Erick Blasco's Western Conference First Round Preview

Erick BlascoSenior Writer IApril 17, 2009

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 06:  Brandon Roy #7 of the Portland Trail Blazers drives past Luis Scola #4 of the Houston Rockets at the Rose Garden on November 6, 2008 in Portland, Oregon.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

After such an exciting regular season, the 2008-2009 NBA playoffs should be one of the best ever.

The playoffs are always the epitome of drama as heroes and villains are forged through stellar or lackluster play, and this season’s edition features nothing but the most talented casts of characters and the most intriguing storylines.

No matter what the outcome of any playoff game, the true winners are the fans—who will be rewarded with nothing but fantastic basketball from now until June.

Here’s what to look for in the West

1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8) Utah Jazz

In past seasons this would be a tooth-and-nail battle, but the Lakers have the Jazz outclassed in many ways.

Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are long, skilled, versatile big men whose size, speed, and quickness are too much for the landlocked Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Any screen action or passwork putting pressure on Boozer and Okur to defend the hoop will be an automatic bucket. Plus, while Okur has the strength to discomfort Bynum in the pivot, AB will overwhelm Boozer, while Gasol is too quick for either Jazz big to handle.

On the perimeter, Kobe Bryant is too tall for Ronnie Brewer, too strong for Andrei Kirilenko, too fast for Matt Harpring, and too talented for Kyle Korver. At home, the Jazz will be allowed to be more liberal with their bumping and shoving of Bryant, but in the Staples Center, it’s not unconceivable that Bryant records over 15 free throw attempts a game.

Plus, with Bynum moving Lamar Odom to the bench, and with Shannon Brown providing a nice shot in the arm, the Lakers’ once anemic bench has rebounded into an energetic force.

The Jazz will flex their collective muscle in the paint, where the Lakers bigs don’t have the strength or awareness to push around their Jazz counterparts. However, Utah misses far too many layups to fully realize their strength advantage.

Deron Williams will eat the Lakers’ point guards alive, and Okur’s shooting will give Bynum and Gasol fits, but who else will step up? Andrei Kirilenko, whose been mistake-prone all season? Kyle Korver, whose sweet stroke sours in the postseason?

Los Angeles’ X- Factor: Sasha Vujacic’s shooting.
Utah’s X-Factor: Andrei Kirilenko’s defense.

The Lakers have a better chance of winning two games in Utah than the Jazz have of winning one in Hollywood.

Lakers in 5.

2) Denver Nuggets vs. 7) New Orleans Hornets

With the way Chris Paul gets into the paint, he’ll have no problems hypnotizing Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Anderson to the ball and then dropping it off to Hilton Armstrong or Tyson Chandler at the basket for a buffet of layups. The key will be for Denver to trap New Orleans’ ball screens forcing Paul to give up the ball—easier said then done.

As Chris Paul goes, where will the Hornets turn for offense? Can David West take over Kenyon Martin’s sometimes careless, sometimes ruthless defense? If West can’t prove best, the Hornets are in trouble.

Peja Stojakovic is notorious for failing under the bright lights, but perhaps the Nuggets and the first round are a cozy off-broadway play to the bigger spotlights of San Antonio and the Lakers in later playoff rounds. While Peja’s confidence is iffy, Rasual Butler’s totally unreliable.

Meanwhile, the prospect of Peja defending Carmelo Anthony is more frightening than most horror-flicks. Expect the Hornets to stick Butler on Carmelo on the onset, with a liberal dose of James Posey and Stojakovic chasing around Dhantay Jones. Either way, Carmelo has the goods to ratchet up the points.

Chauncey Billups isn’t mistake prone, and because the Nuggets don’t pass too often, Chris Paul’s ability to force turnovers is marginalized. Who do the Hornets have that can match J.R. Smith’s pyromantic scoring tendencies?

Denver’s X-Factor: Kenyon Martin’s defense.
New Orleans’ X-Factor: Peja Stojakovic’ shooting.

The Nuggets have too much firepower for the Hornets to overcome.

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Nuggets in 6.

3) San Antonio Spurs vs. 6) Dallas Mavericks

A classic tilt that’s lost a bit of luster as each team has begun to decline.

Since the Mavs won’t want to risk Dirk Nowitzki to early foul trouble, Erick Dampier will be asked to defend Tim Duncan. Have Tim Duncan’s injuries sapped him so much that Dampier will be able to bottle him up, or will Duncan expose Dampier to early foul trouble and a seat on the bench. Dampier’s defense is a must because Nowitzki, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Hollins have no chance at slowing down the Big Fundamental.

Tony Parker will likewise leave the Mavs in the dust, and Drew Gooden has the good stuff to make Nowtizki work on defense. Then the questions arise. How will Matt Bonner react to playoff pressure? Will Roger Mason be able to brush off Jason Kidd’s tough-nosed defense? We know Michael Finley’s a big-moment shooter, but can he, Bruce Bowen, and Kurt Thomas fill their share of jumpers over the first 40 minutes? If not, the Spurs might lack the firepower to put away the Mavericks.

When Dallas has the ball, screen/fades involving Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki routinely find open shots. Expect a bevy of screen/rolls attacking the heavy-legged Duncan and Thomas, and the easily confused Gooden.

When isolating, can Josh Howard consistently produce against  Bowen and Ime Udoka? My guess is no to Bowen, yes to Udoka. Will Dirk dominate the able-bodied Bowen, Gooden, and Thomas, or will he be just another jump shooter?

When the Mavs go small, Brandon Bass has too much bounce for Duncan to handle, while Terry and J.J. Barea can jet past Mason and Jacque Vaughn at will.

Both teams are soaring with confidence, after Dallas’ strong close to the regular season, headlined by an impressive fourth quarter to vanquish the Rockets, while the Spurs rode Michael Finley’s heroics to swat the Hornets in their final regular season contest.

San Antonio’s X-Factor: Michael Finley’s outside shooting.
Dallas’ X-Factor: Erick Dampier.

Prediction: No doubt the series will be fun and furious, with Duncan and Dirk doing battle once again. San Antonio’s always had more resolve and heart than Dallas.

Spurs in 7.

4) Portland Trail Blazers vs. 5) Houston Rockets

By far, the most evenly matched and intriguing series in the Western Conference. The winner will be determined by the victor of a number of matchups. Can Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden successfully defend Yao’s post ups?

Much press has been made about Houston’s inability to feed the ball to Yao against fronting defenses, and the vowel-less one certainly has the strength and the endurance to front and shove Yao out of premium post position. If Yao should establish good position in the post, Portland’s well-coordinated double teams can harangue the Ming Man into innumerable turnovers.

However, since Przybilla and Oden are offensive non-factors, Ming will be free to wall off the paint against Portland’s penetrations.

Luis Scola is rugged and strong, but LaMarcus Aldridge is long and quick. The winner of that matchup will go a long way to determining the series.

Ron Artest and Shane Battier will take their turns harassing Brandon Roy so Roy won’t be able to impose his full will on a game. However, Roy’s also an excellent defender who may be able to fluster Artest into his usual quota of mental mistakes. Will Battier and Von Wafer provide more offense than Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw?

The biggest edge the Blazers have is at the point guard position, where Steve Blake has the talent and experience to outduel Aaron Brooks.

Portland’s X-Factor: Rudy Fernandez’ playmaking.
Houston’s X-Factor: Aaron Brooks’ decision making.

The Blazers have more firepower than the Rockets, home court advantage, and the maturity to handle the Rockets’ rough stuff. However, they lack experience and the post presence needed to sufficiently challenge Yao on the defensive end where he could be forced into foul trouble. The team with the best playmaker usually wins these battles.

Blazers in 7.

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