There is only one word for how the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs worked out in the LA Lakers' favor: Luck.
Two difficult potential matchups that scared most Lakers fans to the core, were eliminated in the first round.
The Denver Nuggets caved in to the undermanned Utah Jazz, imploding in six games. This takes out one of the major threats to the Lakers in this post season. Denver posed a serious challenge to the Lakers’ repeat hopes. The team made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last year and gave the Lakers everything they could handle and more.
This season, it appeared that Denver had improved, adding the key rookie Ty Lawson at the point as well as the emerging Arron Affalo to go with the rest of their experienced team.
Other than the George Karl health issues that arose after the All-Star break, the Nuggets appeared to have the strength to give the Lakers a serious run. But, that all ended this past week in Utah.
The reason for Lakers Nation celebration is that Denver is a team of wild-cards, the ultimate in split personality. Game to game, we never knew who would show up. And, at least to me, that was always a scary proposition for the Lakers. Denver could light it up one game or light up themselves the next. Either way, they were rocket fuel, you just didn’t know where it would be pointed.
So, it turns out that Denver imploded in the Utah series and Lakers fans everywhere can exhale.
The other scenario that unfolded to the surprise of Lakers believers was that the rising powerhouse, the Dallas Mavericks, fell to the old, wise playoff dog, the San Antonio Spurs. Dallas looked poised to really challenge the Lakers this year.
With the trade deadline move of getting rid of the apathetic and depressed Josh Howard in favor of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, the Mavs not only went from negative to positive in attitude, but upgraded their weapons in anticipation of battling the Lakers.
Butler is an All-Star caliber perimeter player and cut from the same block (small piece only!) of competitiveness as Kobe Bryant. It was no wonder that the two players befriended each other the year Caron came to the Lakers.
Most people forget the Lakers actually got two great players for Shaq: Lamar Odom and Caron Butler. You could even argue that the Caron spot ultimately ended up as Pau Gasol, because Caron went to the Washington Wizards for Kwame “the Cake Thrower” Brown, who then gave us Gasol in the franchise-changing blockbuster with Memphis.
Anyway, I digress.
Haywood was penciled in to add height to the Mavs, combining with Erick Dampier to give the Mavs the big men to take on the Lakers. It made all the sense in the world.
And, it seemed like this would really happen as the rest of the regular season played out. The Mavs got hot after that trade, and entering the playoffs, appeared to be a real contender. And, with Dirk Nowitzki playing out of his mind, this was a dangerous team. The Mavs gelled after the trade and looked like they could give the Lakers all they could handle.
But, somehow, everyone outside of San Antonio forgot about the old, wise dog with one more life left in them: the Spurs. And, it showed. The Mavs lacked all the poise and experience to muster the strength to beat the Spurs.
The key for San Antonio was that they were healthy for the first time all year. The Spurs pegged as a No. 7 seed was a joke, being the strongest No. 7 seed ever. If you watched the seedings at the end of the year, the Spurs could have been as high as No. 3, so that was really an anomaly that they ended up as low as they did.
Too bad for the Mavs.
But, what luck for the Lakers. I mean, two of the real pretenders to the throne are gone. This is in no way an insult against the teams left. Utah must be respected and after the series with the upstart Thunder, the Lakers probably have woken up from their end of regular season slumber. We’ll see soon enough about that.
And, the Spurs play the Phoenix Suns, another hot team in the other semifinal series. Either team would be a tough out for the Lakers but again, because of the Lakers’ height and depth, those teams somehow don’t seem as scary as Denver or Dallas. But, we won’t even look at or consider the Spurs or the Suns on the Lakers radar. Let them focus on the Jazz first.
For the Utah series, the Lakers matchup up so much better with the Jazz, especially with Mehmet Okur out for the playoffs and a wounded Andrei Kirilenko questionable. I can’t help but smile, at least before the series has started, that the Lakers are playing Utah and not Denver. What a gift.
So, the road for the Lakers won’t be easy. But, wow, so far, the Lakers couldn’t have scripted a better playoff scenario.
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