Western Conference 1st Round Preview
(1) Dallas vs. (8) Golden State:
A lot of folks excited for this series thinking that the high-octane Warriors have a shot at making this series competitive. I am not one of them. Don't care what G.S.'s record is vs. the Mavs of late. It's the playoffs and Nellie's teams always look a lot better in the reg. season.
Let's see, the Warriors are dead last in rebounding, the Mavs are one of the best board teams. Stunning, but Nellie's Warriors are not very good defensively, while the Mavs are one of the best in the league. Also, the Warriors cause a lot of turnovers (which actually makes their defense look slightly better), but the Mavs happen to be very good at keeping turnovers down. And on top of that, it's the playoffs where you're naturally more careful with the ball.
So basically if the Warriors can't get stops, or protect their def. glass, or cause the volume of turnovers they're use to, how are they suppose to run like they want? Who's gonna check Dirk? Harrington could maybe do an alright job on him, but they have no else to help if Al can't.
The one thing that gives me a little pause that the Warriors might extend to 6 games, is Harrington at the 5 spot. He can cause major matchup problems because he's a legit 3pt. threat. Could keep Damp & Diop off the floor. The Warriors can spread you, and have multiple slashers to play off the shooting. Similar to defending the Suns, I would try to get them off the 3pt line, discourage the extra point per possession, let them drive, and consider fouling them more often--the Warriors only shoot around 70% as a team.
The Warriors are going to try to replicate the Suns' playoff success. But the Suns have done that by being a deadly efficient offense. And even though the Warriors score a lot of points like the Suns, they are nowhere near as efficient. They don't shoot anywhere near as well from the foul line, 3pt. line or overall like the Suns do. Plus, they are even worst at rebounding & defense than even the Suns, something that has been the downfall of the Suns' playoff runs. The only way the Warriors can make this interesting is if they go berserk from 3pt. land.
MAVERICKS IN 5
(2) Suns vs. (7) Lakers:
Rematch of a classic 1st round series. The difference this year the Suns have Amare & Kurt Thomas available, while the Lakers are the ones dealing with injuries. Even with Amare & Kurt around, the Lakers have to look to attack the post early & often. The Suns' interior defense is still shaky and has been a major sorespot the last 2 years in the playoffs. Lakers brutalized the Suns last year down low with multiple guys, won't be able to manhandle the Suns in the painted area like last year, but have a feeling they can still be fairly successful. And what's good for the Lakers, post-ups are naturally built into their offensive scheme, and they also have a plethora of guys adept at posting: Odom, Walton, Bynum, Brown, & Kobe.
Went over the Suns rebounding concerns here, but they luck out in the 1st round playing the Lakers, who are no great shakes themselves. Another area where the Suns luck out is that they actually go into the series with the better defense for once. The Lakers were woefully inconsistent all year on defense. And lately they've been hurting without the help of Kwame's interior presence.
On defense, the Lakers must concentrate on getting the Suns off the 3pt. line as much as possible. Try to limit their 3pt. attempts to 15 per, and try to force the Suns into mid-range jumpers. If you have to sacrifice shots in the 8 ft to 21 ft range, you live with it. Also getting back in transition is huge vs. Phoenix.
The Suns actually did a solid job on Kobe last year. They always had multiple guys near him & they generally scramble well on the perimeter. But they must do a much better job in the interior where they got absolutely destroyed. With Amare & Kurt around it probably won't be quite as bad.
For the Lakers to compete they have to do what they did last year--pound the post. Phil has to run Kobe down low more often. And they have to get back to impede fast break points. And get the Suns off the 3pt line. Get some meaningful minutes from any of their points. Basically, the Lakers need a lot of things to work out perfectly to challenge in this series. But LA does have Kobe, and I expect that to be good enough for 2 wins. And if they could just tighten up their defense, they could make a series of it.
SUNS IN 6
(3) Spurs vs. (6) Nuggets:
Think this series will a little closer than some expect. Spurs had struggles vs. the Kings in the last year's 1st because they caused some matchup problems for the Spurs. The Nugs matchup somewhat well with the Spurs. The main reason I think the Nugs could make this a tough series for the Spurs, is that no one guards Duncan better in my mind than Camby. Obviously won't shut down Tim, but I think Camby can make him work for his points as much as anyone. The Nugs can also throw another capable big at him in Nene. Also, Najera in limited minutes can be a nuisance & be physical with his 6 fouls to send the 65% foul-shooting Duncan to the line.
Even though the Nugs have Camby, Nene, & Najera up front, the Spurs are clearly a better overall defensive unit. This has a lot to do with how porous the Nugs' perimeter defense is. I really see no way they are going to be able to contain Parker. Blake? Please. Iverson? Sorry, his defense ain't special outside of steals. Also, not sure how they will bother Manu much either. While on the opposite end, Bowen can check Melo pretty well (though Melo could hurt him on the block), and Manu & Parker are underrated defenders. Plus, I expect a fair amount of sagging man to cut off lanes for Iverson & Melo and to force the Nugs to prove they can hit outside shots. Pop preaches the virtues of transition defense as much as any coach, which is key vs. the Nugs.
What allowed the Clips to dispose of the Nugs so easily last year? Basically, outside shooting, or Denver's complete lack of it (The Nugs were the easiest playoff team to defend). The circumstances are not quite as dire this year because Iverson helps relieve some double, triple-team pressure off Melo. But also the addition of JR Smith & mid-season emergence of Linas Kleiza have improved the outside options. The Nugs' 3pt% for the season is barely better than last year, but Kleiza has come on the 2nd half of the season & JR Smith has proven his acumen. These guys must hit their outside shots to take pressure off Melo & AI. If these guys can't provide some long-distance relief, then this series might not be that close after all.
We all know how good Iverson & Melo are offensively, but I think the Spurs have the defenders & scheme to keep them in check. But on the other end, I just think Parker is going to shred the Nugs apart & easily find himself in the painted area. I think Karl is going to have to go to a Iverson-Smith backcourt more often because it gives the Nugs a better chance on defense & the ability to spread the floor better on offense. JR Smith very well could be the key to the Nugs fortunes. But no matter how well he plays, it won't be enough, because the Spurs are still the Spurs.
SPURS IN 6
(4) Rockets vs. (5) Jazz
One of the best defensive teams (Hou) vs. one of the best offensive teams (Utah). Also, two of the better rebounding teams. Interesting matchup issues in this series. First off, the Rockets will have their hands full dealing with Boozer. Houston's biggest flaw is trying to defend the 4 spot where they give up too much size & athleticism. On one hand Yao can work Okur over in the post, but Okur can cause problems himself by being able to drag Yao out to the perimeter. Interested to see if Kirilenko can regain some of his past defensive prowess because I assume he will get plenty of minutes assigned to TMac.
Utah does have a distinct advantage at the point with Deron. Deron carries himself like a 10-year vet and really understands how to use screens & runs the Sloan's flex offense with precision. Though one thing that the Jazz don't do well (same as last year) is shoot the long-ball well (2nd worst in the league). This is where I see Van Gundy packing in the Rockets' defense in on occasion, because a good flex offense is reliant on spacing. While the Rockets have proven plenty capable of sticking it from deep with guys like Battier, Alston, & reserve sharpshooter, Luther Head.
Along as McGrady's back holds up & Yao is relatively healthy, Houston should be able to produce enough offense to neutralize the Jazz's efficient offense. The rebound battle should be a wash. And the Rockets have the upper hand on the defensive end over the gritty but foul-happy Jazz defense.
ROCKETS IN 6
M Haubs' Playoff Picks
Mavericks over Warriors in 6 (Jay Aych is a Warriors hater)
Rockets over Jazz in 5 (HOU is a 60-win-quality team with both superstars)
Spurs over Nuggets in 6 (both teams playing well heading into playoffs)
Suns over Lakers in 5 (injuries have killed LAL's once-promising season)