The Western Conference gave us the big upset we were hoping for in the playoffs with the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
The more you watched the series the more you realized just how perfect a matchup it was for the Grizz. Tim Duncan (first ballot Hall of Famer) and Antonio McDyess are top-notch pro's and the team as a whole put together a wonderful run, but the window has shut on the Spurs as a viable championship contender. It's time to re-tool. With that being said, here are my Western Conference Semi-Finals predictions. Enjoy!
2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS vs. 3. DALLAS: (Lakers in Six) - Mark Cuban vs. Phil Jackson? Well maybe not, but the bantering and funny quotes between the two will hopefully be amusing. The Lakers didn't impress me in the Hornets series. They seem to goof around and play on talent and get disinterested at times. Time to ratchet it up the focus now. This is a better series for Derek Fisher to play in with veteran Jason Kidd on the other side of the ball instead of the speedy/elusive Chris Paul. They'll stay in each other's way!
The Lakers front line of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest is superb when they're playing their best. Dirk Nowitzki is a wonderful player (Hall of Famer when it's all said and done) and the Mavs must run their stuff thru him to allow teammates to feed off of the defensive attention he garners. Critical to me is the fact that the Mavs still won't have Caron Butler, and that hurts their chances big-time. Jason Terry has to be a game changer and Jose Barea needs to create penetration galore for the Mavs. Tyson Chandler has his hands full up front and has to stay out of foul trouble.
The long and short of it - you guessed it - is Mr. Kobe Bryant. As long as the Lakers have him and he's totally engaged in the process, they'll win it. As much as the Mavs will score, play with energy, mix in the zone defense and entertain you, they don't have the ability to control this guy consistently from a defensive standpoint. He'll draw fouls and get to the line and be the difference maker that he is. I think the Lakers will ramp up the intensity now that the challenges get a little testier and be prepared to get their rhythm flowing better in their half court offense.
The Lakers are an excellent defensive team when Bynum is on the court and the Mavs will see that this is a step-up from what they faced against the Blazers. As much as it's about Kobe and their talent level, their defense will keep the Mavs under control when the chips are down.
4. OKLAHOMA CITY vs. 8. MEMPHIS: (Thunder in Seven) - Honestly, if the Grizzlies didn't have such a quick turnaround from their late Friday night celebration over Spurs to the first game of any team in the four remaining series on Sunday, I 'might' pick them to win it. If they can steal one of the first two games in OKC, then this could get really interesting.
No Rudy Gay - no problem for Memphis. Boy-oh-boy are they impressive? They guard you (Tony Allen and Shane Battier) and destroy you inside (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol). Their confidence level is sky-high right now and don't count them out. When I think of the two most appreciative and enthusiastic fan bases of the playoffs so far, by far it's these two cities. They're INTO it!
The addition of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed has helped solidify the OKC defence and they'll need it to handle the Grizzlies front line. How good was Kevin Durant in Game 5 against Denver? In the words of Dick Vitale, 'awesome baby'! Couple that with Russell Westbrook at the point for OKC and the duo of Battier and Allen for the Grizz will have another great test defensively. I've had so many people tell me that the Thunder are a year or two away. I disagree. Lots of times you win prior to when everyone else thinks you should and on top of that you normally don't win when it is your 'time'.
James Harden is improving and is a big time scorer off the bench for OKC and will be critical for the Thunder to jump start the second unit. Both teams are solid and well-coached and I love watching both teams' 'Compete-Level' (a Brian Burke Line). As much as the Lakers/Mavs might be about talent, flow, offense and strategy, this series will be about lots of raw emotion and off-the-charts intensity. I love it. The Grizzlies have really impressed me and I'd love to pick them, but with the quick turnaround, I lean slightly to the Thunder and as good as the Grizzlies' perimeter defence is I can't go against Kevin Durant - he's on a mission. Watch out Lakers, he's coming at you guys next and that will be a delight to watch.