A year after losing to the Lakers in six games, Utah was expected to fight for the 2 or 3 seed to avoid meeting the Lakers till the conference finals at least this year. Unfortunately, that's not how things have played out.
With several injuries, the Jazz have fallen off a cliff after the All-Star break and barely made the playoffs with the No. 8 seed. They now meet a Lakers team that has only one goal in mind, the Championship.
Utah is expected to be nothing more than a speed bump for the Lakers, but the Jazz play very hard on their home floor, and taking last year's series to six games should give them some hope of prolonging the series this time, too.
They have arguably the best point guard in the league and one of the most dynamic and talented players around in Chris Paul. He is to this team what D-Wade is to the Miami Heat.
They were an early season dark horse to go very far in the playoffs, but they haven't been able to replicate last season's performance in the regular season and doing so in the playoffs (where they took the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in Round 2) will be even harder.
While they have not much to lose, they play a surprise No. 2 seed in the Denver Nuggets who have much more to prove. Expectations are not high, but Chris Paul is known to win games all on his own.
A few weeks removed from fighting the Phoenix Suns for the 8th seed, the Mavs, as I write, have taken game 1 on the road from the third-seeded Spurs. This raises expectations for them and shows they had a lift and momentum coming in.
While they still chase that elusive championship, now with a veteran point guard, they don't seem to get bogged down by a sense of expectation.
Dirk Nowitzki and the talented players who surround him can just go out and play their natural games without worrying too much, because nobody knows whats to expect of them.
It's worked well in their favor so far and could take them a long way. Kenny Smith believes they'll make the conference finals!
In one of the most exciting Round 1 matchups, the Rockets take on the Portland Trailblazers. Game 1 just concluded with the Rockets shutting down Brandon Roy and Co. to take it on the road.
With their alleged star, Tracy McGrady out, not much was expected of the Rockets, and as with the Mavericks they seem to overachieve with nothing is expected of them.
Ron Artest has been a revelation and with Yao getting far more touches inside with McGrady out, the team seems to think it's got a winning combination, even with rookie point guard, Aaron Brooks (who's had an excellent debut tonight).
Nobody knew what to expect out of this series, other than close games, but people might have underestimated Houston's vastly greater playoff experience and versatility. They could even be considering a long Round 2 with the Lakers for all you know.
By consensus, they are the most exciting team in basketball. A popular dark horse pick to give almost every western team trouble, it's likely their playoff infancy will let them down (as we've already seen in Game 1).
They have a mature beyond his years and exciting leader in Brandon Roy and have nothing to lose. They've beaten the Lakers twice this season and beaten the Spurs and Rockets on the road.
Nobody underestimates them, and that could play against them, as teams bring their full effort to games. While they're just happy to make a fourth-seed entry in the playoffs, this season could be capped off with a long Round 2 against the Lakers.
San Antonio Spurs
They didn't make their traditional post All Star Game push to the top of the standings, but nevertheless finished with the third seed in a tough Western Conference race. Their odd years' ('99,'03,'05,'07) luck might have run out with a spate of injuries (Manu Ginobili being the obvious one) and a group of veterans who are all past their best.
Tony Parker is the only young gun and he'll have to do a lot of the heavy lifting to give San Antonio a shot in the arm it sorely needs. They've won it all so many times before, nobody knows what drives this team.
The hunger for a championship cannot be compared with a team like the Cavaliers or the Lakers, so one must consider them a solid, professional group of champions that would just like to do the best it can. Losing Game 1 at home to the Mavericks has not been a good start.
Not one person can honestly say they expected this team to be the No. 2 seed in the West. After trading for Chauncey Billups they seem to have acquired a new lease of life and while they only won three games more than last year, they have a new attitude about them and that makes one helluva difference.
They expect to finally end their Round 1 futility in the playoffs (they last made it to Round 2 in 1994) against the Hornets. This season will be really special if they were to make the Conference Finals and give, possibly the Lakers, a run for their money there.
They have high hopes for themselves and they've played like it. Billups is a veteran leader and sees around him a cast of special players who he thinks can go far.
Los Angeles Lakers
It is not too much of a stretch to say that if the Lakers don't win the championship, their season will be considered a colossal failure.
They've played with only one goal in mind (they lost the home court advantage to the Cavaliers) and that is to improve on last season's trip to the finals and go all the way this year.
They have all their pieces in place, and Kobe Bryant has no more excuses. It's championship or bust, as simple as that and Bryant will be the first one to say so.
No team this year even comes close to the expectations the Lakers have on their shoulders, and while that can be hard to play with, the Lakers will look at use that as added incentive, one which they far too easily ceded to the Celtics last year.
There are no two ways about it and the Lakers should play with an intensity that shows as much.
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