(1) Lakers vs. (8) Jazz
I went back and forth numerous times on this matchup. At first I didn't want to play the Jazz at all. We pretty much own the Mavs and Hornets (6 straight over the Mavs, other than CP3 we match up exceedingly well with NO), and the Jazz (Harpring and Boozer especially) play an annoying physical brand of basketball. It wasn't that I was worried the Lakers wouldn't win the series, it's that I didn't see the need for them to enter the next round after a physical, contested series with bumps and bruises. It's a long postseason.
But after reading more, and watching the game Tuesday night, I'm pretty satisfied with the opponent. The Jazz are playing worse than any other team in the WC Playoffs right now, and they have absolutely no belief that they can win this series. Deron Williams said something after the game like "I'll have to get 30 and 15 for us to even have a chance" and Jerry Sloan said something like "It looks really bleak. They're better than we are."
A team with that mindset is exactly what you want for the first round. As long as the Lakers take care of business in the first couple games, and don't give the Jazz any hope, this one should be over quick.
And they will. Deron Williams blows by everyone on the Lakers (including Shannon Brown btw, let's get it out of our heads right now that ShanWow can stay in front of him), but that's no different than what he does against literally every single other team in the league. Search youtube for "Deron Williams crossover" or "Deron Williams Jason Terry" if you don't believe me. But that's beside the point. Boozer is too scared of getting his shot blocked to be an effective asset in the post for the Jazz, and Okur is Jason Kapono with a 7-footer's body. Neither can match up with Gasol, Odom, or Bynum on the defensive end (especially since Boozer is 6-8). And the Jazz have nobody who can guard Kobe. Their best bet is Harpring, but he usually has to sit down after the inevitable 3 fouls in 30 seconds that he picks up. Kobe can blow by him pretty easily anyways.
To wrap up, I don't see the Lakers having too much trouble. D-Will (probably the best crossover/the best PG at getting penetration in the league -- no exaggeration) will get his 28 and 13, but it won't be nearly enough. Maybe one blowout, two close-but-convincing wins, maybe a loss in Game 4 on the road, but the Lakers will close it out without too much trouble.
Prediction: Lakers in 5
(4) Blazers vs. (5) Rockets
Let me put this out there before I get going too quick. I love every single matchup in the West, including Lakers-Jazz (it promises to be entertaining to watch if you like efficient, effective offense, despite the inevitable parade to the free-throw line). I especially love this series.
There was a great point made over at The Painted Area. Remember that Brandon Roy shot from earlier in the season? The miracle, 30-foot, fadeaway 3 at the buzzer? Here's the entire, crazy, final sequence if you don't remember, didn't see it, or just want to watch it again. It also includes back-to-back should-be game-winners from Roy and Yao just moments earlier.
Anyways, if that shot doesn't go in, home court in this series is reversed. That matters, because the Blazers are a TERRIBLE road team. I think their record against Western Conference playoff teams on the road is something like 1-11. But they are a phenomenal home team, with one of the best crowds in the League. It's funny to me that a shot like that, so early in the season that T-Mac was still the Rockets go-to player, can have such drastic effects on a playoff series.
But enough reminiscing. To the matchup. I actually think that the Rockets match up decently well against the Blazers (who, for my money, are the 2nd-best team in the West). Battier can do a great job on Roy, and Yao clogs the middle enough so that the rest of the Rockets don't have to leave the Blazer shooters on penetration. Scola/Chuck Hayes are a decent matchup on Aldridge, and I don't see any reason that Steve Blake is a better option than Aaron Brooks.
There's a few reasons I think the Blazers will end up winning this hard-fought, well-matched series, though. The first is the home court advantage. I just don't see them losing in the Rose Garden, to a team as offensively challenged as the Rockets, in front of those fans. And even if they lose once, that is certainly the max. The second reason is the bench. For all the publicity that Jason Terry gets as a 6th man and that the "Bench Mob" on the Lakers gets, the Blazers, I think, have the best bench in basketball. They honestly go 10-deep, and all 10 can play. Travis Outlaw is an underrated contender for 6th man of the year (not that he'll win or deserves to, but he should be included in the conversation), and Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez are spark plugs that push the pace. Channing Frye and Greg Oden (or Pryzbilla, whoever comes of the bench currently) are more-than-legitimate backup big men.
And the third reason I see the Blazers winning is that when things get tight, in the 4th quarter, the last 4 or 5 minutes, the Rockets don't have anyone to go to. Ron Artest is totally unreliable, Yao Ming turns the ball over too much and is easy to double team, and they don't have a guard that other teams respect. I see a lot of empty trips for the Rockets down the stretch, and that, combined with the other reasons, will have them going home in the first round.
Prediction: Blazers in 7
(3) Spurs vs. (6) Mavs
Another phenomenal series, from two teams that always seem to bring out the best in each other whenever they're matched up. That 2006 playoff series was one of the best in recent memory, and I see this one being another good matchup.
Reasons the Spurs can win: I think the Drew Gooden pickup was a good one for the Spurs, and one that nobody is really talking about. He can defend Dirk if he needs to, and let Duncan rest a little bit while guarding Dampier (if Pop would ever play them together). As pointed out by Skeets and Melas in the TBJ video, George Hill did a phenomenal job of sticking to Jason Terry earlier in the year, and could do it again (if Pop would give him the minutes). Then there's the serious issue of nobody on the Mavs being able to come close to staying in front of Tony Parker, or guarding Tim Duncan. I expect these two guys to go off, in every single game. Don't be surprised to see Parker average 30 and 7, and Duncan 26 and 13. It could, and IMO, probably will happen. And then there's Pop, who, despite what I think are some mis-steps this season (admittedly I don't know much, but I think Graydon of 48 Minutes of Hell agrees with me), is still one of the top-5 coaches in the game, no question.
Reasons the Mavs can win: No Manu. Josh Howard is back. The Mavs are playing better right now than they have all season. Duncan looks old (just like he does every year). Who can guard Jason Terry off the bench? They can win at SA (see Game 7, 2006 playoffs).
That last point leads into what I think is the most important. Most of what the Spurs have left is their mystique as an elite team. Duncan and Parker are among the best in the game, no doubt, but beyond that, the pickings get real slim. Real slim like a 65-year old Michael Finley and 6-8 center Matt Bonner slim. I just don't see how the Spurs are going to keep up with Nowitzki (having one of his better years), Terry (great all year, exploding at just the right time), Howard (finally back and healthy), and even Kidd, who isn't a potent scorer at all, but still sets the rest of the guys up nicely, and runs Rick Carlisle's offense well. He hits JET coming off those screens in just the right spot, at just the right time, and it's tough to stop.
With Manu, this series would be a toss-up, and I'd lean to the Spurs, just because of Duncan and Parker, and the Mavs difficulty staying in front of the Frenchman. Those two are reason enough for me to send this series to 7 games. But I think the Mavs will do it again. Just too much firepower with the triumverate of Howard, JET, and Dirk, no Manu, and they're not scared of SA. Not only that, but they really are playing their best basketball of the season right now.
Prediction: Mavs in 7
(2) Nuggets vs. (7) Hornets
This is the series in the West that I'm probably the least personally excited for, but that's not because it will lack close, competitive, fun games. I actually think these teams are very well-matched, and this series is going to go 6 or 7 games. I'll follow the same model from the Spurs/Mavs matchup, because I decided I like it.
Reasons the Nuggets can win: Melo. Let's start there. There is nobody, literally nobody, on the Hornets who can even come close to guarding him. His scoring has been down a little bit, but I've read multiple places that he's actually had his best season yet this year, in terms of an overall game. Without checking, I'd be willing to bet that his assists are at an all-time high, and his rebounding has been better this season too. But all that said, when it comes down to it, Melo is a scorer, and a damn-near unstoppable one at that. I don't see one Hornet he couldn't get any shot on the floor that he wanted against, and for the boys from the Bayou, thats a big problem.
There's also the Billups factor. Since I have been known to proclaim Billups over-rated, a lot of people have talked some smack this year, pointing out that it is Billups who has led to the Nuggets resurgence. And while Billups has been good, I'd argue that it was simply the fact that he's not Iverson that helped the Nuggets the most. Slowing down from one of the faster paces in the league to a middling pace has helped the Nuggets offensive efficiency tremendously. The fact that Billups slows the team down, gets it organized, and gets the ball to Melo, JR Smith, and Nene when they're open helps more than anything he's doing scoring-wise.
Billups has struggled in the playoffs recently though, and not just according to me. We'll see if he picks it up in this series, on this team, surrounded by these players.
The development of Nene/resurgence of Chris Anderson (Birdman) is another reason this team is the #2 seed in the West, and matches up well against NO. Nene is having a career year, with a PER somewhere around 19, and Birdman is 2nd in the league in blocks, even though he only plays 20 minutes/game. That is an astounding statistic on its own. But what it means for this series is that CP3 is going to have more trouble finishing at the rim than he might otherwise. With Nene and Birdman back there, blowing by Billups for layups is less appealing, and that could limit CP3.
Reasons the Hornets can win: CP3 and David West. This team lives and dies with CP3 and David West, and, as things go, that's not too bad a recipe. Every time I watch Deron Williams play, I'm convinced he's the best point guard in the league. But then I watch CP3, and I flip right back. He truly does things with the basketball that nobody else in the League can do, he goes places at times that nobody else can. He is an absolute thrill to watch, especially in-person, where, as David Foster Wallace might say, watching him play is almost a religious experience. He plays at a different speed than everyone else on the court, and he does anything he wants to, any time he wants to do it.
Then you could go into the return of Chandler and Peja from injury, the veteran experience added with Posey, and more, but to be frank, I just don't see it. Beyond CP3, and David West (a good, borderline-All Star second banana who makes shots and will get to the line, but whom I don't care to say too much more about), this team just doesn't have the talent. Peja should retire after this season, he can't move or shoot with his back in the seemingly-chronic condition it's in. James Posey is too old and slow to do much other than occasionally hit spot-up threes (he certainly can't guard Melo). Rasual Butler just isn't talented enough to start for a team that wants to go places in the playoffs. A lot of people are talking about the return of Chandler as a big factor, but I don't see it. The reality is that he's not 100%, and even if he was, he wasn't having a very good season even before the injury. I mean, this team tried to trade him, if you remember. And not to receive anything much in return either.
Prediction: Nuggets in 7 (only because yes, CP3 is that good)
Eastern Conference Playoffs coming tonight/tomorrow...