At last, the 2009 playoffs are upon us. Man, Woman and Child rejoice!!!!! The western conference playoff race was nothing short of draining. Up until last night, only one of the match-ups was set in stone, that being the #1 seeded Los Angeles Lakers vs the 8th seeded Utah Jazz. When the dust settled this morning all western seeding had been decided. Let's rundown the match-ups for the 1st round.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs (8) Utah Jazz
It would be safe to assume that Kobe and the rest of the Lakers have been on a mission since being destroyed at the hands of the Boston Celtics in last years NBA finals. Now they're back in the playoffs with the best record in the Western Conference, home court advantage throughout all their Western match-ups, and a determination to not only make it to the NBA finals, but to win it all, nothing less will do. This does not bode well for the Deron Williams led Utah Jazz.
The Lakers won the 2009 season series 2-1, scoring 115.7 per game vs the Jazz, almost nine points more than their season average of 106.9 points a game. Additionally, Kobe Bryant averaged 31 ppg against the Jazz in the season series, the 5th highest scoring avg vs any opponent in the NBA this season. Another statistic that favors the Lakers in this match-up? They are 40-10 with Andrew Bynum in the lineup. Guess who's back? Andrew Bynum. (See where I'm going with this?) With a front court tandem of two seven - footers,Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Jazz will have a tough time defending the paint and denying the Laker bigs a chance at high percentage buckets (Bynum's stats vs Utah are 15ppg, 3rpg, 61.6 FG%). Add in a bench that includes Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Sasha "masheen' Vujacic, mid season acquisition, Shannon Brown, as well as rugged inside presence Josh Powell, and you have a nice rotation of players to come in and spell the starters and hold, or possibly extend existing leads in the game. And last but not least, the black mamba himself, Mr Kobe Bryant. The man is still the best in the game, and this playoff season is going to be on a mission to get his hands on a ring without the help of Shaq.
To the Jazz's credit, they do have the edge in one crucial position in this match-up: The Point Guard. They have arguably one of the top three point guards in the NBA in Deron Williams. Williams heads into this match-up averaging 10.7 assists per game, good for 2nd in the NBA. The Lakers achillies heel all season has been their lack of depth and talent at the point guard position. If the Jazz can exploit this match-up and combine that with their knack for shooting high percentage shots (as a team, shooting 47.5 FG%, 3rd in NBA), this may be what the doctor ordered to confuse the Lakers and give the the edge when the match-up heads to the energy solutions arena for games 3 and 4, but I can't see the Jazz winning more than 1 game versus the Lakers, especially if they're motivated, hungry and out for blood. And they will be.
Prediction: Lakers in 4, (maybe) 5.
(2) Denver Nuggets vs (7) New Orleans Hornets
In an odd reversal of fortune, the Hornets and Nuggets almost flip-flop playoff spots from last season, when the Nuggets came into the playoffs as the 8th seed and the Hornets had the 2nd seed. This is just another example of how tightly contested the Western Conference has been the last couple of years, where a few losses here, a few there, and one minute you're in the middle of the pack, and then just like that, you're in the cellar.
The Nuggets and Hornets split the season series 2-2 apiece, with each team grabbing a win on the road, so there really isn't a clear cut favorite in this match-up. However, the Nuggets do come into the series ranked in the top 5 in the league in FG% and in FG% defense. Also, with new PG Chauncey Billups running the PG position, the Nuggets tied their franchise record for wins in a season with 54. So the argument could be made that with the exit of Allen Iverson, and the entering of a proven winner in Billups, maybe this Denver team is for real and is ready to finally make it to the second round of the playoffs, something that has alluded them since the Dikembe Mutombo days in 1994. (Yikes) It also stands to reason that should Carmello Anthony not make it out of the first round again this year, the inevitable comparisons to Tracy MacGrady will pop up, and really, who wants to be grouped in with that loser?
And now, the darlings of last years NBA playoffs, the New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets come into this match-up with a road record of 21-20 on the road, tied for 3rd place in the Western Conference. So (maybe??) they've shown they can win on the road. Add to that, the team has experience dating back from last seasons deep run into the playoffs, and that will be instrumental in exactly how far they make a run in this years post season. The Hornets are 28-5 this season when scoring 100+ points, and truthfully, without number 3 running the point guard for them, I'm not sure the Hornets would even top 70 points on a nightly basis. What Chris Paul does for the Hornets is invaluable, and the match up between he and Chauncey Billups will be key in this series, along with David West going against Carmello Anthony. Will James Posey play the same lockdown defense he displayed in last years NBA finals against the current league MVP Kobe Bryant? If he can, and Tyson Chandler is close to full strength, then I think the Hornets have a shot.
Now that's a lot of if's. But regardless, I have a feeling that this series may go 6 games, if not 7. And if Denver is as tough as they look right now, and they go into the series focused, and exhibit a level of maturity, look for them to make it to the second round for the first time in a long time.
Prediction: Nuggets in 6.
(3) San Antonio Spurs vs (6) Dallas Mavericks
Wow, Dallas is to be commended. Not only did they manage to avoid playing the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, but they also managed to leap-frog the New Orleans Hornets and avoid playing the #2 seed Denver Nuggets! But guess what guys?!? This is the Western Conference! And you're playing the San Antonio Spurs. Now under normal circumstances this might be a bad thing, but with the injury of Manu Ginobli, combined with the ailing wheels of Tim Duncan, and you have a situation where if the Mavs play things right, they might just be able to advance to the second round....MAYBE.
The Spurs and Mavs are no strangers to each other, each team winning a game on each others floor, and splitting the season series 2-2. Some positives for Dallas? In those games, they shot almost 50% from the field against the Spurs (48.2 percent to be exact). Also, the last meeting they had with the Spurs on Nov 4th, they beat them soundly 98-81. If Rick Carlisle is looking for motivational material, this should be it. In order to have a shot at winning this series, the Mavs need to fast break as much as possible, play defense....um right, like I was saying, fast break, try and limit the Spurs 3 point attempts (they are shooting 38.6%, 3rd in the NBA) and focus on stopping either Tony Parker or Tim Duncan. If they can do that, they have a chance. A slim chance, but a chance.
Just like the Lakers, the Mavs have a weakness at the PG position in aging future Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd. Tony Parker has torched Kidd in their head-to-head match-ups, averaging 31ppg on 52% shooting from the field. The Mavs need Kidd on the floor to find open teammates, ignite the offense, and to put his all-around stamp on the game (Against the Spurs,13ppg, 7rpg and 9ast and 51% from the field) so in a way their hands are tied, unless they opt to bring in 6th man of the year candidate Jason Terry, to try and slow Parker down. It's possible he could slow down Mr. Longoria, but how much of a toll would that take on his offensive output?
Also, the big guys, Timmy Duncan and Dirk Diggler, One goes in the paint and sets up his open teammates with 3pt attempts, the other attempts a lot of 3pts and doesn't go to the paint like he should. No question both of these guys need monster games to keep their clubs in it. All of this is shaping up to a monster series. But seriously, this is a Popovich coached club were talking about here, and the Spurs superior defense may just be the difference in the series.
Prediction: Spurs in 7. (This may be the best 1st round series)
(4) Portland Trailblazers vs (5) Houston Rockets
Ummm...wow. I'm not sure what to say about this series. Houston seems like they should make it out of this round, and get to the second round, especially without T-Mac around to muck things up. But that would be in a perfect world, in this world the Trailblazers have a team loaded from top to bottom, with depth at just about every position and a all-star do-it-all player in Brandon Roy. For Houston to win, it's simple: YAO MUST DOMINATE. Easier said than done however, as Portland has big bodies in 7 footer Greg Oden as well as forward/center LaMarcus Aldridge who can play tight defense, rebound, block and score buckets. Also did I mention that Portland likes to get out on the break, I mean really, really utilize the fast break? You have to wonder if this will be an issue for Yao over the course of a series. I think Ron Artest, Luis Scola, and Shane Battier will apply a considerable amount of defensive pressure, but I think this is a situation where the home team will win every game.
Prediction: Blazers in 7