LA’s to Lose

It’s the Lakers and everybody else in the competitive West

Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant are favored to lead the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.
Noah Graham (NBAE/Getty)
Not much would qualify as an upset in the Western Conference playoffs’ first round – except for anybody beating the Los Angeles Lakers. The anybody who’ll get first chance turned out to be the Utah Jazz, a team many expected to emerge as the most likely challenger over the long haul to the Lakers’ superiority.

In fact, Utah went the other way, stumbled into the playoffs by losing seven of its last nine games – including stunning home losses in the final two weeks to Minnesota and a Golden State team that could field only seven healthy players, four of them who had never been drafted – and looks like the weakest team in the West by a good margin.

The Lakers, just as a year ago, lost Andrew Bynum midway through the season – but this year, they got him back before the playoffs opened, and early indications are that Bynum will be a boon. Bynum’s enormous size and reach transforms the Lakers into a potentially suffocating defensive team, and Kobe Bryant, of course, makes them a dynamic offensive team.

Who can challenge them, if not Utah?

Houston, perhaps, if Yao Ming can remain healthy. The Rockets have their own significant injury situation, but the loss of Tracy McGrady, in fact, seemed to make Houston a more cohesive and tougher team.

San Antonio would be a popular choice but for the absence of Manu Ginobili, out for the duration with an ankle injury. Even Tim Duncan, who’s led the Spurs to four titles, enters the playoffs with an injury clouding his status.

Portland might be a year or two away, but the Blazers will benefit down the road from whatever playoff experience they can soak up this spring.

Denver is hitting the playoffs on a wave of momentum, fueled by the scoring of Carmelo Anthony and the playoff savvy of 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups.

But taken collectively, the chances of everybody else adds up to a long shot in a conference that looks to be the Lakers’ to lose.

Here’s a look at the West’s first-round pairings:

(1) LA LAKERS vs. (8) UTAH

Noah Graham (NBAE/Getty)
Why the Lakers should win – Well, they won Tuesday night in the season finale for both teams when both teams probably wanted the reverse outcome. A win would have enabled Utah to avoid drawing the Lakers in the first round, so there’s no question the Jazz wanted to win. The Lakers probably didn’t have the same motivation, but playing Utah – and especially facing the prospect of tough games at one of the NBA’s most notoriously hostile road arenas – probably wasn’t appealing to them. At any rate, Bryant’s ability to drop 30 on bad nights is a huge weapon, and the 1-2-3 punch up front of Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom gives LA a tremendous size advantage.

How Utah could win – It has to start with Carlos Boozer suddenly returning to form. What seemed an innocent injury when Boozer first incurred it back in November lingered unreasonably, finally prompting minor surgery, from which Boozer has been slow to recover. Unless the Jazz have a long playoff run, it’s going to be tough for Boozer to opt out of his contract and enter free agency on such a sour note. Fully functioning, this is a team that looks like as tough a matchup as any in the West could be for the Lakers. Deron Williams, Boozer and Mehmet Okur form a tough nucleus, Ronnie Brewer adds high-end athleticism and Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring make up a formidable bench. The April returns are pretty discouraging, but no one will underestimate the toughness and resilience of a Jerry Sloan team or the magnitude of Utah’s home-court advantage.

(2) DENVER vs. (7) NEW ORLEANS

Garrett Ellwood (NBAE/Getty)
Why Denver should win – The November addition of Billups solidified everything for the Nuggets, who desperately needed a point guard. Billups gave them that and more, starting with leadership and a winner’s mentality. After a rocky stretch, Anthony started playing at a high level down the stretch, perhaps finally liberated from the strain of dancing around Iverson’s need to dominate the ball. Nene had a breakout year up front. Kenyon Martin isn’t as explosive as his pre-injury New Jersey days, but he gave the Nuggets decent play, while Chris Andersen was a godsend off the bench for a thin frontcourt. J.R. Smith’s ability to be one of the NBA’s most unguardable scorers was unleashed to a large degree by playing at Billups’ side. The huge edge New Orleans has over most teams – a complete mismatch at point guard – isn’t there with Billups to make Chris Paul work.

How New Orleans could win – Paul is capable of dropping a string of triple-doubles on the Nuggets. When Billups was with the Pistons, they guarded Paul with Rip Hamilton most of the time because Paul’s quickness made it difficult for Billups to limit his penetration. New Orleans is every bit as thin up front as Denver – maybe thinner if Tyson Chandler remains subpar due to an ankle injury that has dogged him for much of the season. David West, as he is for almost everyone, represents a tough matchup for Denver with his shooting range and rebounding prowess. Rasual Butler has evolved from journeyman to dangerous 3-point shooting perimeter shooter, helping make up for the failed free-agent signing of Mo Peterson two summers ago. James Posey and Peja Stojakovic, who appear over their own injuries, are back and make the Hornets a dangerous perimeter team to complement Paul’s playmaking skill and Chandler and West’s interior presence.

(3) SAN ANTONIO vs. (6) DALLAS

Glenn James (NBAE/Getty)
Why San Antonio should win – With the news of Ginobili’s sidelining for the duration of the playoffs, the Spurs went from the team many still considered to be the Lakers’ greatest challenge to get out of the West to a wounded higher seed vulnerable to a first-round KO. Duncan’s injury complicates matters, though he had to relieve some of Gregg Popovich’s concern with a 20-point, 19-rebound, six-assist effort in Wednesday’s regular-season finale, a win over New Orleans. That’s enough to still regard the Spurs as first-round favorites. Tony Parker had a career year and might be the one point guard in the West who can match Paul’s quickness. Matt Bonner and Roger Mason opened the season as role players but emerged as starters and give San Antonio deadly 3-point shooting from both the frontcourt and backcourt. Fabricio Oberto went from starter to out of the rotation, supplanted by Bonner, old pro Kurt Thomas and buyout acquisition Drew Gooden. Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen aren’t what they used to be, but their playoff experience and smarts make them valuable still.

How Dallas could win – The Mavericks a few weeks ago were fighting with Phoenix for the last playoff spot and wound up overtaking both Utah and New Orleans, which means the Mavs can avoid the Lakers until the conference finals if all goes well. That knowledge, coupled with their solid play in the closing weeks, sends them into the postseason on a wave of momentum. The Mavs have two scorers capable of carrying the offense even during stretches when Dirk Nowitzki is held in check in Josh Howard and Jason Terry, a 20-point scorer off the bench. Jason Kidd remains a terrific defender and rebounder still capable of creating easy baskets for teammates. J.J. Barea has come on to start alongside him in the backcourt. Enormous Erick Dampier starts but probably will play less than 20 minutes a game as Nowitzki’s versatility and Brandon Bass’ solid play off the bench allow Rick Carlisle lineup flexibility.

(4) PORTLAND vs. (5) HOUSTON

Bill Baptist (NBAE/Getty)
Why Portland should win – It starts with the size Portland can throw at Yao Ming. Joel Przybilla is a big body and an above-average defender who’ll get first crack at Przybilla. But there won’t be much dropoff when Nate McMillan goes to his bench, either, to bring in Greg Oden, who has been a terrific rebounder and defender though raw offensively. And he can also use LaMarcus Aldridge and even Channing Frye in spurts, if he chooses. The Blazers’ young legs and depth will be a factor for Houston. Brandon Roy, in his third year, is poised to become one of the game’s most dangerous finishers – and the playoffs stage can serve to hasten his maturation. Travis Outlaw has underrated ability as a scorer, both from the perimeter and in isolation situations. Portland goes 10 deep with firepower off the bench that Houston can’t match.

How Houston can win – The Rockets have two premier one-on-one defenders in Shane Battier and Ron Artest. Battier probably will shadow Roy every step of the series, and if they ever want to throw a changeup at Roy, Artest can body him to try wearing him down so those last five minutes of tight games are a little tougher for him than normal nights. Even though Portland has a number of options to throw at Yao, none of them are 7-foot-6 – the big guy can get his shots off against anybody. Luis Scola is a deserving candidate for Most Improved Player and has matured as the perfect complement to Yao up front – a rugged rebounder who can step outside and knock down 18 footers with regularity. The Rockets also get great mileage out of unheralded backup big men like Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes. Aaron Brooks gives Houston great transition speed and a perimeter threat at point guard and backup Kyle Lowry is a solid defender and playmaker. Von Wafer came from nowhere to emerge and provide perimeter depth, along with veteran sniper Brent Barry. Rick Adelman, longtime former Blazers coach, does a terrific job exploiting defensive weaknesses and manipulating his roster.