#1 San Antonio Spurs (50-16) vs. #8 Utah Jazz (36-30)
The Spurs big three led the team in scoring this season, with Tony Parker leading the way, averaging 18.3 ppg. Manu Ginobli was hurt for most of the season and only played 34 games but will be ready for the playoffs. Tim Duncan is not nearly the player he once was but still remains effective, especially on the glass where he averaged 9 rebounds per game. SG Stephen Jackson was nice pickup in a trade from the Bucks, while DeJuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard, and Matt Bonner have been the most reliable players for the Spurs, leading them in games played this season.
The Jazz enter the playoffs playing their best basketball of the season. They feature one of the best offenses in the NBA, but are not a good defensive team. C Al Jefferson carries the team and is finally back in the playoffs after a long absence. Along with PF Paul Millsap they form a formidable combo inside for the Jazz. Derrick Favors is another big inside presence the Spurs will have to deal with. The Jazz are weaker at guard, where PG Devin Harris struggled through one of his worst seasons. SG Gordon Hayward has improved his play in his second year, and has taken on a larger supporting role this year.
Some people seem to really be buying into the Spurs but I remain skeptical. They had a strong season last year and were bounced from the playoffs right away. However, I don't think this Jazz team plays good enough defense to slow down the Spurs scoring. I also think Harris is going to get eaten up by Parker and let the Spurs move on to the next round.
Prediction: Spurs over Jazz, 4-2
#4 Memphis Grizzlies (41-25) vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers (40-26)
The Grizzlies managed to carry over the momentum they got from last year's playoffs and now will host a First Round playoff series against the Clippers. SF Rudy Gay and C Marc Gasol played and started in every game but one for Memphis. Last year's playoff star, PF Zach Randolph missed the majority of the year with injuries but is back for the playoffs. SG Tony Allen increased his scoring, while remaining one of the best defensive players in the league, his backup O.J. Mayo was the only Grizzlies player to play in all 66 games. They also have Gilbert Arenas decaying knees on the bench.
The Clippers received a ton of hype once David Stern gift wrapped them PG Chris Paul, but they were unable to win their division and nearly saw their coach, Vinny Del Negro get fired. Paul and Blake Griffin shoulder the scoring load, while SG Nick Young, whom they brought over from Washington was expected to help with that, but has struggled since joining the Clips. They get strong inside play from C DeAndre Jordan, while PF Kenyon Martin hasn't been quite what they were hoping they were getting. SF Caron Butler is a shell of his former self and had a terrible season shooting the ball.
This should be a competitive, highly entertaining series, but ultimately, I think the Grizzlies defense is far superior to the Clippers. Despite the Clippers being better offensively, the Grizzlies will disrupt the Clippers rhythm on offense and take the series in six.
Prediction: Grizzlies over Clippers, 4-2
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19) vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks (36-30)
The Oklahoma City Thunder are many people's favorite to come out of the West and also win the NBA title. They seemingly have it all, one of the best point guards in the league in Russell Westrbook, perhaps the best player in the game in Kevin Durant, and a shot blocking, defensive presence inside with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. It is not known yet how long they might be without James Harden, who is still recovering from a concussion due to a Metta World Peace elbow. One area that might be their weakness is their lack of depth.
The Mavericks lost some key players from their championship team, such as Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, and Jose Juan Barea. They had the failed Lamar Odom experiment, and just never really seemed to mesh this year. Dirk Nowitzki saw his numbers take a dip this year from his career average, while Jason Terry and Shawn Marion also had disappointing seasons. The Mavericks have a strong inside presence with Brendan Haywood and Brandan Wright, so they will be able to muscle up with Ibaka and Perkins. Last season they were able to overcome the disadvantage they had at point guard with Jason Kidd going against Westbrook, and they will hope that Delonte West can provide some strong minutes off the bench.
This is not the same Mavericks team that knocked off the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last season. The Thunder are also a year older, better, and more mature. Dallas will fight hard to defend their title but they have never played like a team capable of defending their title this season.
Prediction: Thunder over Mavericks, 4-2
#3 Los Angeles Lakers (41-25) vs. #6 Denver Nuggets (38-28)
After a slow start the Lakers ended up having a pretty nice season under first year coach Mike Brown. However, their draw against the Denver Nuggets will not be easy. If the Lakers had stuck with Derek Fisher at point guard they would have had no shot at making any noise in the playoffs. The pickup of Ramon Sessions from Cleveland was huge and gives them a point guard who can do things both offensively and defensively. The Lakers interior presence of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum is unmatched in the NBA. Bynum had a career year, playing in virtually every game he was not suspended in. Gasol has always had his toughness questioned but he has been a part of two championships, so its not like he hasn't shown he can play tough when needed. The Lakers count on Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to provide valuable minutes off the bench. They will be without Metta World Peace for at least the first six games of this series. A few weeks ago that wouldn't have meant too much but Peace had started playing his best basketball of the season.
Despite dealing with a myriad of injuries, the Nuggets were able to win 38 games and finish 10 games over .500, one of George Karl's best coaching jobs. The maturation of PG Ty Lawson continued this season and he led the Nuggets in scoring and assists. His backcourt mater SG Arron Afflalo had a career season and is part of a vicious backcourt for Denver. Danillo Galinari is finally healthy, while Al Harrington had one of the best seasons of his career. C JaVale McGee, a joke in Washington, has played well since coming to Denver and has managed to avoid being the butt of any more jokes.
The Lakers are middle of the road both offensively and defensively, while the Nuggets were the highest scoring team in the league, but one of the worst defensive teams. I think homecourt will be the difference in this series. The Lakers were one of the best home teams in the league and I think they can hold serve at home. However, they struggled on the road all season, and I think the Nuggets will win their games at home. I expect it to go seven games, with the Lakers prevailing.