Here is a preview of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8)
Utah has youth, size, and dominant offensive rebounding (second in the league); it's easy to think Spurs vs. Grizzlies 2011 all over again. However, there are major differences this year: Utah is a below average defensive team (19th in the league), and the Spurs have a healthy Manu Ginobili.
Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors will cause problems for the Spurs, but Jefferson is easier for Tim Duncan to guard than Zach Randolph. Jefferson is the best scoring option on the team, like Randolph was for Memphis, but Duncan was relegated to guarding a less important Marc Gasol last year because of Randolph's unrelenting face-up game. TD can handle Jefferson's low-post game.
As tempting as it is to make the call for an upset again, it isn't happening this year. Utah won't be able to slow down San Antonio's offense.
Pick: San Antonio Spurs
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
In last year's Western Conference Finals, the Mavericks beat the Thunder in five games because the lineup of Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry meshed as perfectly as a five-man unit realistically could. Chandler is out of the equation now, and his supposed replacement, Lamar Odom, isn't going to play for Dallas anymore. Chandler occupied Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison last season, which allowed Dallas's perimeter threats to go off. Now, those bigs can help when Dirk or Jet drive.
The Maverick offense, normally a staple in the top 10, was ranked 22nd this year. Without an ultra-efficient offense, Dallas's defense, though supposedly improved from last season, will surrender too many fast-break points to the young Thunder. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden should be able to feast on Nowitzki's and Brendan Haywood's pick-n-roll defense.
Pick: Oklahoma City Thunder
Los Angeles Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6)
If it weren't for Ramon Sessions, this would be a sure upset for Denver. Ty Lawson would have torched L.A.'s pick-n-roll defense while Arron Afflalo would have shadowed an overworked Kobe Bryant enough to win. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol wouldn't see the ball with Kobe gunning and Derek Fisher flopping.
Sessions changes the game. His ability to deliver the ball to the All-NBA-caliber 7-footers allows L.A. to dominate the inside matchup, which means less fast-breaking for the deep, energetic Nuggets. Denver doesn't have a single big man than can contend with Bynum or Gasol, and that's a damning matchup disadvantage.
Pick: Los Angeles Lakers
Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)
This is the most difficult matchup to assess because of injury variables. Is Zach Randolph back to form? Is Chris Paul's hamstring going to limit him?
Randolph and Gasol vs. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is the frontcourt matchup of the first round; the teams are incredibly close when it comes to rebounding on both sides of the floor. The Clippers struggle stopping teams, but the Grizz are a below-average offensive team. Memphis led the league in causing turnovers (.163 TOV% for opponents), and Gasol can defend interior scorers.
But L.A.'s number four-ranked offense doesn't turn the ball over (.127 TOV%) thanks to CP3 (2.1 turnovers per game), and they don't rely on a post scorer. Instead, the Clippers attack with the Paul/Griffin pick-n-roll. If Paul is healthy, Memphis will have a hard time stopping the Clippers.
Pick: Los Angeles Clippers