Western Conference Playoff Preview
(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies
Why the Suns Will Win: It’s quite simple– the Suns are an absolute wrecking force on offense and head into the playoffs as one of few teams not beset by key injuries. The only inconsistency Phoenix has shown this season was in the 6 games that Steve Nash missed, and their MVP candidate appears to be as healthy as he has been all season long heading into the playoffs. With Nash leading the way, the Suns need to just play their game: set the tone early, jump out to a lead, and put teams away in the second half before their opponents can shift the tempo to a halfcourt game in the 4th. The Grizzlies are still not entirely healthy, so it’s important that the Suns counter their depth by forcing some of the hobbled (Gasol, Swift, Posey, Cardinal) into a frenetic full-court game. And with Mike Fratello still struggling to settle on a rotation that has the Grizz playing at their best, it shouldn’t be too tough for Mike D’Antoni and his Suns to jump out to a commanding 2-0 lead. And if that’s the case, the Grizzlies will have no chance at coming back against the NBA’s best road team.
Why the Grizzlies Will Win: The Grizzlies, with their derth of quality players and physical defense, actually match up very well with the West’s best. They split 4 games with them this season, thrice holding Phoenix to under 100 points, something that happened only 11 other times this season. Pau Gasol, Stromile Swift, and Bonzi Wells all appear to be healthy heading into the playoffs and that will be key for Mike Fratello as he needs each and every player he’s got to beat the Suns. Mike Miller has been the go-to-guy as of late and I would not expect that to change against the Suns. With Fratello doing his best to keep the tempo in check, Miller will have to continue stroking it from the outside (April: 18.7 PPG, 52.1 FG%, 46.3 3PT%) in order to create space in the post for Gasol, Lorenzen Wright, and Swift. We’ve seen all season long that the Suns struggle when forced to play a halfcourt game on both ends of the floor– if the Grizzlies’ big guys can get Amare into foul trouble, the Suns will lose their best finisher and be forced to ride their outside shooting. And thanks to Earl Watson, Dahntay Jones, James Posey, and Shane Battier, the Grizzlies have the best perimeter defense in the league and may be able to take out the Suns’ perimeter weapons.
Paul: Suns in 6
Anthony: Suns in 4
(4) Dallas Mavericks vs. (5) Houston Rockets
Why the Mavericks Will Win: I was never really sold on Dallas until Avery Johnson took over full-time. Since then, the team has taken on a different personality with a new-found swagger and toughness that Don Nelson’s teams always lacked. Avery hasn’t been shy about chewing out his players during timeouts or getting on them about a lack of defense and that has in turn got the Mavs playing with more intensity and believing that they can lock down any opponent in the league. On the offensive side, look for Dirk Nowitzki to completely dominate this series. With Juwan Howard out for the playoffs, the Rockets have absolutely nobody that can come close to stopping Dirk. Van Gundy will throw numerous double teams in his direction, but it won’t matter as the Mavs just have too many weapons for the Rockets to handle.
Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs are about to show the world that they’re much more than the offense-only teams of years past.
Why the Rockets Will Win: The Rockets are going to have to p lay their very best basketball of the season to beat the Mavericks. With Juwan Howard out and the Mavericks completely healthy, there’s just simply no way the Rockets will be able to contain them on the offensive end– they’re not as athletic or quick, or nearly as versatile. That means the Rockets are going to have to put points on the board and as we’ve seen this season (22-3 when scoring 100+ points), they can be tough to beat when T-Mac, Yao, and co. get rolling. If the supporting cast, namely David Wesley, Mike James, and Jon Barry, consistently knocks down the many open looks they’ll get, the Rockets will be able to stay with the Mavs on any given night because you know McGrady and Yao will get theirs. I really believe the ultimate determinant as to whether the Rockets can win this series comes down to 2 questions: 1- Can T-Mac and Yao take that next step up as stars who know what it takes both physically and mentally to lead their team to victory in a 7-game series? 2- Can the aging supporting cast translate their experience and hunger for a title into the energy necessary to win a series against a more talented team?
Paul: Mavericks in 5
Anthony: Mavericks 5
(3) Seattle SuperSonics vs. (6) Sacramento Kings
Why the SuperSonics Will Win: I think almost everyone can agree that the Sonics would be considered an underdog against just about any other team in the West besides Sacramento. It just so happens that the dilemma that’s been plauging the Sonics over the last month of the season has been taking its toll on the Kings to a greater extent: injuries. Rashard Lewis appears to be back and almost 100%, Antonio Daniels should be ready for Game 1, and Vladimir Radmanovic is expected to return sometime next week. The Kings on the other hand will be without Brad Miller for the first round, Peja Stojakovic possibly for the first couple games, and Bobby Jackson has just a game under his belt since returning from a wrist injury. Without Brad Miller, the Kings lack the toughness up front to match the Sonics and will get destroyed on the boards. More rebounds always means more shots, so as long as Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are knocking ’em down, the Sonics shouldn’t have a problem scoring. In the end, Seattle plays far better defense than Sacto and should be able to pull out a few close 4th quarter battles. But it may depend on how healthy Antonio Daniels is and whether he can contain perennial playoff hero Mike Bibby.
Mike “Kermit the Frog” Bibby will have to carry the Kings on his shoulders if they are to advance past the first round.
Why the Kings Will Win: Neither Seattle nor Sacrmento came into the playoffs on a particularly high note (Seattle went 3-8 in April; Sacto lost its last two games that mattered, including an embarrassing loss to Utah), so nobody is entirely sure of what to expect from either team come Saturday. One thing is a certainty: Mike Bibby will come to play. When the Maloofs shipped Chris Webber off to Philly, they handed the keys over to Bibby (not Peja), thus entrusting the franchise with a guy that has come through time and again in crucial stretches instead of a jackass that once called a timeout in the NCAA Championship when his team didn’t have any. Bibby is going to need some help, however, and if Peja can come back healthy by game two, the Kings would receive a huge boost. As good as the Sonics are on defense, they would be hard-pressed to slow down Bibby, Peja, and Cuttino Mobley on the perimeter, especially if Daniels and Lewis aren’t 100%.
Paul: Sonics in 7
Anthony: Sonics in 7
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Denver Nuggets
Why the Spurs Will Win: The Spurs’ championship aspirations rest entirely on the ankle of Tim Duncan. It’s that simple. With a healthy Duncan, they are hands-down the team to beat out West. With a roster chock full of outstanding players including proven playoff stars like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, a coach that disciplines his team to the point that he rarely allows them to lose games that they aren’t supposed to, and an ability to lock down opponents defensively that only the Pistons can match, the Spurs have the exact recipe it takes to cook up a championship team at the Alamo. That said, Tim Duncan is claiming to be just 75 to 80% healthy which means that the rest of the Spurs might have to really step it up in his stead against the NBA’s hottest team in the second half of the season. Duncan’s court presence alone should benefit the team, but if the Nuggets are able to control the tempo, which they will definitely attempt to do, then Duncan’s ankle injury has to be a major concern in a fast-paced fullcourt game. Popovich likely won’t be able to use him any more than 30 minutes a game early on, but believe me, if the Spurs can keep the game close heading into the 4th quarter, then TD will be out there. And considering the Spurs are not only the best home team in the NBA (38-3), but also the best at closing out games, I think we’ll see them jump out to an important 2-0 lead and get Duncan back closer to 100% in case the series gets close.
Why the Nuggets Will Win: Everyone has been talking about the effect of Tim Duncan’s injury on the series, but in reality, Marcus Camby’s health will do more to decide the outcome of this series than Duncan’s. Camby sat out the last two regular season games for precautionary reasons, but as we have learned to understand with Camby, every minor injury must be taken into serious consideration. With Camby in the lineup, the Nuggets will have another body that can get up and down the floor enabling them to speed up the pace and wear down Duncan, but more importantly, they’ll have their defensive stopper– the guy that can block shots and pull down big rebounds enabling them to get in the open court as much as possible. Carmelo Anthony comes into the series playing the best basketball of his career and also looking to rebound from a terrible playoff performance from a year ago. However, ‘Melo has to allow the game to come to him. With Bruce Bowen sticking him, he’s not going to be given much and must do his best to attack the basket and get to the line, not force errant shots and assume that he has to win the series himself. Ultimately, this series will play out as a chess match. The Spurs will do their best to hold homecourt until Duncan assumes his usual dominant form. George Karl and the Nuggets meanwhile, will be doing their best to swing the tempo in their favor and trying mercilessly to pick the Spurs off at SBC in one of the first two games. The Nuggets are a much more confident team at home like the Spurs (Won 20 of last 21), but know how difficult it will be to pull themselves out of a 2-0 hole against an experienced, playoff-tested club like the Spurs.
Paul: Spurs in 6
Anthony: Nuggets in 7
Predictions Beyond the 1st Round:
Miami over Washington in 6
Detroit over Boston in 6
Dallas over Phoenix in 6
Denver over Seattle in 5
Miami over Chicago in 5
Detroit over Indiana in 6
Dallas over Phoenix in 7
San Antonio over Seattle in 5
Miami over Detroit in 7
Dallas over Denver in 6
Detroit over Miami in 5
San Antonio over Dallas in 7
Dallas over Miami in 7
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki
Detroit and San Antonio tied in 7
Detroit over San Antonio in 7
MVP: Richard Hamilton
The mask had to come off in a game last week against Cleveland. Should that be reason enough to doubt that Richard Hamilton and