With quite possibly the greatest regular season in NBA history coming to a close, it’s time to turn our attention to what should be one hell of a postseason. There are intriguing storylines everywhere you look, which of course only causes more excitement for the playoffs to finally kick off.
Yesterday, I gave you my Eastern Conference Predictions (http://bit.ly/gcx59b) and today we move on to the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Unlike the East, the first round of the playoffs in the West could potentially give us two to three lower seeds advancing to the second round. Like the Bulls in the East, the Spurs are the surprise top-seed out West after playing well all year long. They are followed by the back-to-back defending champion Lakers who struggled (were bored?) at times during the regular season, and then the Mavs who are always an enigma come playoff time. Two young teams fill the 4-5 matchup as the up-and-coming Thunder take on the revamped and dangerous Nuggets. At the six you have Portland who is no slouch and definitely better than their seeding tells you. Rounding out the conference bracket are two teams looking to make some noise in the Hornets and Grizzlies, who are trying to win their first playoff game…ever.
So what should we expect in the Wild West? Let’s take a look!
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies
Usually, a 1/8 match-up is easy to pick and generally lasts no more than five games. However this is an intriguing first-round series for many reasons. The Spurs cruised through most of the regular season, leading the conference pretty much from opening night until the season ended. But the ride wasn’t exactly smooth all the way through. The last month was a struggle for the Spurs, and an injury to Manu Ginobili on the final night of the regular season, in a meaningless game to boot, compounded their issues and have made the top-seed look very vulnerable heading into the postseason.
How vulnerable? Consider the Grizzlies, who are making their first playoff appearance since the 2005-06 season, controlled their own destiny and basically tanked a game against the Clippers to fall into the 8-seed and take on the Spurs. Lower-seeded teams generally want to avoid playing a team seeded at the top, but the Grizzlies pretty much chose to take on the Spurs in the first round. Memphis is playing with an unbelievable amount of confidence, making a late push into the playoffs despite losing their best player for the season in Rudy Gay. But a mid-season acquisition (Shane Battier) and a free-agent signing (Tony Allen) have been surprising sparks for the Memphis playoff push and have this Grizzlies team feeling like they can not only win the first playoff game in franchise history, but the first series as well.
San Antonio Spurs – Experience and Head Coaching
The Spurs are a team who has been here before. A lot of times before to be exact. With guys like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess on the roster, this squad has plenty of Finals experience. And in the playoffs, experience tends to win out against youth, just ask the Thunder about last season. Another huge advantage that the Spurs have comes with their head coach, Greg Poppovich. While the Grizz are being lead by a coach making his first playoff appearance, the Spurs have the second-most experience head coach in all of the playoffs. Advantage, Spurs.
Memphis Grizzlies – The Underdog Factor
The Grizzlies are clearly the underdogs heading into this series, and that is exactly how they want it. This is a team that quietly has one of the deepest rosters in the league, even without Rudy Gay playing. Darrel Arthur has gone from draft-bust to serviceable big in one season, greatly improving and adding depth to the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph combo inside. Tony Allen has become a revelation and one of the funnest players to watch, suddenly taking shots in crunch time and turning into a leader. Add his tenacity on defense to that of Shane Battier, and suddenly this is a Grizzlies team with a very solid roster, and that’s without even mentioning OJ Mayo’s improved play and Mike Conley’s continued growth at the point guard position.
Zach Randolph vs. Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan may no longer be the guy that can give you a 20-10 every night, but he holds the key for the Spurs winning this series. Duncan will be matched up with Randolph, who is a 20-10 threat every night and a borderline All-Star this season. If Randolph is able to get going it will open everything up for the players around him and make Memphis offense that much better. Duncan will have to do a good job of containing Randolph to allow the Spurs to avoid having to double-team. The flipside to that is that Randolph isn’t exactly a defensive force, so Duncan has to hit open shots when available and pick his spots to attack Randolph and force him to play both ways.
Spurs 4, Grizzlies 2
The Grizz will get their first postseason win in franchise history during this series, quite possibly in a Game 1 that will be missing Manu Ginobili, but eventually the Spurs experience will win out. San Antonio will have to use this series to get their roster clicking and running on all cylinders because if they are still struggling come the Conference Semi’s, they will be out of the playoffs a lot sooner than expected. Grizz fans should enjoy this playoff run and wait til next season as an improving squad will have their best player back to make some postseason noise.
(2) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (7) New Orleans Hornets
Remember the last match-up where I said the 1/8 series is usually easy to predict but won’t be this time? Think the opposite for this series, which looks like a mismatch all over. The Lakers have been one of the biggest enigmas in the league this season, having losing streaks of three, four and five games on separate occasions after not having one that long in the past three seasons. At times they have looked like an aging, struggling team. That is if you haven’t been watching them and listen to ESPN. The fact is, these Lakers have at times looked bored and sick of the regular season. This squad knows you don’t win anything until the playoffs start, and whether for good or bad, have been playing like that all season long. Except for a 17-1 stretch after the All-Star break saw them dominate the Spurs on the road, and the Mavs in Dallas and LA. Oh and also beat Orlando, Boston, Atlanta and a few other playoff teams during their most difficult stretch of the season.
The Hornets meanwhile are coming into the playoffs missing their prime option inside, David West. West tore his ACL on a vicious and-one dunk in a game against the Jazz and is out for about a year. This is a devastating blow to an already undersized Hornets team going up against one of the longest teams in the league in the Lakers. New Orleans however has to be ecstatic to be back in the playoffs in a year where many predicted they wouldn’t make it. Chris Paul is once again an elite point guard and has been a great leader all season long for a Hornets team that few thought would play this well.
Los Angeles Lakers – Length
I could probably put this down as the Lakers advantage in every single playoff series they will play this year. With three skilled 7-footers, Los Angeles is always going to have a size-advantage over teams in the paint. But it’s not just the height of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum that gives the Lakers an advantage, it’s their length. Bynum has become a defensive force since the All-Star break, dominating the boards and using his length to either alter or block plenty of shots in the paint. Pau Gasol uses his length on offense to hit an array of post-moves that allow him to basically be a 20-10 guy every night. And Odom has stepped his game up to All-Star levels, creating mismatches every time he steps on the court and becoming the best Sixth Man in the NBA.
New Orleans Hornets – Point Guard Play
The first thing that came to mind when you read “Point Guard Play” was probably Chris Paul. And while CP3 is a great advantage over pretty much every team in the league, he’s not the only point guard on the roster than gives the Hornets an edge. Paul’s best friend and back-up is Jarret Jack, a point man that can score as well as dish the rock. Put those two together and add in the fact that the Lakers have had their share of point guard issues, and that is one position where the Hornets are clearly the leader.
Emeka Okafor vs. Odom/Gasol/Bynum
Depending on who he guards, Okafor may hold the key to the Hornets keeping this thing competitive. If he can slow down Gasol on offense, it forces the Lakers to feed Bynum more, something they tend to forget to do. Okafor has to be a beast on the boards, otherwise the Hornets don’t stand a chance inside. While asking the former second overall pick to average a 20-10 and play lockdown defense might be too much, if he can just play at a level close to that of Gasol or Bynum he will give the Hornets a much better chance in this series.
Lakers 4, Hornets 0
Unfortunately for the Hornets, I just don’t see Okafor being able to do that. Like the regular season match-up, this should be a Laker sweep. Los Angeles will want to finish this as quickly as possible to rest up a little bit before a match-up with the winner of the Dallas/Portland series in a series that promises to give the Lakers more of a challenge than this first-round matchup. If the Hornets had David West this might have been a more competitive game, but unfortunately for them they just don’t have the firepower to keep up with the Lakers.
(3) Dallas Mavericks vs. (6) Portland Trailblazers
Upset alert! This series has all the makings of being a great one. Dallas comes into the playoffs struggling big time. After holding the two-seed for most of the season they let it slip away and dropped into a match-up with a confident Blazers team. Before blowing out a Hornets team looking to drop to the 8-spot, the Mavs had lost nine consecutive games to Western Conference playoff teams, including two losses to this very same Portland team. Dallas needs to have guys not named Dirk Nowitzki step up and lighten the load on the All-Star big man.
The Blazers head into the playoffs as not only a confident group, but a team on a roll. Since trading for Gerald Wallace, Portland has taken a leap into a very, very good and very, very dangerous squad. Portland was the one team none of the top three seeds wanted to face because in a loaded West they are good enough to beat any of them. The Blazers are like the Laker in that they are a long team that makes it tough for their opponent to score in the paint, yet have the wing defenders to give players outside trouble as well.
Dallas Mavericks – Home-court
Despite being a higher seed, Dallas really doesn’t have too much of an advantage over the Blazers when it comes to rosters. In a series so evenly matched, the most important thing usually comes down to who has homecourt, just ask Boston. Dallas is a very difficult team to beat at home, and that should help them out in this series. Because Portland is such a difficult place to win, the Mavs may have to win every home game to move on.
Portland Trailblazers – Momentum
Unlike the past couple of seasons, the Blazers are actually getting healthier as they get closer to the playoffs. Brandon Roy is giving more than any Blazer fan could have asked for right now, and Lamarcus Aldridge is playing at an All-Star level. Add in the energy Wallace has injected into the roster and this Blazer team is gelling at the right time. If they can continue getting contributions from guys like Nicolas Batum and Andre Miller, a deep playoff run is not out of the question.
Dirk Nowitzki vs. Lamarcus Aldridge
While both of these teams have deep rosters, they tend to rely on their power forwards for most of their offense. The key to this evenly-matched series could be as simple as which four-man plays better. Aldridge has been one of the best big men in all of the NBA since January, keeping the Blazers in contention for a playoff spot while their roster was plagued by injuries and then leading them up the seedings right into a perfect match-up with the Mavs. Nowitzki has had as good a season as we’ve ever seen from him, and that’s saying something considering he was the 2007 NBA MVP. These two should give us some great duels in what will be a fun series.
Blazers 4, Mavs 2
This was a tough series to pick, but ultimately Dallas just seems to be folding under the pressure of the playoffs yet again. They were falling apart at the end of the season and I just don’t think they can get it together in time against a very game Blazers squad. Portland is almost impossible to beat at home, and I think they will steal a game in Dallas as well. Blazers in 6, and Laker fans everywhere cringe.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Denver Nuggets
By far, this is the most entertaining series of the first-round. Anyone who is a fan of the game of basketball will want to watch every game this series has to offer, and it has all the makings of giving us seven wonderful clashes. The Thunder are a contender on the rise. They have quietly become a force since acquiring Kendrick Perkins, and now have what many believe to be a roster capable of winning an NBA title this season. With Kevin Durant doing what he usually does, Russell Westbrook has blossomed into one of the best second-best players in the NBA. But something less obvious this season has been the emergence of Serge Ibaka, specifically since the Perkins trade. Ibaka is now free to roam and challenge as many shots as he wants, not having to guard the opposing teams best post player every night. This has made OKC one of the best defensive teams in the league as of late.
Denver is a team that has surprised a lot of people late in the season. After dealing with the Melo Drama all season long, they have actually gotten a lot better since trading the perennial All-Star to the Knicks. The players Denver got in return have turned the Nuggets into quite possibly the deepest team in the NBA. The thing about Denver is they don’t have any guys good enough to be the best player on a team, but they have a bunch of guys good enough to be the second and third-best players on any NBA roster. This allows them to play free and at their highest level because they know there is another guy just as talented waiting to take their minutes if they falter. All of those things have allowed the Nuggets to become one of the funnest teams to watch in the NBA right now.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Star Power
The Thunder may not be as deep as Denver, but they have the two best players in this series in Durant and Westbrook. Also depending on what you think of Perkins, the Thunder may have the best post-player in this series. In crunch-time, OKC knows where the ball is going and who is going to be getting them buckets when it matters most. That is something that Denver can’t also say because they don’t have the star closer that the Thunder have. And if Durant falters, Westbrook is there to pick up the slack for him. Those two alone may be the difference in this tightly contested series that promises to have plenty of games come down to the wire.
Denver Nuggets – Unbelievable Depth
Star power or not, the Nuggets have 10 guys who can bring it on any given night, and if two or three of them get hot then look out. Denver has shown the capability of dropping 120 on even the best defensive teams, and once their offense gets rolling it’s hard to stop. One of the main reasons for this is that depth. If one guy is off they can just plug in another equally talented player to pick up his slack, and because they don’t lose too much talent whenever they substitute, it’s hard to gameplan against which Nugget you want to stop. Denver has the luxury of going to any guy on the court at any time, and if there is a mismatch anywhere they can almost always take advantage of it.
Arron Afflalo vs. Durant/Westbrook
Afflalo has quietly turned into one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA today, giving guys like Kobe fits whenever they match up. He is also a versatile defender who will probably see time guarding both Westbrook and Durant. Afflalo will have to frustrate whichever star he’s guarding and force the other to take over a game. If either Durant or Westbrook isn’t able to do what they do best, then it throws the entire Thunder offense out of sync. This is especially true when Perkins and Ibaka are on the floor because they aren’t exactly offensive powerhouses.
Thunder 4, Nuggets 3
This series has seven games written all over it, and ultimately home-court and star power will push the Thunder over the top. While it wouldn’t be a surprise if either of these teams won, the Thunder seem to be on a collision course with the Lakers in the Conference Finals. Denver is a scary, scary team who is so deep they have the capability to pull this one out, and because of that this should be one hell of a first-round matchup.