Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Western Conference Playoffs - First Round preview

After a shortened but fascinating 2011-12 regular season, the playoffs are finally here. While the regular season lived up to its billing in terms of Linsanity, Dwama, and some spectacular individual performances – Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo – the postseason promises to take the level of basketball intensity to an altogether different plane. Here, teams come hard at each other, the contests get more physical, more chippy and the rotations less frequent. So, while my co-writer Karan Madhok provides you with a preview of all that will happen in the East, I give you my predictions for the first-round of the Western Conference Playoff battle:

San Antonio Spurs (1) v Utah Jazz (8):

Game 1: April 29, 2012 @ San Antonio – 10:30 PM (IST)

Series schedule: Game 2 @ San Antonio - May 3 – 4:30 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Utah - May 6 – 7:30 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Utah – To be decided. Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: San Antonio Spurs - 50-16, Utah Jazz - 36-30
Home Court Advantage: San Antonio Spurs (AT & T Center). Utah to host San Antonio at Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Regular season home record: San Antonio Spurs - 28-5, Utah Jazz – 25-8
Regular season road record: San Antonio Spurs - 22-11, Utah Jazz – 11-22
Regular season series: San Antonio won 3-1

Preview: Utah managed a winning season despite the exit of legendary head coach, Jerry Sloan, and All-Star guard Deron Williams last year. Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Gordon Hayward and Devin Harris combined excellently to take Utah into the playoffs after a second round exit in the 2010 postseason. San Antonio, similarly, surprised quite a few people by posting the best record in the West for the second straight season after their first round exit in the 2011 playoffs. Many believed the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili era to be over after that defeat against the Memphis Grizzlies. However, kudos to head coach Gregg Popovich for addressing the flaws in his roster and possibly producing a better team this time round.
Numbers Game: At 39.3 percent, the San Antonio Spurs are the best 3-point shooting team in the league. With Ginobili, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Danny Green operating behind the arc, the Spurs can decimate any team in the league with their 3-point shooting prowess.
Akshay’s Take: Having made it to the playoffs, Utah may have brought a lot of cheer to the fans in Salt Lake City. However, in San Antonio, the Jazz take on a team rich in postseason experience (four tiles in the last 13 years), pedigree (read Duncan, Parker and Ginobili) and depth (Neal, Tiago Splitter, Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard). San Antonio to win in five.

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) v Dallas Mavericks (7):

Game 1: April 29, 2012 @ Oklahoma – 7:00 AM (IST)

Series schedule: Game 2 @ Oklahoma - May 1 – 7:00 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Dallas - May 4 – 7:00 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Dallas – May 6 – 5:00 AM (IST). Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Oklahoma City Thunder - 47-19, Dallas Mavericks - 36-30
Home Court Advantage: Oklahoma City Thunder (Chesapeake Energy Arena). Dallas to host Oklahoma City at American Airlines Center, Dallas.
Regular season home record: Oklahoma City Thunder - 26-7, Dallas Mavericks - 23-10
Regular season road record: Oklahoma City Thunder - 21-12, Dallas Mavericks - 13-20
Regular season series: Oklahoma City won 3-1

Preview: One of two serious title contenders in the West (the other being San Antonio), Oklahoma City Thunder will believe that this is their year. After a 4-1 loss to the Mavs in the Western Conference finals last year, the Thunder will view this matchup as an opportunity to return the favour to the Mavericks, who are far from carrying the form that would befit a defending champion. While OKC are one of three teams in the league scoring more than 100 points-per-game against opponents in the regular season, Dallas are only averaging 95.89 PPG in comparison. The Thunder also lead the league in blocked shots with an average of 8.17 BPG while the Mavericks rank somewhere in the middle of the league with 5.14 BPG.
Numbers Game: At 28.0 PPG Kevin Durant finished the 2011-12 campaign as the scoring champion. However, with Durant and Russell Westbrook both figuring in the top 10 list for players who turn the ball over the most at 3.8 and 3.6 TOPG respectively, the Mavericks will be focused on exploiting that glaring chink in the Thunder’s armour.
Akshay’s Take: Dirk Nowitzki may be a future Hall-of-Famer and may have carried the Mavs to a title last year with the solid supporting cast of Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion around him. But without the presence of Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Lamar Odom, the Mavs aren’t quite the same team. They will find it difficult to handle the explosiveness of Durant and Westbrook and when those two cool their heals on the bench, James Harden will add to the misery of the Mavs. Oklahoma City to win in five.

Los Angeles Lakers (3) v Denver Nuggets (6):

Game 1: April 30, 2012 @ Los Angeles – 1:00 AM (IST)

Series schedule: Game 2 @ Los Angeles - May 2 – 8:00 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Denver - May 5 – 8:00 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Denver – May 7 – 7:00 AM (IST). Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Los Angeles Lakers - 41-25, Denver Nuggets - 38-28
Home Court Advantage: Los Angeles Lakers (Staples center). Denver to host the Lakers at Pepsi Center, Denver.
Regular season home record: Los Angeles Lakers - 26-7, Denver Nuggets - 20-13
Regular season road record: Los Angeles Lakers - 15-18, Denver Nuggets - 18-15
Regular season series: Lakers won 3-1

Preview: Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington and Timofey Mozgov have made Denver primarily a scoring team, whose 104.12 PPG this season ranks the best in the league. To add to the challenge, the Lakers will be hampered by the suspension to Metta World Peace, who can only make his way back into this contest if the Lakers are stretched all the way to Game 7. But with Wilson Chandler out of the reckoning (injured hip) for the Nuggets and the Lakers posting a solid record at home, Denver will have their task cut out as they face the NBA’s most glamorous franchise.
Numbers Game: At 32.6 percent the Lakers rank among the five worst teams in the league from behind the 3-point arc. What that means is that Denver will certainly look to clog the lane or double team Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant should any of them develop the hot hand during a game without worrying too much about being punished from the distance.
Akshay’s Take: Nevertheless, despite all the good work done by Denver this season, they will not be able to go past the Lakers. JaVale McGee might be able to stand up to Bynum, but with Bryant rolling back the years, the Nuggets may have no answer for the Black Mamba. Lakers should win in six.

Memphis Grizzlies (4) v Los Angeles Clippers (5):

Game 1: April 30, 2012 @ Memphis – 7:30 AM (IST)

Series schedule: Game 2 @ Memphis - May 3 – 7:00 AM (IST), Game 3 @ Los Angeles – May 6 – 2:00 AM (IST), Game 4 @ Los Angeles – To be decided. Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7 - only if necessary
Regular season record: Memphis Grizzlies – 41-25, Los Angeles Clippers - 40-26
Home Court Advantage: Memphis Grizzlies [FedExForum]. Clippers to host Memphis at Staples Center, Los Angeles.
Regular season home record: Memphis Grizzlies – 26-7, Los Angeles Clippers - 24-9
Regular season road record: Memphis Grizzlies – 15-18, Los Angeles Clippers - 16-17
Regular season series: Clippers won 2-1

Preview: Easily the best matchup of the first round across two conferences. Where the Clippers have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Memphis have the likes of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph packing up as much of a punch. Both teams have had a bit of a rollercoster this season. The Clippers had a 12-6 start to the season before going 28-20 in the months of February, March and April to close the season. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, went 11-10 in the first couple of months but then rebounded strongly to finish 30-15 in the last three months of the shortened regular season.
Numbers Game: At 2.53 steals-per-game, CP3 a.k.a Chris Paul leads the league in steals. The Grizzlies, too, have the likes of Mike Conley and Tony Allen who finish within the top 10 in the same category with 2.21 and 1.79 SPG respectively.
Akshay’s Take: Chris Paul may well put up MVP numbers as he singularly tries to will the Clippers past the Grizzlies. But with Los Angeles struggling to find a go-to-guy in crunch situations, the Grizzlies should be able to edge out the Clippers. Grizzlies to win in six.