Thursday, April 19, 2007

Western Conference Playoff Preview

(1) Dallas Mavericks v. (8) Golden State Warriors- The Golden State Warriors are going to give Mavericks a run for their money. Not only are they 6-1 against the Mavericks in their past seven regular season meeting (3-0 this season), the Warriors are the NBA’s hottest team coming into playoffs, with a 16-5 record in their last 21 regular season games. Golden State can outscore any team in league, but their chances of winning this series will be tied to their defensive effort against the Mavs’ front line.

Frontcourt: It’s fairly obvious that the frontcourt edge goes to the Mavericks, with likely MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard, the NBA’s most underrated All-Star carrying the load. Alongside them, the Mavs’ two-headed center of Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop will provide a defensive presence in lane. Despite Dallas having the top two frontcourt players in the series, the Warriors have size and versatility up front with Al Harrington, Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, which will create some challenging match-ups for Dallas. Also, Andris Biedrins, one of best young big men in the NBA, will command enough attention from the Dallas centers to keep them from simply guarding the hoop.

Backcourt: Despite the talent in the Dallas backcourt, the edge in this series goes to the Warriors. In a head-to-head comparison, each of the Warriors’ top three guards gets the nod over each of the Mavericks’ top three guards. Baron Davis’ strength and versatility will be too much for Jason Terry to handle; Monta Ellis and Devon Harris are similar in terms of build, speed and quickness, but Ellis’ offensive game is far more refined and consistent than Harris’; Jason Richardson and Jerry Stackhouse, both former high-fliers who have evolved into better all-around perimeter players, should both be very effective, but will cancel one another out.

Coaching: Avery Johnson is the best in-game coach in the NBA today. He manages his time-outs and his rotation better than any other coach in the league and his players seem to genuinely love playing hard for him. In this series Johnson is matched up against his mentor, and one of the architects of the Mavericks, Don Nelson. One of the NBA’s greatest coaches, Nellie is a master of “small ball” and creating match-up problems. His Warriors’ up tempo, controlled chaos style of play will be the biggest wild card in the series and will give Dallas problems.

Despite Avery Johnson’s fantastic coaching ability, Don Nelson’s experience, along with his familiarity with the Mavericks gives a slight coaching edge to Golden State.

Prediction: Mavericks in 7. This is a nightmare match-up for the systematic and methodical Mavericks. The Warriors will push the tempo and not allow Dallas to dictate the flow of the game the way they normally do. The Mavs’ talent and adaptability will allow them to play the Warriors’ game when necessary and control the rhythm of the game the rest of the time. The Warriors will give the Mavericks, who will benefit from having Game 7 played on their home floor, all they can handle.

(2) Phoenix Suns v. (7) Los Angeles Lakers- The rematch of last season’s most exciting first round series should provide some entertaining, up-tempo play but, sadly for the Lakers, will again end with Phoenix advancing to the second round. The injury-plagued Lakers limp into the playoffs, having lost 14 of their 23 games since March 1, while the Suns, who come into this year’s series with a healthy Amare Stoudemire, posted a record of 17-7 over the season’s last two months, finishing the regular season with 61 wins.

Frontcourt: By a wide margin, the frontcourt edge belongs to the Suns. Phoenix comes into this year’s playoffs with a healthy Amare Stoudemire, who is back to 100% after returning from micro-fracture knee surgery, as well as Shawn Marion, the NBA’s top defensive forward and a modern-day James Worthy on the break. Throw in a supporting cast of Boris Diaw, Kurt Thomas and James Jones, and Phoenix may have the deepest frontcourt in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton, the Lakers’ two best frontcourt players, have spent a good portion of the season nursing injuries, missing 26 and 22 games respectively. The Lakers’ big men, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum and Chris Mihm, have been hampered by injury and inexperience all season. Even when healthy, however, this is not the strength of the Lakers’ roster.

Backcourt: With all due respect to Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash is the most deserving candidate for the MVP, but he is not the best individual player in this series. Kobe Bryant, who has developed into one of the most devastating offensive players in league history and is capable of taking over any game at any time, will leave his mark on this series. On the shoulders of Kobe alone, the edge in the backcourt goes to the Lakers.

The Lakers’ supporting cast does not need to dominate the series, but it will be extremely important for the Lakers’ point guards (Jordan Farmar, Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic) to a) force Steve Nash to play defense and b) make Nash work on offense. From the Suns’ standpoint, it will be crucial that Raja Bell stays out of foul trouble, since he plays Kobe as hard as anyone does. Also, look for Leandro Barbosa, who is as fast as anyone that has ever played in the NBA and one of the toughest backcourt match-ups in the league, to give the Lakers’ guards fits on defense.

Coaching: It’s difficult to determine which team has the coaching edge. Phil Jackson’s reputation and body of work are far greater than Mike D’Antoni’s, but the Suns’ superior talent and Steve Nash’s on-court coaching give D’Antoni a much larger margin for error. Setting aside all past accomplishments and looking at only a current snapshot of these coaches, a slight edge goes to Phoenix.

Prediction: Suns in 6. With the Lakers’ injury problems and the return of Amare Stoudemire, it’s highly unlikely that this series will be as competitive as last season’s. However, Kobe Bryant will not allow the Lakers to be embarrassed. He will single-handedly extend this series to six games, but the Lakers are simply overmatched, and Phoenix should advance without too much of a scare.

(3) San Antonio Spurs v. (6) Denver Nuggets- The Nuggets, who are playing their best basketball of the year (10-1 in April), are peaking at the absolute perfect time. In addition to the Iverson-Carmelo duo, Denver has athleticism and depth at both end of the floor. On the other hand, the Spurs, who personify professionalism and championship experience, did not retool in the frontcourt as well as they have in years past and have some question marks on their roster.

Frontcourt: In what felt like a quiet season for him, Tim Duncan was still Tim Duncan, averaging 20 points, 10.6 rebounds (2.7 offensive) and 2.4 blocks per game. However, three of the top four frontcourt players in this series, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby and Nene, play for the Nuggets. After Duncan, San Antonio’s frontcourt features the underwhelming center duo of Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto, Michael Finley, now just a 20 minute-10 point a night player and Robert Horry, the greatest non-superstar clutch shooter in NBA history, but certainly not a major offensive threat throughout a long series. Throw in the Nuggets #4, 5 and 6 options in the frontcourt, the underrated Linas Kleiza (47% field goals, 90% free throws and 37% 3-pointers), Eduardo Najera (57% FG, 70%+ FG) and Reggie Evans (averaged 7.1 rebounds in just 17 minutes/game in the regular season), and the edge in the frontcourt goes to the Nuggets.

Backcourt: The backcourt match-up will be the key to this series. Although Denver has the best backcourt player in the series (Iverson), the Spurs have the next three (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen), as well as greater depth, with Brent Barry and Beno Udrih, as well as Ginobili, coming off the bench. The stability and consistency of the Spurs’ guards makes them the safe choice to control the series, but the Nuggets’ backcourt has a much higher ceiling, but will experience more pronounced cold spells. Denver features Steve Blake, a consistent playmaker/distributor and the perfect compliment to AI, and J.R. Smith, who, while erratic, is one of the NBA’s scariest streak shooters who, like Parker and Manu, can put up 30 at any time. The determining factor in this match-up will be Iverson, the only guard in this series capable of hitting for 50 and single-handedly winning a game on any given night. AI’s warrior mentality and ability to raise his game in the postseason gives Denver the edge in the backcourt, but by the narrowest of margins.

Coaching: In the regular season or the playoffs, there is not a better coach in NBA right now than Gregg Popovich. Popovich has won titles in all three of his trips to the NBA Finals, faced practically every postseason scenario and built the Spurs into a dynasty supported by unselfish, mature and accountable players. It should be noted that Nuggets’ coach George Karl has been/still is a great NBA coach in his own right, but this has less to do with any shortcomings that he may have and more to do with Gregg Popovich’s out-of-this-world track record. It’s time to recognize him as an all-time great coach. Interestingly, Popovich’s career is a lot like Tim Duncan’s, the greatness doesn’t beat you over the head, but when you really take the time and look, his accomplishments in just under 11 seasons (3 titles; 518 wins; .673 regular season win %; .618 playoff win %) are pretty amazing.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6. The Spurs are not getting any younger and are as vulnerable in the paint as they have been at any time in recent memory. Also, Allen Iverson has been reborn in Denver and finally has some talent around him. He and Carmelo Anthony, who needs to win a playoff series soon, will carry the Nuggets to the next round. Denver’s offense will be too much for the Spurs to overcome. However, all bets are off if Horry get the ball with less than ten seconds to go in a close game…

(4) Houston Rockets v. (5) Utah Jazz- This series will come down to the performance of Tracy McGrady. T-Mac, who turned in the NBA’s most underrated MVP-caliber season, averaging 24.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, is the one true SUPERstar in this series. Given the Rockets’ lack of offensive depth, McGrady will have to be the best player on the floor this series if Houston is going to defeat the talented and versatile Jazz, who won three of the four regular season meetings between the teams.

Frontcourt: Yao Ming, with his size and talent, should have little trouble putting up impressive numbers against the Jazz. However, Yao has not shown the Shaq-like mean streak to emerge as the NBA’s dominant big man, capable of winning games all by himself. It is this kind of aggressiveness (Harpring, Kirilenko, Millsap), and some great talent (Boozer, Okur) along with superior depth, that gives Utah the frontcourt edge in this series. Sadly, Houston’s most aggressive frontcourt players, Juwan Howard, Shane Battier, Dikembe Mutombo and Chuck Hayes, are neither as young nor as talented as Yao.

Backcourt: Having Tracy McGrady, the best player in the series, gives Houston the advantage in the backcourt, but by a slim margin. Houston’s lack of secondary scoring in the backcourt, with McGrady’s only help coming from Rafer Alston and Luther Head, could prove to be hindrance. Utah features top-6 point guard Deron Williams (16 points, 9 assists per game), Gordon Giricek (42% 3-point pct.), Matt Harpring (49% FG, 77% FT, 33% 3-pt), as well as Derek Fisher’s championship experience gained in his three title runs with the Lakers.

Coaching: The match-up between Jerry Sloan and Jeff Van Gundy promises to deliver a great coaching battle. Both of these coaches have delivered great regular season results, with each posting a win percentage greater than .550 (Sloan- .600, Van Gundy- .575), but the results are less than spectacular in the postseason, with Sloan posting a 78-80 record in playoffs and Van Gundy entering the series with a record of 41-40. A slight edge goes to Sloan, given the propensity of his teams to exceed expectations.

Prediction: Rockets in 7. This will be the most competitive first round series in the West. The determining factor in this series will be if either team can win a game on the other’s home floor (Houston 28-13 at home, Utah 31-10). The Rockets have the advantage in this match-up, as they have the series’ best individual player (McGrady) and a potential Game 7 on their home floor.

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