With the NBA playoff season upon us, TSN.ca NBA writer Tim Chisholm breaks down the Western Conference matchups.
San Antonio Spurs versus Memphis Grizzlies (Spurs in five)
If any team can tell you how devastating it can be to injure or lose an All-Star caliber player before you hit the Playoffs, it's the San Antonio Spurs. So if any team can sympathize with the plight currently facing the Memphis Grizzlies, it's their first round opponent.
Memphis lost Rudy Gay to a shoulder injury back in February, and while they gamely - and successfully - played out the stretch in his absence (going 15-10), they don't have any shot at upsetting the Spurs in the first round without their best player. Without Gay the Spurs can simply load up on Zach Randolph and deny the Grizzlies their single consistently effective offensive weapon.
This team has trouble scoring at the best of times - they made it here on the back of stellar defense - and without offensive diversity they're simply too easy to shut down in the half court. Memphis' plucky style has won a lot of fans both at home and around the NBA, but the Spurs are simply the better team, whether Rudy Gay suited up for the Grizzlies or not.
Los Angeles Lakers versus New Orleans Hornets (Lakers in four)
The Lakers swept the season series from the Hornets this year, and they're going to look to make it a clean 8-0 against New Orleans before the month is out. Any hope New Orleans might have had to keep pace in a series with the defending champs went out the window on March 24th when David West tore his left ACL against Utah. Without West, New Orleans must now field Emeka Okafor, Carl Landry and Aaron Grey against LA's massive front line of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom in such a staggering mismatch that you almost feel sorry for the Hornets that this series must stretch four games long.
The Lakers are statistically superior to New Orleans in just about every measurable category, and they beat the Hornets by an average of 10.8 points per game during their season series. While the Lakers are hardly charging into the postseason, having lost five of their last seven games, they are still a two-time Championship team that ranks in the top-ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency and well above the Hornets in both categories and so it's hard to see what kind of challenge Chris Paul and co. could really create for the Lakers in round one.
Dallas Mavericks versus Portland Trailblazers (Blazers in seven)
Even though Dallas possesses the best player in this series (Dirk Nowitzki), and even though they come into this series with home court advantage, it's just hard to look past their three first-round exists in the last four years when sizing up this matchup. While Portland doesn't exactly have much Playoff experience to throw back at Dallas, and while they are statistically inferior in just about every way, it's just hard to see Dallas putting their heads down and gutting out a win in this series.
As excellent as Dirk is, he lost Caron Butler as a running mate early this season and Jason Kidd has been invisible since the All-Star break. Roddy Beaubois has re-injured himself, Shawn Marion is a shadow of his former self and Peja Stojakovic... well, let's just say that if Peja is required to perform for Dallas to have a chance then they have no chance at all in this series. The problem is that Portland plays one of the most disruptive styles in the NBA, looking for steals, poke-aways, deflections, anything they can get to ignite their fastbreak, and that could cause real problems for Dallas' fine-tuned attack. Portland is long and athletic and loves wrecking havoc with the opposing team. Dallas has proven susceptible to such a style in the past, like in 2007 against the Golden State Warriors, and while the team's split their season series the Blazers took both games that they played with Gerald Wallace in toe.
No matter who ultimately comes away with this series it's going to be trench warfare as both teams look to assert their style of play for as many possessions, quarters, halves and games as they can in an attempt to escape the first round. If that's what this series comes down to, though, it sound's like Portland has the edge when it comes to disrupting their opposition's mojo.
Oklahoma City Thunder versus Denver Nuggets (Thunder in six)
Last year, Oklahoma City's first playoff appearance was dominated by point guard Russell Westbrook, and one can expect the same kind of performance this year against Denver. He averaged 20-6-6 against the Lakers because they simply could not slow him down in the open court and his 1.7 steals per game simply gave him ample opportunity to play on the break. With Denver, a team employing two diminutive point guards, they could have the same trouble trying to corral the ultra-quick and ultra-athletic Westbrook without resorting to trapping him, and if OKC uses Kevin Durant as the screener in pick-and-rolls with Westbrook, then Denver can forget about stopping their offensive attack. Already Oklahoma City has a dominating defensive front line with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, but if they can run roughshod over Denver with their two superstars operating in tandem at the offensive end, then it's hard to see how Denver can retaliate to the degree it would take to upset the Thunder in this series.
After the Nuggets were handled by the Thunder in two games last week by an average of 11 points per game, perhaps we already know that Denver doesn't have the personnel to mount a successful counteroffensive to the Thunder's potent two-way attack.