This will by far be the most in depth thing I have ever written (aside, of course, from my research paper on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.) Let’s Party:
#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Utah Jazz
Last year, the #1 seeded Spurs were upset in the first round by the #8 seeded Grizzlies. I don’t think this year will be yielding similar results for San Antonio. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has to be the Coach of the Year. Aside from the team’s three stars in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli, the Spurs don’t look like that much, on paper. Yet, this team seems to be infinitely deep, with nearly every player making valuable contributions. If you look at some of the other guys they put out there (a rookie, an overweight guy who couldn’t cut it on NBA history’s worst team, an NBA problem child, and some guy named Danny Green, for example,) it’s pretty unbelievable that this team is that damn good. Popovich just seems to know how to make guys play for him, and turning any group he’s dealt into a winning basketball team. It also doesn’t hurt that Tony Parker has been playing at an almost MVP-like level at point guard this year. For a team many wrote off in the beginning of the year as old and falling off, they are certainly one of, if not the hottest team coming into the playoffs.
The Utah Jazz (now that I have more or less tipped my hand as to who will win this series) have had to endure a lot in the past year or so. Their Hall of Fame coach (Jerry Sloane) resigned, AND they traded away their superstar player (Deron Williams.) This would sink most teams into the lottery, yet the Jazz have managed to claw their way back into the playoffs. Center Al Jefferson, and power forward Paul Milsap are borderline All-Stars at their position. Both can score inside, and rebound with ease. Gordon Hayward has proven to be a versatile player, and guys like Derrick Favors and Devin Harris (both acquired in the Deron Williams trade) have proven to be integral parts to the team. It’s impressive that coach Tyrone Corbin has gotten this team, despite all of last year’s chaos, back into the playoffs.
The Verdict: The Jazz actually match up fairly well down low (Jefferson and Milsap being big dudes) with the relatively small Spurs. The Spurs however, are just too good, and will find a way to work around this disadvantage, to make it smaller than it already is. Utah’s home court is known as being a tough place to get a win on the road, so I can see the Jazz taking one game, but that is all they will be able to get.
Spurs in 5.
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks
Every year, the Oklahoma City Thunder gets better. Now, they have really come into their own as one of the best teams in the NBA. Kevin Durant is one of the Top 5 players in the league, while Russell Westbrook is surely in the Top 20 (both are in the Top 5 in scoring this season.) Sixth man James Harden is one of the best shooting guards in the league, and would start on any other team that’s not the Lakers (who haveKobe,) or the Heat (who have Dwyane Wade.) Serge Ibaka is the league’s premier shot blockers (at 241 blocks for the year, he is more than 100 ahead of the next guy.) And to top it off, all of these guys are under the age of 24. Needless to say, if they keep these guys together, this Thunder team can be good for a long time. They were many analysts’ pick to come out of the Western Conference, and until the Spurs recently took the #1 seed, looked like they would have an easy time doing so. Oklahoma City is young, hungry, and ready to assert themselves as the top team in the West, and in the league.
The Mavericks are the defending NBA champions, having previously vanquished the Miami Heat in last year’s finals, and subsequently validating the Hall of Fame careers of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd. This year’s team however, is not that team. Most notable, Tyson Chandler, who is credited with changing the team’s defensive culture, and was a defensive force inside, now plays for the Knicks. Last year’s Sixth Man of the Year, Lamar Odom, was acquired in the off-season, but he played, to put it lightly, like utter shit, and is no longer with the team. Dirk Nowitski however, is still with the team, and is still an incredible player that can score lots. Also remaining, the clutch shooting Jason Terry, and the lockdown defender with a cool (but only because I associate it with the amazing movie) nickname, Shawn Marion. Even Jason Kidd and Vince Carter have important roles as the starting point and shooting guards, respectively.
The Verdict: For whatever reason, the Mavericks just seem way older this year, even though only a single year has passed. And, especially compared to this young and talented Thunder team, the Mavs looks especially old and on their way out. Even with James Harden probably still reeling a bit from the World Peace elbow, I can’t see Dallas taking many games from this Thunder team.
Thunder in 5.
#3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #6 Denver Nuggets
Kobe Bryant is still one the best players in the league, and will go down as one of the best of all time. He alone makes the Lakers a great basketball team. It also doesn’t hurt to have two of the best interior guys in the league on your team either, in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Bynum especially, now that he’s actually healthy, has proven himself to be an absolute monster inside, regularly notching double doubles, and even grabbing 30 rebounds in a game recently. The mid-season addition of Ramon Sessions at point guard has been a welcome one, as it gives the Lakers an actual legitimate point guard who can control the game (and maybe keep Kobe from hoisting up 40 shots a game. Maybe.) There’s definitely a sharp drop-off in talent on the team after Sessions. But, the talent of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum alone, has sustained the team thus far, with Sessions now holding it all together.
The Nuggets have no star player; they traded that guy away last year for the entire New York Knicks bench. What they do have though, is a bunch of good to great players, who all know their roles, and that is why the team finds themselves back in the playoffs. The Nuggets M.O. is to run the floor, keep the pace up, and try to light up the scoreboard as much as possible (they boast the second quickest pace, and the third most efficient offense.) Danilo Ganllinari, and Ty Lawson have become great players, despite being always injured, and being 5 foot 11 inches, respectively. Al Harrington gives them great production off the bench, and Kenneth Faried, well he’s the Manimal off the bench. Plus they have JaVale McGee, who has had one of the funniest NBA seasons ever, and is a joy to watch. It’s a testament to George Karl’s coaching that, even without a go-to fourth quarter guy, the Nuggets can still succeed in this league and make the playoffs.
The Verdict: The outcome of this series will largely depend on who can control the pace of the game. I can see the Nuggets easily taking the two games played in the thin Pepsi Center air, but beyond that, the Lakers will in all likelihood be winning this series (as long as Bynum doesn’t try to shoot any 3-pointers.) LA will dominate inside, and Kobe will be Kobe. There’s only a few things Kobe cares about in this world, and one of them is getting a sixth championship ring. He will not allow this team to roll over in the first round
Lakers in 6.
#4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers
In last year’s playoffs, the Grizzlies upset the top-seeded Spurs in the first round, and took the Thunder to seven games in the second round. This year, at the 4 seed, they appear to be back with a vengeance as the team no one wants to face. Memphis is one of the toughest defensive teams in the league; they’re going to be very aggressive with you, and get into the passing lanes to force turnovers. It’s helpful that they have one of the league’s best defenders in the probably actually insane Tony Allen. Throw in an All-Star center (and my favorite Gasol,) in Marc Gasol, great players like Zach Randolph, and Rudy Gay, a solid point guard in Mike Conley, and a good shooter in OJ Mayo, and the Grizzlies will be a tough matchup for any team.
If the award for Most Valuable Player was interpreted as, “given to the player, who if their team did not have them, would be much worse,” then Chris Paul is probably this year’s MVP. What were the Clippers before Paul’s arrival? Perennial losers, and the laughing stock the NBA. Now they have a winning record, and sit at 5th in the West. Whether you consider them “Lob City” or “Flop City”, there’s no denying that this team is good, with the ability to be great. Blake Griffin, as you’ve probably seen, can dunk on just about anyone at anytime, if given the space. He is an explosive player at the rim, in only his second year. DeAndre Jordan is a skilled shot blocker and force inside. Randy Foye, Mo Williams, Nick Young, and Caron Butler can fill it up from downtown if they’re left open. And of course, there’s Chris Paul again, who scores, assists, and leads this team. Without him, they would be on the outside looking in.
The Verdict: This series has a chance to be the best of the first round. Tony Allen will likely be guarding Chris Paul at some point, so we will get to see two of the best on their respective side of the ball going at it. Expect Memphis to go right at Blake Griffin (who is getting a reputation as a whiner,) being aggressive with him, trying to take him out of the game (either through foul trouble or just wearing him down mentally.) This will be the first playoff test for many of the core Clippers (Griffin, Jordan, Foye, Young,) while this Grizzlies group is pretty much the same team from last year. Luckily for the Clippers (to put further praise on the guy,) Chris Paul always saves a little extra for the playoffs, and can single handedly win a game. I expect the aggressive Grizzlies to prevail in the end, of what I hope is a great series.
Grizzlies in 7