Take one look around the Western Conference playoff picture, and you can be forgiven for feeling as though the Conference championship is the Lakers’ to lose.
They have, after all, emerged from the West in each of the past three seasons (including the last two NBA titles), hold the No. 2 seed and home court advantage through at least two rounds and face a group of rivals that can’t match their star power or playoff pedigree.
However, the Lake Show hardly looked the part of champions throughout the season, losing to six of their seven Western playoff rivals and enduring a stunning five-game losing skid down the stretch. Toss in the iffy status of Andrew Bynum (knee) and Steve Blake (chicken pox, believe it or not) and the Lakers enter the postseason looking surprisingly vulnerable.
Los Angeles’ pain in their rivals’ gain, and teams like San Antonio (hoping to get a healthy Manu Ginobli back), Dallas (an aging group that might have one big run in them), Oklahoma City (a young club possibly ready to make the jump) and Denver (seemingly energized after getting past the Carmelo Anthony distraction) could be looking to close in for the kill.
The East may hold the bulk of the star power (Anthony, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard), but the West has them matched in terms of storylines. From the continued excellence of playoff stalwarts San Antonio and Dallas to the shaky Lakers to young Thunder to the no-name Nuggets, there is plenty of intrigue that will play out in the wild West.
No. 1 San Antonio vs. No. 8 Memphis
Those awaiting the Spurs’ return to earth this season learned that they will continue waiting, as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Ginobli, along with a strong cast of skilled reserves and capable role players, put together the club’s best regular season output (61 wins) since their 63-win campaign during the 2005-06 season. While Ginobli’s health is key to any title aspirations, the team can lean on its tremendous depth to make up for any time lost by the Argentine.
They will open things up against the Memphis Grizzlies, who did well just to make the playoffs without leading scorer Rudy Gay (shoulder). While big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph could off-set the contributions of Duncan and DeJuan Blair, inexperienced guards OJ Mayo and Sam Young are unlikely to make up for the loss of Gay. San Antonio’s biggest advantage, however, could come beyond the arc, where the Spurs ranked first in field goal percentage while the Grizzlies allowed the league’s seventh-highest rate from three-point territory.
Prediction: Spurs win 4-0
No. 2 Los Angeles vs. No. 7 New Orleans
Remember how I mentioned the “Lakers have lost to six of their seven Western playoff rivals this season” stat? Well, unfortunately for New Orleans, the only team that L.A. happened to sweep were their first round opponents. While the Hornets hold a distinct advantage at the point (Chris Paul vs. Derek Fisher), the Lakers are better everywhere else. No Hornet can offer much resistance against Kobe Bryant (Trevor Ariza knows him well and might get most of the defensive assignment) and David West and Carl Landry can’t match the frontcourt depth of a team that boasts Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Bynum.
Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle to this series will come in how quickly a one-on-one, star vs. star battle breaks out between Bryant and Paul. Fisher will need help with Paul and we’ve seen Bryant demand the defensive assignment on the other team’s star in the past.
Prediction:Lakers win 4-1
No. 3 Dallas vs. No. 6 Portland
The Mavs would never admit as much, but they had to be cursing under their breath as the Lakers used a Bryant game-tying three at the end of regulation and a strong defensive effort in OT to secure the No. 2 seed and leave Dallas to face the dangerous Trail Blazers.
Now, Dallas, having won their last four games and enjoying some relatively good health (only Caron Butler remains out), are hardly pushovers, but they have lost twice to the Blazers since Gerald Wallace joined the team at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge will offer up a fascinating clash of styles in the power forward battle that could go a long way towards determining the winner of the series.
Prediction: Blazers win 4-2
No. 4 Oklahoma City vs. No. 5 Denver
In a series between two offensive-minded teams, the end result could well come down to who can get the key stops. Both the Thunder and Nuggets ranked among the top five teams in points scored, with OKC managing to boast a slightly stingier defensive presence. Denver likely doesn’t have much of an answer for NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant, who is too quick for Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin, and would hardly be challenged by Danilo Galinari.
But the Nuggets’ 18-7 record after the Anthony trade wasn’t a fluke, and they could benefit from a deep roster of bench scorers that includes JR Smith, Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo. What should be an entertaining series might also have a gritty side, as Nene and Kendrick Perkins have engaged in shoving matches during each of their past two meetings, and emotions could be even higher with the postseason upon us.
Prediction: Thunder wins 4-3