone conclusion, and the other three can swing either way. Let’s take a look at which teams in the West should be moving on to the second round.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Oklahoma City Thunder –
Kevin Durant vs. Ron Artest
Kobe Bryant vs. Thabo Sefolosha
Russell Westbrook vs. Derek Fisher
Andrew Bynum vs. Andrew Bynum’s Achilles
So what exactly is wrong with the Lakers? Is it boredom or is there actually a fatal flaw with this squad? Whatever it is, we’re about to find out as the Champs start their title defense. Los Angeles heads into the playoffs losers of eight of their final twelve games, but are finally getting back center Andrew Bynum and have what should be a fully rested Kobe Bryant after he took a week off. The Thunder, meanwhile, are making their first playoff appearance since moving from Seattle, and are out to prove they are not just a team happy to be there. Oklahoma City was picked by many to compete for a playoff spot, but before faltering down the stretch they were actually in contention for home-court advantage in the first round. Quite a turnaround for a young team being lead by the youngest scoring champion in NBA history, Kevin Durant.
There are plenty of great match-ups to watch when these teams hit the court this upcoming Sunday. For the Thunder, their offense starts and ends with Kevin Durant. If he is able to get going it makes things much easier on his young teammates, who will for the most part all be making their playoff debuts. Durant will be covered by the always physical, sometimes crazy Ron Artest, who has made a living shutting down scorers just like Durant. The Lakers went 3-1 against the Thunder, and in those games Durant was clearly bothered by the physical play of Artest. It will be interesting to see how the scorer handles the playoff atmosphere. Speaking of scorers, the key to the Lakers title defense is definitely Kobe Bryant. The reigning Finals MVP has had a rough season, playing through an array of injuries and his shot having struggled because of it. However, after a week of rest to close the season, Bryant comes into the first round ready and hungry for a fifth ring. He will match-up against Thabo Sefolosha, a player who held his own against Bryant in the last meeting between the two teams. Bryant should have his way however, which he usually does come playoff time.
While the Thunder can give the Lakers fits if Russell Westbrook gets going against the aging Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum struggles in his return from injury, they shouldn’t take more than a game from the Lakers. Pau Gasol should have a huge series with no OKC player who can match-up with him, and the Lakers take this one in five closer-than-you-think games. Lakers in 5
(2) Dallas Mavericks vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs –
Caron Butler vs. Richard Jefferson/Manu Ginobili
Tony Parker vs. Mavs Help Defense
Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki
Tell me if you’ve seen this before, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs facing off in the playoffs. Of course you have. For what seems like the tenth time this decade, the two powerhouses from the South will do a Texas two-step. This is one of those series where the seedings mean absolutely nothing. The Spurs are possibly the best 7-seed in playoff history, finally having started clicking as the season came to an end, and seem to finally be getting healthy at just the right time. The Mavs survived a tough battle to get the second seed in the West and are possibly just as deep of a team as the Lakers. For both of these teams it seems like this is the last season they will have a shot at the title.
At the trade deadline Dallas went out and got Caron Butler from the Wizards for match-ups just like this. He will be asked to defend both Richard Jefferson and Manu Ginobili at different times in the game, and how he fares could very well determine who has the momentum in key situations down the stretch. An area where the Spurs may have a big advantage is Tony Parker going against Jason Kidd, who has had a great season but is lacking in any type of lateral speed. Parker will be able to get by Kidd at will, and how effective the Mavs help defense is could determine who wins the battle in the paint. If Parker is able to penetrate early and often he could get plenty of lay-ups and open things up inside for Tim Duncan when the help defense comes. Speaking of Duncan, he will be matched up with Dirk Nowitzki in what will be the match-up that determines this series. Duncan is an aging superstar who may be making his last hurrah as a game-changer in the playoffs, and he will be trying to shut down the Mavs’ MVP candidate. The rap on Nowitzki is that he’s a bad leader come playoff time, but in situations when it matters most his numbers always seem to go up.
The problem with all of these match-ups is that they seem to bring both teams to a draw, and come playoff time when there are such evenly matched teams, the deciding factor is usually home-court advantage. While I don’t doubt the Spurs ability to win on the road and believe there will be more than one road win in the series, the Mavs are simply too deep and should pull it out at home as this one goes the distance. Mavs in 7
(3) Phoenix Suns vs. (6) Portland Trailblazers –
Andre Miller vs. Steve Nash
Amar’e Stoudemire vs. Lamarcus Aldridge
Portland’s Shooters vs. Phoenix’ Shooters
Aside from the Thunder, Phoenix is probably the most surprising team in the playoffs in the West. There were doubts they would even make the playoffs in the West, and all the Suns did was end up with the three-seed. Steve Nash has turned his career around, again, and had what might have been his most impressive season to date, leading the NBA in assists again. Amar’e Stoudemire has been on a tear since the All-Star break, making everyone forget why exactly the Suns were trying to trade him at the deadline. Portland is a team that has probably faced the most adversity (besides the Wizards) in the NBA. No team has had more injuries than the Blazers, who have lost both of their centers, their All-Star guard Brandon Roy and even coach Nate McMillan to injuries this season. However, they still won 50 games, and not only made the playoffs, but ended up as the six seed in a ridiculously stacked Western Conference.
There are plenty of intriguing match-ups in this series, starting in the post where Stoudemire will be going at Lamarcus Aldridge. While Stoudemire has put up incredible numbers recently, Aldridge is no slouch himself, taking much of the scoring load to offset the injuries to his team. The most important competition in this series though comes in the backcourt, where Nash and Andre Miller will do battle and the shooters will play a huge role in who moves on and who goes home. Both points are capable of leading their teams without having to do much scoring, but the amount of pressure on them and the bigs inside will be determined by how accurate the wide array of shooters in this series are. The Suns have an advantage because they can march out shooters at all five positions, from Nash to Leandro Barbosa to Channing Frye and Jared Dudley, all players who can catch fire at any time. The Blazers aren’t too shabby in the sharp-shooter department either, marching out guys such as Rudy Fernandez and Martell Webster who can catch fire and completely swing the momentum of a game by themselves.
While Portland has overachieved all season long, it’s simply asking too much of them to overcome the loss of Roy for the series. The Suns should advance, but not without getting an all-out fight from the Blazers for six games. Suns in 6
(4) Denver Nuggets vs. (5) Utah Jazz –
Deron Williams vs. Chauncey Billups
Carlos Boozer vs. Kenyon Martin/Nene
Carmelo Anthony vs. Utah Defense
Which team has struggled more closing out the season? The Nuggets without coach George Karl, slipping from the two-seed down to fourth, or the Jazz who can’t seem to win any big games and had a chance to get home-court advantage with a win, only to get blown out at home by the Suns? It seems neither team is ready for the playoffs, however either can get it going and march straight to the NBA Finals. Denver is still considered by many to be the team with the best chance of knocking off the Lakers, but the Nuggets have missed their head coach more than anyone could have guessed, struggling in close games and losing their composure in games they ended up losing. The Jazz, meanwhile, are dealing with an array of injuries to Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko that threaten to derail what was a very promising season.
Both of these teams are run by star point guards who can completely change the tempo of a game. Chauncey Billups is a former Finals MVP who simply knows how to win and does not take nonsense come playoff time – there is no doubt he will keep his team in check. Deron Williams meanwhile is a match-up nightmare for any team, a strong point who can take you into the post to score, but is fast enough to blow by you on the outside, too. Meanwhile, on the inside, Carlos Boozer will have a tough time dealing with both Kenyon Martin and Nene in the battle of the paint. Boozer and Martin are both coming off of injuries that may limit them and could have a huge effect on the outcome of this series. The most important match-up however will be the array of defenders Utah sends out at the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony. Melo is the type of player who could get hot for a series and single-handedly win four games and advance his squad. His production will determine just how well Denver does for this round – and the rest of the playoffs should they advance.
This is a very evenly matched series, with both teams having star point guards, injured forwards and star scorers. Like the Mavs-Spurs series, this should come down to home-court advantage; look for Carmelo Anthony to have a big series as this one also goes the distance but Denver takes it. Nuggets in 7
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a