While the Eastern Conference is looking like it's going to be chalk throughout each of the first round matchups, the West projects to be a bit more interesting. With each team winning at least 50 games during the regular season, this year's field ranks as one of the deepest in league history, and should provide tight, prolonged series across the board.
#1 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. #8 Oklahoma City Thunder (50-32)
Season Series: Los Angeles won 3-1.
Playoff History: This is Oklahoma City's first playoff appearance. However, when the Thunder were the Seattle Supersonics, they met the Lakers six times in the playoffs. The first two times they met, in 1978 and '79, the Sonics prevailed. The Lakers would have their revenge, however, winning the next four series with a combined record of 15-2. Two of those series wins (1980 and '87) put the Lakers in the Finals, while the 1995 Nick Van Exel-Vlade Divac-Cedric Ceballos LA team upset the heavily-favored Shawn Kemp-Gary Payton-George Karl Sonics 3-1.
Key question for LA: Can they shake off the malaise that has seemed to grip them for the last month of the regular season?
Key question for Oklahoma City: Can Kevin Durant continue his lightning (get it? Thunder? Lightning?) quick ascent into the NBA's elite with an epic individual performance that leads to an upset for the ages?
Los Angeles wins if...Kobe doesn't try to get into a one-on-one shootout with Durant. While Kobe is still a better all-around player than Durant, Durantula is, at this point in the two's respective careers, the more efficient scorer. Also, while the Thunder's offense is designed to have Durant take the overwhelming bulk of their shots, LA's offense is not as reliant on their superstar's scoring (at least when ran correctly). The Lakers are stacked in their front court, and the edge in size that Gasol and Odom hold over the Thunder bigs should be enough to lead the Lakers into the next round; they just need Kobe to give them a chance to take avantage of that edge.
Oklahoma City wins if...someone not named Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook goes off. As I mentioned before, Durant is the most efficient scorer in the league right now, and nothing the Lakers do defensively is going to dent his numbers that much. Westbrook, meanwhile, should join the long list of point guards (Aaron Brooks, Mike Bibby, Tony Parker, etc.) who have torched Derek Fisher and become stars. The key is going to be if Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, or some other party can make a big impact. The Thunder will defend their asses off; that's what got them here. If the Lakers are humming in the triangle and getting Gasol and Odom their touches, though, there isn't much any defense in the league can do to slow them down. In order to hang around and try to steal this series, Durant and Westbrook are going to need help keeping up.
PREDICTION: While the world would love to see seven games of Durant and Kobe trading baskets and glares, I think Kobe will realize it's winning time and put aside his misguided attempts to be the Kobe of 2005-07 and trust his teammates. With the Lakers offense finally being run correctly, baskets will come easy (despite the Thunder's best defensive efforts), and Phil Jackson will be content to let Durant and (to a lesser extent) Westbrook go off while shutting down the rest of their teammates. KD may look like Jordan vs. the Celts in '86, but the results will unfortunately be the same for the Thunder as it was for those Bulls: Lakers sweep all four.
#2 Dallas Mavericks (55-27) vs. #7 San Antonio Spurs (50-32)
Season Series: Dallas won 3-1.
Playoff History: Dallas and San Antonio have split four playoff series, all occurring within the past nine years. San Antonio won the first two series (including the 2003 Western Conference Finals), while Dallas has won the last two, including a 4-1 series win in last year's first round.
Key question for Dallas: Can the Mavericks continue winning close games? All season long, the Mavericks have won, but rarely ever in convincing fashion. Even during their midseason 13-game win streak, the Mavs won only one game by more than 10 points. While Dallas seems to have a knack for coming out ahead in these tight situations, letting a team that boasts proven clutch performers Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan stay in games may be a recipe for disaster (and would be even scarier if Big Shot Rob Horry was still lurking behind the 3-point arc for the Spurs).
Key question for San Antonio: Can Tim Duncan and company show more life than they did in last year's lackluster ouster at the hands the Mavs?
Dallas wins if...Jason Kidd pretends its 2001 and gets the Mavs moving. While Dallas only averaged about one more possession per game than San Antonio (the Mavs and Spurs ranked 17th and 20th, respectively, in pace factor), it would behoove Mark Cuban's boys to take advantage of their superior athleticism on the wings (Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, rookie sensation Rodrique Beaubois) while also preventing Tim Duncan from getting Greg Poppovich's half court defense set. It would also help if Dirk Nowitzki played like he did in 2006 vs. the Spurs (27.1 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 52% shooting from the floor, almost 92% from the line).
San Antonio wins if...Manu Ginobili continues to play like a madman (21.4 PPG on 48% shooting, 4.2 RPG, 5.6 APG in 31.6 MPG post-All-Star break), Tim Duncan raises his scoring (career-low 17.9 PPG during the regular season) to match his always stellar defense, and George Hill or Tony Parker (or both) are healthy enough to at least keep Jason Kidd honest on defense. If Parker is healthly, the Spurs could gain a significant edge, and if Hill is healthy, too, then watch out. Richard Jefferson also needs to remain out of the fog that seemed to encapsulate him for first two-thirds of the season.
PREDICTION: If Hill and Parker are healthy, and Duncan still has another gear he can go to in the playoffs, then the
# 3 Phoenix Suns (54-28) vs. #6 Portland Trailblazers (50-32)
Playoff History: Phoenix and Portland have split six postseason meetings, with the most recent in 1999 and the most notable a 4-2 Portland win in the 1990 Western Conference Finals.
Key question for Phoenix: Can Channing Frye, Louis Amundson, and Jarron Collins be rugged enough to replace the injured Robin Lopez?
Key question for Portland: Can Andre Miller take over for the injured Brandon Roy as the Blazers top playmaker?
Phoenix wins if...the rest of the team can help Steve Nash out enough on defense to prevent Miller from wreaking havoc off of drives into the paint and the Frye/Amundson/Collins trimutive can keep Marcus Camby occupied enough on defense to keep him from free-lancing and disrupting the drives of Nash and A'mare Stoudamire. Another key for the Suns will be keeping the tempo up. Phoenix generated the most offense in the league (about 115 points/100 possessions) at the 4th fastest pace, while Portland generated the 7th most offense in the league (about 111 points/100 possessions) at the slowest pace. The point is, both of these teams can score, but they do it in such different ways that the series may come down to how many possessions each team has.
Portland wins if...Marcus Camby can disrupt the Suns half-court offense, Andre Miller can get into the lane at will against Nash, and LaMarcus Aldridge can be enough of a factor on offense to force A'mare to the bench with foul trouble. Aldridge will score no matter what, but the only way he is going to be able to contain Stoudamire is if he can limit his minutes by drawing fouls. Unfortunately, Aldridge is a jump shooter who only shoots 4 free throws a game. As mentioned above, pace is a huge factor. The Blazers, obviously, want to slow things waaaaay down.
PREDICTION: It's a shame Roy and (to a lesser extent) Lopez will miss this series. I hate when a great matchup is diminished by injury. Nonetheless, this should be an entertaining, offensively efficient series, as both offenses are great and neither team defends all that well. You'll notice I didn't say "high-scoring," because I think these games will ebb and flow between the Suns up-and-down game and the Blazers (efficient) grind. Both teams are run by veteran point guards who know exactly what they need their offenses to do to win, and it should be fascinating watching Miller and Nash struggle to counter the other one's efforts when they have the ball (since neither is going to affect the other with their defense). As much as I hate to count out a Portland team that has only seemed to play better with each terrible hand they're dealt, the loss of Roy and the mastery of Nash to force the tempo he wants will prove to be too much to overcome. Give me the Suns in 6.
#4 Denver Nuggets (53-29) vs. #5 Utah Jazz (53-29)
Season Series: Denver won 3-1.
Playoff History: Utah has taken 2 of 3 series from Denver over the years, including a 4-3 series win in the 1994 Western Conference Semifinals over the Dikembe Mutumbo Nuggets that knocked off the #1 seed Seattle Supersonics in round one.
Key question for Denver: Will J.R. Smith and, more importantly, Kenyon Martin be healthy enough to make a significant contribution? BONUS QUESTION: Can they rally around George Karl and his battle with cancer, or will his absence be a distraction (as it has seemed to be over the last few weeks of the season)?
Key question for Utah: Will Carlos Boozer be healthy enough to make a significant contribution? BONUS QUESTION: Who will step up in place of the injured Andrei Kirilenko?
Denver wins if...they keep their heads about them and focus on the task at hand. Even when times were good, the Nuggets were one of the biggest collection of knuckleheads in the league. Now that there is some serious adversity surrounding them, how will they respond? With Kirilenko out for the series, Carmelo Anthony needs to take advantage and dominate. Chauncey Billups needs to recognize his declining scoring skills (under 37% shooting in March and April) and concentrate on running an offense, slowing down Deron Williams, and filling the leadership void created by Karl's absence. Nene also needs to help Kenyon Martin win the battle of gimpy power forwards with Carlos Boozer, while also helping to keep Paul Milisap in check.
Utah wins if...Deron Williams regains his mid-season form and Boozer isn't as seriously hurt as it seems he may be. Even with Anthony essentially being allowed to run free on offense in the absence of Kirilenko, the Jazz should be able to keep up scoring-wise. The hard-nosed tactics Jerry Sloan teams always utilize need to get into the Nuggets' heads, shifting their focus from playing the Jazz to playing the refs. The Jazz must also wrap the series up before it reaches game seven. A deciding game in the mile-high air following what promises to be a grueling series may be too much to overcome.
PREDICTION: The injuries that seem to be piling up just as the playoffs start is disheartening; it is beginning to look like the West may be a war of attrition. With Kirilenko out, the Jazz have no one who even has a prayer of slowing Melo down, but the Nuggets have no one to slow down Williams, either. Boozer is probably less banged up than Martin, and Paul Milisap is better than Chris Anderson in reserve. While neither of these teams look much like the title contenders they appeared to be as recently as a month ago, this should still be an intense, high-level series. In what is probably the toughest call of the playoffs, I'm going with the Nuggets in seven.
Los Angeles over Denver in 6.
San Antonio over Phoenix in 7.
Conference Finals Pick
Los Angeles over San Antonio in 6.
NBA Finals Pick
Cleveland over Los Angeles in 7.