Sunday, May 6, 2007

Western Conference Semifinal Preview

Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs- This one has all the makings of a classic. The Suns, coming off an extremely efficient first round series, disposing of the Lakers in just five games, are healthy and look to be more motivated than in years past. As for the Spurs, they are, well, the same Spurs: consistent, focused, steady and, most importantly, peaking at the perfect time. The Spurs, as always, have their typical deep roster of veterans with the likes of Michael Finley Robert Horry and Brent Barry, but this year’s version is lighter on talent than in the past, while the Suns will be operating with a very small margin for error since their regular rotation seldom features more than seven players.

Frontcourt: Although Tim Duncan, one of the great big men in league history, anchors the Spurs’ front line, the depth and talent supporting him are somewhat suspect. Michael Finley is still capable of the occasional big game, but not nearly the offensive weapon he’s been in the past, Robert Horry is little more than a crunch-time spot-up shooter these days, and the two-headed center of Fabricio Obert and Francisco Elson, an asset on defense and on the offensive glass, does not pose much of a threat on the offensive end.
The Suns’ depth and diversity in the frontcourt gives them the edge. In addition to Amare Stoudemire, who’s back among the most dominant big men in the league, Shawn Marion’s speed, quickness and inside-outside game (not to mention his underrated defense) will make him a key player in this series. Throw in Kurt Thomas, whose strength and experience will help him do a better-than-expected job against Duncan, Boris Diaw, the Suns’ best passer not named Steve Nash, and the outside shooting of James Jones, the Suns should win the battle up front. It should be noted, however, that the key to this series will Amare Stoudemire’s ability to avoid foul trouble. Without him, the Suns lose the frontcourt advantage. He needs to stay on the floor for Phoenix to have a chance at winning this series.

Backcourt: Maybe the most intriguing match-up of the postseason. These teams are so similar in the backcourt it’s scary. Both teams feature quick, intelligent point guards that can score and set up their teammates for easy buckets (Needless to say, Nash is the best in world at this, but Parker is pretty good too), defensive stoppers at the 2-guard position with limited offensive games, both fo whom inspire “Is he a dirty player?” arguments (Raja Bell Probably is, Bruce Bowen definitely is), and versatile and talented South American combo-guards coming off the bench (Ginobili is more experienced and more productive, Barbosa is the tougher match-up). It’s almost too close to call, but the edge has to go to the Suns as they win two (Nash over Parker, Bell over Bowen) of these three match-ups.

Coaching: This will be fantastic coaching match-up. We have two of the top coaches in the league, each with a talented, healthy and rested team, and a match-up of completely different offensive and defensive philosophies. If this theory holds true in boxing, why would it not apply to basketball? Two excellent coaches with unconditional faith in their respective systems

Prediction: Suns in 7. Needless to say, Phoenix will dominate this series if it's played in the open court. But now, with a healthy Amare Stoudemire, the Suns will be able to play a half-court as well. This versatility on offense, combined with the Suns' superior athleticism and team, as well as having Game 7 played in their home floor, will allow the Suns to advance to the Western Conference Finals. For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, this series should adopt a best 6-of-11 format. Given the talent and poise on both sides, as well as the fact that both teams are healthy and playing exceptionally well, this could be one of the greats playoff series in recent memory.

Utah Jazz v. Golden State Warriors- After thumping the top-seeded Mavericks in the opening round, the Warriors are riding one of the great waves of momentum in recent history, but that alone will not be enough. It’s impossible to know just how long this joyride will last, but it’s seems safe to say that the Warriors’ playoff lives are directly tied to 1) continued hot shooting from behind the 3-point line and 2) Utah’s ability to play at a similar tempo and frustrate the Warriors. As impressive as they looked in disposing of Dallas, Golden State did show a tendency to become rattled when the calls are not going their way in close games on the road. The key to beating the Warriors is not to try and slow them down, but to run with them and take tadvantage of their cold spells from the outside, and the Jazz have the guard play and versatility to pull this off.

Frontcourt: Each team brings something different to the table with regard to frontcourt play. Golden State’s versatile, but undersized, frontcourt creates huge match-up problems and gives less athletic big men (like Dampier and Diop) fits. The Jazz won’t have the same problems matching up with the Warriors up front. Defensively, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Matt Harpring and rookie Paul Millsap can follow the Warriors’ shooters outside and should give Utah a considerable rebounding edge. Offensively, Boozer is either too strong or too quick to be stopped by any of the Warriors’ big men and Mehmet Okur is a carbon-copy of Dirk Nowitzki, just without the pressure of having to be the best player on the floor every night. Toss in Utah’s offensive rebounding edge with Kirilenko, Boozer and Millsap, and the obvious edge in the frontcourt goes to the Jazz.

Backcourt: The Utah Jazz enter this series with a greater ability to control the tempo of the game against Golden State than the Mavericks, who do not have a true point guard running the offense. In Derek Fisher and Deron Williams, Utah has two pure point guards who know how to manage a game. In spite of this, the Warriors have a clear edge in both versatility and depth. With (so far) playoff MVP Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Mickael Pietrus, and Stephen Jackson, the Warriors guards have more manpower and firepower than do Utah’s. While the Warriors have an edge in the backcourt, the backcourt of the Jazz should present a much more challenging match up than Dallas’ backcourt did.

Coaching: A marquee match up. With 50 years of experience and more than 2,200 regular season wins between them, Don Nelson and are no strangers to the big games. Nellie did a phenomenal job of rescuing the Warriors’ season, but he has not shown the ability to go deep into the playoffs. With a greater number of playoff games coached (175; Nelson- 166) and playoff victories (87; Nelson 75), as well as multiple trip to the NBA Finals, the edge in the coaching department belongs to Utah’s Jerry Sloan.

Prediction: Jazz in 7. This series should be very competitive. Golden State enters the series with more momentum and the biggest home court advantage in these playoffs, but with a time-tested system run by true point guards, great experience on the bench, and a great home crowd of their own, the Utah Jazz should win what could be one of the more entertaining series of the playoffs.

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