1. San Antonio Spurs (61-21)
Preview from: Brad at Air Alamo
The San Antonio Spurs have had one of their best seasons ever, yet everyone seems to still be unsure about their constitutional fortitude. You can count me amongst the few that believe that 61 wins ain’t nothing to sneeze at and that this Spurs team is as good as any they’ve ever assembled…okay, maybe not the 2003 team, but they are up there. Of course in the playoffs nothing is guaranteed, and a number one seed can fall to a number eight if the card comes up on the turn (Hi there ’06-’07 Mavs).
I think it goes without saying that as of right now, the biggest weakness the Spurs have is Manu’s right elbow. The sooner he can get on the court, the sooner he can start doing Manu-type things. Beyond that the Spurs have a relatively short and undeveloped front line (minus Duncan of course), which might be a problem against ZBo and will be against the Lakers if they make it far. This will be an issue when trying to protect the rim, stop post play, and grab rebounds. Finally, if the plethora of shooters that inhabit the Spurs’ roster aren’t hitting their shots, then points can be difficult to come by.
At full strength, the Spurs possess one of the most talented and complete backcourts in the League. Parker, Ginobili, Hill, and Neal are solid players capable of making a difference in any game. Also, any discussion about the Spurs would be incomplete without mention of Tim Duncan. His mere presence is a steadying influence for this team; I look for him to step his game up. Finally, chemistry and system knowledge go a long way under the intense lights of the playoffs, I expect those factors to win at least a couple of games for this unit over the next few weeks.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (57-25)
Preview from: Chris at Lake Show Life
We all know that the Lakers are more than capable of taking an inferior opponent too lightly. They routinely play down to their competition. Much like an insecure cat playing that plays its prey when it should strike with the instincts of a predator.
I wish I could say this attitude is limited only to the regular season but a certain series against a depleted Houston Rockets team just a couple years ago speaks differently to that theory.
All that being said, there is really no reason why the New Orleans Hornets should pose much of a challenge in the first round. The Lakers swept them in the regular season and should do the same in the postseason.
Yes, the Lakers are clearly playing some highly uninspired hoops lately. And this is the playoffs meaning every team competing has proven themselves night in and night out over the course of the 82-game grind.
Still, this is a match up that favors the Lakers at every position but one.
Chris Paul might be deteriorating faster than Lindasy Lohan’s liver but he’s still a nightmare for the Lakers. The thing is Paul alone cannot carry a team to victory in a seven game series.
Trevor Ariza will no doubt be motivated to face his former squad. The Westchester alum is certainly eager to prove Mitch Kupchak wrong. As Trevor has learned, playing alongside Kobe Bryant makes life a little easier on offense. But never mind that, he’s got to find a way to get his shot off against Ron Artest. Advantage Lakers.
During the regular season the Lakers owned the Hornets. All that size on the low block is just too much for an NO roster who’s best big, Emeka Okafor, just doesn’t measure up to the bigs the Lakers rotate in and out.
Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and even a hobbled Andrew Bynum have an advantage just by stepping on the court. Never mind the talent they possess. This is a matter of physics.
Most important of all is for the Lakers to make like a ninja assassin and get in and out inflicting as much damage as possible in as little time necessary.
In other words, busting out the brooms is a must.
This is a veteran team with designs on playing deep into June. If that is going to be the case then these guys are going to need rest and plenty of it.
Bynum’s knee needs all the rest it can get as does every part of Bryant’s banged up body.
No disrespect to New Orleans. As stated previously, you can’t afford to take teams lightly this time of year. Still, this is the exact series the Lake Show needs in the first round. The only question is which team will we see Sunday? Will it be the team with the focus of champions or will it be the team with the boredom of a crowd at seminar with Bill Belichick as the keynote speaker?
3. Dallas Mavericks (57-25)
Preview from: Mike at The Smoking Cuban
82 games have been played. Just eight teams from each conference survived. In the wild, wild West, the Dallas Mavericks placed third, despite tying the defending champion Lakers with 57 wins, by virtue of a tie-breaker. They battled through injuries, slumps, and intense competition. They have home court advantage for the first round. Now the real season begins.
Opinions abound as to what will happen next. The Portland Trail blazers are the first team standing in the way of the Mavericks as they seek to capture that elusive title. There is no doubt that the Blazers are a worthy opponent, capable of coming into Big D and win a game or two. They are a talented team, led by an improving LaMarcus Aldridge, an injured but dangerous Brandon Roy, the veteran point guard Andre Miller, and the newly acquired and versatile Gerald Wallace.
This team has experience, depth, and versatility. They have a good mix of youth and veterans. While they, like the Mavs, lack a real presence in the middle, it is their size in the backcourt that could make the difference in this series. Rudy Fernandez and Brandon Roy are both 6′ 6″. Wesley Matthews is 6′ 4″. Andre Miller is the shorty of the group at 6′ 2″. These guys are not only long, but they are athletic.
The Mavs backcourt, outside of 6′ 9″ Corey Brewer are: Jason Kidd at 6′ 4″, Jason Terry and Roddy Beaubois at 6′ 2″, J.J. Barea at 6′, and DeShawn Stevenson at 6′ 5″. May this factor help determine minutes for these guys in the series? May this be one of the reasons that led coach Rick Carlisle to bench Beaubois and start Stevenson? Keep an eye on these matchups as the play of the guards, and the scoring or lack thereof, of the Mavs backcourt could go a long way towards determining the winner.
Tyson Chandler is probably going to be the man charged with containing LaMarcus Aldridge. Alridge has killed the Mavs this season but was contained after a fast start the last time these two teams met. Brendan Haywood will also play a key role in neutralizing the native Texan.
Dirk Notwitzki figures to be the focal point of the Mavs offense, as he has been for many years. The Blazers will likely send Wallace, veteran Marcus Camby, and Aldridge at the All Star in the hopes of containing him. Good luck men. You will need it. Dirty is hungry. Shawn Marion and Jason Terry will knock down some big buckets. This team wants a title. They are battled-tested. They have heard all the naysayers. They know people are calling them out. And they will win this series. It will be tough but they will stand victorious when this series is over. Why?
I believe that there are two big reasons why the Mavs will win. First, they have home court advantage. Normally I don’t put a lot of stock in this but the Blazers are 18-23 on the road this season. Not good for a playoff team. Not only that but I saw on Sportsnation yesterday that the biggest indicator of who will win a series is the point differential. This season the Mavs are a +4.2 while the Blazers are only +1.5. These two factors combined tell me that Dallas will win.
I also do not believe that the past several seasons mean anything this year. This is not the same team. Tyson Chandler has brought some toughness and rebounding to the team. I think, rather than being afraid because of their past, this team is fired up to prove people wrong. Having another coach publically announce that he would rather face Dallas in the playoffs is just more fuel to their fire. The Mavs will win in 6.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)
Preview from: Pat at Daily Thunder
The Thunder face more than the Nuggets beginning tonight at Oklahoma City Arena. For the first time in most of their playoff lives, Oklahoma City’s players face outsider’s expectations of victory.
A few have been there before, namely former champs Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. And no doubt they’ve been imparting their wisdom to the Thunder’s youngsters and been voices of leadership at practice and in team huddles. But for most of the rest of the roster, this is the first playoff series that the players have been expected to win. And it will be the only series this season that they’re the true favorites, even if lots of folks might think Oklahoma City will beat San Antonio in a second-round series.
Any Thunder player who has done channel flipping or Internet clicking over the past few days — and color me shocked if none of them have, because despite protestations of ignorance, pro athletes always seem to know who is favored and who made what prediction — has seen and heard assertions that Oklahoma City-Denver should be one of the most exciting series of the first round. And they’ve also seen and heard that, for the most part, people have picked the Thunder to move on. A few dissenters picked the Nuggets to make the second round, but the Thunder is the consensus favorite.
And it’s not just the media who expects Oklahoma City to take the series. Thunder fans expect it too. The blue-clad faithful who will pack the arena tonight — myself included — don’t just want and hope for a win like the Lakers series last year, but fully expect to see a win in Game 1 and in the series and will be disappointed if the Thunder doesn’t come through.
The dynamic is different, and it will be tangible. There will be a subtle but important change in the inflection of voices and shouts in the arena. If the Thunder has a cold shooting stretch, there will be as many exasperated gasps and screams as encouraging roars and claps. Same if Oklahoma City has some defensive breakdowns and lapses. I still think the crowd will live up to its reputation of being one of the rowdiest in the NBA, but the edge to it will be just a bit different. There’s a little fear now — the fear of falling short. Against Los Angeles in 2010, there was that nothing-to-lose feeling. No more.
If Oklahoma City can find a way past the Nuggets, the more comfortable feeling of being the underdog will return. Even if the Thunder were to wind up the Vegas and pundit favorite to beat the Spurs (assuming Memphis doesn’t pull a shocker), I don’t feel like Oklahoma City would feel the pressure a true favorite does. How could Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest step onto the floor in San Antonio and see those banners, knowing the Spurs have home court, and feel like the pressure to win is on them? I just don’t see it. The Thunder would be back on familiar ground as the up-and-comers against the established, savvy veterans.
But that second round is a long way off, and is no guarantee. Denver has the horses to win the series if the chips fall right, and the Nuggets enjoy the advantage of feeling no added weight on their shoulders.
All that said, it’s fair to say the young Thunder has met just about every challenge anyone could reasonably ask them to meet over the last three seasons. In the first year, Oklahoma City responded to derision after the brutal start by finishing with flourish and stamping the team as a force to be reckoned with in future seasons. Last year, the Thunder vaulted to a 50-win season that few thought possible and pushed the Lakers as far as anyone this side of Boston. This year, Oklahoma City matched the most realistic expectations by getting to the upper echelon of the Western Conference and establishing itself as a Finals contender. So who is to say the Thunder can’t successfully take on the new challenge of being a playoff favorite, especially for only one round?
And luckily for the fans, we’ve reached the point in the season when loyal support does the most good. For those who can’t make it to the arena, the task is to rep your Thunder gear around town to add to the atmosphere that reaches a crescendo at tipoff. For those with tickets, the task is to yell and scream and implore and intimidate until you have to sit down to avoid passing out.
5. Denver Nuggets (50-32)
Preview from: Alan at Nuggets Hoops
The Denver Nuggets enter the 2011 NBA Playoffs with a very different squad then last season. Even bigger than all the player changes, is the return of their head coach. Not only has Coach Karl triumphantly returned from a tough battle with throat and neck cancer at the end of last season, since the big Melo/Billups trade. Karl was the key factor last year in the Nuggets fading down the stretch and losing in the first round to an inferior Utah squad. With him back, the Nuggets have their confidence and swagger back... even without their All-Star small forward and clutch shooting point guard around. Karl also seems to have a new sparkle in his eyes since the trade - he is really enjoying coaching a hard-working, talented team without having to deal with the ego of a superstar.
What the Nuggets need to do to win this series:
- Play as a team
None of the Nuggets individually can win this series. The new Nuggets squad that went 18-7 to close out the season after the trade won by playing together, both defensively and offensively. Offensively, the Nuggets must distribute the ball. With no superstars, and few one-on-one players other than JR Smith, the Nuggets point guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton need to penetrate in the lane and kick to open teammates to create high percentage shots. On defense, they must continue to play great team defense all on the interior and out at the three point line - something they've suddenly been doing very well at the end of the season.
- Get healthy
The Nuggets have a ton of nagging injuries but the key one is probably Aaron Afflalo. Afflalo had become one of the go to guys in the 4th quarter on offense before going down with a hamstring injury that has refused to heal completely. Even more key though is Afflalo's one-on-one defense - if he can't play effectively in this series, the Nuggets have a much tougher time finding the right guys to cover Durant and Westbrook.
- Don't get caught up in playoff mental games
I'm mainly looking at Nene with this one. During the final two games between these two teams in the regular season, Nene and Kendrick Perkins went literally forehead-to-forehead several times after getting tangled up under the basket. Both are big immovable forces that man the middle for their respective teams. If either get tossed due to a scuffle, it could easily tip the scale - especially for the Thunder if its Nene that can't keep his cool. Nene shoulders a fair amount of offensive load along with defensive responsibilities, whereas Kendrick is primarily looked at for his defense and toughness. Nene also has a tendency to lose his game once he's lost his head, so I hope he can keep Perkins from getting under his skin.
- Contain one of the Thunder superstars - Durant and Westbrook
The Nuggets are most likely doomed if both of these guys have offensive gems each game. Why? Because the Nuggets may not have the firepower to keep up, especially in crunch time when every possession becomes critical. If both Durant and Westbrook are playing well, it may be impossible to cover both and force one of the other 3 Thunder players on the court to beat us - they are simply that good.
6. Portland Trailblazers (48-36)
Preview from: Mike at Rip City Project
Saturday’s the day. The Trail Blazers will be taking on the Dallas Mavericks for what will be the beginning of the team’s third straight appearance in the Playoffs. So, because it’s officially Playoff time, and because everybody else is doing it, I thought I would contribute a brief Playoff preview. I’ll leave the statistical breakdowns to those writers that are better equipped; this preview will be dedicated more to how I feel about the upcoming opening round series.
I’ll start it like this. The first year I lived in Portland, the Blazers lost in the first round of the Playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks. Some will remember that series; some won’t. The short recap; Portland lost three, then won three, then lost one. Immediately following the Mavericks’ victory, the Blazers began to dismantle what was left of the team that reached the Western Conference Finals in 2000 and 1999, and the following season failed to make the Playoffs for the first time in my lifetime.
The rebuilding process began with the hiring of Nate McMillan, and seemed to come completely to fruition with the Blazers claiming the four seed and home court advantage in the first round of the Playoffs following a 54-win season in 2008-09. We all know how that ended.
It’s seems like poetic justice, then, that Portland’s best chance for advancing past the first round in the last decade comes against the team that effectively dropped the final nail in the coffin of one of the most successful franchises in professional sports history. That’s just one reason why Portland’s series against Dallas is going to be huge.
Here’s another: the Blazers actually have a fighting chance, probably better than a fighting chance if you really think about it. Portland and Dallas split their regular season matchups, each team winning twice at home, with no single game decided by more than eight. The Blazers had the biggest win, at the Rose Garden on April 3rd, and have beaten the Mavericks twice in the last month.
Part of the Portland’s success against Dallas, and no small part of why some of the more out spoken Blazers were open about wanting to meet the Mavs in the first round, has to do with how well Portland matches up against this team. Neither team has a dominate center, Tyson Chandler may be more effective on offense than Marcus Camby, but he doesn’t light up the scoreboard, which helps mitigate the fact that the Blazers severely lack for size.
Portland also has three guys that they can throw at Dirk Nowitzki on defense, each giving the big German a different look. Nicolas Batum has the length to contest the jumper, Wesley Matthews has the athleticism to hawk Dirk around the perimeter, and Gerald Wallace is a combination of the two.
Beyond stopping Dirk, the Blazers and Mavericks both play the kind of guard game that is basically a push. Jason Kidd is an older version of Andre Miller, or Andre Miller is a younger version of Jason Kidd if you want to play it like that. JJ Barea is quick and can score, but isn’t the kind of slashing, score-first guard that makes Swiss cheese of Portland’s defense, exhibits A and B Steph Curry and Monta Ellis. The Maverick wing player that was hardest for the Blazers to stop in Portland’s two wins, one Rodrique Beaubois, might be sidelined for a while with a sprained foot.
So if guard play and front court scoring don’t favor one team over the other, LaMarcus Aldridge cancelling out Dirk Nowitzki, and Dallas not getting too much of a boost at center, this series might very well come down to bench play. And, believe it or not, this might be where Portland has an advantage. Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Brandon Roy have all had big games off the bench against Dallas at home. On top of that, the Mavericks bench isn’t all that deep. Jason Terry can still be a killer, although his game isn’t what it was a couple of seasons ago. With Beaubois out, DeShawn Stevenson is bumped into the starting five, taking one more scorer off the bench, Ian Mahinmi is a big body, Brain Cardinal is an old body, Peja Stojakovic is old. A consistent Blazer bench might be enough to pull the upset.
That’s my match-up breakdown, here’s my emotional breakdown. Part of why I think Portland can, and will, take this series boils down to this: these Blazers have more basketball left to play.
It’s been a tough season, the second one of those in a row, but in the last month or so the load seems to have lightened some. Portland has looked at its most consistent in the second half of the season, and on more than one occasion has been able to play the kind of basketball that includes taking it to some of the very best teams in the league. Since February, the Blazers have beaten the best team in the NBA, the Bulls; the second best team in the NBA, the Spurs, twice; two of the hottest teams in the West, Denver and Oklahoma City; and the likely favorite to win it all, the Los Angeles Lakers. You wouldn’t be wrong if you said that Portland is playing like a team that isn’t ready for this thing to be over just yet.
As for my prediction: Portland is peaking at just the right time, not counting bad loses to Golden State. Rudy Fernandez might be coming out of his extended shooting slump. LaMarcus Aldridge will be playing in front of home crowds both in Dallas and in Portland. And this team and its fan base are primed and ready to blow the roof off the Rose Garden. I can see Portland stealing one of the first two in the big D, maybe not Game One, but if not that then Game Two, and holding court at home.
Call me a homer if you want: Blazers in six.
7. New Orleans Hornets (46-36)
Preview from: James at Swarm & Sting
- Chris Paul. If there ever was a time for CP3 to show just why he used to be the best point guard in the NBA it would be against the defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers. Paul's season has been the worst since his rookie season as his mass production numbers are down in almost all categories. However he has been able to sustain his efficiency and posts the highest Win Share percentages in the entire league. If the Hornets are to challenge in the series we're going to have to see Paul score 25+, dish out 14 assists and get 3-4 steals a night.
- Defensive Rebounding. Since the Hornets play at such a slow pace (2nd slowest in the NBA) they have to do a great job on the boards, which they do. While they are a very average offensive rebounding team, defensively when a team misses a shot, they usually grab the rebound. This is very important in a Lakers series as they have size which the Hornets do not. If they can limit the second chance points they might be able to stay in touch.
- Underrated back-court bench. While individually speaking the other guards the Hornets have are quite average overall, they each possess their own sets of talents and skills. Jarrett Jack is the most promising as he has the ability to fill any scoring void that Willie Green or Marco Belinelli are unwilling to provide. Throughout the season the two-guard position has been plagued by inconsistency, but if they can all get it together for the Lakers series it might be enough to steal a game form LA.
- Front-Court Depth. Even before David West went down with the severe injury, the Hornets never really have possessed the greatest of size in the front court. Emeka Okafor is quietly underrated, but sometimes he can disappear a little on the floor as opposing bigmen take it to him. Carl Landry is an offensively efficient player, but he sucks at rebounding, and is not a shot blocker. Outside of that the talent gets significantly weaker. Aaron Gray has been the first bigman off the bench for much of the season and has shown some flashes of brilliance in terms of rebounding (he's very, very good at it). However he gets called for a tonne of fouls, has trouble ever getting baskets consistently and turns the ball over a lot. Jason Smith has a decent midrange jump shot, but possesses nothing else of value. Finally D.J. Mbenga is well...D.J. Mbenga, nothing good can come from it...
- Playoff Experience. The Horents have Chris Paul, Carl Landry and Trevor Ariza, players who are all familiar with the playoffs. Yet New Orleans has 4 players on their roster who are yet to play in a single playoff game. It seems that perhaps inexperience on the roster and the coaching staff may trump them come playoff time.
- Consistency. The Hornets will fool you. They'll win some great games, but lose in some doozies. I don't envision them moving past the first round, but let's say, hypothetically they win game 3 by 5-10 points. Most commentators might start talking about an upset, then they'll come out in game 4 and lose by 20. That's the Hornets for you.
- If I were to point a percentage on winning the championship I'd give them a generous 1%. Not because I'm crazy, well maybe, but because I'm a fool. I love the Hornets, but there is no way in hell they will win the championship, nor will they win the Lakers series. I predict for the first round, a series sweep, L.A. in 4.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (46-36)
Preview from: Chip at Three Shades of Blue
It isn't always a bad thing to lose a game. Losing is not the worst thing that could happen. The problem with losing is that, like winning, it is habit forming. You don't want to get into the habit of losing heading into the playoffs if you can avoid it.
The Grizzlies chose not to avoid it the last two nights. Whether or not that turns out to be a good decision has yet to be determined. The one main point of the game Tuesday night had to be that the Grizzlies didn't appear to want to lose the game. The team went out and played hard. Sure it could have been more competitive if Z-Bo and Tony had played but the team didn't quit. They fought and they fought hard. As Vince Lombardy said "Winning isn't everything, but the will to win is everything.' The players who were on the court last night had the will to win. They just didn't have the skill and team chemistry. Wednesday night, with Mike Conley joining Z-Bo and Tony on the bench, the team looked unisnpired and out of sorts for the first three quarters before making a valient comeback that fell just a bit short in the end.
So the Grizzlies ended the season on a two game losing streak, content to remain in 8th place in the conference and match up against the team with the best record in the league. It seems silly to assume the Grizzlies brain trust feels they could do better against the Spurs than the Lakers, especially if Andrew Bynum doesn't play, so why did the Grizzlies choose to rest two of their most important players for such important games? Was the answer that the Grizzlies wanted to play the Spurs more than Dallas or Los Angeles?
Not according to the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies believe, and I agree somewhat, that a tired Grizzlies team would struggle to beat any of the elite teams and a rested team can give all of the elite teams a battle they don't want in the first round. The team would not win anything by exhausting the players needed to win in the playoffs just to get a possible matchup against Dallas or Oklahoma City. So in this instance Rommel was right. If you don't gain anything, don't fight the battle.
This Grizzlies team can compete with any of the top four teams in the Western Conference...when healthy and rested but not worn down from the grind of an 82 game season. Zach Randolph was slowing down at the end of the season. Tony Allen puts so much strain on his body when he plays that he needed rest as well. Mike Conley, being the only Grizz player to start all 82 games deserved a rest as well. So while the team didn't end with a long winning streak heading into the playoffs they did finish in the playoffs with a team prepared as well as possible to face whoever they ended up playing with as good a chance of winning the series, not just a game but the entire series, as a Grizzlies team ever has.
Does this mean fans should expect to win the series? No. Of course not. There is a reason San Antonio had the best record in the league up until the last game of the season. They are a very, very good team. They are experienced and know what it takes to move deep into the playoffs. They won't break the game plan because a team gets an early lead and they won't make silly mistakes trying to make something happen that isn't there.
That doesn't mean the Grizzlies can't win a series against the Spurs however.
The Grizzlies match up as well against the Spurs as any team in the league does. Their inside game will be negated somewhat by the Grizzlies interior defense. The speed of Tony Parker at the point isn't a great advantage against Mike Conley, who possibly was the Grizzlies 2nd best defender in March and April. Manu Ginobili is a fantastic offensive player but he'll be matched up against one of the best perimeter defenders in the league in Tony Allen. Both teams bench players know their role and are capable of performing under pressure.
The main difference between the two teams is the experience under pressure in a playoff atmosphere. The Grizzlies have gotten a taste of playoff atmosphere thanks to a difficult schedule in March and some surprisingly encouraging fans down the stretch but don't kid yourself. March is not the NBA Playoffs and the pressure will be ratched up even higher in this series.
One thing I hope the Grizzlies don't worry about is the franchise's career playoff record. Sunday night in San Antonio won't be able to erase the stigma of twelve consecutive playoff losses. Being swept in San Antonio doesn't mean the team will be swept out of the playoffs either. This year's team can't be concerned about what has happened in the past. They need to focus all their energy and efforts on the team goal of winning the next game. That is all. Not the series. Not the ghosts of past playoffs. One game, one night, one concentrated effort
This team needs to concentrate on the next game ahead of them and only on that one game. The Grizzlies can't look past the next game they play even once in this series to have a chance. They can't start to think about what people will say if the win the first game in San Antonio. They can't worry about what people will say if they lose that game. They must focus on each game solely and after that game look to the next. It is a seven game series but it is played one game, one battle at a time.
It has been five long years since the Grizzlies were last in the playoffs. Five years of suffering will end at noon on Sunday. I don't think it is unreasonable to ask all Grizz fans to remember the team at church on Sunday morning.
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