Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Western Conference Playoffs First Round Preview

Now, for two months of angst.

Let's get it started...

1. L.A. Lakers (65-17) v. 8. Utah Jazz (48-34)
Season Series: L.A. won, 2-1

Utah hasn't been right all season. For most of the year, they were marred by injuries - specifically to Carlos Boozer (missed 45 games), but also Andrei Kirilenko (15 games), Deron Williams (14 games), and Mehmet Okur (10 games). Boozer finally returned in late February, in the middle of Utah's 12-game winning streak, and it seemed that the Jazz were going to make a serious run. But it has not been so. Utah has sputtered at the end of the season, losing 11 of their last 18, including home losses to Minnesota and Golden State this month. They have all their people back, but still aren't truly healthy - Boozer is still at less than 100 percent. He hasn't been himself. Thursday night against the Lakers, Williams looked all alone out there.

As for the Lakers - I mean, wow. They have the most talented team in the league by far. Lately, Shannon Brown, acquired from the Bobcats near the trade deadline in the deal that sent away Vladimir Radmanovic, has been stealing minutes from Jordan Farmar - just another good player for the Lakers, as if they needed any more. Andrew Bynum, just returned from a knee injury, is already getting his explosiveness back. Kobe Bryant, now 30, has picked his spots brilliantly this season (preserving himself at the beginning and end of the campaign and dominating in the middle, when Bynum was out) and is now ready to go full throttle. I mean, freaking Lamar Odom comes off the bench.

I agree with Charles Barkley - if the Lakers don't win the championship this season, it ain't happening. Think about it: What would make the Lakers win a championship in the next five years that won't allow them to win it this year? Better players? There hasn't been an NBA team this stacked in more than 20 years. If L.A. doesn't win it all this year, they don't have what it takes and never will, and the missing ingredient sure as hell won't be talent. And I love the Lakers more than almost anything.

The Lakers beat the Jazz in the playoffs last year without Bynum - and right now Utah isn't playing nearly as well as they played last year. Actually, they seem like they are ready to implode, the same way that the Nuggets did as the Lake Show was sweeping them in the first round last year.

Verdict: Lakers in four.

2. Denver Nuggets (54-28) v. 7. New Orleans Hornets (49-33)
Season series: 2-2

I really like this Denver team. It's amazing what Chauncey Billups has done with them. Simply put, he's made them more grown up. And as they head into the playoffs, a team that has lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last five years finally has itself a leader - the kind of leader any team could use. Kudos, Mr. Big Shot. We salute what you do.

Carmelo Anthony had some injuries this season - a broken wrist, a bad elbow - the latter likely the cause for his field goal percentage dipping five points, from 49 to only 44. Still, though, he can score the ball with the best of them, and is an improved all-around player. Nene had himself a career year. K-Mart still does K-Mart things. J.R. Smith lights it up off the bench. And Chris Anderson may be the best backup big man in the game right now - always makes an impact on the game with his shot-blocking, rebounding, and athleticism.

As far as the Hornets go, aren't they a two-man team at this point? It's an excellent tandem to have - David West was terrific in April, averaging a 24-9 on 52 percent shooting, and he's a bulldog, too. And Chris Paul is the best 6'1"-and-under player who ever lived. But they don't have enough help - Rasual Butler is okay, I guess, but you'd rather have him coming off the bench. Peja is playing hurt - he averaged 10 points a game on only 34 percent from three and 35 percent overall in 35 minutes a game in April, after playing only two games in March. Tyson Chandler missed almost a month before returning for the last game of the regular season.

I see Paul and West, two super-competitive guys, throwing up a 30-15 and a 25-10, respectively, in this series - and it still won't be enough.

Verdict: Nuggets in six.

3. San Antonio Spurs (54-28) v. Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
Season series: 2-2

In the past, Dallas matched up well with San Antonio. But that was when Dallas was good. Then again, San Antonio isn't what they once were, either - not with Manu Ginobili out for the year and Tim Duncan's knees aching, God bless his soul. He'll fight like a warrior, as he always does when he's playing hurt, and Tony Parker is now the third best point guard in the league, behind Paul and Williams. He'll probably average 30 points and 10 assists in this series. Still, it's hard to imagine how they can get by the way they are.

These guys had a great run.

Verdict: Mavericks in six.

4. Portland Trailblazers (54-28) v. Houston Rockets (53-29)
Season series: Houston 2-1

Probably the toughest first round match-up to call:

On the one hand, Portland has more talent. That's obvious. Brandon Roy is one of the ten best players in the league; LaMarcus Aldridge is the re-birth of the Portland-era Rasheed Wallace, minus the techs; Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw are outstanding off the bench; and Batum, Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, and the Gorilla Vanilla Joel Przybilla are excellent role players. Hell, when he's not sitting on the bench in foul trouble, even Greg Oden comes in and contributes, using his sheer size to throw people around down low, grab some boards, get some put-backs, power home some dunks, and, occasionally, block a shot or two.

They also have the best home-court advantage in the league.

But here's what they don't have: any playoff experience whatsoever by any serviceable player other than Blake.

Houston, on the other hand, is a veteran team with a veteran coach and playoff experience, if not the good kind (they always lose in the first round). Yao is unstoppable on the low-block, and they play defense, and they play well together. Other than Yao, their biggest advantage may be this: the ability to tag-team Roy with Artest and Battier. As good as Brandon is, he isn't exactly an unstoppable virtuoso force of a scorer, a la Kobe or LeBron or Wade. I could see them giving him some trouble.

It's impossible to predict how this Portland team will perform in their first playoff appearance, but here's my best prognostication: They will win their first three games at home. So will Houston. Then, in Game 7, in a close game, right at the end, Portland will play like a team that has never been in such a situation before.

That is the way it goes.

Verdict: Houston in seven.

Check back tomorrow for the East preview...

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