(1) San Antonio vs. (8) Utah
Jack Winter (editor):
- Who wins/How many games? San Antonio moves on with relative ease after five games.
- Why? The Spurs have the best offense in the NBA, one predicated on pace, space, unparalleled ball-movement, and accurate three point shooting. Utah, meanwhile, has struggled all season to defend similar attacks, and here they meet the creme de la creme. The Jazz simply won’t be able to stop San Antonio often enough to give the Spurs a legitimate scare in this series. Utah is easily capable of pushing this to five games, though, most likely with a win in front of their rabid home crowd. Pundits have pointed to Utah’s frontcourt as a potential major issue for the Spurs, who struggle defending bigs with legitimate size and skill. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, though, don’t present San Antonio with the superior length that’s given them fits all season long. One quirk to watch is how often Ty Corbin uses Millsap, Jefferson, and Derrick Favors on the floor together. If one aspect could sway this series in Utah’s favor, it will be this lineup. Even so, San Antonio is too experienced, disciplined, and talented to fall for the second straight year as the West’s top seed. They will advance and move comfortably into the second round.
Vijay Shravah (staff writer):
- Who wins/How many games? San Antonio in six.
- Why? The Spurs were in a very similar situation heading into last year’s postseason: finishing the season strong with the West’s best record, and finding themselves against a young, athletic, and talented team. Now unless Manu Ginobili (or Tony Parker or Tim Duncan, for that matter) gets hurt again, I can’t see history repeating itself in terms of the outcome of the series. Utah does has a tremendously bright future, and they are an elite low-post team with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap manning the paint. I expect them to give the Spurs problems for a game or two, but then Popovich and company will figure them out and put them away in a grueling six games.
Vincent Ginardi (staff writer):
- Who wins/How many games? Spurs in five.
- Why? Old team plus condensed schedule equals top seed in the West? I don’t think many people so this coming from San Antonio, but they have been the only consistently elite team all year long. Utah’s ability to rebound will keep them in some of these games, but will it be enough? San Antonio is one of the best home teams in the league (28-5) while the Jazz struggle on the road (11-22). That’s not a great formula for Utah, especially given that San Antonio has home court advantage.
(2) Oklahoma City vs. (7) Dallas
- Who wins/How many games? OKC avenges last year’s WCF loss and wins in six games.
- Why? Most of the key names might be the same, but these teams bear little resemblance to the two that battled in the Western Conference Finals last season. Dallas, obviously, won that series in five games but is the clear underdog here for a reason – the Thunder are the better team. That’s not to say Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Rick Carlisle won’t make this a fight. If the Mavericks are clicking on all cylinders they’ve got the type of smart, ball-movement based offense that could give the sometimes undisciplined Thunder fits. But Dallas hasn’t played that way often this season – they rank just 20th in offensive efficiency – so expecting them to do so now with any consistency is wishful thinking. Another aspect that can’t go overlooked is the Mavericks loss of Tyson Chandler. He made life much harder for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant by serving as a mobile rim-protector, and Dallas hasn’t aptly replaced him. Key to how this plays out will be how James Harden returns from his concussion suffered last Sunday. Dallas is still good enough defensively to give OKC problems, and Harden is a calming influence as a creator off pick and rolls for a Thunder offense that lacks movement all too often. If Harden’s healthy, look for Scott Brooks to go small with Durant at the four to speed up the pace of the game and run the Mavs ragged. If the Thunder can keep Nowitzki in check with that lineup, they will win this series comfortably. We’ve learned by now to never count Dallas out, though, and if they steal a game in OKC things could get very interesting as pressure mounts on the Thunder. But in the end, Oklahoma City is simply a year better while Dallas is a year older, a major distinction that sways this in the Thunder’s direction.
- Who wins/How many games? Mavericks in seven games.
- Why? And here’s where everyone thinks I’m probably crazy. Well, call me crazy, but I think the defending champs are still a tough out. And even though they lost the season series to the Thunder 3-1, they did play them pretty well. While Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will be tough matchups for Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is an equally bad matchup for Serge Ibaka, who is forced to stay home on Dirk rather than play to his strength with his tremendous help defense. With the Thunder’s quality of play slipping in the last month or so, I’m just not convinced yet that they can take down a team who beat them handily – just a year ago – to win the West.
- Who wins/How many games? OKC in six.
- Why? It’s difficult to imagine the defending champions going down without a fight, but they just aren’t as good as the Thunder. Dallas has nobody to throw at Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant defensively and are simply outclassed athletically. Part of the reason this series and the potential Lakers-Thunder and Spurs-Thunder series’ are so exciting is because it symbolizes the old and new the league has to offer. Is the window for the powerhouses in the Western Conference for the last decade still open? Or will Durant and Oklahoma City Thunder shut it for good?
(3) Lakers vs. (6) Denver
- Who wins/How many games? Los Angeles in five.
- Why? If Denver hadn’t dealt Nene to Washington for the enigmatic Javale McGee at the trade deadline, this would have been arguably the most exciting series of the first round. As these teams stand now, though, the Nuggets simply don’t have the interior size, girth, and talent to deal with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Denver presents an interesting contrast with Los Angeles in terms of pace and style that could work to their advantage, but that potential strength doesn’t outweigh the Lakers’ clear one in the frontcourt. It bears watching how the Lakers defend the Nuggets, though, as they’ve been putrid defensively over the last 10 games. Denver can be explosive offensively, and if they’re hitting from three point range could steal an additional game. But LA’s combination of experience, size, and – most importantly – top-end talent is just too much for the Nuggets to overcome.
- Who wins/How many games? Lakers in five.
- Why? Since JaVale McGee was traded for Nene, I can’t say I’ve been very impressed with Denver. They held off Dallas for the 6th seed in the conference, but they had a relatively easy schedule down the stretch. The Lakers got a very favorable seed considering the circumstances, and won’t miss the suspended Ron Artest (now I have even more reasons to refuse to call him by his new name) that much in this series. Against a Laker team with a huge size advantage, I can’t see the Nuggets being a serious threat. That is, unless the fans at the Pepsi Center start booing Kobe relentlessly. Oh wait.
- Who wins/How many games? Los Angeles in six.
- Why? The Nuggets were another team that benefited greatly from the condensed schedule. They are extremely deep, athletic, and love to push the pace. The Lakers will need to turn this into a half-court game, limit Denver’s fast break opportunities, and look to take advantage of their size down low. While the Nuggets have six players currently averaging double figures, they don’t have a go-to player in crunch time, which could prove costly. The Lakers won three of the four meetings this season and should continue their success against Denver into the postseason.
(4) Memphis vs. (5) Clippers
- Who wins/How many games? The Grizzlies advance after the first round’s only seven game series.
- Why? How Memphis chooses to defend Blake Griffin is of huge importance. Defense is obviously much more complicated than one man guarding the other, but Zach Randolph and Mareese Speights are woefully ill-equipped to deal with Griffin’s speed and quickness. Assuming the Grizzlies double team him often, how Griffin sees the floor and what his teammates do with open jumpers will go a long way in determining who wins this series. Of course, of even greater consequence is the play of Chris Paul. He’s likely to be defended by Tony Allen for the majority of the series, arguably the league’s top perimeter defender. Allen’s greatest assets are his quick feet, long arms, and constant aggression. Paul, a true wizard at point guard, should look to take advantage of the latter by being more assertive looking for his own shot and getting into the pain than normal. No player has more bearing on his team’s offensive performance than Paul, and if he’s bothered by Allen Los Angeles will struggle to score.
Conversely, the Clippers are one of just a handful of teams that can match Memphis in size and physicality in the paint. While Randolph is unlikely to be as dominant as he was last postseason, he’s polished enough on the block to wreak havoc on the inexperienced Griffin. Marc Gasol, meanwhile, has a sizable weight advantage on DeAndre Jordan but could be bothered by his length and shot-blocking prowess. Having said all that, Rudy Gay might be the Grizzlies most talented offensive player. He’s capable of going off for 30 points any given night, and Caron Butler has struggled defensively this season. If two of those three guys play well every game, it might be difficult for the Clippers to keep this series close.Memphis is the most stylistically balanced team in the NBA. They score, they defend, they can play any pace, and they’re size and skill in the paint is tough to match. To put it simply, the Grizzlies have more talent, discipline, and playoff experience than the Clippers. If not for the singular brilliance of Paul and the way he’s consistently taken his game to new heights in the postseason, the Clippers would be in trouble. He guarantees Los Angeles two wins as the series’ clear best player, and LA should get enough from Griffin to push this to a deciding seventh game. But the better team usually prevails, and it’s tough to imagine Memphis losing a game seven on their home floor. The Grizzlies grit and grind their way on after the league’s best first round series.
- Who wins/How many games? Memphis in six.
- Why? Clippers fans, after decades of futility, finally have a solid team to root for that’s talented enough to make a deep playoff run. This also might be the best team MVP candidate Chris Paul has ever been a part of – having a great second fiddle in Blake Griffin as well as an outstanding supporting cast. Unfortunately, they have two things working against them: 1) Chauncey Billups can’t play, and 2) they have to play The Team No One Wants to Play in the First Round – none other than the Memphis Grizzlies, who are going to be near-full strength this year (remember that they handily beat 1st seeded San Antonio and took Oklahoma City to 7 games last season without Rudy Gay). Ultimately, I think the Clippers’ horrendous free throw shooting from Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will bite them against a team like Memphis. I also think Lionel Hollins is going to get his world-class perimeter defender, Tony Allen, to harass CP3 at every turn. The Clippers defense has been mediocre – at best – and Gay, Zach Randolph, and All-Star Marc Gasol and company will take full advantage of that.
- Who wins/How many games? Grizzlies in seven.
- Why? The Clippers have a great one-two punch in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but their offensive options after that are wildly inconsistent. Also, the fact that Griffin relies so much on his athleticism is worrisome. What happens if Memphis discovers how to contain him after the first few games? The Grizzlies are peaking at the right time. Memphis has been hot down the stretch (winning 8 of their last 10) and has one of the league’s best defenders in Tony Allen, who will receive the responsibility of controlling Paul. Remember, this team took the Thunder to seven games last season and that was without Rudy Gay. Don’t be surprised to see this team in the Western Conference Finals.