First-Round Playoff Preview Continued…
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Spurs
What more can you say about Greg Popovich and his team? Predicted to struggle with a hectic, congested schedule, the Spurs finished top of the West, played some fantastically entertaining basketball, and are once again poised to make a run at the Larry O’Brien trophy. That’s not too bad for an old team that was seemingly over the hill.
Popovich has done a masterful job managing the minutes of his stars and introducing young players that have slotted seamlessly into the roster. The Spurs have the perfect blend of youth and experience. Complementing the big three of Parker, Duncan and Ginobli are promising youngsters like rookie Kawhi Leonard and two-guard Danny Green.
At the trade deadline the Spurs also picked up playoff-tested veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, adding some real playoff toughness. Don’t bet against this Spurs team winning their 5th NBA championship.
Like the Spurs, the Jazz are one of the surprise stories of the West this year. Not too many people, myself included, thought they’d make the post season. Coach Tyrone Corbin should be on the short-list for coach of the year for his work molding an exciting but very inexperienced group into a competitive force. The Jazz are one of the best rebounding and shot blocking teams in the league, and are developing a fearsome reputation in the frontcourt. Their frontline of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derek Favors will be absolutely terrifying in the years to come, but they have already presented teams with immense problems this season.
Remember how the Grizzlies upset the Spurs in the first round last year? They did it by pounding the ball down low and allowing Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to go to work inside. The Jazz‘s frontline, as mentioned, is capable of causing similar havoc. They block shots, dominate the glass, and score consistently. Tim Duncan could be in for some long nights.
Prediction: The Jazz are a young, dangerous team and are good enough to win a couple games at home in this series. However, the Spurs are simply too deep and possess too much playoff experience. A healthy Ginobli, and the addition of athletic perimeter defenders like Leonard and Jackson, will ensure that there’s no early exit repeat for Spurs this year. Spurs in 6
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Thunder
A repeat of last season’s Western Conference final, this match-up finds these two teams heading in opposite directions. The Thunder are young, dynamic and exciting, and will have gained a little more playoff savvy since the last time these two teams met. Expect the result to reflect that fact.
Illustrated by their record, the Thunder are a fantastic team. They possess two of the game’s top-10 players in Durant and Westbrook, along with 6th man of the year James Harden.
On many nights this season, the combination of two of those three guys playing well has made the team unstoppable. Offensively, the Thunder are one of the best in the league, with Durant and Westbrook having the ability to go one-on-one and destroy teams off the dribble. At times, however, the Thunder lapse into jump-shooting mode and lack the option of an inside scoring presence when the shots aren’t falling.
This isn’t likely to hurt them early in the playoffs against the likes of Dallas, but could become a major issue later on.
For the Dallas Mavericks, it’s been a real hangover season after last years’ improbable run to the championship. Owner Mark Cuban has insisted that all that really matters in this chaotic year is making the playoffs. It’s difficult to imagine, however, a team that’s looked more older, slower, and sometimes disinterested suddenly turning it on against a young, motivated team like the Thunder.
Nowitzki, after a very slow start, has begun to recapture his form, but the loss of Tyson Chandler and the lack of other scoring options, make it hard to believe the Mavericks will repeat as champs.
We all know that Dirk will get his points and Terry will score off the bench, but for the Mavericks to have any chance of slowing down the potent Thunder offense, Shawn Marion will have to be huge on both ends. The Matrix is Dallas’s best perimeter defender and will have to slow down Kevin Durant. If he can do that, and Dallas can slow the game down in general, they might have a chance.
Prediction: The Thunder are too young, too skilled, and too hungry. Dallas had their moment of glory last June and are already looking ahead to next year when Deron Williams might be joining Dirk in Big D. Thunder in 5
Los Angeles Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6)
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Lakers
If the Knicks were the team in the East that had the craziest regular season, then the Lakers win that award in the West. Mike Brown has dealt with more dysfunction in one season then most coaches have had to contend with in a career.
Brown has met resistance trying to implement a new system, replacing Phil Jackson’s much loved triangle offense, and has had to deal with a variety of high-maintenance egos, including the real boss of the team, Kobe Bryant, not to mention Bynum and a very non-peaceful Metta World Peace.
Through it all the Lakers have remained one the best teams in the West, and still have a decent shot at winning it all. In Bryant they have one of the greatest closers in the game, and down low they are a handful for any team. The emergence of Andrew Bynum this year as a dominant low post threat has added another dimension to their offense, and this will prove to be the difference against the Denver Nuggets.
Denver coach George Karl has done an admirable job keeping his team competitive despite a slew of injuries. The Nuggets have rarely been able to put out their first choice team and have suffered key injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Rudy Fernandez this year. Offensively the Nuggets are the most explosive team in the league and play a run-and-gun up-tempo style that wears out opponents, particularly in the high altitude of Denver. The emergence of monster rookie Kenneth Faried has also been a massive plus, allowing the Nuggets the luxury of shedding Nene’s inflated contract.
The Lakers are an older team and it would be in the best interest of Ty Lawson and the Nuggets to push the pace and prevent the game from becoming a drawn-out half-court battle: something the Lakers will hope happens. If they can keep it up-tempo they may have a chance to keep the series competitive
Prediction: There is absolutely no one on the Nuggets that can guard Gasol or Bynum, and provided that Kobe shares the ball with his inside weapons, the Nuggets are going to get destroyed in the paint. The suspension of World Peace and the chance that the Lakers could implode at any time will keep it interesting, but the Lakers have too much firepower to lose this series. Lakers in 6
Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Clippers
This is the pick of the first-round matchups in the West and not just because the Clippers are growing awesome playoff beards. These two teams are evenly matched, as their seeding would suggest, so expect this series to be very close.
After 30 years of futility, living in the shadow of their big brother Lakers, the Clippers have gone a long way this year in changing their losing culture. Despite the mid-season blips and doubts about Vinny Del Negro’s competence, the Clippers are emerging as an elite team in the West.
Most of this is down to the leadership of Chris Paul, who has had an MVP caliber year. Blake Griffin has a lot to work on, but is emerging as an elite power forward and continues to be a walking highlight reel. Paul and Griffin will have to be at their best, however, to defeat this scary Memphis team.
The Grizzlies were, of course, last year’s playoff surprise: a team that was one game away from the Western Conference finals. This year they have continued that upward trajectory. Memphis is going to be a major headache for any team in the West, and are rightly some peoples’ dark horses to win it all. Rudy Gay, injured during last years playoff run, has provided timely scoring from the wing, and Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (recently back from injury) continue to be a nightmare for any team down low. In the backcourt Mike Conley and Tony Allen provide suffocating perimeter defence, and are a big reason why the Grizzles led the league in steals this year.
Chris Paul has been great all season, but the Clippers have relied on his scoring in close games too often. Blake Griffin’s terrible free-throw shooting means that he becomes a liability down the stretch, not to mention that he will have immense problems dealing with the length of Gasol, Randolph and Marreese Speights. For the Clippers to have a chance at beating Memphis, their underachieving wing players will have to step up big. The likes of Caron Butler and Nick Young will need to do their share of scoring to take the pressure of Paul.
Prediction: The Clippers have enough quality to make this a long series, but there are endless matchup problems for them to contend with. Memphis is the real deal this year and they have the inside presence to severely disrupt Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, while possessing elite perimeter defenders that will make life very difficult for Chris Paul. The Grizzlies will prove too tough in the end. Grizzlies in 6