The NBA lockout-shortened regular season has come to a close and the playoff teams have been decided. Let's take a look at the Western Conference matchups to give you insight into who we think will come out on top.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
The Spurs enter the playoffs playing better than anyone in the league. In the past, their high seeds masked injuries to its aged core, but Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker seem to be healthy and playing (if not better than) just as well as during their last title run in 2007. In fact, Parker is playing better. At 29, he is a ten-year vet with age and speed still on his side, but with a wealth of experience and deadly mid-range jumper. Parker's emergence has been the catalyst from the Spurs as a half-court and defensive team to a high octane perimeter shooting team.
The Jazz too re-shaped its image but almost on the fly like, well, a great improvisational jazz band. In the past two seasons, the team removed long-time coach Jerry Sloan, allowed Carlos Boozer to walk as a free agent and traded all-star point guard Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets. What resulted was a new team centered on the smooth power games of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, swingman Gordon Hayward and point guard Devin Harris (acquired from Nets in Williams' trade) who is a top notch player when healthy.
The Spurs bench is as much as the reason for its success as the starters. Led by Ginobli, the Spurs also can call on Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw with tremendous playoff experience to fill in. The Jazz, however, are the enthusiastic new-comers with limited postseason experience among its top players other than Harris and Milsap, who have played more reserve roles in the past. Spurs in 5
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
A most troubling reminder of perhaps the Thunder's fatal flaw has changed many minds about their championship chances. Their youthful inexperience and over reliance on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was on full display in a late season collapse to the Lakers. The remedy to that was the emergence of guard James Harden, but he was concussed by a Metta World Peace elbow that knocked him out of the game. How he recovers from the injury could go a long way in shaping the Thunder's fortunes.
The Mavericks, with a slumping Dirk Nowitzki and declining Jason Kidd, have not played anywhere near as good as during its title run last season. But they also lost valuable contributors in Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson. Their replacements: Lamar Odom, Delonte West and Vince Young have not contributed in a similar manner.
This could be a wild series of fluxes with a few blowouts as well as both teams winning nail biting OT games. The Thunder may be the better team, but as the two-time championship Houston Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich once uttered, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion." Mavericks in 7
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
The Lakers transitioned from a team with its axis as Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to center Andre Bynum asserting himself as the yang to Bryant's yin. That brought good things like increases in points and rebounds as well as bad tidings with Bynum's petulant displays, such as being thrown out of games and seemingly indifference to coaching. Bynum's mercurial ways and the repercussions from Metta World Peace's seven-game suspension (elbow to James Harden) in the penultimate game of the season could derail the Lakers.
The Nuggets bring a wave of young bodies with multiple players averaging double figures in points. The leadership emanates from vet Andre Miller, who is also almost averaging double digits himself at 9.8 ppg. However, perhaps their overall best player Wilson Chandler, who played most of the season in China, was lost shortly after his return due to an injury.
The Lakers and Nuggets have recently been a familiar foe in the playoffs with the Lakers winning in 2008 and 2009. The issue for the Nuggets has always been who will check Bryant and they still have yet to find a reasonable answer. Now, with Bynum's emergence, the issue has mushroomed to who can control the seven-footer as during the regular season against the Nuggets he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds. Lakers in 6
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
The Grizzlies started out the season slow but have finished the season (as most predicted) as a team that will be hard to beat in a series. Last season, the Grizz as the No. 8 seed stunned the No. 1 seed Spurs. That was without leading scorer Rudy Gay and there was a concern about how he would mesh with post player Zach Randolph, who blossomed in his absence. There may still be some issues as Randolph has been coming off the bench, but the team seems to have adjusted. The interior defensive is led by center Marc Gasol and Tony Allen is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.
The Clippers, with the arrival of Chris Paul, have been transformed from a gimme-win to championship contender. However, once backcourt mate Chauncey Billups, who was also brought over in the offseason, went down with a season-ending injury and wins came a bit harder for the team known as Lob City. The team has since regrouped and overcame talk about head coach Vinny Del Negro's possible firing by finishing strong, except for a few season-ending losses when the division title seemed out of reach.
This should be the most entertaining first round series of the playoffs. The Clippers aren't at the top of many team categories, but the excellence of Paul often makes a difference. The Grizz aren't near the top either of any team categories except for points allowed where they are sixth. With the poor free throw shooting of the Clippers combined with the Grizzlies home court advantage, that may determine this series. Grizzlies in 7
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