The Western Conference is always very competitive, but this year it seems to be even more compact than the last two. The last three years the Lakers basically were guaranteed the top spot with the other seven teams finishing several games back with records that were all very similar. This year, however, the long seasons have taken their toll on the defending champs who are currently sitting six games back from the league best San Antonio Spurs who show no signs of slowing down. As of now the post season match ups would be San Antonio/Portland, Los Angeles/ Denver, New Orleans/Utah, and Oklahoma City/ Dallas. It will be a tight race between the 3-7 seeds till the end with the only X-factor being Melo. If he is traded, a trade that would likely include Billups as well as other role players, Denver would drop out of playoff contention and allow Memphis to move up. That is unless Denver trades Melo to Houston, who’s GM Daryl Morey has been very aggressive in his pursuits for the perennial All Star. Right now, Houston is four games back from the 8 seed, and if they land Anthony they could definitely make a late season push for the playoffs. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that Denver is willing to gamble on convincing Anthony to re-sign.
San Antonio vs. Portland:
Portland has zero chance of an upset here, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, they should be demolishing and rebuilding their team anyway. The Spurs are too disciplined and polished this year to slip out in the first round.
Los Angeles vs. Denver:
This match up could definitely involve a team besides Denver, but again, there will be no upset. The Lakers have their eyes on the prize.
New Orleans vs. Utah:
Now we are getting into the more competitive series. Utah always looks good come post season and they have a rowdy crowd that can intimidate a team on the road. D-Will is having another excellent season as always and Al Jefferson is showing glimpses of the production he had before he blew out his knee. Also, no one likes going against a Jerry Sloan team in the playoffs. That being said, what Monty Williams has done with this New Orleans team in his first year as a head coach is remarkable and he should be a front runner for Coach of the Year. Many people were skeptical of how they would perform this season with Paul having knee surgery and the lack of size with Okafor at center, but they started out as the hottest team in the league at 8-0. They dipped a little after that but are now back and on a 9-0 run. The main key to their success has been stifling defense and if they can keep that up, they will defeat Utah.
Oklahoma City vs. Dallas:
This series is kind of hard to predict right now with Dallas playing as poor as they are. Cuban is always a big player right around the trade deadline and I think possible moves by the Mavs could be the winning factor. OKC is young and relatively inexperienced, but for a team that won only 23 games the year prior, they were ridiculously competitive last year against the Lakers in a first round series. Durant is having an underwhelming season, but Westbrook has more than made up for it with efforts that merit him part of the MVP conversation. I think this could go either way, but I have to give the edge to the Mavericks due to how clutch Dirk is.
San Antonio vs. Dallas/OKC:
Barring injury, San Antonio is going straight to the Western Conference Finals, nothing else to be said.
Los Angeles vs. New Orleans:
I think this will be a tougher series on LA than most people think. Remember, last year they had a few really big breaks to get to the finals. They struggled against the Thunder, and more than struggled against Phoenix. They won game five on an Artest buzzer beater which was obviously not what Phil Jackson had in mind. Let’s be honest, they got lucky on that one. Game six, the clinching game, was a lot less luck and a lot more skill as Kobe single handedly demolished the Suns late in the fourth. As good as I think the Hornets are I believe that the Lakers will once again prove that Kobe and Phil aren’t done yet.
San Antonio vs. Los Angeles:
If it does indeed play out this way, this would be an incredible series. I think there are two main factors in figuring out the outcome though. The first is that so far, San Antonio is playing better than they did in their last two championship years (05, 07), and they are doing it with Tim Duncan playing only 29 minutes due to very productive play by Dejuan Blair. Manu is playing out of his mind and has gone from contending with Jason Terry for the 6th man of the year award to someone who can’t be left out of the MVP conversation. It’s not all star power though, as San Antonio has been the best in the league at finding new young talent late in the draft throughout the R.C. Buford/Popovich era.
The second factor is the miles on the Lakers. They have had three straight years of 100 game seasons, and on top of that, they aren’t exactly spring chickens. This would be their fourth straight shot at a title, something that has only been done four times in the history of the NBA. FOUR TIMES! Twice it was done by Bill Russell’s Celtics who were far superior to anything else in the league at the time, once with Magic’s Lakers, and once with Bird’s Celtics. In the 80’s when Magic and Bird were going to the finals four straight times the league’s competition was lower. There was less middle to upper class tier teams than there are today, which allowed for an easier regular season. I really can’t imagine it happening in this era. I realize that that is not a popular notion and that Kobe is a great competitor and will always play through injuries, but that’s just it, he has been playing through injuries for years. He is worn down. He did a great job in the 2009 offseason on reinventing his game to a more midrange/post up style, but that hasn’t stopped him from having multiple week stretches this year where he is averaging more shot attempts than points.
I see this as an extremely competitive series filled with fantastic basketball, but I think the Spurs will reach the finals where they will meet Boston. If you are a fan of basketball fundamentals and defense like me, this should be a dream matchup.