Western Conference Round 1 Preview

Lakers (1) v. Thunder (8)

This one is my favorite matchup of the first round. Young pups with no experience trying to get some respect versus old dogs with nothing but experience trying to make their third straight Finals. Kobe versus Durant. Los Angeles versus a cow town. This one has everything you could want.

The Thunder have a legitimate shot at pulling a stunner here just based on the fact that Kobe’s fingers are messed up and Bynum coming back may completely throw off what little rhythm the Lakers have right now, which is very little considering they finished the season on a 3-6 skid. Add that to the fact that Durant is positively capable of carrying his team to a victory over anyone. If I’m a Lakers fan, I’m terrified, not just of OKC but of anyone really. Kobe is going to need to be healed and feeling good if they’re going to make the Finals. Right now, he is not and that is bad news.

Injuries aside, the Thunder actually matchup relatively well when comparing an 8 to a 1. Let’s take a look:

Point guard

Russell Westbrook should be able to do what he wants, when he wants. The Lakers biggest weakness has always been defending opposing point guards that handle the ball well (Exhibit A being last season’s series against Aaron Brooks and the Rockets) and that isn’t going to fix itself by Sunday. You’ll get your usual production out of Farmar and Brown (some of it good, some of it bad) and Fisher will step up in clutch moments because he’s done it before but he’ll be a borderline liability the first 40 minutes of each game.

Shooting guard

No contest here. Kobe Bryant is the best player in this series and top ten all-time, even with only 8 fingers. Thabo Sefolosha is maybe the starting shooting guard and the 5,629th best player of all time. Moving on.

Small forward

Kevin Durant is unstoppable and he is about to do a master reset on Ron Artest. The Lakers added Artest to guard bigger small forwards like Carmelo and LeBron not thinking that how well he guards a smaller forward like Durant could determine their season. Durant has been absolutely fantastic this season and should finish second in the MVP voting behind LeBron. He has really learned how and when to get off his shot whenever he wants and is neck and neck with Carmelo on Most Effortless Scorer Award. Artest is going to hit some shots but he is there to make an impact defensively and there is no way he is prepared to stop some one as silky smooth as Durant. He is not as good a perimeter defender as in years past not to mention that he’s a hot head and if he gets frustrated he could shoot the Lakers out of a game and/or punch someone in the face.

Power Forward

Lamar Odom will choke if you give him the chance. He really is at his best when carrying the second unit and the pressure is on everyone else. In the past, when with the Heat and the Clippers, he was asked to be the second option and he failed because he doesn’t have that thing that make Kobe and Durant so good. He has the talent, ability, and athleticism to dominate any player of any type but he just doesn’t. There are nights where he carries the Lakers for stretches but he doesn’t do it night to night. He’s really at home being the 4th and maybe even 5th best player where he has no pressure.  Jeff Green is the exact opposite. He works incredibly hard to get done what he does and he wants to win and dominate his guy every second he’s on the floor. He’s not as skilled a passer yet but he has a nose for the basket and a knack for pulling down a big rebound or two.

Center

A mismatch sure but not as big as you’d think when glancing over the lineups. Gasol is a great scorer, passer, rebounder and is underrated as a defender because he takes up space and stays out of foul trouble. He shoots a very high percentage and shoots 80% from the stripe. Krstic will be able to counter some of that because he’ll have six fouls and is just as big as Gasol. The real battle will be Serge Ibaka versus Gasol. Ibaka, as a rookie really established himself as an excellent front court defender and even though he will be giving up a couple inches to Gasol, his arms allow him to make up that difference.

All of this taken in to account and I expect an excellent first round series that will test both teams. The Lakers coasted the last month and will need to flip the proverbial switch or find themselves watching in May instead of playing in May. In a tight series though, experience will beat youth 9 times out of 10 and I expect that to hold true here too. They may be too green this season but watch out for the Thunder for the next five years if this team stays together. Durant has the highest ceiling of any living player and he’ll carry his teammates with him.

The Lakers have just enough in the tank to stave off the Thunder 4-3

Mavericks (2) v. Spurs (7)

Let’s call this the Last Chance Series. Both teams primary stars (Duncan and Nowitzki) are not what you would call spring chickens. Their supporting cast has some nice pieces but other main pieces are either older than the star (McDyess and Kidd) or very green (Hill and Beaubois). Both teams have had their chances in the past with the Spurs winning 4 championships and the Mavericks got reffed out of the ’06 Finals against the Heat. This may the last chance for the Duncan Era Spurs to make a run and win one for the thumb. They looked increasingly vulnerable all season and though they finished strong (19-7 since March) they are the 7 seed for a reason.

This is definitively a Nowitzki led Mavericks team’s last chance. It’s not even Nowitzki either who is playing better than ever. It would have been the best season of his career had Carl Landry’s teeth not assaulted Dirk’s arm and derailed him for a good chunk of the season. The issue is more with Dirk’s teammates and everyone will be a year older. Next season the Mavericks combined team age will be approximately 12 hundred thousand. They’re old is what I’m trying to say.

It’s an intriguing series that should play well because of the decreased travel time and the teams familiarity from last years postseason. Kidd will get the most out of his legs and Butler will present problems for San Antonio. On the other hand, I think the Spurs found a pulse in Richard Jefferson the other day, so they got that going for them.

The Spurs pull everything out of their bag of tricks but the Mavs prevail 4-3

Suns (3) v. Blazers (6)

The Suns finished the season on an absolute high going 28-7 and capping it off with blowout wins over Denver and Utah on the last two nights of the season to lock up the three seed and the most favorable matchup in the first round with the Blazers.

The Blazers have lost over 300 games to injury this season and now with the news Brandon Roy will miss the playoffs there is no chance the Blazers pull the upset here. When healthy, the Blazers are a tough matchup for any team. They’ve got tons of depth and length and a heady point guard who can run the offense until the final two minutes when Brandon Roy can take over. If completely healthy, they win this series.

They still have some length and the same point guard but no depth and, more importantly, no Roy to alleviate the pressure off of everyone else.

That’s a problem the Suns don’t have. They have their best player and he is surrounded by players made to take advantage of his talents. Amare will make his share of highlights by dunking and getting dunked on. Jason Richardson is a legit 2-guard who is shooting the best ball of his career since teaming with Nash. Along with Richardson (39% from beyond the arc) and Nash (42%), the team is full of bombers like Jared Dudley (45%), Leandro Barbosa (33%), Goran Dragic (and Channing Frye (43%). Robin Lopez is hurt right now and he is their biggest inside presence but they shouldn’t need him to dispatch these injured Blazers. If comes back after this series, watch out for the Suns.

Suns make easy work of these Blazers 4-1

Nuggets (4) v. Jazz (5)

Cancel out home court advantage in this one. Neither team will be at a disadvantage because of altitude or travel since they’re so close in proximity. Division rivals always make for interesting bedfellows and this should be a fun series. The Nuggets are the most interesting team in the playoffs because of their ability to go either way. They could sweep or get swept out and no one would be surprised. They’re full of head cases which wouldn’t be terrible if their coach, who’s great at handling egos, wasn’t recovering from cancer treatment. They’ve fallen apart down the stretch and the apparent challenger to the Lakers in December are now going to have to fight for the right just to play the Lakers. The’ve been through the playoff run, getting to the Western Conference Finals last season but it all depends on their leadership. They have a tendency to shy away from Carmelo down the stretch, which is strange since he is the best scorer on the  team.

I’ll tell you why this happens: Billups still thinks he is Mr. Big Shot. He isn’t. He was terrible after Game 4 of the Lakers series last year, he vanished during the last two games of the 2003 Eastern Finals, choked during Game 7 of the ’05 Finals, shot a combined 6 for 26 in Games 5 and 6 of the 2006 Eastern Finals against the Heat, scored 9 points against the Cavs in Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Finals, and actually managed to play so poorly against the Celtics in ’08 that everyone thought he had retired without a press conference. Doesn’t sound like Mr. Big Shot. Maybe we should call him Mr. Regular Season Big Shot. The Nuggets need to Chauncey to lose his ego down the stretch and just feed it to Carmelo. He can’t shoot them out of games or this series will be over quickly.

Include J. R. Smith in that group as well. He shot 6 for 26 in the three road games against the Lakers in the Western Finals. Can they count on him? Apparently not on the road. Throw in the fact that he is a loose cannon who will try to answer every three with a bad one of his own. Kenyon Martin is injured and Nene has a penchant to fold like a chair and that’s a recipe for losing.

There is a lot to like in spite of this though. Carmelo is impossible to guard. Impossible. They also went 3-1 against the Jazz this season. That counts for something, except that is doesn’t now that the season essentially starts over on Saturday. Okay, so there’s one thing to like.

There is more to like about the Jazz though. Sure Boozer, Kirilenko, and Okur are a little banged up but none are serious enough to affect the team too much. They ended the season on a 35-14 run that vaulted them up the standings to almost win the three seed on the last day of the season. That 35-14 also means that Utah started slowly. The Jazz can play any style and matchup with any team because of their front court depth and Deron Williams ability to run the fast break. They can bang better than the Nuggets can bang and Williams can run right by Billups when the Nuggets want to run and gun.

These teams are headed in opposite directions right now and those directions are a collision course for each other. Depending on which versions of either team, it’s impossible to know what to expect. Jazz sweep? Sure. Nuggets sweep. That’s in play. Knock down, drag out 7 game series. Likely.

Jazz steal one in Denver and fight off an unfocused Nuggets team 4-3

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on April 17, 2010 at 2:23 am

    I think this article had a lot of valididity… However, I think that the nuggets will sweep the Jazz. Take that to the BANK!
    Better check your facts…
    Nuggets sweep 4-0

    Reply

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