Here are some early predictions for the Western Conference playoffs. I anticipate some very good series, even in the first round. The Lakers are once again a great team with some very good players, but the rest of the West has gotten better also, and they may not find it so easy to make it the Finals.
Dallas, Denver, and Portland have all added significant pieces, while Utah and Phoenix have been playing better, and Oklahoma City’s young roster keeps getting better.
The Spurs are currently the No. 7 seed in the West, one-half game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers. With the injury to Tony Parker and the rests that Tim Duncan will probably receive, I think they will probably fall to No. 8 before the playoffs begin.
The Spurs will be the first challenge for the Lakers in the playoffs and may actually compete. Parker should be healthy by then, there are many playoff-hardened veterans, to go along with solid young players, on the roster, and their defense is tough.
In the end, however, the Spurs will be outgunned by the defending champs. With the the matchup problems Lamar Odom will present, the skill of big-men Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and the fact that Kobe is Kobe and the Lakers are the Lakers, the Spurs will make a first round exit. I could easily see a 4-1 victory for the Lakers.
Prediction: Lakers 4-2
No. 4 Utah Jazz vs. No. 5 Phoenix Suns
A matchup of opposites here: The run-n-gun Suns take on the grind it out, physically defensive Jazz. Also, a showdown between two of the best point guards Steve Nash, and Deron Williams, along with two of the best second-tier power forwards in Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer.
Utah may have to make some adjustments to match the Suns style, but when these types of teams meet in the playoffs, the defensive team almost always wins.
Prediction: Jazz 4-3
No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder
On its face this looks like another good playoff series, the old(ish) versus the new, with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony going at it, and with both being supported by very good point guards, Chauncey Billups, and Russell Westbrook. The Nuggets, however, have more size, depth, and experience, and have had success stopping Durant. The Thunder may squeak one win in, but this will probably be the least exciting first round matchup.
Prediction: Nuggets 4-1
No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 Portland Trail Blazers
This should be an interesting matchup, the up-and-coming Blazers, who have been hit hard by injuries, versus the surging Mavs (who have currently won 13 in a row), and I expect Portland to put up a good fight. Barring further injuries, they will have almost all of their players back, and may even see Greg Oden return.
This year’s team is much more seasoned than last year’s team that made a first round playoff exit. They have also given Dallas problems this season, winning twice in Dallas already. That was, however, before the big trade that brought Butler, Haywood, and Stevenson to Dallas.
Dallas will have the advantages in size, experience, and firepower, and should be able to overcome. The matchups will be interesting to watch, both have aging but solid PGs, a good one-two punch with their SGs and PFs, block and rebounding-machines for centers, and defensive minded SFs.
Prediction: Mavs 4-3
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakes vs. No. 4 Utah Jazz
No gimmes in the West. Deron Williams should be able to cause some problems for LA and Utah has plenty of solid defenders they can throw at LA, both on the perimeter and down-low. Though it will be a draining series, the Lakers will win, based on what happened the last time these two teams met in the playoffs.
Prediction: Lakers 4-2
No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets
I would say that this will be a pretty even matchup. Marion and Kidd are about as good as it gets when it comes to defending players like Anthony and Billups, and Kenyon Martin and Arron Afflalo are likewise when it comes to defending Dirk and Caron Butler.
The X-factor in this matchup may be who does better out of JR Smith and Jason Terry. This one is a difficult one to predict, but I’m going to give it to Dallas by a nose because of their depth and home court advantage. If Denver loses a key player to injury, it will probably be over for them.
Prediction: Dallas 4-3
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 2 Dallas Mavericks
The Lakers reach the semi-final, which is the most difficult obstacle before returning to the Finals for the third year in a row. Somehow I have a feeling that the Lakers will finally be beat by a non-Spur team in the West this year.
Perhaps it will be the Nuggets, or even Jazz who do so, but I think Dallas now has the best shot. The Mavericks have split the season series with the Lakers, and have several good defenders to throw at Kobe, while also keeping Artest, Gasol, and the rest of the Lakers busy on D.
Lakers fans please do not be upset, I still acknowledge that your team is the greatest in history. I just think it will be someone else’s turn this year, and sometimes you got to go out on a limb. I will be the first person I’ve seen to predict someone besides the Lakers winning the West.
It’s always hard to predict a loss for LA when they have Kobe on their team, but you can’t always win. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see Adam Morrison and Sasha Vujacic make it to the Finals again though.
Prediction Dallas 4-2