Sunday, May 1, 2011

Western Conference Previews/Predictions: Semifinals

With the Western Conference first rounds wrapping up and my predictions more of less correct (sorry Dallas fans), it's time to move on to the next, much more interesting round. The West is hard to predict from top to bottom, because there's such a small sample size for Mavericks vs Lakers in a series, and of course, the Thunder and Grizzlies haven't been in the playoffs much period. But, let's have a crack shall we?

#2 Los Angeles Lakers vs #3 Dallas Mavericks:
For years I've heard commentators in the NBA talk about how the Mavs were built to take down the Lakers, but never got that chance because they crumbled in the first round. Well, no more. The two time defending champs have struggled more than usual this season, and despite their motivational series against the Hornets which got them playing well towards the end, the Mavericks' defeat of Portland was characterised by something we haven't seen before from them; resilience. That inspirational effort by Brandon Roy could have been the turning point, instead it was simply a brief respite for the Blazers, who couldn't find a way to win on the road, and finally dropped one at home. But let's break it down...
  • Key matchups:
    • Pau vs Dirk: These two are similar in a lot of ways; each stand near the top of the PF rankings, they are both European and most importantly, have had to shake the label of being soft for much of their careers. Just like when comparing Rose and CP3 as PGs, so too do I say with Dirk and Pau; the former is the best player playing that position, the latter is the best AT playing that position. Dirk thrives off switches, where he backs down a smaller opponent and shoots over him, but with the length of the Lakers, Dirk might be switching onto Odom instead of Artest, which wouldn't be much of an advantage. Gasol needs to get going inside to win this matchup and also bother Dirk defensively with those lanky arms. This is a match made in heaven really, and I can't wait to see it.
    • Bynum vs Chandler: One thing the Lakers have over the Blazers is an offensively gifted big man; instead of Chandler bothering the finesse player Gasol with his physical D, he'll be getting bumped and grinded by Bynum, one of the last true Cs left in the NBA who can play both ends when healthy. This matchup will also determine the Pau and Dirk matchup, because if Bynum is enough of a threat to warrant Chandler's attention, then Gasol can have his way with Dirk offensively.
    • Kobe vs Terry: These guys are getting on in years, but they both know how to turn it on in the playoffs, and more importantly the 4th quarter. I always used to hate Terry, thinking he was overrated coming off the bench with little responsibility and using fresh legs to win close games, and while this is still a part of how I feel, I also respect him more having watched the Blazers series where he was absolutely cold-blooded, hitting dagger jump-shots every time the Blazers went on a run. Kobe is slowing down but he's still Kobe. Enough said. This series might just come down to who is the most clutch, and while I'd go with Kobe, Terry might well prove me wrong.
  • The X-Factor: Peja Stojakovic. This guy can still flat-out win games with his shooting, and while Lamar is a versatile player who brings a lot to the table, in the playoffs, having a guy who can dominate one aspect of the game like Peja is a big factor. If the Lakers give him as much room as Ray Allen had last year, they could be in trouble.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: The big-little man, J.J. Barea. I used to love this little guy because he's actually my height, white, and somehow contributing in the NBA without any crazy athleticism that short guys Spud Webb and Nate Robinson have. However, he does seem to get a lot of calls when people back him down because he is rewarded for flopping because of his size. The Lakers have a decent PG rotation this year, with Brown, Fisher and Blake on the team, I'll be very curious to see how they each play Barea; with strength, athleticism or length, respectively.
I think Lakers win this one; their experience, depth and superior coaching in Phil Jackson will be crucial, and let's not forget the home court advantage, which will be vital in this series. If the Lakers can go up 2-0 to start the series I find it very hard to imagine the Mavericks coming back from that deficit. I'll go with a 4-1 Lakers win, because the Mavs are strong enough at home to win at least one game there.

#4 OKC Thunder vs #8 Memphis Grizzlies:
I was thinking the other day how last year I really wanted these two teams to make it to the playoffs, it's crazy to think they are already playing each other in the second round. That said, one team is a contender, the other a cinderella story. The Spurs had obvious weaknesses in age and injury to Manu. The Thunder? Their only weakness is inexperience, which the Grizzlies are also suffering from, which makes it null and void. But before I dismiss the Grizzlies out of hand, let's get into why they'll lose...
  • Key matchups:
    • Gasol/Z-Bo vs Ibaka/Perkins: If the Thunder wanted a series to prepare them for the loaded frontline of the Lakers, playing against the loaded frontline of the Grizzlies is a good place to start. Dynamic defensive duo Perkins and Ibaka will have their hands full against Gasol and Z-Bo, especially given that the Grizzlies play a very inside-out game, so they'll be feeding the post a lot. However, while Duncan and McDyess were also a solid defensive unit, they didn't have that defensive energy to really bother Memphis. These two do, especially Ibaka, who dunked from the free-throw line in the dunk contest this season - if that doesn't say energy I'm not sure what does! - and Perkins is the perfect choice to stop Gasol, he will be one of the few burly Cs in a league of sticks who Gasol must face. If Ibaka can get going offensively, then Thunder wins this matchup, but I'm giving the edge here to the Grizzlies, even if only because the Thunder's greatest strengths lie elsewhere by design.
    • Conley vs Westbrook: Conley was the unexpected spark which carried the Grizzlies over the Spurs, but Westbrook is a whole different beast from Parker; his size, aggression and athleticism is going to eat Conley alive. All Conley can hope to do is lure him into being trigger-happy on the jump-shot and bank on him missing a whole heap. Other than that, pretty one-sided match-up.
  • The X-Factor: Kevin Durant. As much as I wanted to put him into the key matchups section, with Rudy out the Grizz don't really have anyone who will bother him, and will likely have to throw a whole number of defenders at him to try and slow him down. Somehow, "Kevin Durant vs Memphis defenders:" seemed a bit cruel. So yes, if Durant plays well, the Thunder win, simple as that.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: The Durant and Westbrook dilemma; who is their closer? Ask anyone and they'd say Durant. Ask Russell Westbrook and you might get a different answer. We might be blowing this all out of proportion, but execution in close games is what wins championships, and if Russell can't accept his role as second option and distributor, the Thunder could be in trouble once they get to the Lakers.
I know I spent most of the time talking about the Thunder and the Lakers, but honestly, that's all this one is. The Grizzlies are going down 4-1, because I can't see them winning more than one game on pluck against a very well constructed and determined Thunder team.

That's me out, it's nearly 5pm over here, the Thunder-Grizzlies and Heat-Celtics are starting at 1am and 3.30am respectively, so I'll probably have a nap and then watch them.

Second round baby, can't wait!

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