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Sekou Smith

Is this the year Kevin Durant (left), Russell Westbrook and the Thunder take the extra step in the playoffs?
Is this the year Kevin Durant (left), Russell Westbrook and the Thunder take the extra step in the playoffs?
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Western Conference preview: Door open for Thunder, Nuggets?

Posted Apr 14 2011 2:25PM

At one time or another in the past six months, as many as three different teams have held the distinction of being the unofficial favorite to be the Western Conference top dog. The San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and three-time defending Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers have all been anointed as "the team." And yet all three stumbled in some form or fashion over the final month of the regular season, cracking the door for a couple of daydreamers -- the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets -- who surely believe they belong in that conversation now, too.

The playoffs begin with all of those teams wrestling with internal issues that could derail those championship dreams.

2011 Playoffs schedule
Click here to view the schedules for every West series in the 2011 Playoffs.

The Spurs know that Tim Duncan's knees and ankles aren't getting any younger. The Lakers know Andrew Bynum's right knee isn't getting any stronger. The Mavericks don't know if Caron Butler's right knee will be strong enough for him to return to form during the postseason. The Thunder, the preseason darlings that they were, still have to win their first playoff series as a group. And the Nuggets, who stunned everyone with their play after trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks, have to prove they can do the same in the postseason without a superstar anchor.

It did take an overtime contest in the final game on the final night of the regular season to determine the playoff order in the Wild Wild West, and the first round should highlight exactly why that was ...

San Antonio Spurs (61-21) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (46-36)

I'll be watching to see if Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur and the rest of the Grizzlies frontcourt rotation is ready to go toe-to-toe with the Spurs' veteran group led by Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess and youngsters DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter. Randolph has played like an All-Star since joining the Grizzlies and quietly had a fantastic finish to the regular season. Gasol is as physical as any center the Spurs will face in the playoffs and Arthur really came into his own. If nothing else, their length, athleticism and Randolph's craftiness as a scorer should make things very interesting for the Spurs.

Most telling stat: The Spurs had the second most efficient offense in the league, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. These are not the defense-first Spurs that you've known for the last 14 years. In fact, the Grizzlies were better defensively, ranking eighth on that end, allowing just 102.4 points per 100 possessions.

How this (probably) should go: The Grizzlies are still on the hunt for their first playoff win since moving to Memphis. Pau Gasol couldn't get one when he was with the franchise, but baby brother might one up him this time around. The Spurs don't have anything to worry about, not even with Manu Ginobili's hyperextended elbow a legitimate concern (the MRI is coming Thursday). They'll cruise into the conference semifinals. Spurs in five.

Complete Spurs vs. Grizzlies series preview

Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. New Orleans Hornets (46-36)

I'll be watching to see if the Lakers are going to change back into the Lakers we saw right after the All-Star break now that the playoffs have begun. The team we saw in the final two weeks of the season was a discombobulated bunch that resembled the pre-All-Star break Lakers, the crew that looked exhausted by the chase for yet another title. If it's motivation they've been searching for, they'll have all they need with a loaded Western Conference field determined to keep them from making four straight trips to the conference finals and from completing their three-peat mission in Phil Jackson's farewell season.

Most telling stat: The Hornets ranked seventh in the league defensively, allowing just 100.7 points per 100 possessions. But in four meetings with the Lakers, they allowed 116.2. No team was more efficient against the Hornets this season. Pau Gasol (31-for-44) and Andrew Bynum (25-for-39) combined to shoot 67 percent in four games against New Orleans.

How this (probably) should go: This won't end well for the Hornets, who are thin in all the wrong spots. Even with Chris Paul healthy and playing with a chip on his shoulder, the absence of David West makes it almost impossible for the Hornets to do anything but thumb wrestle with the Lakers before getting body slammed. "We know what we're capable of," Paul said after the Hornets finished the regular season on the wrong side in three straight brutal beatings. Lakers in four.

Complete Lakers vs. Hornets series preview

Dallas Mavericks (57-25) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (48-34)

I'll be watching to see if the Mavericks use all of the slights they've received in the past few weeks as fuel for their playoff run. Lakers swingman Matt Barnes called them out. Nuggets coach George Karl said he'd rather face them than the Thunder in the first round. With a checkered playoff history, the Mavericks know why seemingly everyone wanted a piece of them in the postseason. Be careful what you wish for, though. This team survived injuries to both Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler (who could return during this series) to post the same record as the Lakers, fourth best in the league.

Most telling stat: The Mavs and Blazers are both above-average defensive teams, but they combined to shoot 49 percent and score 111.0 points per 100 possessions in their four meetings, each won by the home team.

How this (probably) should go: They split the season series 2-2, with the Mavericks winning two close games at home. So their seeds probably don't do any justice to just how evenly matched these two teams really are. The Trail Blazers will grind with the best of them and they also have an interesting wild card in Gerald Wallace. He's been fantastic in whatever capacity Nate McMillan has used him in, infusing the rotation with his furious and fearless style of play. The winner will have to battle to get out of this series in one piece. Mavericks in six.

Complete Mavs vs. Blazers series preview

Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) vs. Denver Nuggets (50-32)

I'll be watching to see if Ty Lawson's sprained left ankle, in the second quarter of Wednesday night's loss to the Jazz, is anything serious. Lawson averaged 15.8 points on 57.1 percent shooting and 4.8 assists against the Thunder this season. He'll have his hands full in his matchup with Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who has been electrifying against everyone all season long. But the winner of this individual battle could swing this series in his team's favor with a consistent performance from start to finish.

Most telling stat: The Nuggets shot 52 percent in the two meetings before the All-Star break, and just 42 percent in the two meetings after. Both teams improved defensively after the break, the Nuggets by trading Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder by acquiring Kendrick Perkins.

How this (probably) should go: The coaching job George Karl has done since the Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups at the trade deadline should be in the crisis management manual for all NBA coaches. The Nuggets have great chemistry and play with a unified passion that delights purists everywhere. The only thing they don't have is a superstar to carry them if need be. The Thunder share many of the same qualities as the Nuggets in addition to having two bona fide superstars in Kevin Durant and Westbrook. And that's what gives them the edge in this series. Thunder in six.

Complete Thunder vs. Nuggets series preview

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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