Spurs (1) and Memphis (8)
How the upset can happen: Memphis' tank job to get the Spurs instead of the Lake Show pays off, as their talented bigs do damage against the Spurs' aging and limited big men. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker struggle with injuries, especially Manu, leaving way too much to do in the hands of the shaky Richard Jefferson. Shane Battier owns his matchup, and the Spurs aren't able to get easy baskets in transitions, or open threes. Gregg Popovich runs out of smoke and mirrors.
What will decide it: The Spurs' backcourt exerting their will on the inexperienced Grizz, especially the Parker vs. Mike Conley matchup, which isn't a good one for the underdogs. Tim Duncan shows that the limited use that he's been given this year was all part of a calculated plan to make sure that he can kick it old school now that the games matter, rather than just letting him age gracefully.
What you might not expect: Zach Randolph totally leaving his Portland and Knicks past behind by being an exceptional teammate and positive player. Z-Bo will never look like that, because first impressions are lasting impressions, but he gets as much out of his talent as anyone in the Association. But DaJuan Blair will neutralize him for long stretches, and that battle will be critical for the Spurs.
When the series is over: In the fourth quarter in Game Four, where the Spurs grind out a road win over a loud Grizzly crowd, and show the young'uns that they are not yet ready to move on to the second round of the playoffs. And the reason why they will come through will be entirely coach-driven, because Popovich is really the best in the business.
The prediction: Spurs in six.
Lakers (2) and Hornets (7)
How the upset can happen: The Lakers lose the switch that they are clearly ready to flip. Kobe Bryant goes into super hero mode at a low percentage, causing Pau Gasol to sulk. Chris Paul plays the series of his life, making Derek Fisher trudge off to retirement with bitterness. Carl Landry channels his inner David West for two weeks, and Marco Bellinelli wins them a game with an absurd run from beyond the arc. (And yes, they really should have kept Marcus Thornton instead. Still not getting what happened here with that.) Ron Artest goes nutso, and the Laker bench fails with a vengeance.
What will decide it: The true strength of this Laker Era, the Gasol / Lamar Odom tandem of big man passing and ultra-long defense, making Landry and Emeka Okafor look like the jobbers they are. And while Paul has moments and might be the smartest guard in the league, he's just not right, and might not ever be right again. It's sad.
What you might not expect: The Hornets' crowds swinging a game despite being the fans of a ward team, with full knowledge that they have no real chance to win this series. Of course, the Lakers are good at extending hope to weak teams in the first round; they've done it for years.
When the series is over: Game Four, second quarter, when Bryant and Fisher take over and push a lead past the point of no return. Basically, this one will end when the Lakers are interested enough to end it. A shame, really, that they didn't lose to the Kings in Game 82, which would have given us Lakers-Blazers and Mavs-Hornets, both of which would be more interesting than what we'll get instead. But at least the second round will be fun.
The prediction: Lakers in five.
Dallas (3) and Portland (6)
How the upset can happen: Honestly, how can it not happen? Dallas has escaped the first round twice -- twice! -- in nine years, with the run to the Finals and losing to Dwyane Wade and the Heat being their reward for the only push past the second round. So long as Dirk Nowitzki doesn't play at an MVP level, and Jason Kidd doesn't go into the wayback machine for two weeks, the Mavs' aren't winning this series. Especially now that the Blazers fell into Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline, Brandon Roy isn't killing them anymore, and LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up his game to Top 10 levels.
What will decide it: The Portland bigs -- Aldrigdge, the swan song that is Marcus Camby, and Wallace -- fighting Dirk, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion to a draw, leaving the Portland depth at guard to overwhelm the Mavs. I'm really not a fan of Kidd at this point, and Jason Terry only wins the sixth man award every year because coming off the bench protects him from full awareness of his defensive issues.
What you might not expect: Just how talented the Blazers are, and how many ways they can beat you. Andre Miller is the last point guard in the NBA who enjoys torturing his matchup in the post. Rudy Fernandez can bomb you out from distance. Everyone plays defense; many guys can sky. I don't really love them against true top-level teams; since there is something cursed about Paul Allen investments, and they really seem to need home court to play to their full level. But they'll be able to take down the Mavs, who probably expect to lose at this point anyway.
When the series is over: At the end of the third quarter in Game Six, when the Blazer defense causes turnovers in the half court game, Dirk looks exhausted, and the Rose Garden crowd tears the roof off the place. You have to wonder, really, why Mark Cuban still cries about these things, other than a subconscious desire to give the people what they want...
The prediction: Blazers in six.
Thunder (4) and Nuggets (5)
How the upset can happen: Denver uses their wily big men to get their OKC counterparts in foul trouble, and the young Thunder fail to come up in a situation where they are expected to win. JR Smith goes off and gives Denver the true crunch time presence that they need, and the speed backcourt of Ray Felton and Ty Lawson is able to cause havoc.
What will decide it: As much as people want to give Kendrick Perkins the credit for being the sun and moon and stars to complete this team, let's not get away from the fact that the best scorer in the NBA works here, and he might also be the best player, too. Kevin Durant's year has been strangely subdued; instead of being the MVP, he's just been the scoring champion, and has almost become forgotten in the wake of Derrick Rose and the Miami Threesome. In this series, against a Nuggets team that really doesn't have a great stopper to throw at him, it's time for the coming out party. I expect him to carry his team for stretches, and remind everyone just why he's special.
What you might not expect: How Perkins actually helps a team on offense, despite having no real offensive gifts... because he sets serious screens and doesn't get whistled, for whatever reason, when that screen moves. You're going to see the Thunder get any number of open looks in the half court game, and think that the Nuggets are just undisciplined. They are. But they'll also be bouncing off Perk like pinballs.
When the series is over: In the fourth quarter of Game Four, when the Thunder put the hammer down and take the 3-1 lead that tells the Nuggets that while they might try harder without Carmelo Anthony, and have a better defense... they aren't actually better. At least, not in the games that matter, since the playoffs negate your depth, and the nationally televised game and commercial delays also mean that your altitude wind advantage also doesn't matter enough. I like this Thunder team to go a long way this year, and they'll serve notice by bumming everyone who expects this series to go long.
The prediction: Thunder in five.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Spurs (1) and Memphis (8)