To continue my look at the stories of the predicted first-round losers of the NBA Playoffs, here I analyze those Western Conference teams to be ousted in their opening series.
The Utah Jazz are a broken team, literally speaking. Numerous injuries during the 2008-2009 season have made their road to the Playoffs a crooked one, and their journey most certainly will end quickly now that they have arrived at their destination.
Forward Carlos Boozer has been battling a knee issue, guard Deron Williams has probably been himself for about 10 games total, and forward Andrei Kirilenko has continued his mercurial emotional regression.
Head coach Jerry Sloan has always maintained a stability with the Jazz that has bordered on the predictable. When an opponent plays this team, they know they have to defend for 24 seconds, prepare for precise execution, and maintain a level of play that demands attention to detail and mental toughness.
But this season's version of the Utah club has been anything but predicable, particularly on the defensive end.
Growing up with the Stockton-Malone combination, the outside shooting of Jeff Hornacek, and the interior defense of Eaton (and later Ostertag), it is difficult to picture a Jerry Sloan team that plays so erratically. Their road record is abysmal (15-26), and with the death of owner Larry Miller, the franchise appears more faceless and nondescript than ever.
The Jazz will only go as far as Williams can take them, and in this case, I don't even see them winning one game against the Lakers.
Prediction: Lakers in four
The NBA currently has only six true closers. These are the cream of the crop in terms of being able to take over a game by themselves, against any kind of resistance: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul...and one last quiet professional far more mature than his age who has overcome the questions of his durability to become a true assassin.
Brandon Roy can get anywhere he wants on a basketball court. His attributes sneak up on you, whether it be his vertical leap or his unnaturally quick first step. Roy knows where he wants to be and will get there efficiently and ruthlessly.
The only hope to contain him is to have on-ball defenders who can slow him down just enough to have hope: Guys like, say, Ron Artest and Shane Battier.
This matchup was the worst Brandon could have hoped for.
The NBA can do that to you. Just when you think you have it all figured out, there is always one more hoop to jump through, one more mountain to climb.
It appears Roy has almost reached the pinnacle of his profession, but Artest and Battier will do just enough to prevent him from completing the climb.
Prediction: Rockets in six
As long as the Denver Nuggets have George Karl as their coach, Kenyon Martin as a contributor, and Carmelo Anthony as a star, I will always have my doubts.
To be a winner in the NBA, there is a certain level of professionalism that must be attained and, more importantly, sustained. "Cool" doesn't equal a ring; the game must be respected and the long, arduous journey must be embraced.
I have never felt confident that the version of the Nuggets that has existed since 2003 has the necessary tools to accomplish the ultimate goal of a championship, and despite the addition of Chauncey Billups, this year's model is no different.
The Nuggets have the look of a collection of playground specialists. Anthony plays the part of the stud scorer, Martin acts as the rugged enforcer, sixth man J.R. Smith is the unconscious gunner, Chris Andersen is the zany energy guy, and Nene is the burly interior scorer.
The roster is like the Ocean's 11 cast. Everyone is competent, productive, and effective, and the movie will most likely be enjoyable.
In the end, though, there won't be any Oscars to hand out.
Prediction: Hornets in six
On paper, this series is dead even.
I take that back; the Mavericks probably have the edge in talent. Unfortunately, this is one team where the individual parts may be a deterrent to the qualities of the whole.
Their most reliable scorer is an undersized sixth man. Their most dependable defender is a backup center. The X-factor has endured a checkered last two years off the court. The team's soul is a porous defender who routinely allows career nights from opposing point guards.
And the supposed best player has seen his production decline in fourth quarters and has routinely shrunk from responsibility during important moments.
Taken separately, the common belief is that these guys would have absolutely zero chance to knock off a veteran team of champions, even one without a vital scoring option. The doubters refer back to last season, when they folded meekly to the upstart Hornets.
But for some reason, the Dallas Mavericks appear dangerous in this upcoming battle against a vulnerable former king.
But then again, for some other reason, these weaknesses keep glaring at me, saying "Don't be fooled."
Prediction: Spurs in 5