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NBA Playoff Preview: Western Conference

   by Jim Feist - 04/21/2010

Start your engines! The NBA playoffs are in full swing, time for endless full court action every night as the league crowns another champion. Let's take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won eight of the last 11 NBA titles.

No. 1 Lakers vs. No. 8 Thunder

Lakers: The defending champs began the season raising a banner and, with a relatively young star studded starting lineup, looked to be the team to beat again. However, despite being the top seed in the West, the Lakers limped down the stretch with a lot of problems. Health is Topic A, with Center Andrew Bynum (15 ppg, 8.3 rpg) sitting out the last three weeks of the regular season and Kobe (27 ppg) not playing much down the stretch because of broken index finger and a sore knee.
In his final regular season game, Bryant had another poor shooting game, missing 15 of his 23 shots his last game, a home loss to Portland. He went 21 for 70 (30%) shooting from the field in his last three regular season games.
There is plenty of star power behind Kobe, with Pau Gasol (18 ppg, 11.2 rpg), Lamar Odom (10.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and newcomer Ron Artest (11 ppg, 4.1 rpg), an outstanding defender. Artest is a 12-year veteran, yet he is only 30 years old.
Then there is the bench, one that was expected to be better but has been below average and appears to be getting worse. They've been unable to hold big leads and were outscored by a wide margin by opposing benches down the stretch. The Lakers finished the regular season with a 3-6 skid and lost Sasha Vujacic to a high ankle sprain when he landed on the foot of Clippers guard Mardy Collins in the finale.
Perhaps the one bright side for Coach Phil Jackson is that the defense has been very good all season, allowing 96.9 ppg (9th in the NBA) and 44% shooting by opponents (fifth). Defense is king in the NBA playoffs and sports bettors should note the Lakers ended the regular season on a 21-10 run under the total.

Thunder: Watching the playoffs last season to making it this year. So how did Oklahoma City do it? Defense and Durant! The Thunder allow .448% shooting, 7th best in the NBA, and a respectable 98 ppg (11th). Then there is 21-year old 6-9 Kevin Durant (30.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg), who led the NBA in scoring in his second season, the youngest scoring champion in NBA history. He also tied LeBron James for a league high by averaging 10.2 free-throw attempts this season.
This is as young a team as you can find, with 21-year old Russell Westbrook (16 ppg), a rookie from UCLA who has dazzled, plus 20-year old James Harden (9.9 ppg) is a guard who comes off the bench and is the fourth leading scorer. He is a terrific (37%) three-point shooter.
The frontcourt has 23-year old 6-9 Jeff Green (15 ppg, 6 rpg), an undersized power forward who doesn't provide much in the way of rebounds and blocks, but his scoring improved significantly both in terms of efficiency and overall production. His 3s improved from 0.7 to 1.3 per game, and he's active around the basketball, snagging steals and the occasional block. 26-year old 7-foot Nenad Krstic (8.4 ppg, 5 rpg) and 20-year old 6-10 Serge Ibaka are role players on the glass.
The offense is strong inside and out and they are on a 17-7-1 Over the total. Adding fuel to the playoff fire is a feud between Durant LA Coach Phil Jackson. The star of the Thunder told The Oklahoman he felt insulted when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson publicly stated how often he got to the free-throw line this season, a hint Jackson obviously hoped would be digested by referees in the first round.
"That's disrespectful to me," said Durant. "I work so hard, and obviously since he's not around he doesn't see how hard I work and how much I've gotten better through the season. It's kind of unfortunate for him to say that about me." These teams met in March and the Thunder clobbered the Lakers, 91-75. LA won the first three meetings, 111-108, 101-85 and 101-98 (in OT), so Oklahoma City is 3-1 ATS while the defending champs are 3-1 SU. Most top seeds get a cupcake in the first round, but the Lakers run into a talented, hungry, up and coming team. (Follow Jim on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JimFeistSports).


No. 2 Mavericks vs. No. 7 Spurs

Mavericks: The battle for the pride of Texas takes place here. It was a tale of two seasons for Dallas, BBT and ABT – Before the Big Trade and After the Big Trade. The Mavs were already very good, but at midseason they essentially dealt unhappy Josh Howard to Washington for 30-year old 6-foot-7 Caron Butler (15 ppg) and role player 7-foot Brendan Haywood (8 ppg, 7.1 rpg).
The team picked up steam (and confidence) after the trade, as Butler is the third-leading scorer, behind 31-year old 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki (25 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and 32-year old Jason Terry (16.7 ppg). There is plenty of age with his group, including 37-year old Jason Kidd (10 ppg, 9.1 apg) and 31-year old Shawn Marion (12 ppg).
Statistically this team does not dazzle, ranked 11th in points scored, 15th in points allowed, but they are tops in the NBA in free throw shooting. They enter the playoffs against the Spurs with a five-game (5-0 ATS) winning streak. They were highly motivated down the stretch, pushing to win the No. 2 seed and they got it, even winning at Portland as a dog.
The Mavericks are 2-1 SU/ATS against the Lakers and a strong 27-14 on the road. The last meeting with LA, Dallas won 91-86 in February and they were short-handed, as Butler couldn't play. Dirk Nowitzki scored 31 points, Jason Terry added 30 and the Mavs shot 48%. At the time, Kobe praised the trade during the All-Star break, saying it made the Mavericks a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. He was right. San Antonio won at home 92-83, then Dallas won 112-103 at the Alamodome, before Dallas won the regular season finale, 96-89. That’s 2-1 under the total.

Spurs: And speaking of old men…San Antonio has the Big Three of 33-year old Tim Duncan (18 ppg, 10 rpg), 32-year old Manu Ginobili (16.5 ppg) and 27-year old Tony Parker (16 ppg). Their win last week was their 50th of the season, extending their streak of 50-win seasons to 11, the second longest streak in league history behind the Lakers, who won 50 12 times in a row from 1979 to 1991.
The Spurs rely heavily on their bench, which leads the league in scoring at 39 points per game. Richard Jefferson (12.3 ppg) has been a good addition, and they have role players in 7-foot Matt Bonner, Roger Mason and Keith Bogans.
Coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan have 4 NBA title rings and they know defense is essential in the postseason. With that said, they are 13th in field goal shooting percentage defense and 8th in points allowed (96.3 ppg), good but not great. An even bigger concern is road play, as they were barely over a .500 team. Perhaps, like a long distance runner, the Spurs have been pacing themselves, as down the stretch they won at the Lakers (100-81) and at Denver (104-85). They are 4-2 SU/ATS their last six as a dog.
The Mavericks have won the last two playoff series between these teams. This will be the fourth time in the last eight years they will have met in the postseason. Duncan, Ginobli, Parker and Nowitzki have been the constants on the court. Gregg Popovich has been the constant off it. Rick Carlisle is one of three coaches in this series with Avery Johnson and Don Nelson. Who will control the tempo? San Antonio will want to slow the pace down, Dallas with Kidd and Dirk would prefer an uptempo pace.

No. 3 Suns vs. No. 6 Blazers

Suns: This is one of those opening round series with a clash of styles, as Portland likes to slow the pace down and Phoenix is all about running-and-gunning. A 100-86 Wednesday night crushing of Utah at EnergySolutions Arena bumped the Suns to the No. 3 seed and set up a first-round playoff series with No. 6 Portland (50-32)

Phoenix has the top offense in the NBA (110.4 ppg) with an attacking style behind 36-year old PG Steve Nash (16.6 ppg, 11 apg) and 27-year old Amar'e Stoudemire (23.2 ppg, 9 rpg). 6-6 Jason Richardson (15.7 ppg) adds more offensive punch and shoots 39% from beyond the arc. A concern is rebounding muscle, as they rely on 37-year old Grant Hill (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg). 7-footer Channing Frye (11.2 ppg) should be a low post force but is not. He doesn't rebound or block shots terribly well, and he shoots too many jump shots and even three pointers.

The Suns are 23-6 since the break and on a 24-6 SU, 25-5 ATS run! But are they too finesse for the postseason? Last week Denver pushed Phoenix in its physical style, but the Suns shoved back in a 29-foul first half, which ended with a 70-49 Suns lead. Phoenix is very strong at home, but roughly .500 on the road. The Suns average five more points in home games than road games this season.

They catch a break here as the Blazers are a banged up team. Portland lost 7-foot centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla early in the season (out for the year) which forced them to trade for 6-11 Marcus Camby (7 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Now All-Star guard Brandon Roy has a tear in his knee and is out of the playoffs. Roy is the Blazers' leading scorer with 21.5 points per game. Roy sat out Portland's final two games after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Sunday and is getting surgery this week, a huge blow.

6-10 LaMarcus Aldridge (18 ppg, 8 rpg) and guard Andre Miller (14 ppg) are left to carry the offense, which is why they prefer to slow the pace down. Thirteen different Blazers have missed a combined 305 games because of injuries this season, second in the league only to the Warriors and the most of any playoff-bound team.

The Suns lost two of three games this season to Portland, averaging only 98.7 points thanks in large part to Portland's physical, methodical style. Phoenix dropped its only game at Portland in December when Valley native Jerryd Bayless had 29 points. They split two games in Phoenix, losing in February when Brandon Roy was out and beating the Trail Blazers, 93-87, on March 21 in the only game they played since Portland acquiring Camby. Phoenix has plenty of offense, but where is the Portland offense going to come from?

No. 4 Nuggets vs. No. 5 Jazz

Nuggets: What to make of Denver? A shoo-in for the No. 2 seed in the West much of the season, the Nuggets fell apart the last month with injuries, a coaching absence and a big late season slump. Kenyon Martin is finally back, but Coach George Karl isn't. When the season began, the Nuggets talked about beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Confererence finals. Now it is about survival.

Despite the concerns, offense is not a problem, averaging 106.5 ppg, third best in the NBA. 25-year old Carmelo Anthony (28.2 ppg) can get rebounds, nail threes, get steals, blocks and assists, but he doesn't do any of them consistently except score. He teams with veteran PG Chauncey Billups (19.5 ppg, 5.6 apg) giving Denver a terrific offensive punch along with Kenyon Martin (11.5 ppg).

24-year old 6-6 guard J.R. Smith (15.4 ppg) is the third leading scorer, though he shot just 41%. Youngsters Arron Afflalo (8.8 ppg) and Ty Lawson add backcourt depth. The frontcourt is undersized with 6-11 Nene Hilario (13.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and wild man 6-10 Chris Andersen (6.4 rpg), a hard working role player, but they can be a physical team. This team plays to its strength, which is running the court and scoring, as the defense allows 102.4 ppg (20th in the NBA).

Denver averaged 23.3 assists in wins this season and 16.6 in losses. "Everybody knows when we make the extra pass, we're a better basketball team," said acting head coach Adrian Dantley. "We're 43-7 with 20 assists or more. Sometimes we like to go one-on-one and we don't get the assists." Of concern is a sizzling 34-7 home record in the thin Denver air, but 19-22 on the road. Is momentum important? Denver better hope not, riding an 8-9 SU, 3-13-1 ATS run.

Jazz: Utah and Phoenix battled right down to the wire, and Utah lost the battle getting blown out at Phoenix in the regular season finale. So instead of playing Portland, they head to Denver. These teams mirror each other in style, with uptempo attacks. Utah has a sparkplug guard in Derron Williams (18.6 ppg, 10.6 apg), and a string of hard working young legs in Carlos Boozer (19.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg), Mehmet Okur (13.5 ppg) and Paul Millsap (24 rebounds in a game last week).

Boozer suffered from a muscle strain in his right rib cage last week, something to keep an eye on. He is day to day and Andrei Kirilenko said he likely will return from a calf injury, but he has missed a lot of time of late. Utah is on an 11-5 SU, 9-7 ATS run.

Utah, Denver and Phoenix play that wild, uptempo attack that -- like Golden State in 2005 when they shocked No. 1 seed Dallas -- can beat anyone when they get hot. Utah is a team that Denver dominated 3-1 this season (3-1 over the total), including a "how did they do that?" win in Salt Lake City without all-stars Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. Like Denver, Utah is terrific at home (32-9), but 22-20 on the road. It appears whoever can steal a road win will have a big leg up in the series.

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