NBA Playoffs 2012: Predicting First-Round Winners for the Western Conference
The NBA Playoffs are underway and we have already had a couple of crackling games thus far.
Dallas and Oklahoma City have fought tooth-and-nail in their first two games and that has made for some compelling viewing.
With eight games in the books across the first round of the Western Conference, I felt comfortable enough to assess the trends thus far and provide my projections of the likely trajectory of each of the four first-round matchups.
So without further ado, here is a closer look at the West.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Utah Jazz
While all the regular season talk had centered on the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat, the Spurs have quietly been far-and-away the best team in the league for at least the last four months.
They have cemented the foundation in the form of a core nucleus—Coach Gregg Popovich, the Big Three (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and a perfect set of complementary players for their system.
Popovich is a coaching genius, as is reflected in the fact that he has completely transformed this unit from being a half court, deliberate offense to a fast-paced, fast-break engine predicated on an amazingly effective three-point shot.
Through this offensive transformation, the defensive intensity has stayed the same at its par-excellence levels. Coach Pop’s accomplishment is not restricted to his Xs-and-Os, though.
What he has been able to do in regards to player management and season management (resting the Big Three for back-to-back-to-backs, acquiring Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson off the proverbial flea market and creating tailor-made roles for Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Greene) is nothing short of brilliant.
One often finds that the team that ends the regular season on a high carries some of that winning feeling into the playoffs—and Utah might have been excused for feeling the same.
The problem, though, is that the current Spurs are too experienced, too clinical to let any team "ride the momentum," especially when the talent gap is fairly significant.
For the Jazz, the starting front court of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Josh Howard (their strength, coming in) is averaging a measly 30 points per game collectively.
The paint's been clogged by the Spurs' defense and the Jazz's 'bigs" are just not finding space to get easy buckets.
Despite their shortcomings thus far, the Jazz will find a way to use the Delta Center’s rabid, home-court advantage and win one of the next two games.
But that, unfortunately, will be the extent of their success this year.
I see San Antonio closing the series in five games.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Dallas Mavericks
Oklahoma (OKC) is up 2-0, but theirs is most tenuous of the 2-0 leads amongst the four playoff teams that are in that position.
Dallas was maybe a play away in each of the first two games from taking momentum and running with it.
The other source of concern for OKC is the shooting form of their MVP, Kevin Durant. KD’s got his points, if one were to look purely at his points scored (averaging 25.5 points through the first two games).
Problem is, he is shooting an under-par 33 percent. Shawn Marion is getting (and pleading for more) credit for KD’s shooting woes, and that is part of it.
However, the fact remains that Durant is getting good looks and is just not making shots he normally makes. Logic says it's just a matter of time before he regains his silky touch and that could happen as early as Game 3 tonight in Dallas.
What OKC has done thus far in the playoffs is merely to hold serve, and Dallas brings the pedigree of playoff experience that will hold the team in good stead through some tricky moments.
Having said that, the Mavericks' age is a concern, to the point that they are redefining the word ‘old.’
Consider this: only one of the Mavericks’ starters (Delonte West) is under 30 years old, and he would be the oldest starter in the OKC line-up.
If this series were to go the full distance, I would be mightily concerned about the Mavericks' age-factor—they just might be a bit too old to compete with the jet propellers from Oklahoma City.
I think Dallas wins the next two games at home, then drops Game 5 (in OKC) and loses steam in game 6.
Oklahoma City Thunder in 6.
Los Angeles Laker vs. Denver Nuggets
The Los Angeles (LAL) Lakers have had it easy thus far, and this series looks to be a bit under-cooked, especially given the pre-series hype regarding Denver’s speed, skills and aggression.
LAL has appeared to be in full control and the reasons are not too hard to find.
One, Denver’s Achilles Heel on offense is their half-court execution.
The Nuggets have been unable to operate from the post and the offensive limitations of their starting front-court (Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried) has enabled Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and others to squat in the paint and host an all-night block party.
This is in no way undermining Bynum’s miraculous Game 1 show; I do however feel that his job was made easier by the predictable innocuousness of Denver’s front-court.
The Lakers are scary also because they are nowhere close to being as dependent on Kobe as they have been in years past.
Bynum should be, and sometimes is, the go-to-guy in key moments and Gasol is as efficient as ever in shooting, passing and rebounding like no other big man in the game today.
What this means is that Kobe can afford a few stinkers (such as the 38 percent shooting in the second half of the regular season) and the Lakers will still win, as long as he shows up with a couple of star showings (like Game 2’s 38-point explosion).
One area of concern—LA’s perimeter defense. The Nuggets were getting looks from the three-point line and just did not convert them in the first two games.
I would not be the least bit surprised if Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and company get hot at home and come up with a 15-for-30 performance from downtown.
If that happens, Denver could very well end up evening the series before the week ends.
I do therefore think that this series goes the full distance, with Lakers taking it in the end.
Los Angeles Lakers in 7.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Giving away a game that they firmly owned for more than three-fourths of the way—and at home too—was ridiculous. The Memphis Grizzlies (MEM) did well by winning Game 2, but I still think the Game 1 debacle might come back and hurt them.
For MEM, the silver lining is that the Los Angeles Clippers (LAC) might have camouflaged a bunch of their deficiencies with the furious 27-point comeback.
One, LAC’s help defense has been a no-show and is a cause for concern given the numerous scoring options that Memphis possesses.
Second, the Clippers are over reliant on Chris Paul to create and spoon-feed the others—the team is short on shot-creators and the minute Paul rests or sags, the team follows suit.
Lastly, what happened in Game 1 had a once-in-a-blue-moon feel to it in the way it was done.
Two factors ought to give the Grizzlies a lot of hope.
One, Zach Randolph is steadily coming back to full form and in Game 2, seemed to have the better of Blake Griffin. If he continues to be a thorn in Blake’s side, LAC’s second-best weapon might well be neutralized.
Z-Bo is a physically demanding specimen and for all of Blake’s high-soaring acrobatics, he might end up exhausting a lot of energy on the defensive end against Randolph.
Lastly, Memphis is a tremendous defensive team, particularly in its opportunistic defense (16 steals, 37 LAC turnovers). The team prides itself on sticking to the opposing playmaker, and hounding them to no avail, as Paul accepted after Game 2.
I see this series as the most interesting one amongst the first-round Western Conference matchups. Home court will be key, though, and Memphis might be able to steal one in LA, and close it at home in seven.
Memphis in 7.