2011 NBA Playoffs: The L.A. Lakers and Each Team's Chance To Win It All

Joel C. Cordes@@bballJoelNBA Associate EditorMay 2, 2011

2011 NBA Playoffs: The L.A. Lakers and Each Team's Chance To Win It All

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    Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers have survived the first round and are one step closer to defending their back-to-back championships. However, this year may be the most difficult title defense they've had yet.

    While former foils like the San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic are now out of the picture, the remaining teams in both conferences are all capable of giving the Lakers a serious run for their money.

    Chalk it up to contender parity, an ever-increasing league talent pool or the fact that the Lakers' weaknesses have been clearly exposed this year, but their road to the championship will NOT be anything like the first three title runs from 2000-2002.

    Despite the fact that a few ultra-talented teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings were competitive challengers during those years, L.A. was more than dominant enough with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant both in their prime, as well as deeper and more talented benches than nearly anyone else in the league.

    Getting out of the Western Conference typically posed a few tough games here and there, but facing the Eastern Conference finalists was usually a stroll through the park.

    The last three seasons have seen the Lakers battle stiff competition through the West, only to find themselves in absolute dogfights during the Finals. That they've been able to win the NBA title two out of those three years is a testament to this team's versatility, chemistry and inner drive.

    This year, the Lakers are still talented, experienced and big, but they'll have their hands full just to get out of the second round against the Dallas Mavericks.

    Don't think I'm counting out the defending champs. Not for a second.

    At the same time, I'm not ready to buy a parade ticket yet either.

    Here are the prospects for all eight remaining playoff teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers. They have been ranked in order from least to most likely to win it all.

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    Why They'll Win It All

    The Atlanta Hawks showed some serious defensive attitude in their four games to two revenge against the Orlando Magic. They finally ran an offense too.

    Atlanta's nucleus of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jamal Crawford might be the most athletically explosive in the league. Not to mention that Kirk Hinrich, Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams have all provided a lot of help so far.

    Chicago's banged up right now, the Hawks have plenty of momentum and they've got more than enough front-line depth to make things miserable for the Bulls' frontcourt players. 

    There still aren't a lot of people taking them seriously, but that's just playing into the Hawks' "nobody believes in us" chip on their collective shoulder.  This team is already hot, and it could burn a lot of people in the process.


    Why They Won't

    Carlos Boozer might be hurting right now, but he was already an afterthought during the Bulls' five-game series win against an extremely pesky Indiana Pacers team.  

    The Bulls are winning because of Derrick Rose, and as if it wasn't going to be hard enough to stop him, now Kirk Hinrich is injured for the Atlanta Hawks. He'll likely play in the series, but will Joe Johnson have to do all the heavy defensive lifting?

    The Hawks' wings played great defense against their Orlando counterparts, but they were also bailed out by the fact that most of the Magic 2s and 3s didn't return the favor. The Bulls will have plenty of over-qualified defenders, like Luol Deng, Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson, to throw at the Atlanta wings. Not to mention that Joakim Noah will be waiting inside.

    The Hawks can definitely make this series interesting, especially if Carlos Boozer still can't provide much scoring punch for the Bulls. Look for the Hawks to steal an early road game in Chicago, but for the Bulls to return the favor when it counts.


    Likely Outcome: Losing 4-2 in the Second Round to the Chicago Bulls

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Why They'll Win It All

    I sure hope you've gotten a chance to see the Memphis Grizzlies by now, whether it was their six-game mauling of the San Antonio Spurs or their surprising Game 1 ambush of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

    Zach Randolph is absolutely unstoppable in the post right now, Marc Gasol is an immovable object when in the lane and Tony Allen's hustle plays have transformed this woebegone franchise into a serious spoiler. Mike Conley and the wings have embraced their roles, and Shane Battier remains one of the league's best "glue" guys.

    The Fed Ex Forum crowd has appeared out of nowhere to offer a serious home-court advantage, and this team's young legs and overall depth mean it can play a physical style all game long.

    If they could take down the team with the West's best record in such authoritative fashion and then win the opener in Oklahoma City, why couldn't they cause the same matchup problems against the rest of the field?


    Why They Won't

    San Antonio was a flawed team and actually the best possible matchup for Memphis. The Spurs were old and dealing with some key injuries, and their front line was the least athletic in the playoffs. (I don't mean to kick you with an "I told you so," Spurs fans. But I warned you about this three months ago right here.)

    Sure, the Grizzlies are ridiculously physical inside right now, but outside of Darrell Arthur, they don't have a lot of frontcourt depth behind Randolph and Gasol.

    Memphis can get out in transition, but its offense would rather pound the ball inside. That isn't going to change now. Yet there are faster, stronger and more athletic teams than San Antonio awaiting the Grizzlies now. If Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol gets into foul trouble or is neutralized, the Grizzlies will struggle to score.

    The Grizz found some magic, and they're going to win a game or two at home again, but this emotional high may not be sustainable. It feels awfully foolish for me to do so when they're this hot, but I'll take the more talented Thunder team nonetheless. 


    Likely Outcome: Losing 4-2 in Second Round to Oklahoma City Thunder

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    Why They'll Win It All

    Having clearly exorcised a few playoff demons during their four games to two thriller against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Dallas Mavericks have proven they can win in gut-check time.

    Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki are willing this team down the stretch, while Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion's physicality have been much-needed revelations. Don't discount Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry's long-distance shooting ability either.

    This is not a good matchup for the Los Angeles Lakers, as the Mavericks have enough front-line depth to hang around. In fact, Dallas is more athletic and has more threats right now than the Lakers do, even in the backcourt. If Caron Butler can somehow come back late in this series, though it's being reported that he won't, it might be the final tipping point.

    The Mavericks can play multiple styles of ball right now, are as talented as any other team in the field and are clearly bent on reclaiming past glories.


    Why They Won't

    Dallas may have won its first series when it counted, but it also clearly showed that big leads aren't necessarily protected either.

    Portland has scrapped for everything it's gotten, but it was basically going seven-and-a-half deep into its roster. Dallas' depth alone gave it the overall advantage, but there's not going to be as big of a difference against the Lakers.

    Dallas has a great chance to squeak past the Lakers in a full seven games. Still, one has to wonder whether it's psychologically capable of finally climbing the mountain in a close Game 7, on the road, when it again blew a big lead, the Staples Center crowd is frenzied, Kobe is on the warpath and there's now a small deficit to overcome...

    Even if the Mavericks somehow do conquer that moment, one has to expect the emotional toll to have drained them too much for the next round. This team has the ability to beat anyone, but I'm not sure it can sustain it for seven games, much less three more series.


    Likely Outcome: Losing 4-3 in Second Round to Los Angeles Lakers

5. Miami Heat

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    Why They'll Win It All

    The Miami Heat took care of business against the Philadelphia 76ers. Outside of a slow start to Game 1, a ridiculous prayer shot from Lou Williams in Game 4 and a tight finish to Game 5, Miami dominated nearly every other portion of its five-game series win against Philly.

    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh outplayed their counterparts every single night and were largely unstoppable down the stretch. In case you haven't noticed, there's no better trio of players on any one team in the league.

    The Heat were already a top-five defensive team, and now their ball movement has noticeably improved. Plus, role players like Mike Bibby, Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers all provided a lift at various points during the previous series.

    With Mike Miller back and Udonis Haslem potentially returning soon, and with this rematch against Boston being particularly personal for LeBron and Wade, this might be the start of the postseason run we've all been waiting for (or fearing)...


    Why They Won't

    The Celtics certainly came out rusty in a Game 1 loss at Miami, but one has to believe that a few inherent advantages are going to make this series extremely difficult for the Heat. Miami is simply shuffling bodies inside, and Chris Bosh has rarely, if ever, played well against Kevin Garnett, though they did cancel each other out on Sunday.

    Paul Pierce has proven time and again that he can hamper LeBron James enough defensively. Now, he just has to be able to stay on the floor. Rajon Rondo should absolutely be able to terrorize the Heat's point guards in transition the rest of the way.

    As it's done all year, Miami won comfortably when jumping out early. Yet slow starts and close games have again revealed the Heat's noticeable flaw when it comes to final shots and big stops. 

    You can bet that there will be more close games than not when it comes to this series with Boston. Whereas the Celtics have proven closers in Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, the Heat have built a season-long track record to the contrary. They'll get at least one blowout victory and one close game to go their way, but they're one year away from meeting expectations.


    Likely Outcome: Losing 4-3 in Second Round to Boston Celtics

4. Boston Celtics

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    Why They'll Win It All

    The Boston Celtics so thoroughly embarrassed the supposedly pesky New York Knicks that one has to wonder whether their experience will be insurmountable once again after all.

    Sure, the Celtics looked tired, old and confused after the trade deadline, but they now appear to have figured out reasonable roles for Jeff Green, Delonte West and Nenad Krstic. Plus, for all the hoopla about Kendrick Perkins leaving, it's not like he had played much at all this season anyway.

    As always, this comes down to Rajon Rondo's ability to push the tempo, Ray Allen's spacing of the floor, Kevin Garnett's quarterbacking of the defense and Paul Pierce's knack for making the big play seemingly every time. That Jermaine O'Neal has suddenly shed six years makes this starting unit potentially even more fearsome.

    Chemistry can't be taught, and if sweeping the Knicks taught us anything, it's that the Boston Celtics have found it again just in time.


    Why They Won't

    The Knicks were a train wreck at the end of the season. Sweeping them was marginally impressive, but not a guarantee for future success. The Celtics then came out in rusty fashion and dropped Game 1 against the Miami Heat on Sunday.

    Boston's chances would be infinitely higher if they: 1. Had kept Kendrick Perkins and were starting him for the Playoffs. 2. Had a healthy Shaquille O'Neal to clog the lane for 20 minutes per game. 3. Had both Perkins and Shaq to rotate with Jermaine O'Neal.

    The center spot is fine for right now against the Heat's big-man corpses, but Boston could have had the most dominant-front line rotation in the conference. Now, it's limping along, hoping Jermaine doesn't get hurt again or Krstic doesn't foul out. Its backcourt depth suddenly isn't much better.

    The Celtics can and should beat the Miami Heat. They still have just enough collective experience and depth advantages to do so, but Game 2 may be the most critical one of this series. However, Boston's starters will have to burn so much fuel in winning the close games that only fumes will remain for the conference finals.


    Likely Outcome: Beating Miami Heat 4-3 but Losing 4-1 in Conference Finals to Chicago Bulls

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Why They'll Win It All

    The Oklahoma City Thunder were clearly a year away from serious contention last season. Kevin Durant was one of the top three players in the league, but young guards like Russell Westbrook and James Harden needed to round out their games a little more.

    Plus, the Thunder did not have enough front-line depth to get past the Los Angeles Lakers, who also had the mental edge against OKC all year.

    Now, the Thunder have one of the deepest, most physical front lines in the NBA. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed may not score a lot of points, but they will make life absolutely miserable for opposing teams in the paint.

    Durant's shot selection has improved, Westbrook is one of the four best point guards in the NBA and Harden is the ideal shooting and finishing sixth man. 

    This team is built to win in the playoffs. The Thunder are genuinely playing hard for each other and coach Scott Brooks, have an absolutely insane home crowd and have now been through the Playoffs before. Oh, and they're no longer intimidated by the Lakers.

    Beating the Denver Nuggets four games to one may not be the world's biggest accomplishment, but it definitely is the start of something big.


    Why They Won't

    For all of Oklahoma City's front-line depth, it still doesn't have a true low-post scorer. What's more, outside of Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder don't have a consistent third scorer, even if Ibaka or Harden picks up the slack more often than not. Plus, the Thunder rely on their transition game a bit too much and may have trouble getting all of their players involved without it.

    When the running game stalls, they become over-reliant on Kevin Durant. In both cases, this means that tough possessions typically must end in jump shots: a risky playoff proposition. 

    The Thunder have clearly been loading up for the another showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers. Whereas they may feel ready, it will be interesting to see what happens if L.A. picks up a couple of "signature wins" early on in their potential series together.

    If L.A. suddenly seems to be putting OKC "back in its place," the psychological effects could undermine confidence and stall the Thunder's momentum. The first few games of that series will be absolutely critical, and Oklahoma City needs to avoid a Game 7 in Los Angeles at all costs.


    Likely Outcome: Beating Memphis 4-2 but Losing 4-3 in Conference Finals to Los Angeles Lakers

2. Chicago Bulls

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    Why They'll Win It All

    Despite an uneven showing in the five-game series win against the Indiana Pacers, this Chicago Bulls roster is more perfectly balanced than any other in the league.

    Carlos Boozer occupies opponents' defenses with his back-to-the-basket and backdoor cutting skills. Joakim Noah disrupts everything on the defensive end while keeping possessions alive on offense. Luol Deng has been one of the most consistently steady two-way players all year.

    Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans are both top-tier wing defenders. Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson stretch the floor. Kurt Thomas and Taj Gibson provide unsung post defense, while also knocking down open shots.

    Derrick Rose was the best player in the league this year, willing his team to the East's best record. Whether going to the basket, hitting big threes or making the key defensive play, Rose has been the most unstoppable player in the postseason as well.

    Young legs and the league's most usable depth will make this another Year of the Bull.


    Why They Won't

    Chicago has been winning ugly for a while now. It's impressive how somebody different steps up every night and how Rose has been the consistent cause of victory, but we've rarely seen the Bulls firing on all cylinders at any point during the season.

    Now, Carlos Boozer is dinged up again (surprise, surprise?). Worse yet, Rose's ankle injury will surely persist throughout the rest of the postseason.

    Questions still remain as to whether the Bogans/Korver/Brewer triumvirate will be complete enough to compete with the league's top shooting guards. Each of those guys brings something different to the table, but they're all largely one-dimensional too.

    The Bulls are driven and deep enough to move past an overly exhausted Boston or Miami in the conference finals, but they'll need the entire roster to be clicking simultaneously if they're to win it all.


    Likely Outcome: Beating Atlanta Hawks 4-3 and Boston Celtics 4-1, but Losing 4-2 in NBA Finals to Los Angeles Lakers

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Why They'll Win It All

    Even though Kobe Bryant is banged up and Pau Gasol has been struggling, the Los Angeles Lakers continue to get a huge lift from the rest of their core. Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest all had big performances during the Lakers' four games to two series win against the resilient New Orleans Hornets.

    Their enormous yet mobile front line softens opponents up just in time for Kobe to take over down the stretch. Gasol will begin playing better, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake seem to have comfortably settled into their roles and the Lakers will be able to protect an ailing Kobe by playing Shannon Brown a little more.

    The Lakers have just as much team experience and chemistry as the Boston Celtics, and they've got one more ring to show for it too.

    The aura of Staples Center, the pursuit of a three-peat and the motivation that this is Phil Jackson's final season will help this team continue to overcome all obstacles.


    Why They Won't

    The New Orleans Hornets exposed some key weaknesses in this Lakers team. Los Angeles can't stop dribble penetration, its huge front line is mobile but can be run on and it's not protecting the defensive glass nearly enough.

    New Orleans deserves a ton of respect for battling as it did, but that was a classic "foregone conclusion" six-game series. The level of competition is going to take a noticeable leap, and the Lakers won't be able to get by with such inconsistent showings.

    Bryant's injury and Gasol's disappearance couldn't have come at worse times. While Bynum and Artest had big moments, the Lakers can't be comfortable relying on them consistently.

    The Lakers have as good a chance to win it all as any team remaining on this list, but like Boston, they're going to expend the rest of their energy just to get by a stacked second-round opponent. Jason Kidd may not dissect their defense like Chris Paul did, but you can bet that Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose will.


    Likely Outcome

    There's no way to feel totally confident about this pick, even if one is a Lakers fan (which I am not). 

    There are just too many good teams in the Lakers' way right now to think this is remotely a lock. At the same time, Dallas has to prove it can protect close games on the biggest stage, Oklahoma City has to prove that it can stop the Memphis Grizzlies juggernaut and the Chicago Bulls have to get healthy.

    Los Angeles is flawed, but it's also talented/experienced enough to win, even if Kobe isn't 100 percent. I would have liked to pick Oklahoma City for this spot, but the Lakers might just survive their way into a third title after all.

    Beating Dallas Mavericks 4-3, Oklahoma City Thunder 4-3 and Chicago Bulls 4-2 in NBA Finals