So here we go with the playoff matchups with a bit of a different format.
#1 Spurs vs #8 Grizzlies
Spurs surprised a lot of people with their depth, energy and change of pace. However, I think they've faltered somewhat, with key members breaking down, and if Manu does indeed miss even one game that could be the difference. The Grizzlies are young, hungry, and like the Thunder last year, don't know that they shouldn't have a shot here, if Rudy Gay were healthy I'd give the Grizzlies the series already given the closing ability he demonstrated this year, but he's not, so we'll have to break it down the old fashioned way... with bullet points!
- Key matchups: Z-Bo and Gasol vs Duncan, Blair, McDyess, Splitter. The war of the frontline should be crucial, if Z-Bo can get hot and put the Spurs bigs in foul trouble there's no telling what could happen. Conley against Parker is another big one, because despite his breakout year, Parker is a proven playoff performer and isn't coming off a long layoff like he was last season.
- X Factor: Manu. Or more importantly, his health. He's having the best season amongst the San Antonio Three this year, and what he brings to the table will be vital.
- Most interesting sub-plot: Redemption, thy name is OJ. With Gay out and the scoring frontline facing formidable foes, the stage is set for Mayo to take over. If he can be that guy for the Grizzlies, all the backwards steps he's taken this season will be erased in one giant leap forward.
#2 Lakers vs #7 Hornets
This is another series that has the makings of a sweep; a superstar valiantly carrying his mediocre, injury-plagued team to the playoffs through sheer heart up against the deep, talented defending champs. However, consider that stellar PG play always gives the Lakers fits and that the Hornets have some guy who's supposed to be pretty good. Also, take a look back at the last couple early-round matchups the Lakers have had; a seven game series against the Rockets sans Yao & McGrady, and a near seven game series against OKC last year. The Lakers are notorious for sleep-walking through the regular season, and it usually takes them a series or two to really flip that switch properly. Let's break it down...
- Key matchups: Kobe vs Ariza. Now, technically Kobe is a SG and Ariza a SF, but the Lakers don't have the offensive firepower at the SF to warrant the attentions of a defensive stopper like Kobe, so it's easy to imagine the lanky Mr. Ariza sliding across to use those long arms to bother his former teammate. If Ariza can goad Bryant into putting the Lakers on his back, and consequently keeping the ball out of the hands of Gasol and Bynum, then Trevor will have done his job; slowing him down while he does so is just a bonus. Bynum/Gasol against Okafur is another one to watch, as Emeka's draftmate Dwight Howard learned the hard way just how good a healthy Bynum/Gasol tandem is. Okafur needs to play physically with the Laker bigs and force the play to be run through the perimeter players. A piece of cake, right?
- X Factor: Marco Bellinelli. My Italian blood-brother is the key for the Hornets avoiding the broom. When he's shooting confidently and making shots, the Hornets are suddenly a lot more dangerous.
- Most interesting sup-plot: Ron Artest. Surprised? Aside from his colourful personality, Ron hasn't heard too many calls of "that's Artestic!" during his time in L.A. But as he showed in Game 7 of the Finals, he can still deliver when called upon. Which Ron will we get? Who knows... but I can't wait to find out.
#3 Dallas vs #6 Portland:
This one is going to be ugly. The gritty, grind-it-out Blazers are going to have to unite behind diamond-in-the-rough franchise player LaMarcus Aldridge to beat the Mavericks, who have been openly mocked around the League for their reputation as chokers in the playoffs. Well, this Portland team is rich with chemistry, stacked with talent, and pissed off about all the injuries they've suffered. Let's break down how and why they'll have their revenge.
- Key matchups: LA vs Dirk. The two franchise PFs have both been accused of being soft, but Aldridge is on another level than Dirk defensively. If he can get Dirk in foul trouble, the Blazers can walk away with this one. Miller against Kidd is another key matchup, two veteran PGs going at it, don't be too surprised if Miller gets the best of the elderly Kidd.
- X Factor: Gerald Wallace. Despite Batum's potential, Wallace is a massive upgrade now he knows the system, and his hustle, tenacity and toughness will give the Mavericks fits. He can spend some time bothering Dirk too, which only increases his capacity to turn this series on it's head. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jason Terry. If the game is close, he can still heat up in the 4th, although Blazers have plenty of stoppers who can frustrate him in Batum, Matthews and Wallace.
- Most interesting sub-plot: The role of Brandon Roy. Roy may have once again made a hasty retreat, but I think he senses how deep this team is and chose to play through the pain. His role has been reduced, but he can still hit big shots, and even if he plays mostly in the 4th quarter, he could still be a hero. The shadow of Brandon Roy will only get stronger under the bright lights of the playoffs.
#4 OKC vs #5 Nuggets
When I saw this matchup forming I thought it would be very interesting to watch and felt that Denver could potentially beat anybody in the playoffs with all that depth. That was until I saw KD and the gang dismantle the Nuggets twice in the last weeks of the regular season. With their mid-season trade the Thunder because legitimate contenders from the #4 seed. They tested their mettle against the Lakers last season and were so very close to pulling off the second best upset in years. While the Nuggets are deep as all hell, the Thunder also have great depth, and don't have that Artestic defender to bother Durant physically on the perimeter. But let's take a closer look.
- Key matchups: Westbrook vs Felton/Lawson. Denver's bulldog twins are fighting a cross between a grey-hound and a pit bull in Westbrook. His speed and strength make him tough to stop, but the best PG rotation in the League has the advantage of outnumbering their opponent. If these two can put Russ in foul trouble, or goad him into forcing shots then Denver can steal a few games from OKC.
- X Factor: Denver bench; this is where Denver has the advantage, there is so much talent in this ten-deep squad that even the relatively deep Thunder can't compete. If Harrington, Chandler and the other bench players can get hot, this might become a series worth watching yet.
- Most interesting sub-plot: J.R. Smith. Why do I have this morbid fascination with this guy? Maybe it's because I've seen him do some amazing things, and never understood why he hasn't been given a chance as first option yet. In the last year of his deal, J.R. has nothing to lose, everything to gain. Let's face it, the Nuggets as they are constructed aren't feasible in the long-term. Sometime soon Ujiri will have to decide who will stay and go. If J.R. can put the team on his back, and win, he might just fill that void and finally get a chance to be the face of the franchise.
So there are my takes on the series in the first round, I'll try and do this for Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals and of course, the Finals. I'll likely stick with the new format for at least the semis, as it's relatively concise and get's my points across.