NBA Playoffs: Forecasting the West's 2011 First Round Matchups
In the current version of the NBA, the West is the old guard.
Three of the conference's top seeds, all potential contenders for the game's ultimate prize, are watching their championship window close.
So while the Western Conference playoffs may not have the flash or media attention of the East, these matchups will undoubtedly be hard fought battles tinged with the hints of desperation that can only accompany veteran teams who have been there, competed and seen titles slip away.
The Western conference first round may lack flash, but it will not lack intensity.
No. 1 Seed San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Seed Memphis Grizzlies
In 2011, the Spurs have been up to their old tricks again.
With Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all healthy, the Spurs were the surprise owners of the West’s best record.
But even if they hadn’t been so successful during the regular season, I would still be picking them to dominate the Grizzlies unmercifully.
With the Spurs, the regular season doesn’t matter, no matter how successful it was. They are built for the playoffs.
Their fans know this. Their coaches know this. And their players know this.
For a team for whom yearly success is measured in championship rings, regular season matchups are irrelevant. That’s why it doesn’t bother me that the Grizz split their in-season series with the Spurs 2-2.
This split should be a nice confidence boost for Memphis, but the San Antonio team they took two games from late in the season is not the same team they will see once the playoffs begin.
We all know the strengths of the Spurs team: defense, unselfishness, team play and grind-it-out-type half court production.
It is no coincidence that these are the hallmarks of NBA champions.
On paper, the only matchup that favors Memphis is Zack Randolph vs. Tim Duncan.
Although five years ago this would have been laughable, Duncan has regressed just enough to be surpassed by Randolph, who has quietly become one of the game’s best low-post presences.
It will take a mammoth effort from Randolph to overcome the odds posed by the Spurs though.
He is without the help of wingman and All-Star Rudy Gay, and although Mike Conley has had a nice year, he is nowhere near the level of Tony Parker, even on his best day.
I truly enjoy watching Zack Randolph play. In a league with surprisingly few genuine low-post players, his game is truly a thing of beauty.
But Randolph and the Grizz are going to get crushed.
Mid-April in the NBA is winning time. It is the time the Spurs live for. And though they may be older as a team, they are still elite.
The Grizzlies are no match for them.
Prediction: Spurs in four
No. 2 Seed Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 7 Seed New Orleans Hornets
It seems that the first round of the Western Conference playoffs are chalk-full of one-sided affairs.
I give Chris Paul all the credit in the world for getting his team this far—I even ranked him No. 1 on my list of most valuable point guards in the playoffs.
But the Hornets ride ends here.
The Lakers are too deep, too battle-tested to succumb to the efforts of an inferior team like the Hornets.
And although New Orleans’ greatest area of strength (point guard) is also the Lakers’ biggest weakness, every other matchup favors Los Angeles—and not by a little bit.
Perhaps if David West hadn’t suffered a Shaun Livingston-esque knee injury, the Hornets would stand a better chance. But as it is, New Orleans poses no threat to the defending champs.
They will be easily devoured, a mere palate cleanser in the Lakers long, extended championship quest.
Chris Paul will take advantage of the Lakers’ lack of point guard depth to be sure. But there is only so much he can realistically do.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol must be salivating over their matchups with Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry. Kobe Bryant has no equal in the NBA, and is that rare player who cannot be stopped. Trevor Ariza has no chance.
So get out your brooms, Lakers fans.
Last season, the upstart Thunder gave the Lakers quite a scare in the first round. This season should be much less stressful for the team and its fan base.
Prediction: Lakers in four
No. 3 Seed Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 6 Seed Portland Trailblazers
Finally, a competitive matchup in the West!
In many ways, these teams are mirror images of each other.
Both rely on athleticism and defense. Both have had high expectations in recent years, and both have come up short—this is especially true of Dallas.
It also seems that the strengths of these teams will offset each other. With Lamarcus Aldridge having revamped his game, the Blazers possess the more potent low-post presence—usually a harbinger of playoff success.
But the Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki, who is the only transcendent player in this series, the only sure-fire Hall of Famer. That counts for a lot.
A player as great as Dirk can carry a team a long way, and facing a team that is unproven in the postseason, it is not unrealistic to expect Dirk to lift the Mavs past the Blazers by himself.
Although Aldridge is no Nowitzki, his supporting cast is considerably better.
Andre Miller has been more productive than Jason Kidd in 2011. The Blazers also augmented their roster by adding Gerald Wallace midseason, giving the team an added boost athletically and on defense.
They also have the ageless one, Marcus Camby, patrolling the paint. Anyone who has followed Camby’s career knows that he is always a shot-blocking presence.
This series is a tough one to call. The Blazers get the edge athletically, on the boards, and in overall depth of roster.
The Mavs have an advantage in that they have been here before, and have one of the game’s most dangerous weapons at their disposal in Nowitzki, who happens to also be one of the NBA’s best crunch-time scorers.
I am giving the edge to the Blazers. They will not only be able to outrebound the Mavs, but are stout enough defensively to slow down the parts of their offense not named Dirk.
The wildcard in this series, and in the Blazers playoff hopes in general, is Brandon Roy.
Roy by all accounts has another two years max of NBA production left in his knees. If he is healthy enough to play, and realistically contribute, he could put this roster over the top.
If he is not, the Blazers will struggle to compete. I still think that they can eek their way past the Mavs, but anything past the first round will be near-impossible without Roy.
Prediction: Blazers in seven
No. 4 Seed Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Seed Denver Nuggets
I love this matchup.
It is a pairing of two of the NBA’s most entertaining teams to watch. The Nuggets, who were surprisingly resurgent following the Melo-drama that dominated most of their season, are one of the NBA’s best storylines in 2011.
The Thunder have been one of the NBA’s best teams in 2011. This is their coming out party.
As entertaining a story as the Nuggets are, the Thunder are a team that is ready to make the leap.
They nearly bested the Lakers in Round 1 last year, and in doing so gained the confidence that they can play with anyone in the league.
They traded Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, giving the team added frontcourt depth, and unleashing Serge Ibaka’s full potential all over the NBA.
Paired with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, this depth gives the Thunder one of the NBA’s most balance, playoff-ready rosters.
The Thunder now have the size to matchup with any team, including the Lakers or Spurs, to go along with the league-best youth and athleticism possessed by Westbrook and Durant.
I love the Nuggets, but this is the year that OKC makes the leap to elite status. They have youth, depth, speed, size and after last season, experience.
Most impressive about the Thunder is their hunger, their sense that they belong with the best. They are unafraid of any team or any moment.
They are precocious, ready to seize their place on the NBA mantle from the old guard. They truly believe their time is now, and that if they play up to their potential, they cannot be beaten.
This mix of skill and self-confidence could prove to be very dangerous for other Western Conference contenders.
The Nuggets may compete in this series, especially in games that take place in Denver—home of one of the NBA’s most significant home court advantages.
Anyone who has visited Denver knows how difficult it can be to play there. But this party belongs to the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder in five