Los Angeles Lakers (1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (8)
The West is scary. If this were a normal season, this series would result in an early knockout for the Lakers of a young, inexperienced team. However this season has been anything but normal for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who in their infancy shocked the league with 50 wins en route to the club’s first playoff appearance. Not only is this a remarkable accomplishment for the players, but also a glowing reflection on coach Scott Brooks, who in his first full season as head coach is the leading candidate for Coach of Year. And superstar Kevin Durant is the youngest player to receive consideration for league MVP. At 21, he is also the youngest scoring champ in NBA history. All said, this team might just be young and naïve enough to not realize they have no business beating the world champs.
On other hand, ten-time champion Phil Jackson has led the Lakers to four titles in the past decade. But the Lakers have struggled down the backstretch of the regular season – in large part due the fact that some of their people are banged up. Even if you are a championship team, if you’re injured you’re vulnerable. Remember the year LA played Detroit and Byron Scott got injured in practice before Game 1 and Magic Johnson pulled a hamstring during Game 2? Lakers had swept the first three playoff series, but Detroit wound up beating them in four straight to take the title.
Kobe has had an incredible season considering what he’s been through with his broken finger. He’s called upon constantly – they give the ball to Kobe all the time when the game is on the line. Fortunately Bynum, who missed final 13 games with of the regular season with a strained left Achilles tendon, will return to the Lakers starting lineup. So the Lakers will kick off the series with the lineup that won the championship last season. With Bynum and Gasol starting, Lamar Odom will come in off the bench, which will bolster a second unit that has not been nearly as productive as it was a year ago. Their 3-point perimeter game is also not as effective of late.
Based on experience and having one of the top three players in NBA in Kobe, the nod goes to the Lakers. However the series may not prove to be as easy as people might expect when you take the Lakers’ injury factor into account. If an injury comes around and Kobe can’t do what he needs to, or if Bynum isn’t 100% and Odom, who’s has been a bit tentative filling in, doesn’t pick up his game and assert himself more, LA could run into some problems. Though I expect the Lakers to pull it out in the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if OKC steals a couple.
Orlando Magic (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
Some say in the East it’s a two horse race between Cleveland and Orlando. If the numbers play out, those should be the guys meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals. Orlando made it to the NBA Finals a year ago and they were eliminated by the Lakers in the championship game. When teams ask themselves whom they want to face in the second round, I don’t know how they will answer that question.
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, arguably one of the best coaches in the league, will be going up against Larry Brown – an NBA legend who already has one championship with Detroit under his belt. He also took the 76ers to the NBA Finals. It’s the first time in the history of the new Charlotte Bobcats group to make it back to the playoffs after being back in Charlotte for six years now.
Charlotte was number one in the league in holding their opponents to the fewest points per game, which was 93.8 ppg. This is also a result of the fact that the Hornets, ranked 28th in the league in scoring, don’t run very much. Charlotte also doesn’t foul very much. They were the best in the league in keeping their opponents off the free throw line. Their opponents shot under 21 free throws per game.
One concern for Charlotte, besides can they score enough points, is that their star player Stephen Jackson has been slowed by a hamstring injury at the end of the season. And Gerald Wallace has a left shoulder bruise. These two guys are their main players and have to be able to perform. A key for them will be to see if they can get Dwight Howard into foul trouble, which would open up the paint finally with him sitting on the bench.
But the decided edge goes to Orlando, who won the season series three games to one. They outscored the Bobcats by an average of six points per game. It’s going to be hard for Charlotte to find enough offense to beat Orlando because of Orlando’s ability and the fact that they shoot more threes and make more threes than any other team in the league.
In fact the league leaders in threes attempted a whopping 27.3 three-point per game and made 10.3 on average. They are an unusual team because they built their offense around their center Dwight Howard, who nobody could control. They knew people were going to try to cheat down and double team him so they felt a way to burn them was to put a lot of 3-point shooters out there and let them shoot away. That’s what they did last year and they made it to the Finals. And that’s what they’re doing again this year. Orlando has a deep roster – much deeper than Charlotte’s. The Magic should win this series rather easily.
Dallas Mavericks (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7)
Western Conference rivals Spurs and Mavs will be getting reacquainted in the first round of the playoffs. This will be the fourth time in eight years that these two teams have faced off in the playoffs, most notably in 2006 when the Mavs knocked off the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. These are probably the two oldest, most experienced teams in the 16-team playoff field. I can’t think of another team that has more years of experience and more playoffs games under their belts than these two. The Spurs have won four championships and the Mavs, though making their tenth consecutive playoff appearance, are still looking for their first NBA Title.
While they may feel very familiar with one another because they meet so often, you can’t place a whole lot of stock in their early season matchups because the rosters have changed so much. Due to injuries both teams had a lot of guys starting in games who normally wouldn’t have started. They haven’t tested the full strength of each other because, for example, Dallas did the big trade right before the trade deadline, so a number of guys who played for Dallas in the first two matchups aren’t even there anymore.
This last minute trade may be the difference maker in this series, giving the Mavs just enough depth to give them the edge. After acquiring Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson from the Wiz, Dallas went 23 and 7 over their last 30 games. They became a tougher, deeper team after the trade. The Dallas defense tightened up and they played very good defense the second half of the year.
Both teams are bolstered by future Hall of Famers: Spurs have got four-time NBA Champ Tim Duncan on their side. In order for the Spurs to challenge, Duncan will have shift into playoff mode, up his minutes and take his game to the next level, along with Tony Parker. The trio of Ginobili, Parker and Duncan have to play at top of their games. Manu Ginobili has had an incredible series of performances and was the guy carrying this Spurs franchise on his back for about a month. But the Spurs have not figured out a way to stop Dirk Nowitzki during the regular season, who averaged almost 29 ppg against them in their four meetings. Dirk Nowitzki continues to be one of the Mavs’ most reliable assets, averaging 25 ppg this season. And Jason Kidd has been out of sight for Dallas, posting a career best 3-point shooting season.
Phoenix (3) vs. Portland (6)
Portland is a great story. Nate McMillan and staff have done an incredible job this season to get to sixth place. Portland had to contend with a horrendous string of injuries this year – including Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez just to name a few. In total, 13 Blazers missed a combined 311 regular-season games because of injuries. Even coach McMillan went down and ruptured his Achilles tendon while filling in during a practice. They have shown incredible fortitude to work through their depleted roster and make the playoffs. It shows just how deep their roster is. Camby was a great late-season pickup. Along with veteran Juwan Howard, the combined experience and mental toughness of Andre Miller and Camby have been major factors in the team’s success – those guys are something special.
Unfortunately this team cannot seem to catch a break and turn their luck around. Now, in addition to the loss of their two big centers Pryzbilla and Oden, the Blazers will enter the playoffs without their team leader Brandon Roy. This is such a huge loss for Portland and a major setback. Roy has decided to have surgery on the torn meniscus in his knee that he suffered in one of the final games of the season and will miss the first round of the playoffs. It’s a shame that some of these teams have lost such key guys. Portland’s hope now rests with Miller and Camby. Maybe if Portland can control the tempo, keep it close and frustrate Phoenix with their defense, one of the best in the league, they’ve got a chance.
But the Nod goes to Phoenix here, mainly because of key injuries to Portland. The injury toll will likely be too much to overcome against a team that is rejuvenated and playing incredible ball. Since the trade deadline came and went, Stoudemire has played All-Star basketball. He’s perhaps been one of the best players in the league down the backstretch. Alvin Gentry has also done a tremendous job this season and, like McMillan, should be considered for Coach of the Year. Gentry brought back a style of play the Suns felt comfortable with under D’Antoni. And at the same time he’s produced steady improvements in their defense. It’s all about winning with defense in the playoffs. You have to get stops at critical times if you’re going to make it to the next round. You can’t win championships without good defense. The perception is that Phoenix is a finesse ball club, but they’ve gained some grit from their bench and have become a great defensive team over the last 25 games. Their opponents have been shooting 44% a game against them since the All-Star break. And they’ve held their opponents to under forty percent field goal shooting in 7 of their last 10 games.