NBA Playoff Preview: Western Conference First Round

For over a decade, the Western Conference has been home to almost all of the NBA’s classic playoff series and rivalries. Outside of last season’s first-round series between Boston and Chicago, it’s hard to think of a really memorable Eastern Conference playoff series on par with the showdowns between the Kings and Lakers, the Lakers and Spurs, the Spurs and Suns, the Spurs and Mavericks, and the Mavericks and Warriors. The West has been the province of exciting and meaningful playoff basketball, where first-round series have more than once included teams with legitimate chances to win it all.

This year is no different. All eight teams in the West won between 50 and 60 games, meaning the conference’s playoffs are deep and wide-open. The two-time defending conference champs in LA have skidded to the finish. The old guards in San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix have shown they still have something left. The Northwest duo of Denver and Utah have been alternately fantastic and woeful at points this season. And There’s fresh blood in Portland and fresher blood in Oklahoma City. The West may not have the favorite to win it all, but it’s certainly the conference worth watching at this point in the playoffs.

#1 LOS ANGELES LAKERS VS. #8 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

DON’T YOU LOVE THE THUNDER? They’re a very likable team—provided you forget the whole bolting Seattle thing.

IS THIS THE BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHUP? Best? No. Most intriguing? Yes. The Thunder are probably the playoff team I have seen the least of this season, and I’m interested in the play of the secondary guys around Kevin Durant—who I know is very, very good. I’m less certain about Russell Westbrook as a second banana and Jeff Green, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka as the other pieces.

YOU DON’T TRUST THE SERGE? It is good to have some Serge back in my life. It had been too long since Zwikker was on a national stage.

STILL BELIEVE IN KOBE? Still? When did I believe in him the first time?

THE FOUR CHAMPIONSHIPS? THE 81-POINT GAME? ALL THOSE 50-POINT GAMES? THAT SPATE OF GAMEWINNERS EARLIER THIS YEAR? NONE OF THAT? Call me when he does something noteworthy.

DOES BEATING THE THUNDER COUNT? When Oklahoma City stole the Sonics, I was a strong proponent of naming the team either the Thunderbirds or the Barons. If I could go back, I would combine those two into the ThunderBarons.

NO SPACE BUT A NEW CAPITAL LETTER? LIKE A MINOR-LEAGUE TEAM? Why not? They’re in Oklahoma City! Home of the RedHawks!

HAS THUNDER GROWN ON YOU? While I am not in love with the name “Thunder” as John is, I do enjoy the fact that, when ESPN’s Bottom Line lists the Thunder as a road team, I can combine Thunder with the name of the team they’re playing into a ridiculous team name (i.e. ThunderLakers! ThunderBlazers! ThunderNuggets! ThunderHawks! And my personal favorite, ThunderTimberwolves!). This whole experiment has given me a renewed appreciation for the word Thunder.

CAN WE GET SOME BASKETBALL ANALYSIS? Am I concerned with how the Lakers finished the season? Yeah. Am I impressed with the Thunder’s season? Of course. Am I confident OKC can make this a compelling series that heads back to LA tied at two? I think that’s what’ll happen, but I’m not too confident. Do I, like John Hollinger, see this going seven? No.

Even after Game 1, I’m not worried too much about how Durant is going to play on a playoff stage for the first time in his career; I’m more concerned in those other guys. And it’s not like Oklahoma City has that calming veteran presence who’s been through the playoff wars before on the bench in uniform or in a suit. Etan Thomas and Scotty Brooks don’t count. So I like the Thunder’s distant future, but not its near one. Lakers in 6.

#4 DENVER NUGGETS VS. #5 UTAH JAZZ

ANY CLUE? None. I had Utah in 5 before finding out Kirilenko was out, Utah in 6 before Okur tore his Achilles, and Denver in 7 before they blew it last night. The only thing that would surprise me is if this series ends in five.

YOU WANT ME TO HELP TALK YOU THROUGH IT? You can try.

BILLUPS OR WILLIAMS? I don’t think I can really defend my feelings toward Chauncey Billups, but I really dislike him. Always have. I shouldn’t say “him” so much as I should say “his game.” There’s something about the way Chauncey Billups plays the point guard position that irks me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never seen him throw an impressive pass. Maybe it’s that, for such a great shooter, he rarely swishes his free throws (they tend to hit the inside of the back rim). I don’t know what it is.

Deron Williams, on the other hand, is one of my faves. If I had a T-Mobile phone that included only the numbers of NBA point guards, he’d definitely be in my five. He and Chris Paul have headlined the American Point Guard Renaissance, which as you know, is the best thing to happen to basketball this decade.

THAT’S A DATED T-MOBILE REFERENCE: Is T-Mobile still around? Does Catherine Zeta-Jones still do their commercials? Is Catherine Zeta-Jones still around?

MATTHEWS OR AFFLALO? Pass.

CARMELO OR MILES? C.J. Miles had 17 points in each of the first two games of this series. This is especially impressive considering I had no idea who C.J. Miles is, and I even know who Jazz 12th man Sundiata Gaines is. But yeah, Carmelo Anthony had 40 more points in those games than C.J. Miles.

RIGHT, IF ANTHONY OUTSCORES MILES, WHAT CHANCE DO THE JAZZ HAVE? Exactly.

BOOZER OR MARTIN? This would have been a very fun Final Four matchup in 2000, am I right? Deflating to see them both struggling with injuries now.

NENE OR FESENKO? I’m going with Millsap.

AND IN THE SERIES? I like the Jazz more. And in the end, I think Utah has a greater homecourt edge (remember I’m saying this after the Jazz won Game 2), and more importantly, Jerry Sloan can run circles on Adrian Dantley. Jazz in 7.

#3 PHOENIX SUNS VS. #6 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU SAW GAME 1 COMING! I can report that neither of my hands are raised.

ISN’T IT ABOUT TIME THAT ANDRE MILLER AND MARCUS CAMBY DELIVERED IN THE NBA PLAYOFFS? I was thinking about this during/after Game 1: Marcus Camby has had a very good NBA career. Not great, not memorable, and maybe not as good as everyone thought coming out of UMass. But if you told me when the Knicks traded Charles Oakley for him that Camby would still be grabbing 15 rebounds in playoff games in 2010, I would have eyed you skeptically—which is notable because, since I was 12, I didn’t eye anything skeptically in 1998.

YEAH, YOU AND BUD SELIG, AM I RIGHT? Zing!

CAN PORTLAND KEEP IT UP? This would have been a tremendous series if Brandon Roy could have played. That’s all I keep thinking about. I really like Brandon Roy.

AND YET YOU WERE MORE UPSET ABOUT BOGUT’S INJURY? I lied. And I knew it at the time. Even when I was typing Brandon Roy’s name there, I thought to myself, “This isn’t true. I am way more upset about Roy’s injury. It is not even close.”

YOU KNAVE! Here is the caveat, though: I would have rooted for the Bucks against everyone in the East; I would probably still be rooting for Phoenix in this one.

EVEN WITH THOSE UNIFORMS? Yes, even with the worst uniforms in the NBA. Purple and orange and gray do not a color scheme make.

IS THIS THE YEAR PHOENIX PUTS IT ALL TOGETHER? Man, I hope so. I’ve picked the Suns to win the championship twice in the last few years, and I’m willing to do it again this season. I don’t think they will, but I’m willing to pick them.

WHY WON’T THEY? They have a much tougher road to get there. They have to beat a resilient Portland team in a tough series that will likely go six, a veteran playoff team in either Dallas or San Antonio next round, then the Lakers in all likelihood. The Cavs or Magic, on the other hand, will only have one tough series against each other.

WHAT ELSE ARE WE FORGETTING? Channing Frye Vengeance Series!

HE WASN’T TRADED OR ANYTHING. HE JUST SIGNED WITH PHOENIX: From Portland’s perspective! They have to get back at him for bolting!

AND…: They don’t. Suns in 6.

#2 DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. #7 SAN ANTONIO SPURS

THE BEST FIRST-ROUND SERIES? Almost certainly.

THE MOST EXCITING? Ha. I can’t deny that this is the best first-round series or even the most important. Both teams involved have legitimate chances to win the championship, unlike their first-round encounter last year. But that doesn’t mean I’m particularly enthused about watching these the Mavericks and Spurs again. I’ve seen so much of them over the last decade that, frankly, I’m a little bored by them.

BUT THEY’RE NOT THE SAME TEAMS! That is true. Dallas has added Caron Butler and Shawn Marion (I always forget they have Marion) while San Antonio relies more on young guys like George Hill and DeJuan Blair than it has in the past. Their recycled veterans (Keith Bogans, Richard Jefferson, and Antonio McDyess) are different from their old recycled veterans (Nazr Mohammed, Michael Finley, Brent Barry, etc.). But push comes to shove, it’s Kidd-Terry-Nowitzki vs. Parker-Ginobili-Duncan.

YOU REALLY THINK THESE TEAMS HAVE LEGITIMATE TITLE ASPIRATIONS? I feel more strongly in that direction about Dallas than about San Antonio. But either way, the second-round series between Phoenix and the winner here will be far and away the best series of that round. And it’ll be one I’m more inclined to watch.

WHAT’S THE ISSUE WITH THE SPURS? What’s left in the tank? We’ve gotten to the point where even Tony Parker is old. He’s not going to be running circles around a defense the way he did in the Finals against the Cavs in 2007. Duncan can’t get to that next gear as he used to in the playoffs (like when he almost went quadruple-double in the clincher against the Nets in ’03). Ginobili is still great when he’s 100% healthy, but how often is that. And those recycled veterans—Jefferson in particular—have not been what the Spurs expected them to be. Their best lineup may in fact be with Hill and Blair joining the star trio on the floor.

WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT DALLAS? They still have a reliable crunch-time guy in Nowitzki that’s supplemented by other scorers earlier in the game. Terry is still an explosive sixth man, Marion and Butler can create their own shots, and Kidd can still get you a few buckets in transition. There aren’t any major weaknesses.

EXCEPT…? Well, Kidd’s defense against smaller, quicker guards. The way Parker has been playing, I don’t know if that hurts them as much this year as it has in the past. It’s a bigger concern with Nash in Round 2.

DO THEY GET TO ROUND 2? For the second straight year, Mavericks take down the Spurs, this time in 7.

ONE MORE THING…: Is it hypocritical of me to use “Cavs” all the time for “Cavaliers” but hate when people use “Mavs” for “Mavericks”? Is that unjustified?

IN A WORD, YES: Just checkin’.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sabreena on April 20, 2010 at 4:26 PM

    How can you not believe in Kobe? Come on.

    Reply

  2. Posted by John S on April 20, 2010 at 5:12 PM

    Can you please to define this “American Point Guard Renaissance”? When did it start, and what was the period of dormancy that it followed? Did the Point Guard Dark Ages start with, like, Magic’s retirement? Because you still had John Stockton in the 90s, as well as guys like Gary Payton and Tim Hardaway (I may be forgetting some people). Does it start more recently than that, like after those guys retired/slipped? Because even then you had guys like Jason Kidd around. And is it just called the “American” Renaissance so you can ignore Steve Nash’s career?

    Reply

  3. […] other Western Conference Semi and every bit as intense as LA’s first-rounder with Oklahoma City (which I nailed, by the way). This was probably as good a Jazz team as we’ve seen over the last four playoff seasons—before […]

    Reply

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