The playoffs are coming, the playoffs are coming! With the regular season coming to a close late last night, the first round pairings have been set. Finally, the West and all the jockeying that has gone on for position is over and the seeds are set. Here is a detailed breakdown of the Western Conference playoff picture as seen by me (Doyle Rader). Each series segment contains factors that could play out during the series and ends with a projected winner and the number of games it will take for a winner to emerge. Let’s dive right in.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8. Oklahoma City Thunder
This series can essentially be equated to the Roman Empire versus the Huns and Visigoths. If the Lakers lose this series the city of L.A. and the national media will surely think that civilization itself is falling. I have previously discussed this series this week but since that time new factors have come to light. In the month of April, Kobe Bryant is shooting 30 percent from the floor and he has not scored over 40 points in a victory since December. The 40 point plateau should not be a major concern, however, as it has been noted time and again that when he shoots less and scores less the Lakers, statistically, perform better giving the team a better chance of winning. What should be a concern is the 30 percent shooting which likely stems from a fractured finger and overall fatigue. (Bryant has played in the previous two NBA Finals and has played the previous two summers for Team USA.) How well does he expect to fare in playoffs? Oklahoma City is no cakewalk. They will bump, check, swipe, claw, knock down, hurry, and fluster Bryant every minute he is on the court. Thabo Sefolosha will be the primary stopper guarding Bryant and will do all of the above and then some to force Kobe out of his game and into low percentage shots. It will come down to the other Lakers’ starters and Lamar Odom to pick up the team.
Phil Jackson may have the moniker Zen Master but he could have just hurt the Zen of his team by disturbing the quiet nature of another. Earlier this week, Jackson began complaining about all the fouls called for Kevin Durant which end up sending him to the line. Maybe Jackson thought the series had started already or maybe he was channeling the aura of Kevin Garnett? “Yeah, by the calls he gets, he really gets to the line a lot, I’ll tell ya,” Jackson said of Durant. “There’s a couple of plays in the last game where I was pretty curious how he got there. He really has a reputation as one of the hot points in the league.” Could it be that Jackson was just trying to work the league and the referees over before the series because he is legitimately worried about the threat posed by the Thunder and the overall lackluster play of his own team? Is Jupiter the largest planet in the solar system? As can be imagined, mild mannered and humble Kevin Durant responded, “Ever since KG said something, everybody’s been questioning how I get to the line. If you watch our games, you wouldn’t question it. The NBA should put us on national TV more, I guess…it’s taking away from what I do. That’s part of my game, getting to the free throw line and being aggressive. If you say I get superstar calls or I get babied by the refs, that’s taking away from how I play. That’s disrespectful to me.” Uh-oh Phil, you have gone and poked a sleeping bear.
When a player uses the word respect, especially in terms of being disrespected, you know that someone pushed the buttons to get them hot. Jackson may have some kind of sly master plan up his sleeve but to disrespect Kevin Durant only goes to show the level of class that Jackson operates at now. Durant will do the only think he can to prove he should be respected; play his hardest and his best basketball. It is generally ill advised that a coach stoke the flames of his opponent and give them a marker board quote that they can rally around, but Jackson has done just that. It could be that he wants his Lakers to take a shot in the mouth by a young, hungry team to wake them from their daze and get them into playoff mode (as if they can really just turn it on). His plan will not be known until it plays out.
There are three other factors that will weigh heavily, outside of what has already transpired and been written about above, on this series and in good measure should determine the outcome. For the Lakers it will be the defense of Ron Artest against the offense of Kevin Durant. Artest is the Lakers best defender. (No, Kobe is not their best defender, plus if you were the Lakers would you have your best player expend all their efforts on the defensive end of the floor? Didn’t think so. They brought in Artest for this very reason.) He will have the most daunting task of all the Lakers. If he gets into foul trouble the Lakers would be in a serious bind. Switching Kobe to guard Durant would give the Thunder guards free range around the perimeter against the like of Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and the Machine. Bringing in the over-hype factory that is Shannon Brown to guard Durant is laughable at best. Lamar Odom will play spot minutes guarding Durant as his primary duties are to bolster the Lakers’ frontcourt. It is up to Artest to slow down the NBA scoring champion.
The Lakers’ frontcourt is another issue of importance in this series. Will Andrew Bynum play and if he does how healthy is he? Bynum, although young, is the anchor to the frontcourt alongside Pau Gasol and Artest. He is also prone to get in foul trouble. This is the reason that Odom comes off the bench so that when Bynum is in trouble the Lakers have someone to turn to. If Bynum is not able to play, or at least not able to perform at a high level, the Lakers will have to lean heavily on Odom and possibly keep him in the starting lineup. No Bynum and having Odom start is catastrophic to the Lakers playoff success as the bench that the Lakers have is atrocious. Bench players never play a large as starters play much of the game in the playoffs but foul trouble is always an issue. Without Bynum the Lakers cannot hope to get very far.
Bench play is the final factor in the series. What will happen during the short stints in which starters rest? How will the opposing benches match up? Well, there is simply no comparison. The Lakers have Odom and after that it could be described as the last kids on the playground who you really do not want on your team but have to choose one or two just so everybody gets to play. Oklahoma City’s bench is much more accustomed to playing time. Spearheaded by James Harden they bring a range of young speed and veteran knowhow. Bench play will certainly favor the Thunder during the series and could be a deciding factor in a couple of games.
Series Prediction: The Lakers should win this series. Oklahoma City is too young and inexperienced to pose a serious threat to the Lake show, right? Experience has never replaced hunger and determination in the equation for success. It could be just these reasons that the Thunder shock many. If Durant’s quest for respect yields a first game victory for his team, all bets are off. Giant killers are not a thing of just fairy tales any more. Kobe Bryant, himself, just referred to the Lakers as underdogs in the series. (Mind games, oh mind games.) However, if the Lakers stand pat at home the series shall be theirs. It will be tough and each game should be close (there will be at least one blowout) but they will prevail. It will be the Lakers in six games. (I’m being generous towards the Thunder.)
2. Dallas Mavericks vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
The final game of the regular season treated us to a preview to this first round matchup. Well, sort of. San Antonio sat both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for the game. These are the Spurs two best players. By doing this, the Spurs signaled that they wanted to play the Mavericks in the first round instead of the Suns, who won last night against the Jazz to secure the third seed. It was more likely an attempt to avoid the Jazz as the Spurs were swept by them in the regular season series. Greg Popovich probably prefers this matchup because of his and his team’s familiarity with the Mavericks. Popovich must have a short memory. This season the Mavericks won three out of the four meetings between the two clubs and the Mavericks have also ousted the Spurs the previous two times they have met in the playoffs. Last year they sent the Spurs packing in a quick five game series in the first round. They meet again in the first round this year but the teams are not the same as they were last year.
Essentially the core players are the same for the Spurs this year as they were last year. Duncan, Ginobili, and Mr. Eva Longoria are still the gears that make the Spurs machine move. To their cast of characters they added Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, and DeJuan Blair (these are the players that matter). Out of these three it can be said that Blair is the most promising and could give the Mavericks fits during the playoffs as shown by his 27 point 23 rebound night in final game of the regular season. Blair will likely spell Duncan, while he rests, at the power forward and center positions but it will be interesting to see how much faith Popovich will put in a rookie in the playoffs. The Spurs will also rotate Matt Bonner and McDyess into these positions. Bonner will serve to stretch the Mavericks defense with his ability to stretch the floor with the three-ball. His slow release, however, means a defender has some extra time to close out on him and alter his shot.
Three-point shooting has become a major part of the Spurs offense over the past couple of years. It will no doubt be a major focus of their offensive scheme in the playoffs as well. However, open looks will depend on the defensive rotation of the Mavericks and whether or not they choose to double team Tim Duncan in the post. The three-pointer could also prove to be the Achilles heel of the Spurs because of their dependence on it. If Bonner and Roger Mason Jr. are not connecting from downtown they become defensive liabilities. Bonner has no chance of defending Dirk Nowitzki. Without the three the Spurs will switch to the Duncan post up, Ginobili “creation” off the dribble, and slashing by Parker and George Hill. Hill, however just sprained his ankle in the regular season closer so his status is uncertain going into the series.
The Dallas Mavericks are a team designed to beat the Spurs. Rick Carlisle said it best, “They wanted us, they got us.” For basketball fans in the state of Texas, this what we all wanted, well except for Rockets fans. Like the Spurs, the Mavericks enter the series with some new faces. During the summer, Dallas brought in veteran swingman Shawn Marion to bolster their defense and improve inside and fastbreak scoring. Unlike the Spurs, who did all their moves in the off season, the Mavericks received many of their new players midway through the season. They did not stop there. In a trade with the Washington Wizards the Mavericks acquired Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson. These players will present problems for the Spurs. Popovich will do everything in his power, has he has always done when playing the Mavericks, to prevent Nowitzki and Jason Terry from getting open looks and any scoring opportunity for that matter. This strategy will force other Mavericks to step up and perform.
Butler looks to benefit the most from Popovich’s dogmatic defensive strategy. With Dirk facing every double team imaginable he will likely be the open man and will take advantage of these opportunities. Butler’s history of being a proven scorer and his ability to create off the dribble could prove devastating to the Spurs’ defense. He led the Mavericks in scoring against the Spurs, with 20 points, in the regular season closer. The matchup problems that the Mavericks pose for the Spurs are plentiful. Jason Kidd also has the ability to switch from facilitator to scorer when he needs to. This season he his shooting a career best .425 from beyond the arc. Marion and Jefferson will likely cancel each other out but Marion’s rebounding ability will prove to make him more of a factor throughout the series. What Rodrigue Beaubois will do in this series, well, nobody really knows. What we do know is that he has the potential to do just about anything especially disrupt the Spurs defense. Rick Carlisle will certainly play him but it is up to him when the situation dictates Beaubois’ presence on the court.
That’s enough about the minor actors in this play; the focus now turns to the main players: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. In seasons past, the Mavericks had no answer for Duncan. In all reality no one in the league has an answer for his machine like efficiency. However, what the Mavericks do have is a two headed center. Erick Dampier and Haywood will split time defending Duncan during the series hampering his ability to be a dominant force in the series. (Ginobili will have to be the one that picks up Duncan’s slack.) This is the playoffs and there is no doubt that Duncan will continue to be an efficient, albeit rusty, double-double machine, yet, his point totals should not be near their previous playoff highs.
Dirk Nowitzki is hungry. He knows his time is running out. Over the last week and a half of the regular season, Dirk (and the team) has been clicking on all cylinders. San Antonio has never had a true answer for Nowitzki and Bruce Bowen is a distant memory. Expect the Spurs to throw everything (including the sludge filled, disease ridden River Walk) at him. It will be in vain. Dirk will drive, drain it from downtown, dish, and of course turn around and pop from the elbow off one leg. There is not a single defender on the Spurs that is five percent capable of stopping the breadth of his game.
Series Prediction: There is not much excitement surrounding series outside of Texas. Maybe this is because it has that been there done that feel to it. Only the casual observer who lives near the Pacific or Atlantic coasts could whittle this series down to such simple disregard. The Spurs have been one of the hottest teams entering the post season and some playoff prognosticators are projecting the Spurs as a dark horse. I am not one of those “coasters” who watch this series at a distance. Dallas is too deep and too talented this season. There is a reason they are the second seed in the Western Conference. At every position they match up well with the Spurs and they also have their number. The Dallas Mavericks, like last season, will beat the San Antonio Spurs in five games.
3. Phoenix Suns vs. 7. Portland Trailblazers
This is the series of what ifs. What if Robin Lopez was healthy? Hell, what if Po(o)rtland was healthy? The answers will likely never present themselves. If Brandon Roy does not play in this series, which he shouldn’t for health concerns, it would appear as though all is lost for a team that was once considered the ultimate first round threat. Murphy’s Law has done terrible things to the Blazers this season. It is actually quite astonishing that they are in the playoffs at all with the adversity they have faced this season. This is a testament to the coaching job that Nate McMillan has done this year. His name should be mentioned when Coach of the Year is discussed. With Roy out though, not even great coaching can change fate.
Portland gave almost every team in the Western Conference playoff picture fits this season. Their length and quickness stymied teams both offensively and defensively. On defense their length allowed them to switch on almost every pick and roll that a team could throw at them. This is a good attribute to have against the Suns who run the pick and roll regularly (that is an understatement) with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. The addition of Marcus Camby has helped reestablish their defensive presence in the paint. He is a former Defensive Player of the Year and a threat to block every shot put up near him. Portland is going to need every ounce of effort the Camby Man can muster on the defensive end of the floor against the Suns’ high scoring attack.
Andre Miller will have to step up in the absence of Roy. He is a true scoring point guard and can easily break down defenses one on one but the great defensive stopper known as Nash will be pestering him the entire time. (You may chuckle to yourself now.) LaMarcus Aldridge must also perform at a high level to pick up the scoring slack. The Suns only player that somewhat favorably matches up well with Aldridge is Channing Frye but he is more known for his offence than defense. Over all, this is possibly the most glaringly obvious statement I will ever write, the entire Trailblazer team will have to step up to the challenge of the playoffs.
For the Suns the solution is simple: continue playing as they have done over the last couple of weeks. They did not stumble backwards into the playoffs, instead they steamrolled towards them. Nash and Stoudemire are having remarkable years and with Jason Richardson are clicking. Losing Robin Lopez was a blow to this team because of his ability to lockdown the five allowing Amare to play his natural position at the four. However, the Suns have performed at a level that no one expected with Lopez out showing that they do in fact have the toughness and skill to be a force in the playoffs.
Series Prediction: In a perfect healthy world this series would have the potential to go seven games. Unfortunately, we live in something very different from a perfect world and the NBA is no exception. One can feel nothing but sorry for the Trailblazers but they do not feel bad for themselves. They made the playoffs despite all the adversity but just making the making the playoffs was obviously not their goal. To advance is the goal that every team has in the playoffs and the Blazers do not have a realistic chance of moving on. The Suns will overpower the wounded Blazers in five games.
4. Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Utah jazz
Like the Suns and Blazers series the matchup between the Nuggets and Jazz looked to be one of the better series in the first round of the playoffs. Yet, the injury bug has struck deep into both of these teams. Carlos Boozer was sidelined by a muscle strain in the last game of the regular season against the Suns with both teams battling for third in the West. The game did not end with a favorable outcome for the Jazz. Boozer is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Jazz and his absence hurt the team. In Denver head Coach George Karl remains out undergoing cancer treatment. He is expected back in time for the second round of the playoffs. The Jazz will do everything they can to ensure that it is they who are in the second round and not Denver.
Boozer should play in the playoffs (that is opinion and not based on anything released by the team or other sources). Unless his strain gets seriously worse it should not hamper is ability to perform on the court for his team. Andrei Kirilenko is another member of the injured players that this team needs to get back if they are to be successful. He has been out for some time nursing the injury and resting with the team is hoping for his return for the playoffs. The Jazz need Kirilenko back because of his ability to defend Carmelo Anthony. On top of these two injuries, add to the pile Mehmet Okur who is suffering from an Achilles strain but played in the last game of the season. Aside from Deron Williams and Paul Milsap, these are the best players that Utah has to offer. Utah does not have a chance of competing in this series unless they are at full strength. Ronnie Brewer‘s value to the Jazz will be magnified during this series. Sending him away in a money saving trade to Memphis was a poor move by Utah’s front office. (Brewer did get hurt in Memphis and missed the rest of the season.)
For Denver, Kenyon Martin had been out for the past few weeks with a knee injury but returned to action in their last game against the Spurs but sat out the second half. He is expected to play against the Jazz in the first round. Getting Martin back is key for the bruising Nuggets who treat each game they play like a fist fight. (Wouldn’t you want Kenyon on your side in a fight?) He is their top post defender and will get the majority of the work covering Boozer. Nene could also find himself defending Boozer but it would be matchup that favors Boozer. Along the perimeter the battle will be between Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams. Every inclination that I have suggests that Billups will frustrate Williams to the ends of the Earth on both ends of the court forcing turnovers and poor shots.
Carmelo Anthony, without Kirilenko on the floor to guard him, will have a career series. He will move and score at will. C.J. Miles or anyone else that the Jazz can put on him will run free. The offense will flow through him. This will force Utah to double team him leaving shooters like Billups and J.R. Smith open along the three-point arc. Getting Kirilenko back to guard Anthony should be a big help for the Jazz but it would not be an enviable task to be asked to perform coming off a lengthy injury. In short, the Nuggets present a nightmare matchup for the injured Jazz. They have faced the Jazz four times throughout the regular season and won that series three games to one. This is the same Jazz team that swept the regular season series with both the Spurs and Blazers. Like the Mavericks were built to beat the Spurs the Nuggets were built to beat the Jazz.
Series Prediction: Utah has been given fits by the Nuggets all season but in this series it will be Utah’s inability to come into the playoffs healthy that will hurt them. This is, of course, no fault of their own, these things happen over the course of an 82 game season. Denver, on the other hand, is getting a key member of their starting rotation back for the playoffs. They will also be playing for their coach. Nobody wants George Karl back on the sidelines more than his team does. The Nuggets physical style of play combined with an extra will to win for their coach will be the knockout blow for the Jazz. Denver wins the series in six games.
Eastern Conference predictions should be up tomorrow and probably will not be as long.