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Sports :: 2011 NBA Playoffs Preview (Western Conference)
  submitted on April 14, 2011, 9:02 PM

Originally posted on The Sports Oratory

Hello everyone, with an incredibly anticipated set of playoffs this year, Iím here with a preview of each matchup. This will be a two-parter, and the first part will take a look at the Western Conference, with part two covering, you guessed it, the Eastern Conference. Iíve added in my predictions for each series, and then at the end Iíve got my predictions for how the rest of the bracket will play out. Letís get started...

San Antonio  Memphis
(1) San Antonio vs. (8) Memphis

Well, the Spurs have once again had another ho hum 60-win season. Tim Duncan, who is now approaching 50 years of age, has his team ready to go as the number one seed in the Western Conference. Well, itís not quite as much Tim Duncanís team as in years past, with The Big Fundamental only averaging 28 minutes a game to go along with 13.4ppg and 8.9rpg, all easily career lows for him. But, in his fourteenth season, he canít go all out and play the 35+ minutes a game that he was playing a few years ago. And so the Spurs have adapted. Gregg Popovich has the team putting up an obscene 103.7ppg, by far their highest average in the past 10 years. The only year that comes close is last year when they averaged 101.4ppg. However, theyíve also taken on a different identity on defense, as well. Gone are the days of giving up an average of 85ppg. Instead theyíre giving up 98ppg, and are 11th in defensive efficiency.

While their defense may not draw many comparisons to the other top seed, the Chicago Bulls, there is some similarity in how their team plays as a unit. There are nine players on the roster that have averaged at least 19 minutes a game, and none play more than Tony Parker at 32.4mpg (The bulls have eight players that average over 20 minutes a game and Keith Bogans averages 17.8mpg). This has led to five players averaging between 11 and 17.5ppg, and the team pulling down 41.9rpg while no one player grabs more than 9 rebounds on average. There is a ton of balance on the Spurs, but that also means there is no real superstar. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan, all three are clearly the class of the team, and it will be interesting to see how that synergy plays out as the playoffs progress when they might be missing that alpha dog presence in key situations.

That being said, the makeup of their team shouldnít affect them too much against the Memphis Grizzlies. They are powered behind the post presence of Zach Randolph and the ball distribution of Mike Conley. They can be a stingy team on defense with the help of Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, Shane Battier, Leon Powe, and OJ Mayo. But, theyíre missing their number two scorer and primary perimeter threat, Rudy Gay. Gay was averaging 19.8ppg, 6.2rpg, 1.7spg while shooting 47.1% from the field and 39.6% from beyond the arc. That is key production, and the Grizzlies canít just put OJ Mayo into that spot and pretend itís business as usual. If Gay was healthy, this would be a very dangerous Grizzlies team; but as they stand now, they just donít have the personnel to match up with the Spurs.

Spurs in 5

Los Angeles  New Orleans
(2) Los Angeles vs. (7) New Orleans

Last year the Boston Celtics went 3-7 in their last 10 games of the regular season and 10-11 in their last 21 games. There was talk of the Celtics struggling, or perhaps coasting through the regular season, just waiting to get to the playoffs, as can happen to veteran teams at times. Once again this season, the Celtics finished the season with a mediocre record, leading to comparisons to last yearís team. Last year they ďturned it onĒ in the playoffs and advanced to the NBA Finals. However, I feel that comparisons to last yearís team is misplaced, and actually if any team reminds me of the 2009-10 Celtics itís this yearís Los Angeles Lakers (You thought I forgot which matchup I was supposed to be talking about here, didnít you?). After winning 17 of 18 games, the Lakers then dropped five in a row before winning their last two to clinch the #2 seed. There seems to be a certain complacency, with even head coach Phil Jackson admitting the team isnít trying very hard. And yet, this is a team rife with talent. The teamís Big Four, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum, average 69.8ppg. Gasol and Bynum combine to pull down 19.6rpg, with Odom adding an additional 8.7rpg. All three of them shoot at least 53% from the field, with Bryant shooting a respectable 45.1%.

Despite their struggles, this is a team built for the playoffs. Bryant has only averaged 33.9mpg this year, but there is little doubt that his minutes will increase in the postseason. A front line of Gasol, Bynum and Odom with a little Ron Artest thrown in for defensive purposes along with Bryant in the back court is devastating. Ultimately, the Lakers fate in the playoffs will probably rest with the health and effectiveness of Andrew Bynum. When heís playing as well as heís capable of playing, the Lakers are all but unstoppable. But durability is an issue with him, and after only playing in 54 games this season, and suffering a bruised knee in the regular season finale, there are concerns that he may not be able to stay healthy, in which case the Lakers do become vulnerable.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, Bynum is expected to be fine for the first round, which is going to present serious issues, particularly in the frontcourt. The Hornets are not a great rebounding team, ranking 24th in the league in rebounds at 40.1 per game, compared to the Lakers who are 3rd with 44.0 per game. Emeka Okafor and David West are both undersized and are not a good matchup for Gasol and Bynum, and West will struggle to cover Odom when he is playing power forward. Trevor Ariza will be an effective defender on Bryant, but that large lineup will create solid opportunities for the Lakers at every frontcourt position. The Hornets only true advantage in this series is Chris Paul, who should be able to have his way with the ancient Derek Fisher covering him. However, Paul seems to be a step slower this season with knee problems, and just doesnít have the team around him to be able to take a game over, let alone four. The Lakers could drop a game as they might not yet be totally motivated in this first round, but other than that they shouldnít really be threatened by New Orleans at all.

Lakers in 5

Dallas  Portland
(3) Dallas vs. (6) Portland

Quick, name the Mavericks fourth-leading scorer (excluding Caron Butler). How about their fifth? If you said Tyson Chandler and Jose Barea, congrats, you must watch a lot of Mavs basketball. In other words, the Dallas Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki, and not a whole lot else. He leads the team in points per game (23.0) and is second in rebounds per game (7.0). Dallas managed to win 57 games despite Jason Terry being the number two scorer for the team and Caron Butler, their number three scorer, missing two thirds of the season due to injury. They donít rebound particularly well, (14th in the league, 41.4rpg), have a one dimensional point guard (In 33.2mpg Jason Kidd averages 7.9 points on 36.1% shooting, but does provide 8.2apg), and a center who is an above average rebounder (9.4 per game) but canít create his own shot.

But, here they are. The #3 seed, itís tough to know what to make of the Mavericks. They lost 5 of 8 games, only to win 5 in a row, followed by a 4 game losing streak, then a 4 game winning streak to finish the season. Who knows which Mavericks team weíll see up against Portland.

The Trailblazers are almost the opposite of the Mavericks, with a number of quality players, and depth all around, compared to Dallas who has to rely on Nowitzki for much of its success. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge (21.8ppg, 8.8rpg), Portland also gets production from Wesley Matthews (15.9ppg), Gerald Wallace (15.8ppg, 7.6rpg), Andre Miller (12.7ppg, 7.0apg), and also get double digit points from Nicolas Batum and Brandon Roy, along with 10.3rpg from the ageless wonder Marcus Camby. Thatís a solid seven man rotation, most notably Gerald Wallace, the mid-season acquisition who provides excellent production at the 2/3 spot and takes a lot of pressure off of Brandon Roy, whose knee problems could have derailed the Blazersí season were it not for the trade for Wallace. Now, Roy can limit his minutes to around 20 per game and the Blazers donít really suffer because of it.

The general consensus seems to be to anoint the Blazers as the spoilers and give them the upset win over the Mavericks right off the bat. The two teams split the season series, with the Mavs winning the first two, and the Blazers winning the last two. However, a couple of stats point to the idea of an upset being more difficult than expected. First, thereís Dallasí home court advantage. The Mavs were good, not great at home at 29-12, however Portland was a paltry 18-23 on the road. Portland is going to have to win on the road at least once to win this series. Second, despite Dallasí mediocre rebounding numbers, Portland is decidedly worse, tied with Atlanta for 27th in the league with 39.3 per game. So despite Marcus Camby averaging over 10 rebounds per game in 26 minutes of duty, this is a weak area for them and could be a place for Dallas to get an advantage. Portland will probably end up taking this series, as they just have more talent and a better team than Dallas, but it will by no means be an easy victory, especially if they happen to slip up and lose a game at home.

Portland in 7

Oklahoma City  Denver
(4) Oklahoma City vs. (5) Denver

So, the Denver Nuggets lose their top two leading scorers, top assist guy, and leading rebounder, and then proceed to go on a tear the rest of the season and finish up as the #5 seed in the Western Conference. Instead of struggling when Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were traded to the New York Knicks, they took the pieces they already had, added in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton, and didnít skip a beat with all three averaging double figures over the last 20 games of the season. The Nuggets truly are an ensemble cast, with no standout star, but a number of role players. Aside from Gallinari, Chandler, and Felton, thereís Nene, Arron Afflalo, JR Smith, Ty Lawson, Al Harrington, Kenyon Martin, and of course, Chris Andersen. Andersenís averaging 16.3mpg, everyone else is playing at least 22.8mpg. Itís a diverse cast that can give you a lot of different looks on the court, and George Karl seems to have rallied the team around the absence of Carmelo and his drama to allow them to play at this high level.

Itís certainly a great story, but in the NBA itís tough for a Cinderella story to make it too far into the playoffs. Especially when Cinderellaís first round opponent is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are a team reborn with the addition of Kendrick Perkins to start at center and play the role of enforcer in the paint he once occupied in Boston. Perkins and Serge Ibaka make for a dangerous duo in the frontcourt, in addition to Durantís length and ability to score. Thabo Seflosha provides solid defense, and Russell Westbrook might be the most underrated point guard in the league. Westbrookís game can best be compared to that of Derrick Roseís, but Rose is the better all-around player, so Westbrookís ability tends to fly under the radar. But make no mistake, Westbrookís ability to score as well as distribute the ball in addition to Durantís scoring talents are a large part of why the Thunder averaged 104.8ppg. Now, with Seflosha, Ibaka and now Perkins stepping up defensively on the other end, this has become a very dangerous team. Denver is outmatched here and the series wonít be as close as the seeding numbers would otherwise indicate.

Thunder in 5

With the predictions above, we would be looking at second round matchups of San Antonio vs. Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles vs. Portland. The Spurs/Thunder matchup is a tough one to call. The Thunder are probably the more talented team, but the Spurs are more experienced and better coached, plus they have home court advantage. The Thunder can win the series, but it would probably take six or seven games to do it. With the Lakers/Blazers, Portland is the more athletic team by far, but there is some definite concern that the Lakers will crush Portland on the boards and overpower them with their superior frontcourt. Assuming the Lakers get it into gear for the playoffs, they should dispatch the Blazers. A Lakers/Thunder conference finals matchup would be a fantastic series. Gasol vs. Perkins, Ibaka vs. Bynum, Durant vs. Artest, Bryant vs. Seflosha, Westbrook vs. Fisher. That being said, a full strength duo of Bynum and Gasol will be the difference and will send the Lakers to the NBA Finals once again.

So, to recap:

Spurs over Grizzlies in 5
Lakers over Hornets in 5
Blazers over Mavs in 7
Thunder over Nuggets in 5

Thunder over Spurs in 7
Lakers over Blazers in 6

Lakers over Thunder in 6

Thanks for reading, and make sure to check out my Eastern Conference preview too!

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