LA’s to Lose
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
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
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
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
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.